Gwendy’s Button Box


imagesThis little treasure I read in two sittings. How could I not? When I saw it on the library shelf, I was instantly drawn to it. I picked it up and grinned inside and then felt a twinge of fear. It is, after all, a Stephen King story.

I heard the master’s voice lilting in the background as I read—a little Gunslinger drawl—though he had help with this one. Fantasy and horror writer, Richard Chizmar, co-wrote this novella. And it’s illustrated by Ben Baldwin and Keith Minnion. Just look at that cover!

So. Gwendy.

I couldn’t resist the title being that my name is Wendy and I’ve had my own button box forever. Every once in a while I take it out and run my fingers through the buttons. All shapes and colours, some black, some bling. I like the little clattering sound the buttons make as they fall through my fingers. My mother had one before me, and I’ll pass mine on to my daughter. It’s not the same as Gwendy’s though. Mine does not give perfectly detailed and delicious chocolate animals the size of a jelly bean. Or Morgan silver dollars minted in 1851. It doesn’t threaten to blow up continents. Or people. Or places I hate. Or make my life better. Or worse.

And mine was not a gift from Mr. Richard Farris in his black suit and black hat with his blue-eyed charm, and gift of palaver. (Gosh, I love that word, palaver. You’ll find it in my own books.)

He points a finger-gun at her: pow. “That’s a good one. You’re a good one, Gwendy. And while we’re at it, what kind of name is that, anyway?”

“A combination. My father wanted a Gwendolyn—that was his granny’s name—and my mom wanted a Wendy, like in Peter Pan. So they compromised.”

I am also the Wendy of Peter Pan. And though my grandmother’s name was Gertrude, I had a great aunt Gwendolyn who my father loved very much. So who knows? I may have narrowly escaped being named Gwendy myself. I have always wanted to fly and jumped off my dad’s armchair once believing I could. “I do believe in faeries. I do. I do. I do.” A friend to faeries, I thought that was all it took. Alas, with no sprinkle of pixie dust, I fell and injured my ankle. Later, I did take flight. As a hawk.

But back to Gwendy and her button box. Read this book. You will like it. It reminds me a little of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is on my list of all-time favourite books. And the horror I feared would jump out at me every time I turned a page, never did. So, it’s safe enough—though it might make you think. And that can be dangerous for some people. And, there may be a drop or two of blood spilled before the last page. It did, after all, originate in the mind of the master and his friend. Know what I mean?




A Peek into the Pro Wrestling World with Cobra Clutch

cobra-clutch.w300Pro-wrestlers, scuzzy bikers, a yellow pet python, and a private detective—how does Devlin hold it all together in this gritty page-turning debut novel? With a whole lot of style and a splattering of tongue-in-cheek humour. The characters are highly stylized; their dialogue dazzling. From the first scene, when pro-wrestler Johnny Mamba appeals to his ex-tag-team partner “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead to find the man who kidnapped his python, right through to the Rocky Balboa ending, Devlin takes us on a rollicking ride through the crazy XCCW world. A parody of EWWC, the acronym stands for X-Treme Canadian Championship Wrestling. You will read this book with your eyes wide open and your lips turned up.

Jed Ounstead (pronounced OW-n-STED) has left wrestling to work as a bar bouncer at Tonix nightclub and run errands for his father’s detective agency and pub, The Emerald Shillelagh. Jed’s Irish cousin and sidekick, Declan St. James, with his campy, no-holds-barred backtalk will steal your heart. “Jaysus, what is it with you Canucks and your need to share your feelings all the time? Back home, if you want to say thanks to a bloke, you just buy his arse a pint.” A feisty ex-IRA gunman, Declan is barman at the Shillelagh and “renowned for his ability to pour the perfect pint of Guinness.”

Jed doesn’t take Johnny Mamba’s predicament too seriously until the snake man receives a $10,000 ransom request via email for his python, Ginger. Then at the drop (near the Vancouver Flea Market), Ginger turns up dead, and Jed finds his old pal Johnny in an outhouse with his throat slit. After that, there’s no time to breathe.

We spend a fair amount of time touring Vancouver with Jed in his Ford F-150, ducking into Dairy Queens for a banana milkshake. (Warning: I had to go and buy bananas while reading this book. I’m dairy-free. But you may find yourself cueing at the DQ.) Vancouver landmarks abound. As Jed cruises Hastings Street and passes Playland Amusement Park, the “archaic wooden roller coaster” catches his eye. “The out of commission rickety green and yellow cars were still slick from the last rainfall, shimmering in the sunlight as they sat perched on an incline of the track, patiently waiting to start their slow mechanized climb to the top.”

IMG_4350Written in first person and peppered with contemporary references, Devlin’s exacting prose is tight and colourful. With an MFA in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute, we expect cinematic brilliance, but it’s his cleverly original similes that could become his trademark. “Melvin grinned so wide he looked like a saber-toothed squirrel” for example. Still, it’s not all belly laughs. In the beginning a “cobra clutch” is defined as a professional wrestling move, but in the end, the title has a much more sentimental meaning—one that gave me pause. There is no laughter without tears, and Jed Ounstead almost loses it all, as any real hero should.

If you’ve never seen a real Cobra Clutch, Sgt. Slaughter demonstrates it here on pro wrestler Randy Orton.

Cobra Clutch is A.J. Devlin’s debut detective novel but he promises us that he has “many more Jed stories” so rest assured, this is only the beginning.





All Aboard the Uchuck III

As I’ve said before the best research is hands-on. That way, you can indulge your senses.

Last Saturday, we enjoyed a day cruise from Gold River (on Vancouver Island, British Columbia) to Yuquot at Friendly Cove. This is Nuu-chah-nulth traditional territory. The term, Nuu-chah-nulth means “all along the mountains” and refers to sixteen tribes from Alaska to Washington state that speak different dialects, but collectively are sea-faring people.

Uchuck means healing waters. “The Uchuck III can move along at twelve knots, and carry up to 100 day-passengers and 70 tons of general cargo including three or four cars” (Get West.) We watched from the upper deck as the crew loaded supplies using a crane for the folks at Yuquot. This included a new red ATV that was immediately put to work when we arrived. bowWhen we were underway at last, the two-hour cruise took us through Muchalaht Channel past controversial fish farms and logging swaths, around Bligh Island (named for a young Captain Bligh of Bounty fame), and through Cook Channel into Friendly Cove.

cruisingIt was a perfect day of sun and fair breezes and the calm waters certainly felt healing. The captain said that humpback whales often come into Muchalaht Channel. All around Nootka Sound, salmon fishermen were hoisting their catch to show off their prizes.

In 2014, I lived at the Nootka Light Station for two months, while working as a relief lighthouse keeper. Although it was a short stint, catching sight of the white and red Coastguard buildings felt like coming home. We had three hours to explore the Yuquot site, which includes an amazing pebble beach, a portion of the Nootka Trail that leads past a graveyard and rentable cabins at Jewitt Lake, the old church which has now been reclaimed by the Indigenous community as a cultural centre, and of course, the light station.

FriendlyCoveBut I am setting a murder mystery here, so was most interested in locations where one might kill someone without being seen and hide something precious. This landscape is not new to killing.

White SlavesIn 1788, Maquinna (the Mowachacht chief) sent his people aboard The Boston to repay many insults—including the murder of his brother-in-law—by European sailors. The entire crew was murdered and decapitated except for the blacksmith John Jewitt, and the sailmaker who hid below. Maquinna needed Jewitt’s skills so kept him alive, and Jewitt convinced Maquinna that the sailmaker was his father. Jewitt lived three years as part of Maquinna’s family, wrote his story on the dead captain’s paper, and eventually returned to Boston where it was published.

The long pier was teaming with people as the Mowachaht/Muchalaht community was holding their annual Spirit Summerfest campout in the grassy area near the church and many friends and relatives had come out aboard the Uchuck III to visit. There was also a celebration in the church as this year marked the 240thAnniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival at Nootka Sound.

As the story goes, Cook arrived in what he first called King George’s Sound in the spring of 1778 with the Resolution and Discovery. Making the usual European blunder, he named the people and the place based on his suppositions. The Indigenous people—who’d been living here for thousands of years—called out and told the captain to go around to avoid the reefs. More precisely, it happened like this:

“Captain Cook’s men, asking by signs what the port was called, made for them a sign with their hand, forming a circle and then dissolving it, to which the natives responded ‘Nutka’. No.tkak or no.txak means “circular, spherical” (Sapir and Swadesh 1939:276) in The Whaling People. 

Though the village was teaming with people, Cook claimed the land for Britain. The British soon called all the people there, the Nootka, though there were 1500 Mowachacht people living in villages in the area. Yuquot was the summer home of Maquinna’s people and they wintered down the channel in Tahsis. The Mowachacht—“people of the deer”—began a lucrative (especially for the British) trade in sea otter pelts.

Captain Cook’s claim on Yuquot set the stage for later conflicts between the Indigenous people as well as the Spanish, who built Fort San Miguel on the rocks beside the lighthouse. Sadly, within forty years, the sea otter disappeared. Fortunately, they are now back in the area. I remember seeing them playing near the pier when I lived there. This charming sea otter photograph was taken by my friend Ivan Dubinsky, principal keeper at Scarlett Point Lightstation north of Port Hardy.

sea otter by ivan

On our return voyage, we sailed through the more turbulent waters of Zuchiarte Channel. I went up to the wheelhouse to ask about the ship, but Captain Adrien said that he’d only answer my questions if I took a turn at the wheel. So, under his direction, I steered the Uchuck III through King’s Passage.


The wheelhouse is beautiful and it was a thrill to turn the wheel two spokes starboard and then back to port to straighten her out while keeping my eyes on the bow.

The fabulous photo below was taken by Low Light Mike, August 28, 2010. One of the crew had just polished the engine-telegraph (to the left of the wheel) a piece from BCCS’s Princess Victoria,a River Clyde vessel that sailed around Cape Horn in 1904.


We arrived back in Gold River at 5:30pm. It was a long glorious day, and I recommend taking a voyage aboard the Uchuck III so you can get a taste of history firsthand. For more photographs, cruise and booking information, check out Get West. Below is a site map of Yuquot and a directional map to Gold River.

All maps Friendly Cove and Map to Gold River




Island Research (part 1)

Hands-on research is the best way to begin a book. It’s real. It’s kinaesthetic. It’s inspiring. And it will help you discover whether what’s in your mind will work logistically, and on the page.

I visited Saltspring Island seven years ago and loved the energy, beauty, and people here. So when I decided to set a new book on the West Coast, this island began to flicker. I’ve been here now for almost twelve days, walking the beaches, talking to people, going to markets, and scene-searching. It’s like being a director. You have to decide where specific scenes will be set. Among the things I’ve discovered are these:

The House: (Refuge)

The HouseIn my mind, I saw an old family home on the northwest side of the island, with a large porch, lots of natural wood, board and batten, cedar-shaked, surrounded by pine and arbutus trees. It looks something like this and fits well with the history and culture of this island. But, I also wanted it to overlook the sea and have a dock where one of the characters could keep his fishing boat. The other day, after much beach ambling, I found one similar enough to work for me and make it viable.

Another one of the key characters is a potter, so Refuge will have a summer-kitchen/pottery studio. Yesterday, I visited a potter on the island and she showed me her kilns, her wheel, and we talked a little bit about the process of making pottery. I also bought two exquisite pieces. My potter is also a yoga teacher. The Saltspring Centre for Yoga is known for its teacher-training programs and retreats—I came to one several years ago. This character’s pottery business is called Dharma Designs and revolves around her beliefs as a yogini.

The name Refuge describes The House well, as the main character, Gracelyn Lassiter, will leave her place of refuge to travel into the past and the unknown.

The Cemetery


As I said, sometimes you think something will work but when you actually see it and walk it, you realize it’s all wrong. When I first came here, I wanted to set the first scene in an old Anglican Cemetery. I researched churches and cemeteries and visited two. Neither felt right. Neither had cemeteries where someone could be buried in 2017. And then I realized that the person who died wouldn’t choose an Anglican Cemetery anyway. Walking through the graves I understood that this character was a very different man than who I thought he was. He began to take form. To speak for himself.

What Have I Accomplished Here?

I don’t want to say too much, as things change between the musing and the actual writing and then again during revision. But, these are some of the things that have come to light while I’ve been working here:

  • Names and descriptions of most of the major characters
  • Backstory (names, dates, and connections) for the major characters along with the emotional wounds that drive them—thanks to The Emotional Wound Thesaurus for help with this. Most of this never shows up in the story but it’s vital for the writer to know.
  • How my character lives in her Ordinary World before tragedy strikes and she must venture out on her journey.
  • The first few scenes: where they are set, what happens, and why (cause and effect)

I’m wondering if I should call the island Saltspring or perhaps make it a fictional place and call it, say, Pepperpot Island. Personally, I like to read about real places that I can visit. But, what do you think?

See Ya Later, Saltspring!

What Now?

Tomorrow, I’m off to Vancouver Island to revisit the lighthouse at Yuquot/Friendly Cove where I stayed for two months in 2014. This is where Gracelyn must go to unravel her mystery. So, I will tread in her footsteps because it is there that the magic happens.


Saltspring Island: I’m Coming Back

I tend to live in seven-year-cycles. So, it’s no surprise that I’m returning to Saltspring Island this summer to research a new book. My dream dog, Puddy, came with me last time. It was his last trip. Puddy loved to travel, especially aboard the ferries. This summer, I’ll be taking Skaha along. Puddy was eleven—Skaha is ten-months-old.

Saltspring is the largest of the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea. An artist’s haven, with an agricultural and environmental legacy, it is wildly beautiful and inspiring. Memories of 2011 below. What awaits us in 2018? I can’t wait to find out.

Sweet smokes seeps from your mouth to mine
Filling me, willing me, to come, with you
Shaman farmer crafter chef poet eco-warrior
I want to know you; grow with you
Dirty my fingers in fecund folds
Drop seeds, bulbs, words, deep in sea-rich soil
Then wait through sun and wind and rain
Gestating magic cradled by leathered hands
You are man and woman, yin and yang, androgynous lover
Mesmerized by diamond shrouded seas, sunkissed hair blowing free
My flesh accepts your strong and briny light, your long and silent night
Braid my hair with gems and blossoms, bound fast with vines
Amber, sapphire, scarlet, peach, cobalt, pearly white
Scrape my skin with black slate stones transfusing flesh and blood
And when rootless I dance off, leaving only my bare footprint in your sand
Fill it with Byzantine light, a beacon to lure me back.



Formatting Success

A newly printed box of books arrived from IngramSpark. I am delighted with how they look. I did all the re-formatting myself and it was a steep learning curve. But they are beautiful and I love them. Book design is an art.

When I published To Charm a Killer, I sent it out for formatting and it came back looking clean and professional. But I thought: I can do this myself. I have a fair knowledge of desktop publishing. How hard can it be?

It was hard. But I persevered, and I’m quite proud of this edition of To Sleep with Stones. Here’s how it looks with the changes I made to last year’s printing.



I added more white space to the top and bottom (margins), eliminated the chapter number, changed the position of the page numbers, and added a drop cap in the same font as the chapter head—this font is Celtic Garamond and I love how it fits the book. My cover designer used it, and I was able to purchase a commercial license for it. I also found a free-use Celtic icon to use for scene breaks that I really like. These are things a reader might not notice, but when you’re designing a book, they’re all important. You can read about my formatting experience here.

IMG_4544 (1)

The beauty of being an Indie publisher is that you make all the decisions. Yes, it is a steep learning curve that I’m still climbing, but there are times like this, when I can sit back and hold my baby in my hands and just feel good.


The Shipping News


Every few years, I re-read Annie Proulx’s classic novel, The Shipping News. It happens when I miss the East—family and friends. When I need to submerge myself in great writing and crave a dose of mellifluent literature. When I need to feel immersed in the sea and small town camaraderie.

But, just what makes this book so endearing? What thrills and feeds me?



If you’ve never heard of it, The Shipping News chronicles, not only the various ships, yachts, and boats that put into the small harbour of Killick-Claw on the barren Newfoundland shore, but also the story of Quoyle. A quoyle is a coil of rope, and here Proulx unravels the terrifyingly beautiful tale of Quoyle’s family: ancestors who were incestuous pirates, who dragged a house to a point on the mainland when they were driven off an island for their barbary. That Quoyle determination lives on in the gentle hero of this story, in the jutting chin, in an underdog who must find his way home.

Like Proulx, Quoyle is also a writer. An American, born in Brooklyn, he stumbles into a job at The Mockingburg Record. He has no idea how to write but wants to learn. It’s that or starve, and he has a friend who gets him an interview. But constant layoffs leave Quoyle hungry. And then he meets Petal Bear: “a month of fiery happiness. Then six kinked years of suffering” (13). Petal is more monster than woman.

“By day she sold burglar alarms at Northern Security, at night, became a woman who could not be held back from strangers’ rooms, who would have sexual conjunction whether in stinking rest rooms or mop cupboards. She went anywhere with unknown men. Flew to nightclubs in distant cities. Made a pornographic video while wearing a mask cut from a potato chip bag. Sharpened her eyeliner pencil with the paring knife, let Quoyle wonder why his sandwich cheese was streaking with green” (14).

Oh Petal. When she vanishes with a new stranger and takes along their two little girls, Bunny aged six and Sunshine aged four and half, Quoyle goes berserk.  Naturally. He loves his children, has raised them, cared for them, and now they’re gone. He calls the state police and his newfound aunt, Agnis Hamm. And then they get the news. Car wreck. Petal and the stranger are dead. But where are the kids? It turns out that Petal sold them for seven grand to a pedophile who produces homemade porn. Got a receipt from the pedo. Thank god. “Personal services.”

It’s the aunt that decides it’s time to go home—her hated brother and his wife have just died in a joint suicide pact. She’s lost the love of her life and Quoyle needs a family. So, at age thirty-six, unravelled by Petal’s brutal betrayal, Quoyle packs up his girls and heads to Newfoundland with the aunt. There, he gets a job working atThe Gammy Bird. He’s to cover car wrecks and the shipping news.

Real and honest, eccentric and larger-than-life, the crew atThe Gammy Bird are classic. Jack Buggit, British Nutbeam, Billy Pretty, even the crotch-scratching menace, Tert Card, is endearing in his own awful way. (“Face like cottage cheese clawed with a fork” (57).

Quoyle House

photo by D. Mark Laing, 2001, Flickr


The landscape is a character. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Newfoundland, this book will have you packing your bags. (But only in summer, mind.) Eleven foot snowdrifts rival my capacity to love all seasons. The green house on the point is a character too. It sits empty for forty-four years until Quoyle and the aunt decide to fix it up and move in. The aunt’s first act is to dump her brother’s ashes in the outhouse and piss on them. Enough said.

Cheering for the Underdog

How can you not cheer for Quoyle, bursting with love for his daughters? Learning that he’s so much more than a third-rate newspaper reporter? Building a new family on the rock?


Proulx manages to highlight several issues without sounding preachy or forced. She does this with impeccable style through Jack Buggit’s diatribes, conversations, and Quoyle’s inner musings, and his columns.

The economic situation in Newfoundland. Good friend, Dennis Buggitt, talks of going down the road to find work in Toronto. There’s no work for carpenters in Newfoundland and his dad doesn’t want him to fish. Fishing killed his brother. Quoyle fears that if Dennis takes his family to the city they’ll be lost forever. He should know.

The sad story of incest and sexual assault. The Gammy Bird publishes the names of sexual offenders. Thousands of them.

“Nutbeem, I got your S.A. stories running down my computer screen. You writing it by the yard, now? Seven, eight, nine—you got eleven sexual abuse stories here. We put all this in there won’t be room for the other news.”

“You ought to see my notebook. It’s an epidemic.”

Wouldn’t that be worth a read? Nutbeem strings the stories together with precision and flourish. Some names never make the paper. Ask the aunt.

Children with unique abilities. Wavey’s son Herry was born with Down’s Syndrome and there’s no support for him in the local school. So, she and Beety Buggit approach the government for funding to create a special class and provide support. Quoyle’s children, Bunny and Sunshine, are also unique. Both are expelled from nursery school in the states, yet thrive when embraced by family and community.

Fishing woes. There are so many foreign trawlers fishing in the outer reaches, there are no fish left for the locals. Then, there’s the danger of riding out a storm out on the sea. Ask Jack Buggit what happened to his son, Jessen.

Weather. Another character in this story, one who is most often the antagonist.

Oil tankers. We’ve been fighting oil pipelines in B.C. This column by Quoyle says it all:

Nobody Hangs a Picture of an Oil Tanker

Another common sight is black oil scum along miles of landwash, like the shoreline along Cape Despond this week. Hundreds of people watched Monday morning as 14,000 metric tons of crude washed onshore from a ruptured tank of the Golden Goose. Thousands of seabirds and fish struggled in the oil, fishing boats and nets were fouled. “This is the end of this place,” said Jack Eye, 87, of Little Despond, who, as a young man, was a dory fisherman with the schooner fleet (201).


Annie Proulx is a master of the craft and the writing is stunning. Proulx won a Pulitzer for this novel in 1994. I’ve really never seen anything like it: fragments of tight clipped poetic phrases, hard honest dialogue, sea-speak, words I’ve never seen, and dialect that makes us feel like we’re from the rock even if we’re not.

“The auditorium was jammed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, child in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field” (276).

Myth & Metaphor

Each chapter is headed by a blurb and image from The Ashley Book of Knots. This 1944 work by Clifford W. Ashley inspired Proulx’s tale. The mix of folk tale and metaphor strengthens the story. Quoyle’s old, demented cousin ties knots to curse them and the house. Mixed with that are blurbs from The Gammy Bird, the local Killick-Claw paper where Quoyle discovers his talent for storytelling as he chronicles “The Shipping News”. This is why you can’t just watch the movie.

In 2001, Miramax released the film. Directed by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) it has all-star cast: Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Judi Dench as the aunt, Kate Blanchett as Petal Bear, and Julianne Moore as Wavey (the tall silent woman who captures Quoyle’s heart in Killick-Claw.) As brilliant as the movie is—Annie Proulx and Robert Nelson Jacobs wrote the screenplay—it can’t replace the book.

When I was a kid, one of our family friends was Clyde Quinton, a man from Newfoundland who’d gone down the road. I remember that Clyde was a big gentle man who brought me a doll one year when I was sick. He was known for eating anything and saying simply: “food is food.” I often wonder what happened to Clyde. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve resurrected him in Quoyle.