Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

In only a few hours 2010 will become part of history. I hope it will hold many pleasant memories for all of you. 

If you are a writer, I hope the New Year will prove to be a productive one, one where you get to spend as much time as you want putting words on the page.

For me, I'm sure I'll be working on the Mary Pickford biography right up to the March 31st deadline. But look for me to post something here weekly. At least, that's one of my resolutions for 2011.

Write on, with joy! 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday Gift Idea

If you're looking for a holiday gift for a young person, someone in Grades 6 to 9, I would like to suggest a copy of my latest novel, Growing Up Ivy. It is the story of two teenagers -- a girl, Ivy, and a boy, Charlie, growing up in the 1930s. Unbeknownst to either of  them when they first meet, is a secret connection that they share.

I'm finding the book is also popular with readers over 50, especially those who enjoy fiction with an historical setting, in this case, the Great Depression.

I was asked by the publisher's Sales and Marketing department to tell them, in a few words, what the book is about. This is what I came up with:

Ill-prepared for life in the real world by a mother who plays games of make-believe, teenaged Ivy Chalmers learns some hard truths about some members of her family. Loving them just as they are shows that she is the real grown-up.

In its review of the book, The says, "(Peggy's) inclusion of crisp, historical details makes this book believable. It is a suitable read for a middle grade (Grades 7 & 8) reader who enjoys a sweet story about an intelligent girl."

Happy Holidays to you from me!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Joyful Writing

I want to write with joy and abandon. I want to write purely for the love of it, the way much of Growing Up Ivy was written.

I don't want to care if what I write is ever published, or if the right people find it worth reviewing. I want to write to satisfy something inside me, and I call that JOY.

The business end of writing can be miserable. Everyone knows it's not for the the easily-discouraged. But it is also competitive and can destroy optimism. There are aspects of the business that bring out the worst in me.

 Be gone, I say! Who wants to be mean-spirited? Life's too short for that.

Write on, with joy and abandon!

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Everything Old is New Again.

Like most other writers who started writing before the days of computers, I have file folders and bankers boxes filled with old manuscripts. A few of these efforts were eventually published, many were not. Probably twice as many went into the garbage where they belonged.

But every few years, something will cause me to browse through those old sheets of paper (Note to self: replace metal paper clips with plastic!)

Today, I'm looking for a Christmas story that I wrote many years ago. It actually made it to Peter Gzowski's show on CBC Radio, where it was read by the inimitable Shelagh Rogers.

I have no time to create something from scratch, and I need a seasonal story for my next writers' meeting. If I look hard enough, I may find more than one reusable idea in those boxes.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Looking For Symbols

At some point during my early drafts, if I am writing fiction, I'll look for symbols in the story. If I find them, and if they are significant to the story, I will work at reinforcing them.

I learned more about the use of symbols from the college English Literature course I took this past summer. One thing that was stressed was, beware of finding symbols where none were intended.

Last weekend, at a reading by author Jane Urquhart from her latest novel Sanctuary Line, someone asked her what was significant in her use of cut glass in the book. It seems to come up frequently in the story.

Jane replied that she really didn't know. She recalled that a few members of her family collect cut, or pressed glass. Its appearance in the book must have come from her sub-conscious. It seems it isn't a symbol at all.

Jane is sure that one day, however, some clever reviewer is going to be able to see its significance. And then she'll know what it means!

A delightfully honest answer. I'm not going to worry too much about symbols. They could signify nothing!

Write on!

(The photo above shows sunrise over Lake Flower, in late October. It was taken from our favourite little motel in Saranac Lake, NY.)

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time to Begin

The books on the subject of my latest project, a biography of Mary Pickford, are still coming in on inter library loan. Today I picked up the eighth of these. I've been reading, and making copious notes, almost non-stop since I was first offered the project, on September 21st.

 My dining room table holds piles of notes on the lined, yellow pads I use, each stack labelled as to its source. I've bought myself a used copy of Mary's autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, published in 1955. I've also ordered a copy of the best of the books I've discovered so far. I know I'll want to refer to it again and again.

I've reached the point in the research now where I am finding nothing new. Soon I must start writing. A 45,000 word biography seemed a gargantuan task at first, but now that I've made an outline (I never write fiction from an outline) and divided into chapters the topics I must cover, the project is starting to take a manageable shape.

Monday is November 1st. That seems like a good time to begin. The beautiful young girl above will be my muse.

Write on! 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Small Audiences

There is something to be said for small audiences. On the weekend, I gave a presentation for children at a local library. The group I spoke to numbered no more than six (including two parents).

I've been doing this for a while, so I don't let anything faze me. Once, I gave a writer's workshop to one young lad and his mother. As long as there is someone interested enough to show up, I will be there with them.

A small group provides an opportunity for everyone to be more comfortable. The children are able to crawl forward on their carpet squares, get a good look at the books, pass around the articles I've brought to show them, see the visuals up close.

I am able to answer questions as they occur to the kids (and to their parents). The atmosphere is relaxed and chatty. Last week, because I was adapting the session as I went along and had shortened it up a bit to accommodate the age of the audience, there was even time at the end to read them a special story.

Note: the photo above is by Cassandra Davidson, photo journalism student at Loyalist College, Belleville, Ont.

Till next time.
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Sunday, October 10, 2010


Last week I had one of the best visits I've ever had with a group of school children. My audience, at the Trent Hills Public Library, was made up of two classes of Grade 4/5 students, their teachers and a couple of parents.

As soon as I entered the library I was greeted by the sight of a colourful banner that extended the length of the second floor gallery. "Welcome Peggy."
The children had painted it and each of nine sections was a scene from one of my books. Needless to say, I was delighted!

Then the children trooped in. They sat around me on the floor in the sun-filled hall at the top of the stairs. To my surprise, some of them were in costume, other were carrying props. All would later be revealed, I discovered.

I loved that these kids were already familiar with my books. The teachers had read, or were in the process of reading, Treasure at Turtle Lake to them, and I had geared my presentation to that book and its sequel, Trouble at Turtle Narrows. Many had gone on to read other books of mine and had earlier emailed me their questions and comments. It seemed as if we were already friends.

At the end of our time together I gave them a little quiz, ten questions about Treasure, obscure questions like what size sneaker Matt Penny wore. They were enthusiastic about taking part in the quiz and they did very well.

 But they had a surprise for the author. Remember the costumes and the props? The twenty-six students in one of the classes had each taken on the role of a character in my books, even including the latest, Growing Up Ivy. The teacher told me it was the first time he'd been able to find enough different characters for each one of his students to have a role.

 Each child could give me three clues, and  I had to try to guess which character he or she was. It wasn't easy! Often I could recall the character, see him in my mind's eye, even the book he came from. But his name? That was another matter. They even included villains like Victor Govier, and Bus Guy/Eddie (the stringy, grey wig and the shovel should have given him away), as well as the more likeable characters. More than once the children had to resort to a "name rhymes with" clue.

Imagine being stumped by your own characters! It was great fun and we were all wearing wide grins by the time it was over.

Keep on being excited by reading, kids!

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Celebration of the Arts

On Saturday I attended the Conference for the Arts, held at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Cobourg. (Added bonus: a long drive through the brilliant fall colours.) The organizers called their conference "Living the Arts: celebrating creativity in our lives." I came away thinking that there is much to celebrate.

Although there were few writers in attendance and the sessions were geared toward the visual and performing arts, I was still able to glean a lot that would be useful for those of us involved in literary art.

The keynote address was delivered by famed Canadian tenor, Michael Burgess, star of television, film, recording and performance. Along with his many entertaining anecdotes, Michael reminded us of the need for artists to keep challenging ourselves. Even on the toughest days, he said, we need to just show up, because nothing ever happens if we don't show up.

I attended a session on developing and teaching workshops, learned the things to consider when setting one's fee and how best to promote the event. Another interesting session was called "Marketing to a Moving Target." I know that the information on how to use social media to get the word out will be most useful to me.

The best thing about events like this conference is the opportunity they present to spend time with creative people. And I am always grateful that so many of them are willing to share contacts with me. 

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Latest Project

I have begun to do research on the life of Mary Pickford. The Encyclopedia of World Biography calls her, "the first star of American cinema. Immensely popular in the silent era of motion pictures, Pickford was also a shrewd businesswoman and the first female movie mogul."

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1893, she started stage acting at an early age. Here and in the U.S. she worked her way up the theatrical ladder until, even to this day, more than thiry years after her death at the age 86, we still remember her as "America's Sweetheart."

Her marriage to the swashbuckling actor, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., was dubbed "the marriage of the century," and the couple's adoring fans considered them Hollywood Royalty.

Mary was very proud of her Canadian roots, and today she has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame. I love this photograph of her, writing, and I know I'm going to enjoy getting to know this rare woman.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Memoir Writing

Anyone interested in writing a memoir was given plenty to think about at our monthly "Spirit of the Hills" writers' meeting on Saturday. Our speaker was Pat Calder, one of our own group and someone who taught creative writing for thirty years.

Pat shared with us some of what she had learned from a workshop on memoir writing that was presented by Judith Barrington, as part of the San Miguel Writers' Conference in Mexico in February of this year.

The most important thing, we were told, was to get the memory down. Just write! The art comes later, in shaping it. If part of the memory has become lost, keep writing around it. You may find a new memory. The more you write, the more you will remember.

Someday I may decide to write my memoirs. I've been collecting anecdotes in a file for years, fleshing them out a little whenever the spirit moves me in that direction. These stories from my life aren't in any chronological order, as they would be if I were writing an autobiography. Yesterday I learned that memoir is driven by theme, rather than by a sequence of events.

Defining a theme could prove to be difficult because, to this point, I've gone off on all sorts of tangents. A reader might find that boring. I can see now the importance of narrowing it down, in "finding the linkages that give resonance to the chaos of life."

Judith Barrington says there's no such thing as a fictionalized memoir because memoir is true. She says that the best way to learn how to write memoir is to read the good ones. We came away with a list of recommended titles. Right now, I'm going to track down a copy of Barrington's Writing Memoir: from Truth to Art.

Write on!

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Keeping the Story Alive

I know that the story I've been working on is incubating because it comes to me when I wake in the night.  It is still there. Even when it's been several days since I've been able to work at it, it's alive in my subconscious.That's comforting, at least.

I've been busy writing press releases about a book signing I'm doing in two weeks, sending off announcements about events I have coming up in the next six weeks, selecting audience-appropriate readings to give, preparing a presentation for two school classes early in October, and getting around to all the area bookstores and signing their in-stock copies of Growing Up Ivy.

It's all part of the business, but I can't help feeling that I should be writing. Better days ahead!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back to Basics

One last weekend at the cottage. Our retreat is pretty rustic, but occasionally, I find that is a good thing. There are times when I need to get away from all the distractions technology brings about. We have no television at our cottage, no Internet and therefore, no social networking (my biggest time waster). There is no telephone either, except for our cell phones, with a limited number of people on the other end who have access .

The quiet at the lake allowed me to sort out some of the complications in my novel-in-progress. How much information would the man who ran the village art gallery have about the two women in the house across the alley? One was an artist; he'd sold a painting for her once. But neither of their names matched the one on the watercolour.

How was I going to make this work? What a muddle I had created! I had written myself into a corner in more scenes that just this one.

Over the weekend, I sat down with my lined, yellow notepad and listed what the problems were, which changes had to be made to the story in order to bring about the outcome I need. It would be back to the noisy world soon enough.

Write on!

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Making Connections through Story

On Friday, I accepted an invitation to read selections from Growing Up Ivy to a group of men and women who could themselves have been characters in the book. My audience was the Book Club at a nearby retirement residence.

I was fully prepared to have one or two of them get up and wander off while I was reading. In fact, I'd been warned that this could happen. It didn't. Everyone listened with great interest, and when it was over, several of the group contributed memories of their own about life in the Great Depression.

A couple of residents recalled a man who used to sharpen knives around the countryside. He used to travel from place to place in a horse-drawn caravan, similar to the one Ivy spent the summer months in, with her father.

One woman, who had lived as a child next to a golf course, identified with Charlie collecting golf balls and  re-selling them at the golf course. Someone else recalled getting paid to shovel manure from the street after the delivery horse had gone by.

Many in the audience told me that they used to go everywhere on their bicycles. And soon we were all laughing with one gentleman's tale of learning to ride a bike, how he forgot to look ahead rather than down at the road, and ended up ploughing into a woman crossing the street. The poor soul had cursed him out soundly in Yiddish.

It was a very pleasant afternoon, and I was delighted that these elderly people felt a connection to Ivy's story.  That, after all, is why we write.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Real Settings for Fiction

I first saw this house out of the corner of my eye as we drove past it last year. Since then, it has become part of the setting for the novel I'm working on. The large, log house on its high foundation of fieldstone stuck in my mind. It was perfect.

Last weekend we drove north to visit family, and I tried to find "my" house again. It wasn't where I thought it should be. We took a different route home, and suddenly, "That's it!"

Turning around, we went back to get a closer look. I was surprised to find the place deserted, the big front door padlocked, and the grounds overgrown. But that afforded me the opportunity to photograph it from several angles, without fear of being run off the property.

This isn't the first time I've gone looking for a real setting for one of my works of fiction. I was inspired by a spooky-looking mansion, set among tall trees, in deep shadows at the end of a long driveway for the mystery, The Deep End Gang (2003). 

I kept a picture postcard of the massive rock at Bon Echo on Mazinaw Lake, Ontario, above my desk when I was writing Sky Lake Summer, back in 1999. It kept reminding me of what my characters were up against in the story.

For Treasure at Turtle Lake (2007), I needed to count the number of steps in an outside staircase that led from an alley to a flat over a store. There were twenty-two.

It was a "belvedere" I was after for Trouble at Turtle Narrows (2008), a room at the top of a house, with windows on all four sides that "perched on the rooftop like a little glass hat." I found just the right architecture in some of the older houses in northern New York State.

Write on!

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where Are They Now? Life Beyond "The End."

What happened to the characters in Growing Up Ivy, after the end of the book? To Ivy and Charlie, to the seemingly uncompromising Maud, and the irresponsible Frannie?

Because Ivy is still so real to me, I like to speculate, at times, about what happened to all these characters in the succeeding years.

 Authors have to present the idea of an ending to their stories, but I know that life went on for Ivy, beyond the end of this book.

In one of the early versions, I began Growing Up Ivy with a flash forward scene. Ivy, Charlie and their adult children are sitting in the front row of an auditorium. The occasion is a ceremony where Ivy is to be presented with a distinguished award for literature.

The Master of Ceremonies is on the dias, giving his opening remarks, when the door at the back of the auditorium opens slowly. An older woman -- a faded beauty, you might say -- takes a few tentative steps inside. An usher hurries up the aisle toward her, hoping he can find a seat for her at the back as quickly as possible, so as not to disrupt the procedings.

"Is Ivy Chalmers here?" the woman whispers.

"Of course. She's the guest of honour." The usher has a firm hand under the woman's elbow as he attempts to steer her to the nearest seat.

"Could you point her out to me, please?" The small woman stands her ground. "It's been so long, I might not recognize her."

The woman is, of course, Frannie, Ivy's mother. I never used this scene because I thought it gave too much away. But it lingers in my mind. It suggests one way Ivy's personal story might have gone.
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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why I Chose the Setting I Did

If you're reading Growing Up Ivy, my latest book, you may be wondering where you might find the town of Larkin, the main setting for Ivy's story. You'll have no difficulty finding some of the other Ontario locations mentioned in the book: Toronto, or Brockville, or the other towns on Frannie's summer theatre circuit. But you won't find Larkin. It's a fictional town, the same way Dillfield and Port Clear are.

Using a fictional setting gives me the freedom I prefer. I don't have to worry about whether or not there was a pants factory in town in 1931, or where the railroad tracks were, in relation to Arthur Road. When I'm working on a novel I'll often draw myself a map of my setting, so that I can remember where the fourth concession intersects the highway and which end of Main Street I located the school on. I get to design the layout of this mythical town the way I want.

When I was writing Growing Up Ivy, I was picturing Larkin being in Prince Edward County, Ontario.  I was a librarian in the County for almost seventeen years and got to know it well. Larkin could easily be any one of a number of small towns there.

But in the end, I had to transport Larkin elsewhere, moving it somewhere east and north of Toronto. The re-location was necessary in order to get the Pechart River to flow in the right direction (south, to Lake Ontario), and because Ivy and Gloria made the journey from Toronto to Larkin on foot. They say that the average person walks about three miles per hour (forget metric; this was 1931). So, if Ivy walked for six hours from, say, Birchcliff, she would have arrived somewhere between Pickering and Ajax. 

Still, the canning factory, the ball diamond where Charlie Bayliss played softball, the one-room school, the shops in town, the river, the strawberry fields -- they are all "the County" in my mind.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Signed by the Author

Last week I did my own mini-book tour, visiting the independent book stores in the neighbouring communities and offering to sign any copies of my new book that were in stock.

I've discovered that store managers are very receptive to this idea. I get to introduce myself as a (somewhat) local author and meet the people who are responsible for ordering the books they'll carry. Now they'll have a face to put with my name. Often the signed copies get a special sticker on them, indicating that they are "autographed by the author."

As an added bonus, these books are usually given a more prominent location on the shelf. At the lovely Furby House Books in Port Hope, Ontario, Growing Up Ivy is now shelved -- cover out -- right next to books by Farley Mowat; or just "Farley," as he's affectionately known here. Now that's pretty stellar company to be in!

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fiction Set in the Past

My latest novel for young readers, Growing Up Ivy, is labelled Historical Fiction by the publisher. But is it? Canadian author Joan Thomas, writing in Quill & Quire (July/August, 2010), suggests that a story like mine, (and her own two, by her own admission) is instead, "fiction set in the past."

According toThomas's article, Avrom Fleishman outlined, in the 1970s, certain criteria for historical fiction: that the story be set at least two generations prior to the writing of the book, and that it be about real people in history.

Ivy's story, set in the 1930s, would not make the cut by either count. Ivy Chalmers never lived, except in my imagination and, I hope, on the pages of the book. To tell her story, nonetheless, involved considerable research about life in Ontario during the Great Depression. But I think I like calling it "fiction set in the past." It's a term both of us can live with; Ivy and I.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Signing Success

We woke yesterday to thunder and the sound of heavy rain overflowing the eavestroughs. This is not something you want to hear on the day you're scheduled to do a book signing in the out of doors.

There's an old adage that goes: rain before 7; clear before 11. I tried to focus on that as I got ready to leave. And sure enough, by 9 a.m., a brief glimpse of sun, and there was not another drop of rain after that.

Yesterday was the first time I signed copies of Growing Up Ivy for the public. The signing went very well. So well, in fact, that the store ran out of copies, and we had to use some of my own stock that I'd brought with me (always a good idea, I have learned).

The only advertising we had was a no-cost announcement in the Community Events column on the back pages of the local newspaper the day before. The secret to our success was to coordinate the book signing with an event already taking place, one where we knew there'd be lots of people, people who had not left their wallets at home.

This weekend is the annual summer sidewalk sale in the city, so I was guaranteed a steady stream of people strolling by my table. I was also very lucky that the shop owner's wife sat with me under the sun umbrella, and she's a friendly, outgoing person. While I would say, "hi," to anyone looking in our direction, Kathy would say, "Good morning. How are you today?" and invite them to come and meet a local author. And a number of them did, and stayed to buy a book and have it signed.

I had a good time. It was vastly better than sitting alone at a table in a bookstore, watching customers try to avoid me, and hoping my family would soon show up.

I've decided that everyone should have someone like Kathy as part of their PR team.
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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Joy of Poetry for Children

My father read poetry to us when we were little. Years later, I still hear his voice when I come across these old poems again.

Dad loved A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

"How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do."

When our two youngest grandchildren were staying here a couple of weeks ago, they'd been looking for a bedtime story from among the children's books we keep in the spare room. To my delight, I found the oldest was reading to her younger brother from a book of poems by A.A. Milne.

"Whose book was this, Grandma?" Its pages now are quite thin and discoloured, and some long-ago child had scribbled on them.

How could I resist reading a poem or two, the same ones I'd read to their mother?

"They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace --
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
'A soldier's life is terrible hard,'
Says Alice."

Or, my favourite:

"James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James
Said to his Mother,
'Mother,' he said, said he;
'You must never go down to the end of the town, if
you don't go down with me.'"

How could you not share poetry with a child?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Feeding the Muse

It often feels as if I write in a vacuum, not getting any feedback, but not asking for any either. So every once in a while it's important for me to climb out from my desk and spend time in the company of other like-minded people.

One day last week I joined three other members of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Authors, Illustrators, and Performers) for a get-together over lunch. My companions were Martha Newbigging, a talented illustrator of numerous children's books; lian goodall, children's book reviewer, author, biographer and editor; and Colin Frizzell, author of two YA novels, a teacher of creative writing, poet and screenwriter.

I was only one one of the group who does not live in Prince Edward County. I feel a stong connection to it though, because I live practically next door, and because I worked for the Prince Edward County Library for many years.

Our lunch date was a fun occasion. Over veggie burgers at the Tall Poppy Cafe in the picturesque village of Wellington, we talked about our trials and triumphs, showed off our latest creations, shared our hopes for future projects, and persuaded our amiable waiter to take our picture.

I came home feeling energized and ready to get back to work. We'll do it again sometime soon. In the meantime, it's comforting to know the others are out there. I know I can count on their encouragement and support. And that works both ways.

Write on!

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