Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Truce

When tens of thousands of young British and Commonwealth men went off to war so eagerly and naively in the summer of 1914, it was generally thought that they would be home by Christmas. But by then the troops on the Western Front were well entrenched along a mostly static line that would witness a brutal war of attrition during the next four years.

One of the absurdities of war is that the people who are expected to kill one another have no personal enmity towards one another. This became very clear on Christmas, 1914, when there was a spontaneous cessation of hostilities between British and German troops in the front lines. The Germans were decorating their trenches with small Christmas trees and singing carols. The British “retaliated” with English carols, and soon the men were shouting greetings to each other. Many met in No Man's Land (the area between the opposing front lines) where small gifts like chocolate or buttons were exchanged, and pictures of sweethearts were shown. In some places, the opposing troops played soccer, and drank together. It became known as the "Christmas Truce", and was dramatized in the 2005 Oscar-nominated French film entitled "Joyeux Noel". The commanders, of course, didn’t like this fraternization with the enemy, and tried to ensure that it never happened again.

Because my Muskoka Novels take place during WW1 and involve idealistic and patriotic young men and women going off to war, I donated three dozen copies of Book 1, The Summer Before The Storm, to our Canadian troops in Afghanistan two Christmases ago. I thought that they could relate to my characters, since they were also far away from home and loved ones, fighting battles on foreign soil.

Christmas is a time to truly reflect and heed Longfellow’s words, sung for generations - “peace on earth, good will to men”.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Halifax Explosion - 92 years go

On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax harbour, one packed with high explosives destined for the war in Europe. Curious people watched the burning ship from their parlours and verandas as it drifted towards shore. A few minutes later there was such a powerful explosion that 500 acres of homes and businesses were instantly obliterated. The ship vapourized into a mushroom cloud that dropped shards of hot metal and soot onto the city and neighbouring Dartmouth. A tsunami wave, triggered by the explosion, reached 60 ft. above the high water mark and dragged victims into the sea as it receded. Some actually survived to tell their tales.

And they were harrowing ones, expertly and grippingly recounted in The Curse of The Narrows by Laura MacDonald. Some had all their clothes ripped off and found themselves sitting naked on the ground a mile from where they had stood only an instant before. Others lived while the people right next to them had been decapitated or crushed. Decades later, people were still digging shards of glass or metal from their bodies as these worked their way out.

About 2000 were killed and over 9000, injured, many blinded and cut by flying glass. The blast shook buildings 100 km away and was heard over 300 km away in Cape Breton. It also upset stoves and lamps, causing entire streets to catch on fire and trapping survivors in their ruined homes.

Rescue trains filled with medical personnel and supplies were quickly dispatched from Boston as well as Canadian cities, but were hampered in their journey by the largest blizzard of the decade - snow and bitter cold, which also further complicated rescue operations. The wounded were now freezing to death.

This catastrophe was the largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and is still the largest accidental one. There were more casualties than those sustained in the 103 air raids on Britain. Although the Canadian troops had been involved in the Great War since the outset, those at home had now also become victims.

The Halifax explosion figures in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Influenza Pandemic

The Great Influenza Pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918 is thought to have killed from 30 to 100 million people. About 50,000 Canadians died in a matter of months, and millions more were sick, many of the survivors suffering lifelong health problems. So it came as a surprise to me that this catastrophe mostly didn’t make the front-page news of the Toronto Star, even though public places like schools, cinemas, and churches closed down, and hotels were turned into temporary hospitals. Was the press somewhat gagged to prevent panic, or had Canadians become so inured to death after 68,000 war fatalities that 1000 more in Toronto over just three weeks was no longer alarming?

What was truly terrifying about that virulent flu was that it killed mostly young (20 - 40 year old) and otherwise healthy people, usually with ferocious speed. Stories about people dropping dead at bus stops, or feeling unwell and going to sleep, never to awaken, were not uncommon. But most deaths weren’t so gentle. Excruciating headaches, pain so severe that victims felt their bones were breaking, hemorrhaging from lungs, noses, and ears, such violent coughing that muscles and cartilage were torn apart. Many turned blue-black, this “heliotrope cyanosis” being invariably fatal. Pregnant women were particularly doomed if they fell ill, with an estimated 70% fatality rate.

The epidemic wasn’t as severe in Canada as in parts of the United States, like Philadelphia, where clergy driving horse-drawn carts called for people to bring out their dead, who were buried in mass graves - so reminiscent of the Black Plague, which in some ways this one resembled.

While the current swine flu pandemic hasn’t claimed that many lives - yet - it is disturbingly similar in many ways. It also targets young adults, some of whom have perished despite modern drugs and interventions. Recently, a local 23-year-old went to bed with flu symptoms and died in his sleep.

Part of the tragedy of the 1918 pandemic is that it decimated the young - the generation that had already sacrificed so much in the war, which is something that figures in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

For a comprehensive look at the Spanish Flu, read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembrance Day


I mentioned in a previous blog that the people of Ypres (Ieper ) Belgium have, since 1928, held a nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate to commemorate the fallen of WW1. Once a year, on Nov. 11 at 11:00 am, we stop for two minutes to remember those mostly very young men and women who innocently, patriotically went off to “do their duty” for King and country, one in ten never to return, and all the other soldiers in other conflicts, some still ongoing. Those who haven’t seen Terry Kelly’s poignant music video about the real meaning of those two minutes of homage should have a look at “A Pittance of Time”.

Through my novels, I’ve been told that I’ve contributed to a deeper understanding of the “war to end all wars”. My books are not war novels, per se, but are about the people caught up in the cataclysm - young men who become aviators, soldiers, front-line medics, and their wives, sweethearts, sisters who endure their own hardships as ambulance drivers and nurses, as well as those anxiously waiting on the home front, who also made enormous contributions. It is by seeing the war through the eyes of individuals that we can truly understand the life-altering consequences of that tumultuous time. As one of my fans recently commented: “I attended the War Museum in Ottawa and with your characters in mind, I could see Chas flying high in his plane! Attaching a soul to the stories and pictures we looked at brought a whole new human meaning to me. It was no longer something we learned about once in school - it had a face, a life, a love, and a tragedy.”

The photo above was taken at the impressive Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Video trailer for the Muskoka Novels!

I'm excited to announce that I have created a short trailer for The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn. It can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcAOJbaiYy8 - just click on the link to the left under "websites".

Thanks to my daughter for providing the beautiful and evocative photos of Muskoka. What tremendous fun it was to create this!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ghostly Autumn


There is something about late autumn that cries out for the telling of ghost stories. Is it because we’re surrounded by summer’s decay as flowers shrivel and desiccated leaves are chased by biting breezes? Is it the withering daylight and deep, dark nights? Is it the skeletal trees that reach bony fingers toward the lowering sky or claw on windowpanes? (The spectral Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights comes to mind.) Is it the superstition that spirits wander the earth on Halloween night when the veil between the living and dead becomes gossamer thin? Whatever it is that conjures up some atavistic fears at this season, it’s spine-tingling fun.

One of our favourite family stories that perfectly evokes this autumnal eeriness is called The Ghost-Eye Tree by Bill Martin Jr. We had a "ghost-eye tree" in a riverside park close to our previous home, and always felt the story’s thrill as we passed it. Interesting how that became part of our family lexicon.

For adult books, I prefer creepy rather than gory (which I refuse to read or watch), and find that the most chilling tales are the subtle ones. Stephen King can make a hedge or a fire hose seem like the most malevolent danger, as he did in The Shining. (I remember that from 30+ years ago!) But I think that the scariest book I ever read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It’s haunted me for way too many years. What a great writer she was!

To celebrate this spooky season, ghosts and skeletons have already invaded our house, and a grimacing jack-o-lantern is soon to join them. On Halloween night we’ll don our witches’ hats and demons’ cloaks so that we can’t be singled out from the real ones that may be about - and to scare the little goblins who dare to come to our door for treats. Candles will flicker… medieval chants will echo… Imaginations will delight…. Bwahahaaaaaaa.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Changing history

Although having real people mingle with my characters adds even greater realism to my historical novels, there is always some trepidation that I’m altering history somewhat. For example, one of my main Canadian characters in Elusive Dawn is an aviator in WWI, and becomes the top British Ace when Albert Ball dies. The problem is that the person who succeeded Ball was Canadian Billy Bishop. History is “changed” by the fact that for a few weeks at least, my character has claimed Billy’s rightful title.

What a relief then to have Billy Bishop’s son, Arthur, recently tell me that he really enjoyed both my “Muskoka Novels”, and found them not only suspenseful and well written, but also historically accurate. He said that the amazing amount of research evident in the books provides an excellent educational background on the Great War and on aviation. Coming from a WWII pilot, who is himself a respected author - not only of his father’s compelling biography, but also on aviation and other military topics - this is indeed exciting.

Also reassuring is the fact that, since Billy actually interacts (briefly) with my characters in Elusive Dawn, I did justice to him in my portrayal, based upon Arthur’s book as well as Billy’s own account written during the war, and other sources.

Speaking with Arthur, I was also intrigued to feel at just one small remove from the legendary Billy Bishop, VC, about whom there has been much controversy, but who was unquestionably an heroic young man.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cliveden and the Astors

I receive a monthly e-newsletter from Cliveden in Berkshire England - “one of the world’s finest luxury hotels” - not because I can ever afford to stay there, but because I used this grand country house in my latest novels. Under the ownership of Waldorf and Nancy Astor, Cliveden became the centre of social and political life between the wars, with many illustrious guests from royalty to George Bernard Shaw, Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin.

During WWI, the Astors offered their indoor tennis court and bowling alley to the Canadians, which became the core of the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital. Nancy Astor (who didn't become Lady Astor until 1919) was renowned for visiting the men and cajoling them into getting well. A Canadian hospital was once again built in the grounds during WWII, and remained a hospital until the 1980s.

One of the Canadian doctors who worked there during the Second World War talks in his memoirs about Nancy’s generous nature, friendliness, and determination to help. He and other staff were often invited to dine with the Astors, who were teetotal. However, the butler would discreetly ask the guests if they would care for more sustaining refreshment, and pour them glasses of whiskey.

Some of my characters dine with the Astors in Elusive Dawn, while others work at the hospital or are patients. One day I should like to dine at Cliveden as well!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thanksgiving

Canadian Thanksgiving falls at the most colourful time of the year, with trees glowing like balls of sunshine or blazing scarlet, the meadows punctuated by purple and yellow wildflowers and sun bronzed stalks.

This long holiday weekend is also the traditional time to “close” the seasonal cottages that aren’t insulated or accessible in winter. This ritual can involve, among other things, draining the water system, putting up shutters, and pulling out docks that are threatened by winter ice. Cottage Life Magazine claims that 60% of Ontario’s 220,000 waterfront vacation homes are now used year-round, so Thanksgiving is no longer the end of the cottaging season for many. There are, however, still resorts that close after this weekend, to be opened again in late May.

Sad to think that it will be seven long winter months before we can re-open the cottage in anticipation of summer.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Intrepid Women

During my research on the First World War, I came across the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), a Corps of plucky women who volunteered to drive ambulances and run hospitals in war-torn France and Belgium. They were well-bred, often aristocratic young women, and cultivated an image of fierce independence, self-confidence, flair, gaiety, and audacity. The FANYs' work was difficult, dangerous, and dirty (they fixed their own ambulances), but they also had fun. They were renowned for their hospitality, hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers when off-duty. Many were accomplished musicians.

The “girls” as they called themselves, often had to drive ambulances during bombing raids. FANY members earned 136 medals and decorations during WW1. One of them was Pat (Waddell) Beauchamp, who lost a leg in the line of duty. She recounts her experiences in her memoir, Fanny Goes to War.

Some of the FANY brought their own cars to France, which were then converted into ambulances. The windshields were removed from all vehicles, and only small sidelights were allowed for night driving. This was so as not to alert enemy aircraft with lights or reflections, and to prevent injuries from breaking glass during bombings. The girls often had to evacuate the wounded from trains to hospitals or ships at night and in all weathers.

It’s amazing to realize the many hardships that these gently reared ladies endured - with stoicism and grace - in their bid to “do their duty” like their brothers and sweethearts.

For a comprehensive account of the FANY, read War Girls by Janet Lee.

I pay homage to these courageous women volunteers in Elusive Dawn through my version of the Corps, the WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Service). The FANY is still in existence.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fictional Friends

Fictional friends make you laugh and cry. They invite you along on their adventures. They share their most intimate thoughts and moments with you, and become lasting friends whose lives matter to you. Once acquainted, who can ever forget Anne (of Green Gables), Oliver Twist, Tess (of the D’Urbervilles), Jane Eyre, Heathcliffe, Miss Marple, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves to name just a few. But they don’t have to be legendary to impress you. For a multitude of reasons, they touch your heart and soul and linger in your psyche.

As an author, I have an even deeper relationship with my characters. They are constantly in my thoughts, and a part of me resides in each. Once formed, they take over the story, changing the plot to suit their whims. One of them even has a blog, of sorts, which you can visit at InMyLife.

My characters are constantly pestering me to get on with their lives in Book 3 of the Muskoka Novels series. I’m delighted that fans, too, are enthralled with them. Here are some of their comments:

"Through The Summer Before The Storm, and now Elusive Dawn, we have come to know a whole new family - characters that are so real we can't help but be affected by their lives. We've laughed with them, cried with them, felt their fears, anxieties and pain, shared their joy and their sorrow. You have a great talent, combining fact and fiction into a fascinating, engrossing tale of love, loss, inner strength, hope and the power of faith.... I often find myself thinking about 'our new family' and what you may have in store for them. You always leave us wanting more!"

"Turning the final page of [The Summer Before The Storm], I was left wondering what was to become of the rich cast of fictitious characters who had become my friends over the previous 500 or so pages."

"Your fascinating and intriguing characters are so real, so believable, each one unique and passionate in his/her own way, I couldn't help but be drawn into the emotions and circumstances of their lives."

"It is impossible not to be drawn into the lives and emotions of the eminently believable characters."

More comments can be seen on the MuskokaNovels.com

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Summer's Lament

The older I become the more reluctant I am to relinquish summer. Although we’re currently experiencing the best weather we’ve had this entire record-breaking cool and wet summer, this past Labour Day weekend still felt like the unofficial end to the season.

But how delightful to be able to spend it at our island cottage with family and friends!

After a refreshing last swim, we stood in the lake beside the dock and celebrated the perfect day and some significant anniversaries and birthdays with champagne. It will be at least nine long months before I’ll be back there, so I’m looking forward to immersing myself in writing about summers long past as I work on my latest novel. And there are always photos.

Monday, August 31, 2009

"Millionaires' Row"


On my recent research trip to the Muskoka lakes, I took a delightful cruise on a 1920s-style yacht around the area known as Millionaires’ Row. It was here, over a century ago, that wealthy Americans began building their summer homes or “cottages”. Many were from Pittsburgh; some were and still are among the richest families in America. They ventured north to the pristine wilderness of the Canadian Shield to escape the industrial pollution and stifling heat of summer, bringing along a bevy of servants (one family had 27!), and staying for two or three months. Many of these well-preserved cottages are still in the family, and several generations have grown up on the lakes and been enchanted by the mystique of this beautiful district.

The boathouses are as fanciful as the gingerbread cottages, and usually have party rooms or living quarters above, often for the children or guests. (One is pictured above.) Many of these still shelter aquatic jewels - exquisite boats handcrafted by one of the world-renowned Muskoka boat builders. With vintage launches and grand cottages little changed, it’s easy to imagine the genteel life on these lakes a century ago.

To book a tour on the Idyllwood yacht, visit Sunset Cruises.

My Muskoka Novels will also transport you to this elegant era.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Soundtracks of our lives

Even more than language (see previous post), music evokes an era - ragtime pre-WW1, jazz in the ‘20s, the Beatles in the ‘60s.

We all have soundtracks for our lives - music that transports us in a heartbeat to a particular time and place whenever we hear it. That applies equally to fictional characters. Throughout my “Muskoka Novels”, appropriate lyrics of popular songs are used for dramatic or ironic effect, and in character and relationship development.

During my research, I came across ragtime historian and award-winning performer Bill Edwards’ website, and became enchanted by his masterful renditions of the hit tunes of the pre- and WW1 eras. It helped me to immerse myself in the mindset for writing about that time. 

I thought it would enhance the reading experience to have a companion CD of that music to accompany each novel. Bill readily agreed to produce them. So readers can enjoy the music to which characters dance and flirt - songs that evoke romance as well as themes in the storyline.

When I mentioned that one of my characters wrote a hit Broadway musical in Elusive Dawn, Bill asked me if I had any lyrics for the signature tune, so I sent a few lines that had been playing around in my head. He expanded those into a song in the style of the era, and has recorded it for the Elusive Dawn CD. It's entitled "I'm Over the Moon For You". I just love how fact and fiction intertwine! And I’m eagerly awaiting the release of this latest CD.

Visit NovelTunes for more info about the “Music for Muskoka” CD that accompanies The Summer Before The Storm.

 

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fun with slang

Slang and colloquialisms help to define an era. What’s “cool” today was “far out” in the 1950s, “the bee’s knees” in the 1920s, and “swell” in the 1900s. “Cool” actually originated in about 1933, but seems so modern that I wonder if readers would feel that it was an anachronism if it were used in a novel set at that time.

Of course, a lot of slang is in common usage for more than a decade or two.  Although we may think these more contemporary than pre-WW1, expressions such as “not on your life”, “frigging”, “necking”, and “boyfriend” were already in use at that time.

You could have “given someone a piece of your mind” back in 1861, or “pi-jawed” them after 1891. It’s the delightful and mostly obsolete expressions like the latter that add a sense of historical place to novels. Something good is surely more fun when it’s “crackerjack”. A “top-hole” “chap” is the best kind of friend, and can also be called a “stout fellow”, or a “jolly”, “howling”, or “cracking” “good egg”.

“Booze” has been around since about 1325, and you’d be “squiffy”, or “pie-eyed”, or “spifflicated” if you overindulged in the pre-WW1 era, as well as being just “high”, “tight”, or “plastered”.

“You could have knocked me down with a feather” in 1741, but “Boy!” “I’ll be jiggered” if I’d rather not have a character in 1914 say, “Zowie!” instead. If you “talk wet” someone may respond with “Applesauce!” or “Flapdoodle!” and might think that you’re either “tapped”, “dippy”, or “off your onion”.

Words are such fun, aren’t they? I use several sources in my research, but the Oxford Dictionary of Slang is “the cat’s pajamas”!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Cottage tales (or tails?)

The “morning dock” at our family cottage is at the base of a small bluff accessed by about a dozen stairs. As I once savoured the solitude of sitting there watching a summer sunrise, I was startled by a thundering noise approaching me, the ground trembling. I leapt to my feet to see a herd of cows charging for the steps. I screamed. Equally shocked, they seemed to screech to a halt, like cartoon characters. Heart still pounding, I shooed them away.

Cows at the cottage? Yup! I mentioned in my last posting that there had once been a farm on our island. There is still a meadow in the centre, and heifers are brought over every summer to graze there. Of course cows have no respect for property, so they wander where they will, and many cottagers have put up electric fences to keep them away.

 My brother and his family once awakened to what they thought was an earthquake, as the cottage was shaking. They quickly discovered that several cows had gone underneath and were scratching their backs on the beams - the building sitting on concrete tubes that left them just enough room to walk beneath. We now have screening around that.

 Another time, one of the clever beasts managed to turn on the outdoor faucet so that they could all drink. Who said that cows were dumb?

 Lately, there have also been bulls on the island. They are more of a concern, since they have been known to chase cottagers out for a stroll. It gives new meaning to being cautious about the “wildlife”!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The joys and challenges of island cottaging

Lakes are moody. They can be benignly serene or exuberantly playful, happily reflecting a blue sky and scintillating with sunbeams momentarily captured by the waves. But they can also turn black and malicious. It’s at moments like this that you wish your parents had built their cottage on the mainland instead of on an island.

On brooding and windy days, when waves are belligerently frothing with white caps, docking can be virtually impossible as breakers wash over the stern of the boat and attempt to ram you into the rocks. If you can actually get to the island, it can be equally dangerous to leave, so it’s essential to be well stocked with food and refreshments. In any case, once you’ve hauled all the stuff across three kilometres of capricious water, you don’t want to have to trek back to town to pick up forgotten bread or flashlight batteries. Obviously, planning ahead is important.

So why have a cottage on an island, which is accessible for only about six months of the year? Partly because island property is significantly larger but decidedly cheaper than mainland lots. Our nearest neighbour is a ten-minute walk away through the woods. Some of the mainland cottages are packed as tightly together as suburban houses. We certainly have solitude, along with a bit more adventure.

My friend, whose family has cottaged on an island since 1879, claims that island people are different - hardier, yet more laid back. Perhaps being farther away from the distractions of modern life - the highways, cars, shopping malls - makes it easier to relax, commune with nature, pick up a book instead of the car keys. Certainly when I visit her vintage cottage, it’s like stepping back into time, and out of the frenetic present.

We’re on a 1200 acre island that was once a farm. A generation ago, the family still lived there, and the children had to go to the mainland - nearly a kilometre across the lake at the narrowest point - to attend school. So they could row over until the lake froze solid enough to walk across. But what about the transition period between open water and safe ice, I wanted to know. Seems that the children would push the rowboat and jump into it if the thin ice broke beneath them. Imagine sending your kids off to school like that every day in early winter and late spring!

 So I can hardly complain about the “hardships” of island cottaging!

 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

95 years ago today....

The summer of 1914 was blistering hot in Ontario. Those with the time and the means could spend their days cooling off in and around the many lakes, especially in Muskoka, where private summer homes (“cottages”) and dozens of resort hotels were enjoying the heyday of the Age of Elegance. The assassination of an Austrian Archduke in June was overshadowed somewhat by an election in Ontario the following day. There seemed to be no foreshadowing of the impending cataclysm that would become the “Great War”.

 While the Toronto Star headline of Tuesday, July 28, 1914 read, “Austria Formally Declares War”, most Canadians thought that European nations were just sabre rattling, and weren’t unduly alarmed by the escalation of troop mobilizations and the daily ultimatums that began being issued. Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was holidaying at the Royal Muskoka Hotel, so surely these European antics had nothing to do with Canada.

 Borden was to have presented the trophies at the annual Muskoka Lakes Association Regatta that upcoming long weekend, but suddenly cut his vacation short and hurried back to Ottawa on the 30th. By Tuesday, August 4th Canada and the “world” were at war.

 With a mixture of excitement and patriotism, over 30,000 young Canadians hurried to enlist in a war that everyone thought would be over by Christmas. Four and half years later, 600,000 would have served, and 68,000 never returned. Of the 170,000 wounded, many were maimed, but surely all the survivors were forever changed by their experiences.

 So it’s hard to imagine that ordinary, leisurely days basking in a perfect summer could so suddenly precipitate into one of the most tumultuous times in modern history.

 My first two “Muskoka Novels” are set during this era, giving readers a chance to immerse themselves in the lives, loves, and adventures of the “lost generation”.

 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Real people mingle with the fictional

Would you like to dine with Nancy Astor at her fabulous Thames-side estate, Cliveden, and spend a country house weekend at Lord Beaverbrook’s Cherkley Court, along with Rudyard Kipling? My characters do. They also rub shoulders with multimillionaire  Alfred Vanderbilt aboard the doomed Lusitania, know Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, meet Britain’s (and Canada’s) top WW1 Ace, Billy Bishop, in an officer’s mess in France, and attend the moving funeral of poet-doctor John McCrae.

Fictional Chas Thornton attends Magdalen College, Oxford, at the same time as the Prince of Wales, so it’s only natural that affable and debonair Chas knows “David”. Plucky, audacious Victoria Wyndham, who drives an ambulance during the war, encounters the Prince in France during his stint with the Grenadier Guards, just as a real ambulance driver with the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) did.

Having fictional characters interact with real people bestows a greater sense of reality to my historical novels. Of course it means that I do lots of extra research to ensure that I’m doing justice to the real people, and that any words I put into their mouths are plausible and in character. When Max Beaverbrook says to ambitious but fictional Jack Wyndham, “A cleaning lady at Whitehall once berated me for not being a gentleman, because true gentlemen never show their faces before 11:00 AM. It’s preposterous! You can’t run a country, and certainly not a business or a war, with that sort of lackadaisical attitude…” I was paraphrasing what Beaverbrook himself had said and thought, according to one of the several biographies I read about him.

Memoirs are particularly rich mines for historical research, not only providing detailed, first-hand descriptions, but also conveying the mindset of the person and the era. Lady Diana Manners’ autobiography, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, allowed me to create, among others, this exchange between fictional Lady Sidonie (Sid) Dunston and her brother Quentin:

 Sid lamented, “I loathe this war. What is the point of saving England or democracy or anything else if one’s family and friends aren’t here to share it? Thank God you’re safely in London, Quentin.”

“I might be knocked down by a crazy cab driver on my way home,” Quentin pointed out. 

“Then I suggest you not stagger along the streets after a debauched night at the Cavendish,” Sid retorted.

Quentin guffawed as he reddened. “Whatever are you on about, Sid?”

“You should know that you can’t keep anything secret in London. Mrs. Lewis is renowned for her entertainments. Or as Diana Manners calls them – orgies.”

Chas suppressed a grin at his friend’s embarrassment. He had heard about the Cavendish Hotel where the ebullient, large-hearted Cockney proprietress, Rosa Lewis, a favourite of Edward VII, was famous not only for her cooking, but also for providing approved gentlemen with a ‘nice clean tart’.

Rosa Lewis was immortalized in the TV series, "The Duchess of Duke Street".

As a writer, I find it great fun to interact with real people, many of them pre-eminent in their day.

 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Romantic Steamship Cruises


A century ago it took the best part of a day to travel from Toronto to a cottage (summer home) in the Muskoka Lakes District of Ontario about 100 miles to the north. People boarded a train in the city with all their summer baggage, including chests of silver and china, pianos, and even cows, then transferred to one of the large lake steamers at the wharf in Gravenhurst, and were dropped off at their cottage or one of the many resorts on the three major lakes. Wealthy Americans often arrived at the pier aboard their private Pullman coaches with a bevy of servants in tow. This was the “Age of Elegance” in the Muskokas.

 Once at the cottage, you could signal the steamships to stop by to pick up passengers by raising a white flag.

 You can experience some of this today by taking a cruise on the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Segwun - the oldest operating steamship in North America.  The much larger Wenonah II is an authentic replica of a steamship of that era, and the Wanda III is the restored private steam yacht, built in 1915, that once belonged to the mercantile Eaton family. All are run by the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society.

 On some excursions, they take you past “Millionaires' Row” - millionaires from a century ago, that is. There were plenty on the lakes - a tradition that continues today, with Hollywood celebrities among them.

 We enjoyed a magical sunset dinner cruise aboard the Segwun last Friday. How easy it is to imagine yourself in a less hectic time, to completely relax and appreciate the beautiful scenery slip past. Not so romantic are the clouds of black smoke spewing from the coal-fired boilers, so I can imagine how it must have been when dozens of steamers plied the lakes. Apparently the maids at cottages would rush out to take the washing off the line whenever a steamship was spotted approaching, otherwise the soot would foul the laundry.

 Nonetheless, the steamships were beloved on the lakes, and ran until 1958. The Segwun - the last survivor of a once grand fleet - was restored and began excursions again in 1981. Cottagers now come down to their docks to wave as she sails by. Motorboats flit alongside, tooting their horns to elicit a throaty blast from the Segwun in response. It seems so fitting to have this graceful steamer once again glide among the islands and past century-old cottages where she once dropped off passengers.

 It also inspires me to work on Book 3 in my Muskoka Novels series, which takes place during the Roaring 20s, and is never far from my thoughts!

 The photo above shows the Segwun in the distance.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Vintage Boats


There’s something seductive about vintage wooden boats. Perhaps it’s the rich lustre of lacquered mahogany, the gleaming brass fittings, the sumptuous leather upholstery, and the way the long, elegant displacement hulls glide effortlessly through the water. Admirers of these Rolls Royces of watercraft are in for a treat this weekend in Gravenhurst Ontario for the 29th annual Antique and Classic Boat Show. Well over a hundred of these lovingly maintained or restored boats will be lining the docks of Muskoka Warf on July 11. They range in size from small skiffs, like the Disappearing Propeller boats - or “Dippies” - to 70-foot steam launches. Hand-crafted, often unique, each has a story to tell. Many were built by the renowned Muskoka boat builders Ditchburn, Greavette, Minett, and Duke for the affluent who summered in Muskoka, like Sir John Eaton, whose family had built a mercantile empire by the turn of the last century.

 When I was doing research for my historical “Muskoka Novels”, I visited the Boat Show in 2005. Asking one of the owners about a beautiful 37’ Minett built in 1924, I was invited to go along for a spin. What a thrill that was! How quiet and smooth the ride. What better way to immerse oneself in research? Above is a photo that my daughter took over the stern of that boat, as she was also invited along. Another of her photos - of a Dippy - graces the cover of my first Muskoka Novel, The Summer Before The Storm. 

So this weekend I will once again be at the Antique and Classic Boat Show, but selling books this time. I plan to take a few minutes to wander the docks and admire the launches that so readily and delightfully conjure up a bygone era.

 Those who can’t visit the show this Saturday can still see antique boats at the only in-water exhibit in North America - the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre in Gravenhurst.

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Canada Day at the McCrae House Museum

The birthplace of poet-doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who penned the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”, is a small stone house in Guelph Ontario, which is now a museum dedicated to him. Visitors from all over the world come here in tribute to McCrae.  On a World War 1 forum, I once corresponded with an Englishman who is determined to come to Canada to visit this tiny museum, which his wife had managed to do on a business trip to Toronto years ago. Yet I have talked to many people in Guelph who’ve never even been there.

Perhaps today’s Canada Day celebrations will encourage more to come. There are games and family events, music, highland dancing, military displays and re-enactments, and birthday cake. And the poppies will be in full bloom.

My Muskoka Novels mention John McCrae, and he makes a brief appearance in the second one, Elusive Dawn, in which his funeral is also described. I’ll be at the festivities again this year, selling books and enjoying the old-fashioned fun.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Enchantment of Cottaging


Listening to the haunting cry of a loon echoing across the lake, the splash of the paddle as you glide through the water in your canoe, the crackling of the evening bonfire, the lapping of the waves that lull you to sleep. Watching the rising sun chasing the ribbons of mist across the mirror-calm lake, sailboats wafting by, another spectacular sunset, a nighttime sky so heavy with stars that some plummet to earth, the rippling of the moon across the black water. These are just some of the experiences that keep us going back and longing for time at the cottage.

In Canada, “cottages” are waterside dwellings that range from cabins with no running water or electricity to luxurious, multi-million dollar mansions with all the latest gadgets. Most, however, are comfortably in between, many not useable in winter. In Ontario, cottaging began in the last quarter of the 19th century, when travellers discovered the wonder and beauty of the multitude of lakes carved out of the Precambrian shield by glaciers.  Escaping the heat of the cities, people with time and money could spend leisurely summers cooling off lakeside. Many of these cottages have now been passed down through four or five generations, those growing up there, feeling such a strong connection to these family places that they travel great distances - sometimes across the continent - to vacation at the cottage.

 And cottages do tend to be places where family and friends congregate to enjoy the outdoors, chat during morning coffee and afternoon cocktails on the dock, bond over meal preparations, and quietly share the tranquility. It’s little wonder that Friday evenings see an exodus of urban people undertaking the two or four or more hour drive to this sanctuary, with the reverse on Sundays. Our family cottage is on an island, which makes our journey more weather dependent, as the lake crossing - and docking the boat - can be tricky and sometimes impossible in high winds and storms that whip up punishing waves. It’s all part of the challenge of island cottaging - outrunning that wall of water coming at you across the menacing lake. But how glorious once you’re there. And how lucky those who, because they can work from the cottage (some even commute, if they live in towns nearby) or are retired, can spend the entire summer there. 

 My “Muskoka Novels” are set in cottage country, and describe the cottaging ethos prior to WW1, during Muskoka’s Age of Elegance.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Proud to be Canadian

On this 65th anniversary of D-Day, I’m reminded of an encounter we had with an elderly French gentleman last year in Hardelot on the north coast of France. We had gone there to see the ruins of the “castle”, which I had read was a popular spot for the nurses working in the Etaples hospital district during WW1 to go for outings. (The ruins are being restored for use as some sort of international centre.) With our half-remembered high school French, we struck up a conversation with this elderly man out for his daily stroll. When he discovered that we were from Canada, he practically embraced us with tears in his eyes, and thanked us Canadians for liberating him and his family from the German occupation in WW2. The Dutch and Belgians, too, seem to have a special place in their hearts for Canadians.

On the flip side, I recently read an article about a prisoner-of-war camp during WW2, set on the shore of magnificent Lake Muskoka (north of Toronto) and touted to be the Rolls-Royce of camps. It seems that over 30% of the 34,000 Germans who were interred in Canadian prison camps returned to settle in Canada after the war. Surely another accolade for us Canadians.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Victorians - not as prudish as we think?

“Victorian morality” summons thoughts of sexually repressed people (solidified by later Freudian theories) who covered piano legs with bloomers because they were too erotic. Bathing costumes for women of that era were enveloping, heavy, dark, wool garments over black stockings and even slippers, and many used bathing machines so that no one saw even them in these concealing clothes. So I was astonished to discover that there was a nudist beach - popularly known as "Bare-assed Beach" - at Hanlon’s Point on the Toronto Islands from 1894 to 1930, when morally upright citizens finally succeeded in shutting it down. 

Skinny-dipping (swimming naked) was something that many people did - and still do - in lakes and rivers, but usually in same-sex groups or as couples. One Muskoka cottager related how his Victorian grandmother always had her morning bathe in the lake, and was almost caught in the buff by an unexpected visitor. My British grandfather-in-law states in his memoir that when he and his wife honeymooned in Normandy, France, they found a deserted beach, stripped off their clothes, and bathed “au naturel” in the sea. What a delightful picture that conjured up of these young Victorians being spontaneous and uninhibited. Had I known this when I met him at the age of 96, just a couple of years before his death, I would have been even more impressed by this “Victorian” gentleman.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Researching the Riviera

Just over a year ago my husband, daughter, and I were sitting on a cliff-top terrace in brilliant sunshine, savouring a gourmet lunch - scant food, artistically prepared, and way too expensive - with the ever-changing blues of the Mediterranean lapping at the bleached rocks below. Considering itself the most luxurious in Europe, The Hotel du Cap - Eden Roc at the southern tip of Cap d’Antibes, boasts about the many celebrities that have stayed there. At the prices they charge, only the super-rich can afford to!

We hadn’t come to ogle stars - and didn’t recognize anyone famous, although the Cannes Film Festival was just a week away - but were watched suspiciously by staff, who wouldn’t let us film even though we explained that my daughter was doing a documentary and was not paparazzi. The manager gave me short shrift when I requested some historical information, since the hotel is mentioned in my novels, shoving a piece of paper into my hands and refusing to answer questions. Could we take photos? Absolutely not! Good thing we had before asking. The staff were self-important and quietly disdainful to “nobodies” like us, although they seemed to fawn over others. Noticing a good many of the planet’s most expensive cars in the parking lot, I’m certain the staff are forever mindful of who’s who. 

The reason for our visit was to see the place where some of my characters dine when staying nearby in their own villa, and because I had just read about how some Americans helped to make the hotel and the Riviera popular in the 1920s - something that will be explored in Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels.

In the early days, the French Riviera was a winter retreat for the wealthy, but shut down during the heat of the summer.  Americans Sara and Gerald Murphy convinced the hotel to remain open one summer, in essence renting it, and invited friends to stay there with them - Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso among them. So beguiled were the Murphys with Cap d’ Antibes, that they bought and then built their own villa there.

So it was exciting to see the places I had read about, to stroll the small beach at La Garoupe, which Gerald Murphy had virtually created by cleaning out the seaweed and daily raking the sand, and thus feel a connection to the past that I will write about. 

I think it’s ironic that now the Hotel du Cap - Eden Roc closes for the winter!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

(Mis)adventures in moving

The first evening in our new house didn’t turn out as we had expected - we spent it in a hotel! After a long, arduous, and chilly day moving, we were all looking forward to hot showers, but discovered that we had neither heat nor hot water. The gas supply had been disconnected! On a Friday night you can only reach the gas company’s emergency line. This was no emergency, they assured us. It was only going down to the freezing point that night. Have to wash in cold water? Think of it as camping. Nothing could be done until the business office opened on Monday morning. So by snuggling under warm duvets and showering at the gym, we did camp out in our house after that first night.

Our lawyer - my oldest friend - had done everything required to arrange for the transfer of services, but the gas company denied receiving the instructions. On Monday they told us we might have gas by Friday! After a heated discussion and a talk with the manager, we were finally told we might be reconnected on Tuesday. And were by late afternoon - a job that took only a matter of minutes.

None of the service providers, except for hydro, delivered on time. The phone company made a mistake - which they at least acknowledged - so, although we were supposed to have been connected on Friday, we finally had phone service on Sunday, but no Internet until Thursday. The cable company was also 2 days late, not that we had time to watch TV in any case.

Ironically, we had a card delivered this week from hydro stating that we would be disconnected if we didn’t call their office to set up an account! When I spoke with them, they said that they could no longer take instructions from lawyers because of the Privacy Act, so clients had to call directly to transfer their services. Someone could have informed us of that new policy.

My lawyer and I had a laugh when she told me that the utility providers in her jurisdiction (my old home town, only 2 hours away) refused to take direction from one of her clients, saying that the lawyer had to do it! Surely there should be some consistency in these services, even across municipalities.

Of course none of this has diminished our delight in our new house. But it did make us realize how easy and comfortable our lives usually are, with light, heat (or air conditioning) available with the flick of a switch, and hot running water with the turn of a tap.

My first novel, A Place To Call Home, was set in pioneer Ontario. I marvelled at how those intrepid people had survived harsh Canadian winters in draughty log cabins, so cold that water froze in pitchers set next to the fireplace. One “gentlewoman” wrote in her letters home to England that the temperature in her bedroom was only 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 C), and she had frost on her blankets in the mornings. (Is it any wonder people didn’t bathe often in those days?) Blistering summers, especially for women imprisoned in corsets and those encompassing Victorian gowns, could be just as challenging.

But we don’t need history to tell us how lucky we are. We need only look at other, less “developed” parts of the world to realize that.

 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obsessiveness pays off!

The coordinator of the “Lest We Forget” project at Library and Archives Canada was so impressed with my WW1 website that she will be using it for her workshops with students, and recommending my war-related novels, The Summer Before the Storm and Elusive Dawn. History teachers have also said that they would use the site in their classrooms. So all that research I did is useful for more than the framework for my books, which is thrilling!

I’m moving in a couple of days, and there’s still too much to do. I’ll be back next week.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The perks of research


A year ago I was in France, driving along the dramatic coastline between Boulogne and Calais, wishing the rain would stop. The colourful fields and yellow gorse were a delight after the drab April browns of Ontario, but the weather wasn’t a lot warmer. Yet I hadn’t come for sunshine. This was a research trip.

On an endlessly snowy day in February, I had been struggling with descriptions of the Calais area where some of my characters work during the First World War. I scoured the Internet for photos, spent plenty of time on Google Earth trying to get a feeling for the landscape, read descriptions by people who had been there at the time, but wasn’t satisfied I really knew what it looked like. So I told my family we had to go to France. Springtime in Paris! No persuasion required and the VISA card had lots of room.

When the rain finally stopped and we were able to walk the beaches at Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez, and the dunes at Sangatte, I realized how right I had been that I needed to be on location to get a true feeling of the countryside and the sea. And I experienced first-hand the gale-force winds that sandpaper your skin and which people kept mentioning in memoirs. The imposing cliff at Cap Blanc-Nez can’t be fully appreciated from photos, like the one above, and the hilliness of that stretch of coastline was a surprise. Since my characters drive ambulances along here, that was important to know.

Wimereux was a delight, with plenty of Victorian buildings still in existence. I have characters staying in the same small hotel that we enjoyed, since I found a postcard of it from that era, and realize that, except for its name, it has hardly changed. Seeing one of the villas that had been used as an officers’ hospital during the war was also an exciting connection to the past.

I could have spent more than five days exploring this area - we only went as far south as Le Touquet, and hope some time to go to Normandy (for WW2) - but our next stop was the Riviera, where it was warm and sunny. My excuse for this part of the trip was that I have a character who owns a villa in Cap d’Antibes, so we explored that and found the perfect location.

I know that my characters will visit here - often! - and have to admit that I would be thrilled to join them. The exotic vegetation and masses of flowers blooming in the generous sunshine, the rich blues and turquoises of the sea set against the snow-capped Mediterranean Alps were food for a hungry soul. Imagine people actually living here!

 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Flanders Fields

We visited Ypres (now Iper) in Belgium a few years ago when I was doing research on book 1 of The Muskoka Novels, The Summer Before The Storm, set during WW1. The first thing that struck me, besides the fact that the city had been beautifully restored from the rubble of war, was that John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” was plastered everywhere about the town, even in our Novotel lobby. The WW1 museum, housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, is called “In Flanders Fields”. How surprised I was when I boasted to the owner of the English bookstore that I came from John McCrae’s hometown, only to have him casually reply, “Oh, you’re from Guelph, Ontario.”

I know that the small museum in Guelph honouring John McCrae regularly has visitors from Europe, so their respect for this famous doctor-poet is more than lip service for tourists.

The Belgians still pay homage to all the fallen. Every evening at sunset, the people of Iper commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of Belgium. A parade leads to the Menin Gate where 55,000 names of those Allied troops who have no known grave - nearly 7000 Canadians among them - are inscribed. The moving ceremony includes the playing of The Last Post. Aside from a few years during WW2, this has been taking place every evening since 1928! Would that we all gave even a modicum of this kind of tribute to the men who, as poet Rupert Brooke so aptly said, “poured out the red sweet wine of youth”.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Connecting with the past on a visceral level


This photo of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery at Etaples on the north coast of France can’t even begin to convey the enormity of the site or the profound sadness that you feel when walking among the nearly11,000 graves. The middle and right grave at the front are those of a Canadian doctor and nurse killed in the air raid on the 1st Canadian General Hospital on May 19, 1918.

There are endless pockets of smaller cemeteries, especially near the battlefields. Neatly walled, lovingly maintained, they appear like a bizarre crop amid farmers’ fields. When you stroll through them, one thing strikes you immediately - most of the dead had barely had a chance at life, many still in their teens.

The CWGC website allows you to do a search on fallen Commonwealth soldiers, and pinpoint the exact location of a grave. Armed with that info, we visited my husband’s great-uncle’s grave at Dud Corner cemetery last year. He died at the age of 21 in the Battle of Loos in 1915. In the photo we have of him in his officer’s uniform, he looks heartbreakingly young.

These former battlefields lie poignantly silent, yet bid you to take a moment to reflect. They brought to mind the last verse in John McCrae’s poem, “The Anxious Dead”:

Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,

They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;

Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,

And in content may turn them to their sleep.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Fascinating Memoir

One of the bonuses of doing historical research is discovering books that I would not normally have chosen to read for pleasure. One such is the memoir, Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis, in which he recounts his adventures as a British Ace pilot during the First World War. His descriptions are sometimes lyrical, especially when he portrays the exhilaration of flying. It makes me long to soar above the clouds with him, and I hate flying! Fortunately, my characters can experience that in my stead. In turns amusing and tragic, the book is always fascinating. The really telling line is his statement that when the war was over, he was twenty years old. 

I’m now interested in finding out more about Cecil Lewis, who died as recently as 1997. He flew with the RAF again in WW2, was a co-founder of the BBC, and won an Oscar for his joint-authorship of the screen adaptation of Pygmalion. Surely an interesting and perhaps charmed life!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Inspiring Places


I'm obsessed with places as well. They inspire me. From the moment I first set foot in Muskoka, I became enchanted by the sparkling granite, fragrant pine forests, and intriguing history of these island-dotted lakes only 100 miles north of Toronto, Canada. Hewn out of the Precambrian Shield by glaciers eons ago, these pristine lakes became the playground of the wealthy and adventuresome over a century ago.

How easy it is to imagine the Age of Elegance in Muskoka, when people travelled from American as well as Canadian cities by train and then steamships to savour carefree summers at resorts and lakeside vacation homes known as "cottages". The tradition continues today, although most people no longer have entire summers free to frolic on the lakes, nor a houseful of servants to cater to them - well, unless you're Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, or some of the other celebrities who now own cottages in this civilized wilderness. The Muskokas have often played host to royalty, dignitaries, and other luminaries over the last century. American President Woodrow Wilson owned an island on one of the Muskoka lakes. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable spent time there.

And I’m just beginning my research into the 20s and 30s. I can hardly wait to see what tantalizing facts await me!

Monday, April 13, 2009

You know you're a fan when....

... you go on a literary pilgrimage on your honeymoon! We hiked the Bronte Moors, explored Thomas Hardy's Wessex and Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall, which is still one of my favourite places. In 1995 I had hoped to meet James Herriot at his surgery - for he met with fans weekly - but he died just a couple of months before our trip. His Yorkshire Dales are every bit as beautiful and enchanting as he had described in his novels, and as portrayed in the popular TV series," All Creatures Great and Small". 

A bit of a twist on this is that I was also thrilled to visit the locations in France and Belgium where my Muskoka Novels take place during WW1. Walking through the enormous cemeteries, standing on the impressive Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, and hearing the haunting Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres (now Iper) brought my own novels more to life for me.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Role of Fiction

I was involved in a discussion on one of the First World War forums about the viability of war fiction. Some of the purists thought that fiction has no place in the literature of war. I pointed out that fiction can bring enlightenment to those who would normally not pick up an historical tome, having heard that sentiment from some of my readers. I myself would not have read the hundred books I did had I not being doing research for my novels. A pity, since so many are riveting accounts that now number among my favourite books.

But I’m delighted that I’ve interested people in the Great War, and imparted some understanding of it. Here are a few relevant comments from readers:           

"Please accept my congratulations on an engrossing novel. Once begun, it was impossible to put down. Because of last year's anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I have read much of the recent writing about that cataclysmic First World War battle. But that writing did not capture the terror, the mud or the wastage of human life in the detail or degree that you managed to capture in Elusive Dawn."

"I am very appreciative for your depiction of the first world war. My grand-mother lost two brothers in that war and I've always felt that I had no real understanding of it. Today with the war in the Middle East, I still feel as though I have no understanding again. The Summer Before The Storm gave me a glimpse of the horror of war, it felt like a first hand account."

"I love history but tend to find the war stuff quite boring - however you made it all interesting by connecting it to great characters!"

More comments can be seen on my website at  theMuskokaNovels.com

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In Remembrance

Ninety-two years ago today, 30,000 Canadian infantry shivered in the biting sleet of early dawn at Vimy Ridge in northern France. With another 70,000 troops in support roles behind them - the gunners, engineers, medics, cooks, and so forth - it meant that the entire Canadian Corps was there, together for the first time. And together they did what the Allies had failed to do during the previous two years, and never expected the Canadians to accomplish - they took that tactically important and heavily fortified Ridge from the Germans. They also helped to forge a nation. That scene is described in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

In the months leading up to the battle, the Canadians had already had 9000 casualties. After the battle there were 10,000 more - a third of whom would never return home.

My photo shows me standing with a poppy umbrella at the impressive Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the 60,000 Canadians who died during the First World War. It was an appropriately bleak day, almost a year ago, that I looked out over the Douai Plain as had the victors that long-ago day, marveling at the feat they had accomplished, saddened by the many dead on both sides. It is almost beyond belief to see the stream of names carved into the memorial walls - over 11,000 Canadians who died in France with no known grave. Most of them, heartbreakingly young.

More than a million shells had pummeled this battlefield. Many still lie, unexploded, in the now calm and green young woods that are reclaiming the pock-marked earth. But the thought sends a shiver through you, making you feel that the war didn’t happen almost a century ago. Walking through the long, dank tunnels where troops had gathered before the battle, you can easily imagine what it must have been like for so many men, laden with their gear, anxious or fatalistic, crowded together as they awaited the dawn and an unknown future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Turning fact into fiction

I’ve talked about digging up thousands of facts and using real people (having read at least one biography or memoir even for those who make only a cameo appearance - hey, I’m obsessed, remember?). Within that realm of reality I then create my fictional world.

I relish sitting down at the computer every day, wondering where my characters are going to take me. They are best friends, anxious to have their stories told, impatient when I don't have time for them. I start out with a vague idea of plot and relationships, but their strong personalities and the chemistry that happens between them usually sideline my ideas, and they take over. In retrospect, their way always seems so natural and inevitable, so I'm delighted to give them free rein.

So writing is a daily adventure. It’s travel into a different time and place. It’s meeting new people I hadn’t event thought of, but who just introduce themselves, fit in, and sometimes become essential to the story.

I’m always delighted to hear from readers that they, too, feel like they’ve met new friends in my books. Here’s a sampling of comments:

“Your fascinating and intriguing characters are so real, so believable, each one unique and passionate in his/her own way. I couldn't help but be drawn into the emotions and circumstances of their lives.”

“In my opinion, Gabriele Wills's ability to evoke a feeling for the times and characters is equal to Delderfield's. She has an amazing ability to portray multiple characters.”

“The reader becomes immersed in the lives of her characters and suffers and rejoices with them.”

“I loved every moment I shared with Augusta, Chas, Jack and Ria.”

More comments can be seen on my website.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Getting the facts right

So here’s one of the things that qualifies me for the moniker of “obsessed writer”. I’m a stickler about getting the facts right. For my first two “Muskoka Novels”, The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn, I read over 170 books, consulted hundreds of websites, visited museums, WW1 battlefields and cemeteries, and joined three war forums, where I asked experts about obscure facts I couldn’t find anywhere else. Those forums became an obsession in themselves. The Great War Forum has over 23,000 members worldwide, so you can imagine how many discussions were posted daily. I finally had to stop actively participating or Elusive Dawn would never have been completed. I have to admit that I still haven’t left them behind completely, although my research on the war is done.

During my final editing of Elusive Dawn I wanted to write a good description of the Bronte moors, but have never been there in winter, only in summer. Doing a search on the Internet, I came across a report from a British ecologist about the moors. So I sent an email requesting more info. Imagine how surprised I was to have a response from BBC Radio Sheffield asking it I would be on the Rony Robinson show? Host Rony would call in the experts and supply me with the desired details. So there I was at 7:00 AM on a transcontinental chat with Rony, the ecologist professor, a renowned artist, and the curator of the Bronte museum. Unfortunately a bad connection kept me from speaking much with them, but I heard it all and came away with an embarrassment of riches from the 20 minute discussion. All I had really needed were a few lines to describe colours, textures, and vegetation in November. I then felt compelled to beef up the description to do some justice to the time invested by these generous people.

Research is such fun!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Using real people in fiction

In my "Muskoka Novels" I have quite a few real people mingling with my characters or mentioned "off-stage". It gives even more of a sense of the time and the reality for which I strive. In Elusive Dawn we dine with Nancy Astor at her fabulous estate, Cliveden, spend a country house weekend with Lord Beaverbrook, meet Britain's top Ace pilot, Billy Bishop, and hear about lots of others.

 One of those is Lady Diana Manners. The Lady Di of her day, Diana was considered to be the most beautiful young woman in England. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, hoped that she would marry the Prince of Wales. She worked as a VAD nurse during the war, which she wrote about in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Her mother in particular was very much against that, as Diana reported, "She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them." The Duchess gave in, but "knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand." Diana goes on to admit, "I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years." Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure.

 Doesn't that stir the imagination!

 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Surprising facts make good stories

Who would have thought that civilian women could travel across war-torn France in 1916 to meet their husbands in Marseille before the men went off to Salonika? That's exactly what my British grandmother-in-law and her friend did! In my grandfather-in-law's memoir, he talks about staying in a hotel with his wife for a week, during which he only had to go to his military camp a couple of hours a day to work. (He was a Captain then.) Not the sort of scenario most people would associate with the First World War, especially as the bloody Battle of the Somme was raging up in the north of France at that time. 

Also surprising is that wives of officers were allowed to travel to Paris to meet them for short leaves. And how about the wives of officer Prisoners of War being allowed to live with them in Switzerland or Holland while they were interned there? Germany sent men who were ill or suffering psychologically from imprisonment to these neutral countries. Although not allowed to return to England, those who could afford to, lived in hotels and had their families join them for the duration of the war. 

Aviator Cecil Lewis in his fascinating autobiography, Sagittarius Rising, mentions flying secretly from France to England for a weekend rendezvous in London.

 It's odd and intriguing facts like these that I like to incorporate into my historical novels. I'll be posting more of them later.

Muskoka

Muskoka
my inspiration for a series of novels - visit theMuskokaNovels.com for more info

Goodreads Ratings

Gabriele Wills's books on Goodreads
The Summer Before The StormThe Summer Before The Storm
reviews: 2
ratings: 8 (avg rating 4.50)

ELUSIVE DAWNELUSIVE DAWN
ratings: 4 (avg rating 5.00)

MOON HALLMOON HALL
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.50)

A Place to Call HomeA Place to Call Home
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.00)