Monday, December 19, 2011

Deadly Aftermath

It’s been 93 years since the last of the many millions of shells was fired in the Great War, but every year, farmers in France and Belgium still find dangerous munitions on their land. In Flanders fields alone, some 10,000 unexploded bombs are ploughed up each year. It’s known as the “Iron Harvest”, and farmers place their finds by the roadside for the bomb disposal units to collect. Ironically, people are still being killed by WW1 munitions. Canada’s Vimy Memorial apparently has one unexploded shell for every square metre, which is why there are fences and signs warning people not to stray off the paths.

So imagine how hazardous the devastated landscape was immediately after the war. That’s why I was surprised to discover that Michelin published tourist guides to the battlefields and cemeteries! I just read one about Ypres that was published in 1920. Illustrated with pictures of piles of rubble where villages had once stood, muddy, debris-ridden fields with water-filled shell-holes, and rough roads lined with naked, broken tree stumps, it gives detailed directions on what to see and how to get about. Some roads were not yet passable. Here’s a quote: “Beyond the cross-roads there is a confused heap of rails and broken trucks in the middle of shell-torn ground.”

It seems macabre to me to tour the battlefields when they are still raw, highly dangerous, and gruesome, as dead bodies were being discovered and recovered. Having said that, my own tour of them and the military cemeteries a few years ago was a powerful and moving experience.

The magnificent, medieval city of Ypres was virtually razed, as you can see in the 1919 photo above. Are the people standing there tourists, or citizens returning and trying to imagine rebuilding their homes and lives? Fortunately, they did, as you can see in this photo taken by my daughter.

Photo copyright Melanie Wills

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Drum

Would you like to see what women’s bathing suits looked like a hundred years ago? Watch antique mahogany boats zipping about? Listen to popular ragtime tunes? Then visit the profile for my novel, The Summer Before the Storm, on Book Drum, which uses annotations (Bookmarks) to enhance the reading experience.

I had immense fun choosing photos, videos, and music to “illustrate” various aspects of the novel, thereby providing more depth or ancillary information. Some of these I already use in my PowerPoint presentation, “Fact in Fiction”, so I’m excited that they’re now available to the world!

As setting is an important aspect of Book Drum, my profile also becomes advertising for Muskoka, since it is the principle focus for this novel. Already one of the key people from Book Drum has commented on the “incredible setting”.

I’m planning to spend days immersed in the rich and extensive annotations of Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast, which I’m using for my own research into 1920s Paris. So a word of warning - this site is addictive!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How do you forget?

CWGC cemetery in Etaples, France, Copyright Melanie Wills

Although the war is over when Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels begins, it lingers for many of my characters. It’s perhaps hard for us to imagine trying to rebuild lives shattered in trenches or aerial combat, and to carry on without friends, husbands, and sweethearts when life is just supposed to be beginning. Little wonder that became known as the “lost generation”.

War veterans were reluctant to talk about their horrific experiences, especially to those who weren’t there and so couldn’t really understand. Many couldn’t readjust to civilian life or were haunted by unforgettable experiences, including their own participation in the brutality. How does a young man, brought up to believe in the sanctity of life, reconcile that with his requirement to kill? The survivors often felt guilty that they didn’t lie alongside their comrades.

A few eventually wrote memoirs or thinly-disguised fiction, possibly to help exorcise the demons, leaving us with valuable insight. There’s a somewhat shocking line in Cecil Lewis’s memoir, Sagittarius Rising. As an aviator with the Royal Flying Corp (which became the RAF in 1918), he had lots of thrilling and harrowing experiences in that dangerous job where life expectancy on the front lines was about three weeks. At the end of the war, he wonders what to do with himself, saying, “I was twenty years old.”

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. Seeing the ages on the tombstones is heartbreaking - they are mostly young men and a few women - a Canadian nurse lies on the front right - who never had much of a chance at life. Many in Britain felt they had lost their finest young minds and potential leaders. Back home was a generation of “superfluous” women, who, outnumbering the men, would never marry and so, had to make careers for themselves. For some, the war was never really over.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunting and Haunted Autumn

Although I love the warmth and freedom of summer - being close to nature as you swim in the lake and walk around barefoot - there is something about autumn that speaks to my soul.  For two months we’ve been surrounded by glowing, ever-changing colours and the rich fragrance of fallen leaves that instantly conjures up memories of childhood fun. And autumn has the added thrill of Halloween, of allowing the imagination to roam into the eerie unknown, of relishing spine-tingling tales, and dressing up as witches and monks of old.

To add some seasonal spice this year, my family did a nighttime “ghost hunting tour” of Casa Loma, that fanciful baronial castle perched majestically above Toronto. With 98 rooms, it’s the largest private residence ever built in Canada, and helped to bankrupt its wealthy owner, Sir Henry Pellatt. Having spent $3.5 million already, he told his neighbour, Lady Flora Eaton, that he needed another million to finish it, which he never did. So Sir Henry and his wife didn’t have many years to enjoy their castle, and certainly didn’t die there, but they are apparently still there in spirit form. Other ghosts - servants, perhaps - scare people from top-floor rooms and prowl the long, creepy tunnel that connects the house with the stables. It was in that tunnel that something snarled menacingly in our ears - unheard by others around us.

When you gaze down the deep length of the darkened library toward the conservatory or climb up the narrow, twisting staircases to the top of the towers, or wander down shadowy passageways, it’s easy to believe that you are not alone. And reinforces for me that I never want to live in a castle. J

The Pellatts and Casa Loma are neighbours to some of my characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they attended a dinner or ball there, the Pellatts being renowned for entertaining regularly and lavishly. I get to join them in my imagination, and perhaps I should set it around Halloween.

For more info about Casa Loma, visit the official site.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Canadian Hero Recognized At Last!

WWI ace pilot, Lieutenant Colonel William Barker, is Canada’s most decorated hero, but how many people these days have ever heard of him? 50,000 people lined the streets of Toronto for his state funeral in 1930, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest and most respected pilots in the world. He had twice taken the Prince of Wales for a flight, once while still recovering from his near-fatal wounds, and with his shattered arm in a sling. As his biographer, Wayne Ralph, states, “He was in a very profound sense the hero’s hero, the man the other heroes held in awe.” Among those was legendary Billy Bishop, Britain’s and Canada’s top ace, who became Barker’s friend and partner after the war when they started one of the first airline services in Canada.

With their Curtiss seaplane, they were able to take passengers between Toronto harbour and the Muskoka lakes, and for sightseeing flights. Arthur Bishop, Billy’s son, told me that they often flew family and friends to Sir John Eaton’s cottage, Kawandag, on Lake Rosseau. Billy had married Sir John’s niece, and one day took her aunt, Lady Flora Eaton for a trip from the cottage to the city. This is how Lady Eaton described the flight in her memoir, Memory’s Wall:
“I sat in the open cockpit for almost 2 hours as we made our ‘lightning’ trip to the city. Jack was waiting for me at the Toronto waterfront, and never have I seen a more perturbed husband! ‘You, a mother of 5 children, risking your life in a thing like that!’ On the way up Yonge St. his driving was so erratic that I finally burst out, ‘Look dear, I may have been taking a risk when I went in the plane, but that is nothing compared to the danger I’m in right now!’ He couldn’t help laughing.”

The Bishop-Barker Company was perhaps ahead of its time, and only survived for a few years. Bishop suffered head injuries in a crash, and didn’t fly again for over a decade. He went off to Britain to make his fortune, but stayed friends with Barker and always held him in high esteem. Barker joined the fledgling RCAF, and in 1924 served as its first director. As nominal president of the young Fairchild Aircraft company, he was demonstrating a new biplane near Ottawa when he was killed in a crash. 81 years later, there will finally be a monument erected to him. See more about that here

Bishop and Barker appear in book 3 of my Muskoka Novels. One of my objectives in writing historical fiction is to incorporate real people whenever feasible in order to accurately portray an era. And in my own way, I pay homage to them.

If you’re interested in Barker, you’ll enjoy Wayne Ralph’s biography, William Barker VC: The Life, Death & Legend of Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Muskoka is #1!

I’ve been too busy visiting and writing about Muskoka lately to have noticed that National Geographic travel editors selected it as their top destination for summer trips of 2011! Check out their website.

But why should I be surprised? The natural beauty of the area has drawn tourists and cottagers from throughout North America for well over a century. It’s inspired poetry, art, and certainly my novels, as well as others. And it’s a testament to its magic that many cottages have been in the same family for generations.

Muskoka speaks to my soul, and I truly believe in the tourism tagline “Once discovered, never forgotten”. But if you can’t get there, you can be transported to an earlier era in my Muskoka Novels. The award-winning Book 1, The Summer Before the Storm, is now also available worldwide as an e-book. Check it out on Amazon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Special Guest Blogger

Because we’re nearing the 97th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, I thought I’d invite a guest blogger to tell us something about her life at that time.

Hello, 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, while Father calls me willful, thoughtless, 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 tease, 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 have 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 been noticed by 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, one of the richest in Canada, owns several neighbouring islands. 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 love 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 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 safest 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 majestic 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.

By the way, we always have room for guests at Wyndwood. Oh do come!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

“Secrets and Guilt”: A Literary Weekend with Linden MacIntyre & Friends

Imagine overlooking a lake with a vista of rocky, pine-tufted islands adrift along miles of shimmering blue water that stretches invitingly before you. What could be better than that?

Well, combine it with two full days of stimulating intellectual conversations, insightful ideas, and thought-provoking discussions among some of Canada’s top authors and journalists - Linden MacIntyre, Steve Paiken, Jay Ingram, Carol Off, and John Ibbitson - throw in a friendly BBQ and informative evening boat cruise, and you have a fabulous Muskoka Chautauqua weekend, such as we just had at the J.W. Marriott’s Rosseau Resort. We certainly felt that we were also included in the “Friends”.

In 2010, some visionary members of Muskoka’s arts community decided to revive the spirit of the original Muskoka Assembly from the 1920s, which sought to provide a restorative holiday for body, mind, and soul in a magnificent setting. (For some historical background, see my previous blog, Naked Poets, Freethinking Clergymen, and an “Enchanted Island”.) Promoting Canadian literature was also a mandate, and led to the Muskoka Assembly being known as the Literary Summer Capital of Canada by 1928. The modern Chautauqua has also reinstated the Reading Circle, which recommends six must-read books each year. I am thrilled and honoured that my novel, The Summer Before the Storm, was one of last year’s winners.

Kudos to the organizers of the revived Muskoka Chautauqua, which indeed encourages renewal, enrichment, and personal growth amid the inspirational beauty of Muskoka.

Perhaps Wilson MacDonald, one of the poets who was popular at the original Muskoka Assembly, expressed this ideology best in his poem, “Out of the Wilderness”:
I, a vagabond, gypsy, lover of freedom,
Come to you who are arrogant, proud, and fevered with civilization -
Come with a tonic of sunlight, bottled in wild, careless acres,
To cure you with secrets as old as the breathing of men;
Come with the clean north wind in my nostrils,
To blow out the dust and the smoke of your lives in a great blast of beauty;
Come with a chaos of wildflowers, grouped in a lovely disorder,
To shame all your gardens of maddening, cloying perfection.
I have in my veins all the sweet unrest of the wild places….

For more information about the Muskoka Chautauqua and future events, visit their website.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sometimes “beautiful” is the just right word

When Prince William saw his bride at the altar, he told her that she was “beautiful”, which indeed she was. Because writers are always advised to avoid overworked words like “beautiful”, I began idly thinking about what he might have said instead. Ravishing? Too much of a sexual connotation, not appropriate in this instance. Gorgeous? Too effusive. Stunning? Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily imply beauty as well. Ditto for “resplendent”.

One of the challenges in writing description is to select the perfect word, so connotation and context are critical (not just important). Among the synonyms for “beautiful” are the following: comely, alluring, bewitching, cute, dazzling, divine, exquisite, foxy, magnificent, pretty, radiant, pulchritudinous - well, you see where I’m going with this. Can you envision William using any of those in this situation?

“Beautiful” has a quiet dignity and well-established pedigree, making it sometimes the most appropriate adjective. The dictionary states, “A person or thing that is beautiful has perfection of form, color, etc., or noble and spiritual qualities.” Exactly!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St. Patrick’s Day Tribute to the Irish

Social, religious, political, or economic strife has often been the catalyst for emigration. All these factors were instrumental in bringing Irish immigrants to Canada in the 19th century. When the government of Upper Canada - now Ontario - wanted to open up the primitive “backwoods” in the 1820s, Peter Robinson was sent to Ireland to find poor families willing to try their luck with free land grants in the primeval wilderness. Peterborough, in the Newcastle District, was named after Robinson by those grateful settlers who had survived the treacherous voyage and harsh conditions of pioneer life.

The settlement of Upper Canada by the Irish forms the backbone of my novel, A Place To Call Home.

This is what Anne Forrest said about it in “NUACHT”, the Community Newsletter of St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal:
 “Once in a while a novel grabs the reader's attention from the opening pages to long after the final words have been savoured. Such is A Place To Call Home… it is Wills' ability to create believable characters that is most impressive…. Wills cleverly weaves several real historical figures into the novel who give the story a strong sense of authenticity…. A novel that is so detailed yet not boring is a rare gift. It takes the reader back to that period about which too little is known. It leaves him wishing he could join Rowena [O’Shaughnessy] and her family for a further 50 years.”

Writer's Digest Magazine said: "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."

This novel is now available as an e-book as well. See A Place To Call Home for more information, and to order online.

Friday, February 11, 2011


“There is amazing stuff close by – local artisans and independently owned retailers, cool things to do and eat, and great charities to support. It’s good for the economy, the environment and the soul,” says 100 Mile Finds. I have a storefront there, and am thrilled that The Summer Before The Storm has been so favourably reviewed on the site. It’s currently being included in a terrific giveaway, so head over to before Feb. 18 to enter!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Disparities - and Dangers - of Language

We Canadians use bathrooms, Americans prefer restrooms, and the British, loos. Their cars must be cuter, since they have bonnets and boots, while ours have more prosaic hoods and trunks. I once received a puzzled look from an American waiter when I requested cutlery and serviettes, so I explained, “silverware and napkins” - terms that we also use.

Our cultures have shaped our common language in interesting ways, but we can usually understand one another. Although we North Americans might be a tad confused by that bloke in trainers and a naff jumper, carrying a brolly, who just finished a nosh-up of bangers and jacket potatoes after receiving his wage packet, and then stopped at the off-licence before getting into his estate car and entering a dual carriageway, followed by a bobby in a panda car. Unless you watch lots of British TV shows.

The “dangers”, or perhaps more accurately, pitfalls of language occur when we use ordinary words that mean something completely different in another region. Imagine my surprise when I read that “cottaging” in Britain means anonymous sex between men in public washrooms! So my blog titles like “The Enchantment of Cottaging” and “The Joys and Challenges of Island Cottaging” must have raised a few eyebrows. Cottaging in our part of Canada refers to spending leisure time at a seasonal home by a lake.

Australians must get a chuckle out of Canadians who run around labelled with a popular brand of casual clothing - Roots - and wonder if we’re advertising uninhibited natures.  The Aussie slang “root” is a slightly politer form of the F-word. Ironically, Roots outfitted the Canadian team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I wonder if that encouraged any Australians to “root” for Canada.

Some years ago when my husband, daughter, and I were in England for a few months on business, I was shopping for a new fanny-pack. I went into a posh department store and had a surprising reaction from two very dignified, middle-aged sales ladies. They looked at each other in astonishment, turned beet-red, and began to giggle. “Dear, we don’t call them that here,” one explained to me between titters when I had described what I wanted. “We call them bum bags.” I thought that a rather rude term, and wondered what was so funny and embarrassing about my request.

My daughter wanted to experience an English private, or as they call them, public school, so I arranged for us to spend a day at one in a nearby town. Upon learning that I had once been a high school teacher, the Headmaster asked if I’d be willing to talk to one of the senior English classes. Well, the topic they wanted to discuss was differences between Canadian and British English. So I started with the usual “You say lorry, we say truck. We have flashlights, you have torches.” And then I began talking about my perplexing experience at the department store.

The class went absolutely silent. The shocked looks among the girls and boys, as well as the teacher, changed to awkward amusement, and then whispered excitement. After the class, I saw the master conferring with other staff, who all looked at me with horror and scuttled away. He said to me, “Well, my class will NEVER forget you!”

Still in the dark about some dreadful faux pas that I had now made twice, I asked one of my husband’s colleagues over dinner at his house. He and his wife both blushed furiously, and he went to fetch a dictionary for me. That was how I learned that “fanny” is a British slang term for female genitalia. Imagining myself standing in the classroom and using the equivalent word, c**t, I was dreadfully shocked, but also highly amused. After all, I had done this in all innocence. I wonder how British schools teach books like Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which have characters named Fanny.

I still dine out on this story, which elicits riotous laughter from Canadians. Ah, the vagaries and delights of the English language!


my inspiration for a series of novels - visit 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)