Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Post-Holiday Event

                                       The Movie Years, Trenton (1917–1934)

It's farewell and back to the trenches for our brave sergeant.
A Scene from  "Carry On Sergeant."  Marthe (Louise Cardi) & Sgt. Jim Mckay (Hugh Buckler) after their tryst. 

If you are interested in the history of early movies in Canada, this after-Christmas event might be just what you're looking for.

I will be at the Regent Theatre in Picton, ON on Monday, January 6, 2014 at 7 give a talk about the fascinating years when the small city where I live —Trenton, Ontario — was briefly home to "Hollywood North". This was a heady time when American film stars and famous directors came to town to make some of Canada's first motion pictures. And some of the local citizens also found themselves part of the action, with minor roles or as a part of a crowd scene.

It was those personal stories that formed the background for my book, The Movie Years, upon which my talk will be based. There is no other book written from the point of view of the citizens of Trenton whose lives were affected by the film-making industry in their midst.

Tickets for the event are $15, or $5 for students. Door open at 6:30 p.m. For more information:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Standing in History's Footprints

Have you ever felt the thrill of standing in the footprints of history? Knowing that some famous person stood in the exact same spot? I'm sure world travellers get that feeling all the time as they visit historic sites around the globe.

Since I began writing biography I've found it helpful to visit some of the settings that my subject frequented during her lifetime. It's as if by breathing the same air I come closer to the spirit of my subject. I can imagine being with her in that place.

When I was writing Laura Secord I visited Port Oswego, the place where a young Laura Ingersoll embarked for Canada with her parents and siblings. I saw her home in Queenston and the town of Chippawa where she spent her later years, the forts of Niagara, and the battlefields of the War of 1812, a war that was so much a part of her story.

And now for Molly Brant I've twice visited the Mohawk Valley, toured Canajoharie named for the village where she was born, and the city of Johnstown, built by her influential, white husband Sir William Johnson, initially as a place where the staff at his manor house would live, and I saw two of Johnson's stately homes. My first glimpse of the Mohawk River brought tears to my eyes.

Sir William built Fort William Henry in 1755 after the Battle of Lake George that took place near the southern end of the lake. There is an interesting marker on the pier there with the pictures of many famous people who have stood in that place. They would have looked out over the lake, north toward Lake Champlain and the surrounding mountains. I was seeing the same lake, the same Adirondack Mountains, the same sun setting in the west and painting the clouds with fire.

Several people who appear in Molly Brant's story are among those pictured on the marker.

Centre, coloured picture of Sir William Johnson

They include the Mohawk sachem King Hendrick and leader of the French forces, Baron Dieskau. as well as many others.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Some Good News!!

There's nothing like a bit of good news to lift a writer's spirit. And to arrive in November, the dreariest month of all! I couldn't be happier.

Last week I had an email from my publisher, letting me know that Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812 had been nominated for a Speaker's Book Award. 

'Way back in August I'd been informed that the book had been submitted for consideration, but I put it out of my mind. It was just one on the list that my publisher, Dundurn Press, had sent in. Other publishers would be doing the same.

But now, Laura is among the group that made it to the award's 2013 short list. How long that is I have no idea; last year there were sixteen book short-listed. She's in illustrious company, but we're both thrilled that she's being recognized.

Now, back to the work-in-progress, with renewed vigour!!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Discovering Connections, or A Ghost Story for Halloween

Robert Louis Stevenson told the story of Major Duncan Campbell in a long ballad he called Ticonderoga, a Legend of the West Highlands. Written while he was being treated for tuberculosis in Saranac Lake, New York, Stevenson's poem was published in Scribner's Magazine in 1887.

Fort Ticonderoga, New York.
We've stayed several times over the years in the Adirondack resort town of Saranac Lake and often enjoyed walking its hilly streets. Early on, we discovered that the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and many other acclaimed stories and poems, had spent a year in the town as a tuberculosis patient in 1887.

We've seen the "cure cottage" where he and his wife lived and which is today a museum filled with the man's memorabilia. Here Stevenson wrote twelve essays for Scribner's Magazine.
The treatment for TB at the time was a change of climate, and many victims of the disease took rest cures in the clean, cold mountain air, spending eight hours a day sitting in glassed-in porches.
During one long cold winter Stevenson wrote some of his best essays.

We recently took another road trip, this time to Lake George, New York. En route we stayed our first night again in Saranac Lake. We went on to explore some of the historic forts in the Champlain Valley. One of these forts was Ticonderoga, built by the French in 1755 during the French and Indian War. The French called it Fort Carillon.

On a plaque in the parkland that surrounds the fort we read for the first time of a Scottish legend about Major Duncan Campbell, one of the Highlanders who died as a result of wounds he received at Ticonderoga while the British attacked the French fort.

Legend has it that Campbell's death had been foretold sixteen years earlier by the apparition of a murdered man. A stranger had come to Campbell's door in Inverawe, Scotland, begging to be hidden from his pursuers. Campbell gave the stranger his word that he would not reveal the man's hiding place. When the men giving chase came to Duncan's door they told him that his cousin had been murdered. Duncan realized that the man he'd hidden had been the killer.

For three nights afterward he was visited by the ghost of his murdered cousin. On the third night the ghost said, "Farewell, Inverawe, till we meet again at Ticonderoga." It was only years later, when Campbell learned the Highlanders were to attack the French at a place called Ticonderoga, that he knew the meaning of those prophetic words.
The legend also says the battle where Campbell's Black Watch Regiment sustained heavy casualties was replicated in the clouds over Inverary Castle in Scotland on the afternoon of the attack.

Odd how these connections sudden appear to us. I call it serendipity.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Word Northumberland, 2013

Word Northumberland 2013 has come and gone. This was the first year for the event that celebrated writers and readers. It was a good start, in spite of a few glitches. Now that it's behind us we can look at what worked, and what didn't, and move forward with plans for next year.
At last, a book sale and a signing!

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not kind to us — nor to any of the other outdoor festivals in this part of the province on September 7th. In Cobourg, as well as Word Northumberland, the rain affected the turnout for the Coal Train Music & Blues Festival and for all the food vendors along King Street, which had been turned into a pedestrian mall.
Come on in, out of the rain!
Author Linda Hutsell-Manning finds a nook for her books inside the front entrance.

We, at least, were able to squeeze into the Firehall Theatre, although the weather prevented us from setting up tables out on the sidewalk as we'd hoped. Writers, librarians, book sellers, and publishers set up cheek-by-jowl inside, further restrained within the walls of a set for an upcoming theatrical production.
Display by Port Hope Public Library

But the public came out, some of them anyway, and the smiles on the faces of the participants in some of these photos show we're an adaptable group. Books were sold and the audience for the readings grew throughout the day. One reader, Brad Smith, Simon & Schuster author, was the special guest of The Avid Reader Bookstore.
Author Eric E. Wright and I share a table. The Avid Reader Book Store was close by, on my left.

Coach House Books, one of four small publishers participating, sets up.

Many people who came by to check us out told us the event was a terrific idea. We hope they will watch for us next year when we'll be back, bigger and even better. Now that the word is out, we're sure to attract more individuals and groups from the literary community.

My thanks to James Manning for the use of his photographs here.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Special Literary Event

See You in September

Word Northumberland is the name of a special literary event to be held Spetember 7th in Cobourg, Ontario. I will be among several authors signing books and chatting with the crowd.

Here is the official invitation:

Join us in a celebration of writers and readers at

Word Northumberland

September 7, 2013 from 10 am. to 4 pm.

At the Historic Firehall Theatre, 213 Second St. Cobourg.
Free admission.

Local writers, publishers, retailers and libraries invite you to :

•discover great books
•meet talented authors; listen to short, entertaining readings
•learn about literacy events in your community
•find answers to your questions about writing and publishing

•view beautiful cover art and illustrations

 Here is the link to the Facebook page for the event.
This is where you'll find out all the exciting details as they unfold and the schedule for special readings. Come and stroll through our venue at the historic Firehall Theatre in Cobourg. We hope to see you there!!

Seeking Molly in Early Kingston

Plaque in St. Paul's churchyard, Molly Brant's final resting place. 

On a recent research trip to Kingston, Ontario, I spent some time walking about that historic city. I was seeking out spaces through which Molly Brant might have moved during the time she lived here, from 1783–1796 — the location of the church she attended regularly, the first St Georges Anglican Church, the barracks where she and her family lived until their house was ready. Nowhere was Molly easier to imagine than at the site of her former home, on the banks of the Catarqui River.
Bust of Molly Brant at the Rideaucrest Home, built of the site of Brant's home.

While in the city, I was fortunate to be able to visit professional archaeologist Susan M. Bazely at her home so that we could talk about Molly. I left there with a map of the city of Kingston on which Sue had kindly marked the various places I must see in order to trace Molly's story.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 the proposed boundary between the newly independent United States and Canada was drawn through the middle of the lower Great Lakes. It was looking as if Carleton Island, Molly's home at the time, was going to become part of the States. The island is located in the St. Lawrence on the other side of Wolfe Island, close to the American mainland. To take its place, a new military port began to develop at Cataraqui.

The old French Fort Frontenac on the west side of the Cataraqui River was in a dilapidated state, but temporary barracks were built within it for the garrison troops. And it is here where Molly and her family were housed for a while.
Reconstruction of the northwestern bastion of old French Fort Frontenac. In the background, across the street, are the gates of today's Fort Frontenac .

Governor Haldimand ordered any houses or sheds that could be moved from Carleton Island be taken to Catarqui. Sue Bazely described to me how these would have been pulled across the ice of the St. Lawrence in the winter.  It's not hard to imagine what a spectacle that must have been for the early residents of the town.

Legend has it that part of this house, on the corner of Gore and King Streets in Kingston, may have been brought over the ice from Carleton Island to Catarqui  after 1783.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Imagining Scenes

Last Tuesday I joined another writer for an event that was called "A Literary Adventure." After reading some brief selections from our books we invited the audience to participate in a discussion about what they'd just heard and about writing in general.

There was one question that I found especially interesting. And original.

I'd told the group that while writing Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812 the publisher had told me I was free to dramatize certain events in Laura's life — as long as the event had actually happened. The book begins with a scene I created around what I felt must have been a traumatic event in young Laura's life — the day she learns that her father has made arrangements for her six-month-old baby sister, Abigail, to be adopted, to be taken from the family home to go and live with relatives.

Laura's mother, Elizabeth, has recently died, leaving four little girls. Laura, aged eight, was the eldest. It is a poignant scene, the child rushing outside where the baby's cradle has just been loaded into the horse and cart that waited in the road, hoping to say one last goodbye. ". . . to kiss again the rosy lips and breathe in the baby's sweet, milky scent."

The question was: How much did you know about the event that you chose to dramatize before you wrote it?

Well, I knew that the baby's name was Abigail and that she was adopted when she was six months, and I knew the names and ages of Laura's siblings, the date of Elizabeth's death, and that the baby was adopted by "the Nashes." The rest — Laura recalling her mother's last days, her Papa turning Laura back to the house so that she could "Run up and check that we haven't forgotten anything," were all imagined.

That scene always draws a response from my readers. Writing little scenes, almost as if I were watching them on a stage, helps breathe life into the characters. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Literary Adventure

One More Summer Appearance

Here is the poster for a fun event on Tuesday, July 30th where I'm joining the Brighton Arts Council and fellow author Eric E. Wright.

If you're in the Brighton/Cobourg/Bay of Quinte region next Tuesday we'd love you to join us. We'll talk about writing, share a few selections from our books, have some refreshments and answer any questions you might have about writing and getting published. And it's all free!

Thank you to author Shane Joseph for the technical help I needed to get the poster here on Blogger! We Spirit of the Hills writers are a supportive bunch.

After this month I hope to get back to writing. I have a couple of out-of-town jaunts planned to do more research on Molly Brant. I love doing research. It's the writing that's the hard part.

Happy summer and happy writing!

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Way With Words

I've been reading Conventry by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins, 2008), a novel I highly recommend. In 175, pages Humphreys tells a compelling story of love and loss during wartime, with particularly vivid descriptions of the bombing of Coventry during World War II.

It is also the story of a friendship between two women, Harriet Marsh and Maeve Fisher, who meet only twice, each time under very different circumstances, over the course of 26 years. Although they don't know it until tragedy strikes, they share a connection through Maeve's son, Jeremy.

Each woman is creative in her own way: Maeve is an artist and Harriet "writes descriptions." Harriet's writing began as a way to feel connected to her young husband,Owen, even after he is killed at the battle of Ypres in 1914.

Harriet types up her descriptions after hours where she works. Finally, she finds herself growing disenchanted with the process. In Humphrey's words, "She is tired of trying to hammer a moment shut with words." I love that metaphor.

If you've ever tried to write in order to preserve a special time or place, you will be able to relate to that. I know I do. Now that I am doing less writing than I used to (and spending more time on research) I still continue to "write descriptions." In the same way a photographer takes a picture to preserve an event, I write "to hammer a moment shut with words."

Isn't that lovely?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summertime Events

My Summertime Appearances

Author Presentation

 Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812  
Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.
Part of the "Discover Your Heritage" series.
Tuesday, June 11  2–4 p.m.
Leaside Branch, Toronto Public Library
165 McRae Ave. Toronto M4G 1S8

Book Signing

Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812
Spencerville Heritage Fair
Saturday, June 22  1–3 p.m.
Spencerville Mill
11 Water St. Spencerville ON K0E 1X0

Author Talk

Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812
Crysler's Farm Battle Re-enactment
A 200th Anniversary Signature Event. July 13 & 14
Sunday, July 14  3–4 p.m.
Battlefield Memorial Building
Upper Canada Village
13740 County Rd #2, Morrisburg ON K0C 1X0

Please join me if you can. All events open to the public. Happy Summer! Keep on Reading!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Behind-the-Scenes Stories from "The Movie Years"

Technical crew in the Trenton studio, 1927.

Occasionally, I still get asked to speak to a group about that time in the history of our town, Trenton, Ontario, when it was home to a flourishing movie-making industry.

The reason for this is the small book I wrote about it back in 1989. Although it was never a bestseller, it continues to sell locally, and once in a while someone who is interested in early Canadian film requests a copy from my dwindling stock.

A person from the audience once told me, after one of my presentations, that it was the little behind-the-scene stories he most enjoyed. It was as if I were "telling secrets." Now I make sure to include a few in every talk.

Like the one about the cameraman from Universal Studios in California who kept a wolf in his backyard while he was here in Trenton.

Or about Tyrone Power Sr. who came to town in 1919 to star in The Great Shadow. He brought with him a "beautiful lady." His secretary, he called her, but the locals had other ideas. Especially when he used to like to borrow a yacht from the local pharmacist in order to take his lady out on the water for a bit of sightseeing.

And there was Louise Cardi, the actress who played the temptress, the estaminet girl in Carry On, Sergeant!" (1927–1928), who comforts the lonely soldier. Cardi had had no previous acting experience before this movie. She was a shop girl the director's wife had spotted in a New York City department store.

The early film stars were familiar figures on the streets in town, shopping in the local stores, looking for rooms to rent. And if you happened to own a coonskin coat you could sell it for almost any amount to one of the movie people. Or so the story goes.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

More on School Visits. My May Events.

A successful author visit.
"I trust you are still expecting me to make a presentation at your school next week."

If you're a writer who does school visits I hope you've never had to send an email like the above. I have, and it's most uncomfortable. All the arrangements had been made a couple of months prior to the date of the event, and then — nothing. I was left to wonder if it was still "a go." I'm sure I'm not the only one this has happened to.

In my opinion, one of the most important elements in a successful author visit is frequent contact between the host and the guest. Every couple of weeks is good. Don't worry; you're not bothering me. It gives us both the opportunity to make sure we know each other's expectations.

How many students will I be talking to? Which grades? Where will I be speaking? For how long? Will I have the use of the school's digital projector? A Smartboard? Are the students familiar with any of my books?

I would like to suggest the contact person be someone other than the administrator or principal. She already has too much to look after. The librarian or library technician, even a classroom teacher is a better choice.

If you are the contact person at the school, remember to let your guest know where they may park, which door to use (many schools keep doors to the outside locked). Hopefully, the guest author has told you her ETA. It's a great idea to have someone at the door to greet her, perhaps a responsible student. The greeter might show her where to hang her coat and sign in, and then take her to the place where she'll be presenting. Remember to introduce her to any staff members present.

A memorable visit with school classes at Campbellford Library

The best visits are when the whole school is aware that there is an author in the building. It creates excitement. How lovely to be greeted with huge smiles in the halls. "You must be the author!"

I've visited schools where they've even posted a "welcome" on the outdoor display, or hung a banner in the entrance hall. But even a mention in the morning announcements over the PA is special and makes the author know she is appreciated.

And here's a tip to presenters who are new to this game. Get the matter of your fee out of the way early on in your conversations with the contact person. I hope they will ask you outright what you charge, but otherwise, it's up to you. It's the professional thing to do.

My May Events

Reading from Growing Up Ivy at the Community Living Book Club
Wednesday, May 8th. 1:30–2:30
3rd floor Meeting Room. Belleville Public Library. Belleville

Presentation on The Movie Years, my book about Canada's Film-making capital, Trenton ON, 1917–34
Brighton Probus Club
Wednesday, May 22, 11 a.m.
King Edward Community Centre, Brighton

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Some Thoughts on School Visits

A school visit from last year.
I was privileged last week to give two presentations at an elementary school in a village about forty minutes from my home. At this stage in my writing career, school visits are few and far between. One reason for that could be that for the past three years I've concentrated on writing biographies for an older audience. But it's still a pleasure to get to interact with children in the schools, and I count myself lucky if I get to do at least one presentation each year.

The busiest years for this sort of thing were those years when I had a book nominated for one of the Forest of Reading awards. It strikes me as odd that even then, most of the visits I did were in school board districts other than my own. Around here,  it seems as if the schools aren't aware that authors are available to deliver entertaining, educational, and enlightening programs for their students. Or that there is a subsidy program administered by the Writers' Union to help finance said visit. I don't know why that is, except perhaps because where I live we no longer have full-time librarians in the schools.

If you are considering inviting an author to visit your school, a good place to start is with the Writers' Union website. Under Programs, look for Ontario-Writers-in-the Schools Pregram for information about subsidies. On this site you'll also find a list of members who give presentations, what type of programs they offer, and how far they might be willing to travel.

You can also find information about children's writers available to do school visits at the website of the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP): and at the website of the Canadian Children's Book Centre: A couple of these sites will also give you the amount of the author's fee.

The vast majority of Canadian writers also have their own personal websites, so if you know whom you'd like to invite, be sure you check these out.

Stay tuned! More on School Visits next time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Some Local Colour

Upper Castle (Canajoharie) Church, built in 1769.
Sometimes, while researching, I'll come across a small story, an interesting tidbit of colour in the midst of all the dates and details. Such is the following that I found while investigating the life of Molly Brant.

More has been written about Joseph Brant than Molly, his older sister. That could be because he was male, and historians of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to ignore female subjects; and Captain Joseph Brant, a decorated military veteran, was a more flamboyant figure. But both are credited with keeping five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy on the side of the British during the American Revolution.

In 1769 Sir William Johnson, Molly Brant's common-law husband and the father of her eight children, had a church built for the Mohawk of Canajoharie. The wealthy and influential Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the northern colonies, Sir William was also a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Gospel. He paid for the church out of his own pocket, as a favour to Molly and her people.

The loyalist Mohawk had fled the area for their lives, heading to Canada in 1777, along with Molly and Joseph. Sometime later, some of them returned, arriving in the middle of the night with a plan to steal the bell from their church at Upper Castle.

They managed to lower the bell from the steeple and secure it to a branch in order to carry it between them. They hadn't tied down the clapper, however, and as they were leaving the scene, the clapper clanged against the bell, waking the locals. These stout souls scrambled from their beds and hurried to save the bell from the would-be thieves. 

One can only imagine the scene that ensued!

The little church still stands today, just off Route 5 South, near Canajoharie in central New York State. It was moved and remodelled in 1850, but the bell is as it was the night the Mohawk tried to reclaim it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reading Aloud and Loving It

Last week I was honoured to be one of a group of guest readers at a local elementary school in celebration of Family Literacy Day. Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed by staff and the Grade Eight students who would be our greeters, our tour guides, and the ones to introduce us to each class.

As we moved from class to class at fifteen minute intervals we shared the books we had chosen with the students from kindergarten to Grade Seven. Our Grade Eight ambassadors sometimes got to hear the stories more than once, but they never complained and remained helpful and courteous throughout.

When the bell rang to signal that it was time to move on we were hustled along the hall to the next classroom. The team who helped me find my next stop were three sweet girls — Amanda, Tamara, and Zoë (who also happens to be my granddaughter). That meant I was introduced as "Peggy Dymond Leavey, Local Author and Zoë's Grandmother" (also Miles's when we got to the Grade Four room).

It was a fun morning. I believe you're never too old to enjoy being read to, and there are wonderful picture books out there that work for all ages.

Here are a few tips in case you are lucky enough to be asked to read aloud to someone some day.

If you have only fifteen minutes, picture books of more than forty pages are too long to complete. 
Time your selection carefully.
Practise, practise, practise. 
Be familiar with the story you are reading so that you can make frequent eye contact with your audience; you'll want to gauge their reaction.
Use appropriate facial expressions.
Emote, react, change the tone of your voice to suit the character or the situation.
LOVE the book you choose. It took me three trips to the public library to find the perfect picture books. 

So, which books did I choose?

Kindergarten & Grade One: The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson; Please Louise, by Frieda Wishinsky.
Grade Two & Three: My Sister Gracie, by Gillian Johnson; Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes.
Grade Four & Five: Probuditi, by Chris Van Allsburg. (Fun to see the children "get it.")
Grade Six & Seven: The Real Story of The Big Bad Wolf, by A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka;                               The Stinky Cheese Man, by Jon Scieszka.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Loving Books

My book-loving Dad with my older sister, Mary, and me in Quebec City. 

Some of the hardest possessions to part with are books. I'm trying to de-clutter these days (aren't we all, in January?) and decided that our bookshelves were long overdue for a purging.

I can be fairly ruthless when it comes to getting rid of paperback picture books or old board books that even the grandchildren have outgrown, but books that have been family favourites will always have a place in our home. As will books that have tender inscriptions in them. Or books that have been signed by the author. I come by this love of books quite honestly.

The other day, while sorting, I came across a tiny, hardcover book called Coaches and Coaching, by Leigh Hunt. I have it here on my desk. It looks a little scruffy, and it is obviously quite old because the pages are yellowed. Printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, there is no publication date, which I find disappointing.

My mother had given it to me after Dad died in 1992. Inside, I find a note on a slip of paper. Mom's note explains that my father bought the book because it was small enough to fit in a pocket. He liked to have a small volume with him wherever he went, my mother explained, so that he was never without something to read.

If you love books, you probably share that sentiment. What do we do if we have nothing to read??

Saturday, January 5, 2013

On Starting to Write

I feel a sense of anticipation now. After months of reading and dabbling at research, I am about to start writing. There will be more of this fact-finding work to come, including visits to Kingston and the Cataraqui Archaelogical Research Centre, the Anglican Diocese of Ontario Archives and I hope, another trip to the Mohawk Valley in New York to follow up on research I began there late last year.

But now I am eager to start the actual writing, to see how the story begins to flow (or not!), to breathe life into the legendary heroine, Molly Brant, Mohawk Loyalist. Once again, I have taken over the dining room table in our house.

Write on!