Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

From the moment I began reading Dylan Thomas’s classic Christmas tale many years ago, I was completely enchanted. It’s a wonderfully nostalgic memory of Christmases past brought to life through such rich and evocative imagery that it leaves you almost breathless. What a delight then to discover a film version that is not only true to the text, but also so beautifully acted and filmed that it more than does justice to the story. It is a classic in itself. Watching this has become a cherished Christmas tradition at our house since it first appeared on TV in 1987, and indeed, our daughter grew up with it. When we speak of “the Uncles” or the “horrible-whiskered cats” or Miss Prothero and the firemen, we need say no more, but chuckle in fond remembrance.

You can hear Dylan Thomas reading his story at this link, but do be sure to check out the movie with Denholm Elliott as the grandfather who tells the tale to his spellbound grandson on Christmas Eve. Elliott does it so much better!

So on Christmas Eve we will once again be mesmerized by the “bandaged town” with “powder and ice-cream hills” by the “carol-singing sea”.

I wish you all the joys of such a heartfelt Welsh Christmas!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lest we Forget

Like my characters, I can’t forget the Great War. I lived through it with them, felt their pain and sorrow, and am now helping them to rebuild their lives in Book 3 of The Muskoka Novels.

So every day is Remembrance Day for them and for me. 

At this time of reflection, John McCrae’s less famous poem also deserves to be read.

The Anxious Dead
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
    Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
    And died not knowing how the day had gone.)

O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
    The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
    To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.

Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
    That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
    That we will keep the faith for which they died.

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.

Lest we forget.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Legendary Theatre Ghost

Who doesn’t love a spooky tale at this time of year, especially if it’s true? So allow me to introduce you to the ghost of the venerable old Academy Theatre in my hometown.

She is thought to be a former caretaker, who, along with her husband, lived in an apartment on the third floor. In the early 1900s she died in a fall down the stairs, but according to theatre staff, she resides there still.

“Mary” is a friendly but mischievous spirit, who moves or hides objects like keys and wallets, and then returns them, sometimes days or weeks later, to the exact location where people knew they had left them. She methodically lowers seats after the cleaning staff have raised them, and turns lights on or off, including the stage lights. Harried employees have, on occasion, appealed to Mary to tone down her antics, and she complies. She has, however, also scared the daylights out of men working in the control booth up on the third floor, where she once lived. Who wouldn’t be terrified when a heavy steel door that requires a really strong arm to manoeuvre it just slides open or slams shut of its own accord?  An electrician once reported that he glimpsed a woman out of the corner of his eye, on the staircase to the upper floor, but when he turned to look at her there was no one there. Others recount that they have seen an apparition in the glassed-in control booth from the stage, or felt a hair-raising presence when in there. Even a former theatre manager admitted that he didn’t go up there alone at night, after the audience had gone, despite several decades of happily working alongside Mary. They say that if you want to feel her presence, you should sit in seat #13 in any of the rows when the theatre is silent and empty.

I never did, although I was on the Board of Directors for a few years. It’s a beautiful Victorian building, but when it’s not filled with crowds, it is definitely eerie, and not the sort of place I would care to spend any time alone. Employees, however, soon become accustomed to Mary, and speak fondly of her, even when she sometimes frustrates them with her pranks.

It’s the possibilities of spirits heralding an afterlife that surely intrigues us. That’s why I like to include that in my novels. For instance, I have a character in my “Muskoka” series who is either mad or psychic - or both. She sees dead people. You can meet her in The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn.

And one day I will finish the spine-tingling supernatural novel that I began some years ago.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Where have all the dancers gone?

 Whether summering at a Muskoka cottage or one of the many resort hotels in the last century, one of the fun activities was attending lakeside dances. Elegantly attired enthusiasts would canoe, row, or cruise over to a venue, sometimes in a chauffeur-driven launch.

According to Muskoka Traditions by Andrew Wagner-Chazalon and Bev McMullen, “The Lake Rosseau Club at Cleveland’s House… was so popular in the 1930s that people were known to wait in shifts for their turn to dance. Other resorts had their own style - Windermere House was known for quiet, sedate music, whereas the Charleston and jitterbugging were popular at the Royal Muskoka.”

One of the most renowned dance halls was Dunn’s Pavilion (renamed The Kee to Bala in the 1960s), which hosted big name bands like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Guy Lombardo, and others. It was built mostly over water, with a large sundeck that enticed couples to snatch a few minutes from the hectic activity to watch the moon shimmer across the lake. There were live bands every evening except Sundays, since dancing was not allowed on the Sabbath in Ontario in those days. Weekends were so popular that special trains from Toronto were added to accommodate the crowds of partygoers who, locals lamented, “were sleeping all over the place, on the beaches, in the park.” Those who couldn’t get into Dunn’s would sit in the grounds or on their boats and listen to the music drift into the star-studded night.

Less formal but no less popular were the dances once rock and roll invaded The Kee with bands like April Wine, Lighthouse, The Tragically Hip, and numerous others. Those of us who've been there have never forgotten those magical evenings.

The Kee to Bala still attracts top name bands for concerts on summer weekends, but unfortunately, the few resorts that remain no longer have dances. I’ve missed those on my holidays in Muskoka these last couple of decades. Fortunately, my characters can dance to their heart’s content in the Roaring 20s.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sexy, Scandalous, Revolutionary

One of the fun aspects of writing fiction is that you get to create the world your characters inhabit. So you design or select their homes, furnishings, cars, boats (in my case), books, music, and, of course, clothes. So I’ve recently been drooling over photos of fabulous sequined, beaded, bejewelled, gilded, feathered, fringed, flirty, flapper frocks.

The Roaring 20s was an age of opulence and excess, as illustrated in the works of Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, indeed, in the latter’s own outrageous lifestyle with his wife Zelda. It was also a revolutionary era when young women rebelled against the strictures of Victorian society and morality. They scandalized the older generations because they smoked and drank in public (this, during Prohibition), wore makeup, danced “immodestly”, dated unchaperoned, bobbed their hair, and hiked their hemlines. No longer confined by breath-snatching corsets, they wore comfortable clothes in which they could easily participate in sports or dance the night away, and which facilitated sexual exploration, often in the back seats of cars.

The most influential couturier of the “modern” woman was Coco Chanel, whose “garçonne” look or flapper style, made some diehard complain that “women no longer exist; all that’s left are the boys created by Chanel.” If the clothes didn’t show women’s curves, they did reveal unprecedented lengths of leg. One Baptist minister opined:
“Mary had a little skirt,
The latest style no doubt,
But every time she got inside,
She was more than halfway out.”

To see some stunning gowns, visit these websites: Antique and Vintage Dress Gallery and Vintage Textile. It’s evident from the descriptions that the fully beaded dresses were heavy (4 pounds or more), and instructions are given for how to get out of the ones that have no closures (and ergo, no openings). “Bend way forward at the waist, pull the skirt up and then raise your arms over your dropped head and let gravity help you wiggle out of the dress.”

To see how these gowns scintillated, especially when dancing, have a look at this clip on YouTube. The dress that Carol Channing is wearing wouldn’t have had an underskirt slit that high at the side, but otherwise is representative of the period fashion.

I would love to wear one of these vintage dresses (or a replica) at my next book launch, as Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels takes place during the 1920s. In the meantime, I have to go and design half a dozen houses and cottages, a 6-slip boathouse, and a slew of costumes for a fancy dress ball!

For a fascinating look at the Jazz Age, read Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, by Joshua Zeitz.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sir Paul Rocks… and Inspires!

Photo courtesy of Rob Whitehead & Erin Davis

Paul McCartney is still cute, charming, and dynamic 46 years after he and the rest of the Beatles conquered North America and stole our hearts. Thanks to the generosity of my old friend and fellow Beatle-maniac, the Reverend Fay Patterson-Willsie, I was one of the 16,000+ who cheered and sang ourselves hoarse at Paul’s Toronto concert on Sunday. Or more correctly, love-fest. If he sent us “all [his] lovin’”,  we gave it back “in the palm of [our] hand[s]”.

Because his music is part of the soundtrack of our lives, we were instantly plunged into punctuated moments of the past. Like the time I was at Fay’s Muskoka cottage (which inspired my Muskoka Novels), and we listened to the Beatles on some Boston radio station late at night. Or when my husband and I danced to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” at our wedding, reminding ourselves of that pivotal night when we had danced to that song in a pub and realized our friendship had become something more profound. Our “going-away” song at the wedding was, appropriately, “In My Life”. Paul and The Beatles had a way of anticipating and voicing our thoughts, joys, angst, and dreams in a lyrical and timeless way. (I’m now a “Paperback Writer”.) A testament to the power and relevance of the music could be seen in the beaming faces of the audience, young and old alike, who sang along lustily and couldn’t resist dancing.

What was so inspiring was to see Paul’s boundless energy and obvious passion for his music. That he could sing and play virtually non-stop for three hours is truly remarkable for anyone, let alone a 68-year-old. We might have been hoarse and tired from all our singing, clapping, toe-tapping, arm-waving, and hip-swinging, but he showed little sign of flagging, despite the obvious heat on the stage. May we all be that youthful and happily productive at that age and beyond. Paul continues to be a touchstone for my and other generations.

You can be sure that when I get to the 1960s in my Muskoka Novels (Book 5, 6?), Paul and the Beatles will be part of the soundtrack for my characters’ lives, just as Ragtime was in my first two novels.

To see more fab photos of Sir Paul in concert, visit  Erin Davis’s website. Many thanks to her and husband Rob Whitehead for the use of the photo from Sunday’s concert!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Regattas on the Water to Combat in the Skies over France

It’s that special time of year in Canada - a long weekend, celebrating, in essence, that summer is only half over. And for those lucky enough to be at a lakeside cottage or resort, it can also mean watching or participating in Regattas. These are friendly, but often fierce competitions among amateurs in such traditional sports as canoeing, swimming, and sailing, and also quirkier events such as tilting - as seen in the photo above - and canoe races without paddles. Regattas can be held by just a few neighbours or run by organizations, such as the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA), which has sponsored them annually for over a century.

The MLA Regatta was already so popular prior to World War 1 that people came from Toronto just for the day, and special steamships and overnight trains took them home again. Hundreds of boats sat at anchor or were moored many deep at the docks and islands within view of the activities. At the end of the day, various resorts held dances because even the largest of them, The Royal Muskoka Hotel, couldn’t accommodate all the revelers.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was holidaying at the Royal Muskoka in late July of 1914. He was to have presented the prizes at the MLA Regatta, but was suddenly summoned to Ottawa a few days before. By the end of that long weekend, Canada and the world were at war.

That’s the Regatta that I describe in my novel, The Summer Before The Storm - the last for some of my characters who go off to engage in a more deadly battle.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Place To Call Home

“Rowena was dumbfounded by her first glimpse of Launston Mills. Then angry. For this they had travelled more than three thousand arduous miles? For this handful of log cabins and a mill that had the audacity to give themselves a name?”

That arduous journey had involved travelling 8 weeks from Ireland in the filthy, dank hold of what became a “plague ship” when cholera swept through, killing a fifth of the passengers. After quarantine on Grosse Isle, downstream from Quebec City, Rowena O’Shaughnessy and her family spent a further two months making their way by barges and oxcarts and on foot into the primitive backwoods of Upper Canada. A land of opportunity for those who had the stamina of mind, body, and spirit to survive.

Their hardships are detailed in my first novel, A Place to Call Home, which has just come back into print.

Rowena’s complex relationship with the wealthy and powerful Launston family leads to tragedy, and eventually to redemption. Their lives are played out against a rich tapestry of events - devastating plagues, doomed rebellions, mob uprisings, religious conflict, and political unrest - many of which are based upon the history of my hometown of Lindsay.

This is a tale of passionate people and stormy relationships, of unrequited and illicit love, of betrayals and revenge. It is a story of courage, and the undaunted human spirit that manages to survive and surmount appalling conditions and tragedies. It is a celebration of the achievements of the remarkable pioneers who carved thriving communities out of an inhospitable wilderness.

Here’s what Writer's Digest Magazine had to say about it:
"A Place To Call Home is a gripping and fascinating saga about an Irish family's immigration to Canada and the building and founding of the [fictional] Ontario town called Launston Mills. Wills masterfully traces the development of the town, told through the eyes of Irish immigrant, Rowena, and her son, Keir. The historical facts were flawlessly researched, but rather than it reading like a series of facts, Wills peopled the book with vivid and very real characters whose experiences captivate the reader. .... An exceptionally well-told story... A Place To Call Home offers a delightful glimpse into Canada's past, told through characters who come to life and jump off the page."

Find out more about the novel, including reviews and readers' comments, on my website Mindshadows.com, where books can also be purchased online. The novel is also available as and E-book for the Kindle. Check it out here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer Fun a Century Ago

In my June 23rd posting we saw the sedate side of summer life in Muskoka’s Age of Elegance, but there were plenty of activities to wile away the hot days. What better than swimming with friends? Although, unlike the people in these Frank Micklethwaite photos, I’d prefer less enveloping bathing suits, especially in this current heat wave.

Rowing and canoeing were popular, even with women wearing floor-length dresses and picture hats.

Most important were the Regattas, for which you practiced all summer, hoping to add to the family showcase on the mantelpiece - trophies for sailing, rowing, and canoe races, swimming, diving, canoe jousting competitions, and so forth. 

And for the wealthy and adventuresome in the 1920s and on, there were the motorboat races. 

This ethos is captured in my Muskoka Novels, The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn, and continues in Book 3, which should be in print next summer.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Oh, please!!!!!

Anne (of Green Gables) had fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)? Such is the conjecture of academic Helen Hoy, as reported in Maclean’s June 21st issue. She interprets Anne’s “challenging behaviours” as symptoms because she sees some of these in her adopted daughter, who suffers from FAS.

As readers, we all bring to stories and characters aspects of our own experiences, prejudices, and desires. If Hoy chooses to see pathological behaviour in Anne, then that is her personal reaction to the character. There is no evidence in the book that Anne’s mother drank to excess, or even at all, or that Anne actually fits the true profile of a child with FAS. And is her behaviour pathological?

Anne is a spunky, outspoken, imaginative girl that so many of us admire, especially as children. She holds her own with adults in an era and society where children were to be seen when required, but not heard, and manages to endear herself to them without giving up those qualities that we love in her. I expect that generations of young readers have looked to her as a role model of how to endure and triumph in difficult situations, as well as being entertained by her antics.

Scholars are not only grasping at straws when they try to recast and even exploit popular fictional characters, but also doing a disservice to the author and the fans. Professor Laura Robinson conjectures that Anne had “lesbian urges”. Hoy claims that seeing Anne “as developmentally challenged, with her impairments the source of some of her charm” will help to see FAS in a new light.  The fact that Anne not only looks after Marilla, but also marries and raises her own children may actually put unreasonable expectations upon children with FAS and their caregivers, who often have to support them for life.

I heartily agree with the author of the Maclean’s article, Anne Kingston - “Leave Anne alone!”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quintessential Muskoka

This 1905 photo evokes for me the ethos of Edwardian Muskoka. Much of cottage life revolved around the expansive veranda where cooling summer breezes, redolent with pine, refreshed you until your next dip in the lake. It was an outdoor room where families gathered to hear grandmother read or to entertain friends. And many of these cottagers spent the entire summer at their lakeside homes.

This photograph by Frank Micklethwaite inspired me to write the following scene in The Summer Before The Storm:
“So this was his family. They lounged with practiced ease on white wicker chairs and rockers and chaise lounges on the broad, pine-boarded veranda that wrapped around the cottage. The youngest children, sitting side by side, swung lazily in the hammock that hung in the bandshell on the southwest corner. A silver tea service and plates of small sandwiches, thick scones, and rich cakes was set before them. To nourish the soul there was the stunning panorama of the lake ― rocky islands adrift along miles of shimmering blue water. A few sailboats and the distant smoke from a steamship wafted across the horizon.”

For some, cottage life hasn’t changed that much since the Age of Elegance, except for the clothes. You can still relax on verandas that embrace shingled cottages, and hear the distinctive creaking and slapping of those old-fashioned screen doors that remind you that it is summer.

Below is a Mickletwaite photo from 1908. Doesn’t it invite you to climb into one of those rattan rockers and savour the moment, perhaps with a good book and a glass of wine?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Novel Part of Chautauqua Revival!

I’m thrilled and honoured that my novel, The Summer Before The Storm, has been selected as one of the six “must-read” books of the Muskoka Chautauqua Reading Circle for 2010.

The Muskoka Chautauqua is a revival of a movement prominent in the 1920s and early 30s that earned Muskoka the reputation of being the “Literary Summer Capital of Canada”. The website states:
"Muskoka Chautauqua is a vibrant arts-based community where visitors come for personal growth, enrichment and renewal. It is an uplifting cultural hub that encompasses the arts, education and recreation; a place removed from the day-to-day world, where practitioners and leading thinkers of our time share innovative and creative ideas; a place where the arts blend with the natural beauty of Muskoka and where the human spirit – and all its hidden talents – may be liberated … and soar."

From an impressive list of books nominated by the public, six were chosen and announced at a ceremony on Saturday June 12th  at The Rosseau, located quite close to the original Muskoka Assembly Chautauqua on Tobin Island. For a glimpse of that, see my blog “Naked Poets, Free-Thinking Clergymen, and An Enchanted Island”.

The Summer Before The Storm, the first of  “The Muskoka Novels”, evokes the Age of Elegance in the summer playground of the affluent and powerful. But their charmed lives begin to unravel with the onset of the Great War, in which many are destined to become part of the “lost generation”.  The novel and its sequel, Elusive Dawn, have touched the hearts and minds of thousands of readers worldwide. Focus on Books called them “Historical fiction at its best”. Find out more at TheMuskokaNovels.com.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

L.M. Montgomery's Muskoka

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and many other beloved novels, spent two weeks with her family in Muskoka in the summer of 1922. She was obviously so impressed with the beauty of the lakes and islands that she wrote The Blue Castle, an adult love story and her only novel not set in Prince Edward Island.
For a fascinating account of how that holiday inspired her, read “The Muskoka Dream” by Montgomery scholar, Mary Beth Cavert.

Montgomery stayed at the Roselawn Inn in Bala, which is still in existence. Nearby Treelawn, where she and her family ate their meals, is now the Bala Museum dedicated to Montgomery. Touted as one of the best Montgomery museums, it also contains one of the world’s finest public collections of her books, including first editions and rare printings from other countries. The owners, Jack Hutton and Linda Jackson-Hutton, have written Lucy Maud Montgomery and Bala: A Love Story of the North Woods.

It is believed that few people in Bala knew that Maud Macdonald, wife of  Presbyterian minister Ewan Macdonald, was the famous author.

The characters in my Muskoka Novels who survived the war are now back in their cherished lake district, and indeed, not far from Bala and its picturesque falls. How natural for them to run into Maud. Ahhh, the possibilities!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lusitania Tragedy - 95 Years Ago

She was the fastest luxury liner on the oceans, and the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in New York on May 1st, 1915, included Alfred Vanderbilt, one of America’s richest men, Lady Allan, wife of Canadian shipping magnate Sir Montague Allan, along with their two teenaged daughters, and Josephine Burnside, daughter of mercantile millionaire Timothy Eaton, with her twenty-year-old daughter. But few of them would survive that last voyage.

The Great War was raging in Europe, and tensions had been running high ever since the German Embassy in New York issued a warning to British ships and their allies. But the passengers had been assured that this record-breaking ocean greyhound could outrun any German submarines, and that the British navy would provide safe escort into Liverpool. No one thought that the Germans would attack a passenger ship carrying women and children. But few on board knew that armaments were part of the cargo, making the ship a legitimate target.

It was a sunny afternoon on the Irish sea on May 7, 1915, just hours away from docking at Liverpool, when some of the first class passengers leaving the sumptuous dining room noticed a torpedo slicing through the calm blue water towards them. The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes.

It was amazing that 761 of the 1,959 aboard survived - although very few of the children - many of them immersed in the frigid Irish Sea for two or more hours. Some who were thought to be dead suffered from hyperthermia, but were able to be revived.

Of those first class passengers mentioned earlier, only Lady Allan and Josephine Burnside survived. More than 900 bodies were never recovered, including Alfred Vanderbilt’s, whose family had offered a $5000 reward.

There are many questions still not clearly answered, including why the British navy had not provided the promised escort, and why the ship was running at such reduced speeds in dangerous waters, thereby becoming a sitting target. See Diana Preston’s book, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, for a gripping account of this disaster. And join my characters aboard that ill-fated ship in The Summer Before The Storm.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Monsters Under the Dock

They eat small fish and tadpoles, as well as insects. They move with lightning speed, and can illicit the expletive "Holy sh**!" from the bravest and strongest of men. There are people who have summered on lakes all their lives and have never seen one, because these monsters are skittish. Fortunately. They are dock spiders.

More correctly known as fishing spiders, the adults can be about the size of a splayed hand! I can verify that since I have seen them. The first time was as a young wife enjoying a romantic holiday at a Muskoka lodge. My husband and I were canoeing in the calm of late afternoon, absorbing the sublime beauty of the lake and the thrusting granite cliff that sparkled in the sunshine. He said, “Wow, look at that spider!” pointing to the rock wall mere inches from our canoe. I’ve always been afraid, although not phobic, about spiders, so I was immediately on the alert. I didn’t see it at first because it was SO big. But I finally did, shrieked, and nearly tipped the canoe. I’m sure I would have won a regatta race in my haste to get as far away as possible.

It was at least thirty years before I saw another one. Some lakes, or at least areas of them, seem to be more popular with these critters. They like calm water and wood, and often live under docks, which is how they acquired their nickname. They can submerge themselves underwater for 10 to 15 minutes when frightened, and can even "swim"!

If you’d like a laugh, have a look at this brief video of me at a Muskoka resort - after I had seen a huge mother dock spider guarding her egg sac - about the only time that they don’t skitter away immediately upon hearing noise or feeling the vibration of interlopers on their docks. I’d also seen a few sunning themselves on the lovely rocks where I am perched in this clip, as I had kayaked by the previous day.

My reference to a dock spider in The Summer Before The Storm is definitely symbolic.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Only one remedy for this obsession

I’m obsessed by something that can be dangerous, powerful, deceptive, but also gentle and soothing and exquisite. Water. I love watching it tumble vivaciously over rocks or stretch lazily to distant shores. As soon as I’m near it, I need to divest myself of footwear and plunge in - not always the wisest thing to do. Once, after a week of torrential February rain, we hit a beach in San Diego. I’d walked the length of most of it, unshod, of course, before I saw the warning signs. Beware! The water was contaminated by the run-off from all the flooding. Another time I waded into an enticingly clear and shallow stream in Northern Ontario, and was nearly swept off my feet by the swift current. Even I wasn’t adventuresome (or foolish) enough to frolic on a Welsh beach like a group of schoolchildren did - amid snow flurries in April. But watching from a warm seaside hotel, I could appreciate their joyful enthusiasm as they rolled up trousers and splashed about in the frigid water.

It’s no surprise that swimming is my favourite activity. How sublime it is to be immersed in the silky softness, caressed and buoyed, floating between earth and sky, teased by waves. The next best thing is being in an open-top lake kayak, which makes you feel as if you’re suspended in the water. Just reach out and dip in your hand to cool off. And if you stop paddling, a loon might suddenly surface nearby and treat you to his “insane laughter”, warning you that you’re invading his territory.

I wish it were mine for more than a few snatched weekends each summer. I long to live by a lake and watch the changing moods of sky and water, enjoy the exuberance of summer activities and savour the solitude of snow-shrouded winters.

Water haunts my dreams and speaks to my soul, so it’s little wonder that it always figures in my books - never more so than in the Muskoka Novels.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In the Trenches at Vimy Ridge

The following is an excerpt from a scene in my novel Elusive Dawn, which is set during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Apr. 9, 1917. Captain Justin Carrington is a young lawyer whose family summers in the lake district of Muskoka, Canada. British aristocrat Antonia Upton is with an ambulance corps near Calais. This has been abridged, leaving out some military details and mention of other characters.

            Justin Carrington was thankful to be out of the deep subway and cave where the slimy chalk walls had begun to close in on him, reminding him of the suffocating mud of the Somme, making him ashamed of the panic that he had to force back into the pit of his belly. By now he should have been used to the sweat and latrine stench of war, but with men packed so tightly together in these underground tunnels grey with cigarette and candle smoke, the oxygen seemed to have been used up. So he breathed deeply of the cold, pre-dawn air.
            Like most of the men, he hadn’t been able to sleep, even if it had been physically possible to find a comfortable place to rest. For months the entire Canadian Corps had been training for this day. Over and over they had practiced behind the lines – their objectives carefully laid out, the timing of their advance coordinated to the split-second – so that every last man knew exactly what to do….
            The men had had their rum ration, and boxes of Canadian Lowney chocolate bars had miraculously appeared. Justin savoured every bite of his, while relishing the reminder of home.
            So now they all stood silently in the trenches, in the rain that was turning to sleet, many up to their knees in icy sludge. 30,000 Canadian infantry strung along the four miles of Vimy Ridge. With another 70,000 soldiers in support roles behind – the gunners, engineers, medics, cooks, and so forth – it meant that the entire Canadian Corps was here, together for the first time….
            Justin checked his watch yet again. 5:15. Almost Zero Hour.
            His company of four platoons would go over in the second wave, leap-frogging those leading the assault at a predetermined line. The first battalions were already in the shallow jumping-off trenches and craters in no-man’s-land.
            After a week of constant shelling that had pummeled the German trenches and defences with a million shells, the silence now was eerie. And taut. Every one of them knew only too well that the Allies had tried and failed to take this strongly fortified and tactically important ridge during the past two years…. Despite some trepidation, Justin felt confident that their intense preparation and unprecedented bombardment would surprise and overwhelm the Germans.
            And he felt buoyed by the latest letter from Antonia Upton. She had written, “We have been evacuating the wounded from the base hospitals in large numbers recently,” which, in the parlance of censorship, insinuated that she realized space was being made for an onslaught of new casualties. She went on to say:
            We often hear the remorseless guns, and I wonder how you can stand the diabolical noise that surely threatens the very sanity of civilization. When we have air raids here, I sometimes find it difficult to muster the courage to keep going, cherishing the sanctity and preciousness of life too much to lose it. There is so much yet to experience, so much promise to fulfill. It seems almost treasonous to admit that I don’t want to sacrifice myself or any of my friends to the dubious glory of the Empire. Forgive my womanly heart, for I do not mean to diminish what you men are trying and dying to achieve.
            I expect you will soon be preoccupied, and trust you will be careful as well as lucky. I enjoyed our perambulations about the Hampshire countryside, and hope we can repeat those when the wildflowers are in bloom and the trees, lushly green. And perhaps you will take me sailing and canoeing when I come to visit your magical Muskoka. I have presumptuously included a photograph of myself in the event that you may wish to recall your correspondent.
            Fondly, Toni
            He had chuckled at the formality of that last sentence, which was no doubt intended to make the gesture appear less intimate. But he was delighted by the photograph and studied it frequently as if he could delve better into her psyche. To him it was evident that she was transparent, her inner beauty reflected in her outer attractiveness. From her perceptive, forthright gaze shone humour and a joie de vivre that captivated him. He had the picture tucked into his breast pocket, and felt the intoxicating stirrings of love.
            Joyfully he had replied to her:
            Your photo has brought me much cheer, but I hope that I may see the real you before long. Not in your capacity as an ambulance driver, however!
            I applaud your womanly heart, and agree with your sentiments. I have done much soul-searching over the past two years, caught between my civilized conscience and the dictates of war. I have seen both the best and the worst that human beings can do, the many and ever more mechanized ways we can slaughter one another, although we are more alike than dissimilar.
            Your friendship has revived in me the determination to survive this war and to make a difference in a world changed forever, but open to new possibilities. Our generation must try to right the wrongs that brought us here and for which so many, as Rupert Brooke so aptly said, ‘poured out the red sweet wine of youth’.
            Be assured that your thoughts and words comfort and sustain me, Toni. I long to sit in the sunshine with you, listening to the birds, but without the guns which now disturb their songs. The larks here seem forever hopeful. So shall I be.
            Affectionately, Justin
            It was snowing now, the wind whipping up a blizzard.
            5:28. Two minutes to go. After a passing whisper, the tiny clinks of bayonets being fixed to rifles coalesced and tinkled down the line.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Once discovered, never forgotten…

That’s the tagline for the legendary lake district of Muskoka. I can attest to its veracity, as could Ruth Gaunt Bennett when she became enchanted by it in the summer of 1932.  In her memoir, Adventures as a Muskoka Maid, she wrote of her first sight of the lakes, “Suddenly I saw that the so blue water held the blue sky captive within its depths…. I wanted to store all this new, exquisite beauty deep within me.”  Even as a maid catering to a well-to-do family at their summer home, she was able to enjoy the delights of cottage country - swimming, canoeing, moonlight cruises, corn roasts, and so forth. Muskoka worked its magic on her, as it has on countless others, and she eventually settled there with her family.

It made me think of my own introduction to this land of sparkling granite, fragrant pine trees, and island-studded lakes. My childhood friend has a cottage, built by her great-grandfather in 1879, on an island on Lake Rosseau. She, her mother, and brother spent every summer there from the time that school ended in June until it began again in September. Her father went up on weekends.

I was first invited there when I was 12, and was instantly captivated by the scenery and the lovely weathered cottage that held within its walls the essence of a different era. It was as if the past still lingered in the scent of old wood and musty books, on the expansive veranda and bedroom balconies, in the vanished spaces that had once housed servants. On rainy days we played vintage records on the ancient gramophone. The cottage still resonates to those long-ago tunes, like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.

I heard stories from aged aunts about the old days - the Age of Elegance on the lakes. Even then I knew that one day I would write about that fascinating time. My novels The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn pay tribute to that era. I’m now working on Book 3 in the series, which takes place in the 1920s.

In some inexplicable way, Muskoka has touched my soul. How lucky that I can reside there in my imagination.

To see more lovely photos of Muskoka, watch my short book trailer on YouTube.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Naked Poets, Freethinking Clergymen, and an “Enchanted Island”

In 1928 when poet Dorothy Livesay was 19 and a student at the University of Toronto, she spent a month in Muskoka helping her cousin, who was the director of a theatre on Tobin Island. It was part of the “Muskoka Assembly” of the Canadian Chautauqua Institute. Founded by Methodist minister Charles Applegath in 1921, the Assembly sought to combine spiritual, educational, and cultural enrichment in a magnificent setting that also encouraged healthy outdoor activities like swimming, golf, tennis, and canoeing. Dorothy, wanting to feel more at one with nature, would go off blueberry picking in the nude with her friends. For her this was just an extension of the then-popular Theosophy, a philosophy that combined Eastern and Western spirituality and mysticism, in which God was nature and beauty, and man, a part of this natural world.

Visitors stayed at the Epworth Inn (later Wigwassan Lodge), while some - clergy mostly - also built cottages on the 200 acre property that stretched along 2 miles of shoreline. In addition to classes and lectures, there were entertainments, which included plays, masquerades, and sunset cruises. 

Applegath also sought to promote Canadian literature and music, so recitals and concerts were performed, and famous literary figures like Bliss Carman and E. J. Pratt spent weeks there not only sharing their works, but also being inspired by the picturesque, rugged beauty surrounding them. By 1928, the Muskoka Assembly had become known as Canada’s Literary Summer Capital. Unfortunately, the Depression took its toll on this innovative endeavour.

So it’s exciting to hear that the Muskoka Lakes Music Festival is reviving the Chautauqua, including the Reading Circle. The public is being asked to submit suggestions for this summer’s 5 “Must Read” books by April 31st. Find out more here about the 2010 Muskoka Chautauqua, which will be held at Red Leaves (J.W. Marriot), not far from the “enchanted island” that once offered sustenance for the mind, body, and soul.

In my Muskoka Novels, The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn, I’ve very loosely based “The Colony” on the Canadian Chautauqua, albeit pre-WW1.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating the Irish

My hometown was to a large extent settled by Irish immigrants in the 1830s - by that I mean that they had to hack a clearing out of the primeval forests, and struggle to survive in the primitive “backwoods” of Upper Canada. The trees that they cut down were squared into logs and used to build their first homes. House-raising “bees” were common, involving all the neighbours, who could literally erect a cabin in one day - fueled by free food and whiskey. But even the best of these dwellings were bitterly cold in winter. One “gentlewoman” wrote in a letter home that the temperature in her bedroom was 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 C)! Water froze in jugs set in front of fireplaces - which had to be kept burning for cooking throughout the blistering hot and humid summers as well.

Bears could be troublesome, and there were hordes of vicious blackflies and clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to fend off, the latter carrying a type of malarial fever called ague (although that fact was not known at the time). An epidemic raged through the area in 1838, killing nearly a third of the population.

But there were also plentiful fish in the lakes and rivers that belonged to no one. Migrating birds were sometimes so thick in the skies that they could be picked off from the settlers’ front steps (and indeed, the passenger pigeon, which once travelled in flocks of up to 2 billion birds, became extinct by 1914). Deer and moose and other wild game were there for the taking, and land was often free for those willing to clear it.

My first novel, A Place To Call Home, celebrates these intrepid pioneers who carved thriving communities out of an inhospitable wilderness. It is currently out of print, but I’m excited to announce that it is now available for the Kindle from Amazon! Click here to find out more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You've never seen them like this!

An innovative new series by Roderick Benns is putting a delightful spin on understanding Canadian Prime Ministers. He invites readers to get to know them as tweens, plunging them into mysteries within the historically accurate context of their eras. The first in the series is entitled The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker. Here’s the synopsis:

“One hundred years ago, under the light of a full moon, 12-year-old John Diefenbaker and his younger brother, Elmer, are nearby when their neighbour is shot to death in a field. The murder in small-town Saskatchewan ignites a desperate search for the killer and when a family friend of the Diefenbakers is arrested for the murder, John is certain they have the wrong person. With the help of the man’s 11-year-old daughter, Summer Storm, John and Elmer set out to prove his innocence. But with only five days left before the murder trial, time is running out…”

This YA novel is receiving glowing reviews, and is sure to give a new perspective on the man who became Canada’s 13th Prime Minister.

Some exciting news for young authors is that Roderick’s Fireside Publishing House will award a book publishing contract to a Canadian university, college, or high school student who writes the best first chapter and outline for a historical fiction children’s book on former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The book will be part of the ‘Leaders & Legacies’ series on Canada’s Prime Ministers, which imagines the young PMs solving mysteries or getting involved in adventures that one day foreshadow their lives to come. The book must focus on Martin at approximately age 12, the median age of readers.

“It’s great to be part of the ‘Leaders & Legacies’ series,” said Martin. “I always wanted to be a detective and now I’ve got the chance.” Martin added, “Historical fiction – it’s kind of like an alternate reality. In other words it’s kind of like the House of Commons.”

For contest details see firesidepublishinghouse.com

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Losing our stories?

Are we losing our identities in this information rich age when we Twitter, text, email, share our thoughts and activities with the world on Facebook and other social networking sites? Such was the prediction I heard recently from a biographer who claims that since we no longer write letters, we won’t leave records of our journeys through life. Who keeps emails? Whatever bits of ourselves we send into cyberspace are as ephemeral as stardust.

You might think that for most of us it would only matter to our families, but as an historical researcher, I can attest to the importance of correspondence from everyone, whether Lady or servant, Prime Minister or clerk, child or octogenarian. It is through letters from soldiers and nurses that I learned what life was like during the Great War. Not so much about the war itself, since they were reluctant to upset their families with gruesome reports that probably would not have passed the censors in any case. But they did discuss what they did on leave, who they met, how much things cost, what they ate, where they lived, how their beliefs sustained them - or not. The trivia of daily life is rather meaningless while we live it, but is of immense importance to someone trying to recreate an era 100 years later, as are the nuances of language, convention, and social interaction that shine from those missives.

Here are some excerpts from Frances Cluett’s letters home (Your Daughter Fanny: The War letters of Frances Cluett, VAD, edited by Bill Romkey and Bert Riggs), beginning in 1916 when she went overseas from Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada) as a volunteer nurse:
Before leaving - “[The doctor] inoculated us underneath the collarbone. Oh my! Wasn’t it tender afterwards, I could hardly bear the weight of my clothes on it, it was just like a boil… We have to have three inoculations… I just dread it.”
In England - “Oh Mother! We are put on rations. A 2 lb. loaf of bread must last us two days: and we are also given [1/2] lb. sugar to do us for a week. Each nurse was presented with a small bag to hold her loaf of bread and tin of sugar.”
From a French hospital - “I go on duty at ten minutes to eight in the evening and come off at 8 a.m… I have the care of five wards at night; so you can imagine I am kept a bit busy…. One must keep a look out for all sorts of things, such as amputation bleedings, deaths, drinks, etc. This is a very wicked world, mother; you cannot realize what sufferings there are. Some of the misery will ever live in my memory.”
“Mother I have never seen so many flowers in all my life as I have seen since I came to Rouen. All the hospital tents have them at their front entrances; oh! they are beautiful.”
“Ah! Lil, many a bedside have I stood by and watched the last breath, with rats rushing underneath the bed in groups, and the lights darkened.”

The letters are rich with details, as are the ones compiled by R. B. Fleming in The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost 1915-1919.
In England - “It’s lucky for Les and I that we don’t drink as the bill that most fellows run up is a corker - twenty to thirty dollars a month is a whole lot to spend on drinking, but the big majority do all the same.”
Somewhere in France (as they weren’t allowed to say where) - “There was a canteen - imagine, near the front line, as well as writing rooms and ablution rooms for the men - and all underground. Really, this war is getting to be a business.”
“Cecil and I had Christmas dinner together and a very good dinner it was, turkey, etc. etc. He is situated only a mile and a half from here and so we are able to see each other often.”
March 23, 1918 - “Just a brief line - The Date above will be enough to explain this note if you follow the papers. Just want to say that I am taking [into battle] Mother’s last two letters, which she wrote previous to her operation. I think they would be a help to anybody. Don’t worry about me…. Somehow I can’t say much more. I love you all dearly.”

Both brothers were wounded, Leslie quite seriously, spending about 9 months in hospital. He went on to become Premier of Ontario from 1949 - 1961.

There are many websites that showcase letters from the men and women who went overseas during the First World War - some of these can be accessed from my website, Odd, Intriguing, Surprising Facts About WW1. They are sometimes poignant, usually filled with minutiae, but always fascinating and enlightening, and a treasure trove for those interested in the social history of an era. They are, after all, voices from the past.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lakeside Resorts - Then and Now

If you wanted to escape from the hot and hectic city a hundred years ago, you could board a train, whether from Toronto or Pittsburgh or beyond, and head towards the pristine beauty of the Muskoka Lakes, where you could frolic in and on the sparkling waters and breathe the pine-scented, ragweed-free air. If you didn’t have a summer home there, you could choose from nearly a hundred resorts, hotels, and inns that catered to over 5500 tourists on the three main, connected lakes. They offered dances, concerts, and even roller skating rinks to augment the many outdoor activities. Arriving at one of the railways terminals, you’d board an elegant steamship and sail to your destination, perhaps another three or four hours away. If you could afford to pay $18 or more per week, you could stay at the grandest one of all, the Royal Muskoka Hotel on Lake Rosseau.

When the Royal was built in 1901, it was touted as being the finest hotel in Canada, with all the amenities and luxuries of any city hotel, including en suite bathrooms, barber shop and hair stylist, bakery, an orchestra, and twice daily mail delivery. See a picture of the Royal here. It burned down in 1952, fire being the fate of many of these summer resorts. Others decayed or were unable to keep up with modern demands. Only a couple of the original hotels remain.

But a new one has arisen quite close to where the Royal once stood, and harkens back in style and opulence to that era. Pictured above is “The Rosseau”, a J.W. Marriott hotel, which is open all year. What surprised me was hearing cottagers opposing its development, complaining of “increased traffic” on the lake. Considering that there are only a handful of hotels that can accommodate tourists these days, that smacks of elitism - that the lakes belong only to those who can afford the overpriced cottages. They would do well to remember that it was the many hotels that helped turn Muskoka into a renowned tourist area, and undoubtedly influenced vacationers to buy property in the days when an island could cost as little as $1. We would be delighted on our non-Muskoka lake to have a hotel to which we could boat for a decent meal, or perhaps a dance, as people did in days gone by.

In the meantime, I will enjoy occasional visits to The Rosseau, since the “Grand Muskoka Hotel” in my novels is heavily based on the Royal. There’s nothing like soaking up the ambiance for inspiration!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Waiting for Summer

Winter on the lake is snow-shrouded silence. There’s no lapping of waves, no raucous cry of gulls or haunting call of loons. There’s no splashing of swimmers or drone of motorboats, only the rude roar of the occasional snowmobile as it rips across the white expanse of solitude. Trails of footprints beckon the brave to venture onto this ice-bound tundra as snow broods in the skies above. Two Muskoka chairs perch on the edge of a dock and dream of summer.

What you can’t see in the photo above is that there is open water on either side, caused by the turbulence of bubblers that keep ice from forming and damaging the docks. Some people use them around their boathouses as well. Ice can be deceptive - feet thick in some places and safe enough to drive cars across, and yet dangerous in others, where unseen cracks have formed or currents roil beneath a thin sheet. And every year there are people - snowmobilers mostly - who break through. Not far from this spot a mother and daughter drowned last winter while horrified family and friends on snowmobiles right beside them watched helplessly. I have crossed lakes on snowmobiles, but never felt comfortable doing so, especially since I’ve encountered frighteningly soft ice while skiing on a lake in bitter cold, which is obviously no guarantee of safety.

So it always surprises me when I hear of people who live on these islands year-round. In the Muskoka of a century ago, the wealthy often had caretakers who stayed over the winter to look after the property, and apparently some still do. I expect that these people are no longer so isolated, but in the days before snowmobiles and even roads around the perimeter of the lakes that now connect to towns and villages, it would have been a challenge to over-winter here.

After all, the creaking of frozen branches and distant howling of wolves is sometimes all you hear in this muffled and windblown black-and-white world.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Magic of Muskoka Boathouses

Muskoka boathouses are so much more than shelters for watercraft. They are architectural gems - some whimsical, most hearkening back to an earlier century, never two the same, and all with stories to tell. Those built before size restrictions came into being in the late 1980s can be enormous, with 3000 or more square feet on the second level. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these spaces were often used as servants’ quarters or ballrooms. Later, they became guest suites or places for children to sleep and play.

Built just prior to WW1, the brown boathouses in the photo above are known as the Girls’ Boathouse (on the left) and the Boys’ Boathouse, which oddly is more ornate. Both have a “Lindbergh door” - a secret passage added later, allowing children to escape should anyone try to kidnap them. This wealthy American family was taking no chances after what happened to Charles Lindbergh’s child in 1932. As in this case, one boathouse is often not sufficient, so it’s not uncommon to see two or even three attached to one property, and housing as many as sixteen boats, each building retaining its unique character.

Boathouses reflect the style and colours of the cottage, as can be seen above in a modern recreation of a century summer home, with an even more fanciful boathouse. Old cottages that have settled comfortably into the landscape over generations are often hidden in the pines, so it’s the boathouse that welcomes visitors.

Some cottages that perch on granite cliffs high above the lake have an inclined elevator to scale the hillside, ferrying people and supplies - a real boon in the days when cottagers and guests arrived with trunks of clothing and other paraphernalia for a two or three month stay.

It’s also understandable that these functional buildings, hovering over the water, often replete with kitchens as well as bedrooms, bathrooms, and sitting rooms, become the focus of lakeside activities. Most have balconies, decks, verandas, or screened porches and are surrounded by docks so you can feel even closer to the water as you sip morning coffee or evening cocktails.

Those lucky enough to live in boathouses talk about the magical light and the serenity of feeling adrift on the water. “On sunny days, sparkles dancing on the lake reflect on our walls and windows. And at night, there’s no better lullaby than the sound of waves lapping beneath the cribs,” writes Judy Ross in Shelter at the Shore: The Boathouses of Muskoka. For her family, the boathouse is the cottage, and if you love being on the water, who needs anything more?

As for me, I can delight in designing boathouses circa 1919 for my characters, and vicariously enjoy the experience of staying in one.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What cats do while you're sleeping

My late cats, Cally and Gingy, spent many hours sitting on my desk or hovering nearby while I wrote and created websites (a former part-time business). I realized later that they had been surreptitiously studying me, for I discovered that they had put up their own webpage! Here’s what it said:

Greetings, fellow cybercats! We are Cally and Gingy, two high-tech cats with attitude. Here are some useful, cat-tested tips for getting those people you own to do what you want.
• Give them rub-againsts - people need to feel privileged by your attention - it's also a good way to brush off excess fur.
• Reach up and pat them on the arm to tell them you'd like some roast beef, too (or whatever looks appetizing from the dinner table).
• Turn up your nose and strut away in a dignified huff if they give you something really vile to eat, then snatch a meal outside. (We call that fast food!)
• Don’t be greedy - sometimes it's a good idea to share your spoils - women especially shriek with joy when you bring them a mouse.
• Be unpredictable - ambush them from under a couch or dash down the stairs ahead of them - just don't let your people become complacent.
• Practice the fine art of studiously ignoring them - especially if they think you're exhibiting dog-like qualities of devotion.
• Demonstrate your superior decorating skills - keep knocking the ornaments off the Christmas tree until they get it right.
• Establish your territory early - choose the best chair in the house as yours and make sure you leave lots of fur behind so everyone knows it.
• People like routine - sit in the same spot every day to demand your bowl of milk - they soon get the message.
• We hate resorting to this one, but if they're slow to clean your litterbox, use a potted plant.
• Don’t let them fool you with so-called scratching posts - the back of a couch or chair provides a much more satisfying place to exercise your claws.
Be firm and consistent. It may take a while to train your people, but you'll win in the end, and they will become your devoted slaves. Especially if you give them one of your innocent looks and enigmatic smiles. Purrrow!

RIP Cally (Apr. 1989 - Feb. 2007) and Gingy (Apr. 1990 - July 2008).

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Challenges of Writing Sequels

I’m working on Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels series, and am once again struggling with a few issues. With the Dickensian cast of characters having over 1100 pages of experiences behind them, how much do I reiterate so that those who have not read the first two books will know what’s going on, while those who have just finished them won’t be bored? It’s a fine line to tread.

Continuity also has its challenges. Each character is for me a real person, so no problem recalling how they look or “who” they are. I do have profiles for them, which include their favourite expressions, what other characters think or say about them, whether someone gave them a gold locket or a silver cigarette case, and other minutiae, which may become relevant at some time.

I’ve spent weeks combing through the first two books to compile a list of continuity facts, which also include descriptions of places and events. For instance, Grandmother Wyndham had her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, so of course it has to hang somewhere. Hothouse flowers were shipped regularly from the Wyndhams’ city estate to their summer cottage on the lake. A lucent necklace of gas lamps encircled the entire point of their island. I have over 40 pages of these types of notes.

So now it’s time to immerse myself in another world again!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Historical weather and other tidbits

Trying to recreate an era as accurately as possible, I’m continually amazed and delighted that so many historical tidbits can be found instantly on the Internet. I know that in 1914 the July full moon fell on Tuesday the 7th, which is when my characters have a moonlight cruise on the lake. I’ve seen photos of the first class dining lounge on the Lusitania, and know what was served to my characters for dinner as they departed for England. I know what a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost ambulance looks like, as driven by one of my young women. I’ve watched funerals for those killed in air raids, and followed Edward, the Prince of Wales, on his tour through Canada in 1919.

I need a good understanding of the time to be able to realistically place my characters in it. So even trivial things like the weather are taken into account. Looking at the climate data for 1919, I see that June was incredibly hot, with half the days registering over 30°C, while July was almost as hot, and had only four rainy days. How unlike our summer last year, which was lamentably cool and wet. The weather certainly has an impact on how you spend time at your lakeside cottage, as my characters do.

After two cool summers here, I know I’m not the only one looking forward to a blistering 1919-type one. In the meantime, I’m spending the winter there!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Victorian Dress Torture

Imagine walking around every day with anywhere from 20 to 88 pounds of constant pressure around your abdomen. That’s what the corset provided as it cinched women’s waists to as little as 17 or 18 inches. “It also restricted oxygen intake, crushed the internal organs, caused chronic fatigue and headaches, and created serious long-term medical complications,” explains Joshua Zeitz in his fascinating book, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and Women Who Made America Modern. A girl at boarding school related how the merciless tight-lacing was painfully intolerable, but that it was an inflexible rule, and the cruel laces not relaxed except during illness. One critic of the day said, “The effects of a tight cord round the neck and of tight-lacing only differ in degree… for the strangulations are both fatal. To wear tight stays is in many cases to wither, to waste, and to die.”

“The loudest defenders of the corset routinely used words like ‘discipline’, ‘confinement’, submission’, and ‘bondage’ and spoke favorably of ‘training the figure’ with a degree of pain ‘rigidly inflicted and unflinchingly imposed’.” One man said, “The corset is an ever present monitor indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint: it is evidence of a well-disciplined mind and well-regulated feelings.”

If they couldn’t move or breathe easily because of corsets, women were further hampered by crinolines. ”Built of flexible steel, whalebone, or wood, these contraptions were little more than hooped cages…. sometimes as much as 5 yards in circumference.” Wooden crinolines commonly caught on fire when women stepped too close to a fireplace or candle (i.e. within a couple of yards). One Victorian woman wrote, “Take what precautions we may against fire, so long as the hoop is worn, life is never safe… all are living under a sentence of death which may occur unexpectedly in the most appalling form.”

Appalling indeed! Is it any wonder that Victorian feminists felt that the fashions reinforced women’s subordination to men, keeping them quite literally imprisoned? “How can you ever compete with man… for equal place and pay with garments… so cumbersomely fashioned, and how can you ever hope to enjoy the same health and vigor as men, so long as the waist is pressed into the smallest compass, pounds of clothing hung on the hips, the limbs cramped with skirts?” asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wore comfortable “bloomers” in protest.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to the Age of Elegance

My name is Victoria Wyndham, known to close friends and family as Ria. I'd like to introduce you to some of them.
Well, perhaps a few words about me first.

Grandmother says I'm incorrigible and impulsive. Father calls me "utterly selfish, inconsiderate, and disobedient". My mother died when I was born and he has never forgiven me for that.

Prickly Aunt Phyllis has condemned me as a "brazen troublemaker" and "undisciplined hoyden", but of course, she has never liked me, nor I, her. Luckily, Aunt Olivia and Uncle Richard have always been generous and loving, so that I feel very much a part of their large brood, and particularly close to my twin cousins, Zoë and Max, who are my age. Max is such a card, and Zoë is clever and wonderfully outspoken, even with Grandmother. They're onboard for any adventures that I dream up.

Stuffy cousin Henry claims that I'm reckless and always venture beyond the bounds of his imagination. His younger sister, Phoebe, is surely more inclined to do that, since she is quite mad, and talks to her sinister two-faced doll - who apparently replies. Their brother, Edgar, is easily the most likeable of Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Albert's children, although Grandmother thinks him too self-indulgent.

I should explain that we have a summer home on Wyndwood Island on a pristine lake in Muskoka, about 100 miles north of Toronto, where we live the rest of the year. We Wyndhams spend three or four months together at the cottage every summer, which doesn't always make for harmonious relationships. Especially after Jack arrived.

None of us knew, until this summer of 1914, that we had more Wyndham cousins! Jack's father was disowned for marrying a "showgirl". Jack is a charmer, and devilishly handsome - "divine," as Lydia Carrington remarked. Grandmother admires him as well, although she doesn't trust him. She thinks that because he grew up so poor, he will be ruthless, and use everyone to get ahead. She would be scandalized if she knew how Jack and I first met. He has three younger sisters, one whose remarkable voice has already impressed a Broadway composer. The eldest, Lizzie, is a bit harder to like, although I can't put my finger on why.

Cousin Bea - Lady Beatrice Kirkland - who is visiting us from England this summer, is truly sympathetic, but she thinks that I have "the unfortunate habit of running away when things get tough". She just doesn't understand how soul shattering some "things" are!

Chas Thornton told me at a ball that I have "the most stunning eyes. Like azure pools. A chap could drown in them." Chas is an outrageous flirt! And tremendous fun. He enjoys life and radiates joy. His family owns a neighbouring island, and his father is one of the richest men in Canada. Our friend, Ellie, thinks he's "absolutely beautiful" and adores him, even though she detests his lifestyle and lack of ambition.

Of course Ellie - Eleanor Carlyle - doesn't approve of conspicuous wealth. A medical student, she is also something of a crusader, with perhaps too much of a social conscience. She would populate our homes - which she finds obscenely large - with unwed mothers and orphans. But I like her down-to-earth honesty, and she is the staunchest of friends.

Her brother, Blake, is already a doctor, and very much the love of Zoë's life, if only he would realize it!

Chas's younger brother, Rafe, is rather dissolute, and he unsettles me with his rapacious attentions. He seems to be a frustrated boy living in the shadow of his charismatic older brother. Perhaps his aggressiveness is a reaction to Chas's gentility.

Justin Carrington, on the other hand, is the kindest and most gentlemanly friend. I had a terrific pash for him when I was fifteen, and now I fear that he has rather fallen for me. Grandmother is trying to encourage our marriage, maintaining that "friendship and mutual respect are far better than passion for building a good marriage." But she doesn't know where my heart lies.

I have many more friends, whom you can meet if you read The Muskoka Novels - The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn.

And I fear for my dear friends, as several are going off to war, Jack and Chas to become daring aviators. But we girls are not about to be left behind! We are as patriotic and plucky as the men. Zoë intends to become a VAD - a volunteer nurse. Ellie is almost finished her studies as a doctor. And I fancy driving an ambulance. Vivian Carrington and I are going to England aboard the Lusitania, the fastest and most elegant ship on the seas. Vivian did her VAD training and is using this as an excuse to meet up with her forbidden love, who's already overseas in the Veterinary Corps.

I do wonder why our generation is being so severely tested. Have we been living in a fool's paradise?

As for Muskoka, it's our sanctuary. Once you visit our island with its stately pines, sparkling granite, and distant vistas of craggy, tufted islands floating on the cobalt blue lake, you might understand why my soul hungers for it.


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)

ratings: 4 (avg rating 5.00)

ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.50)

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