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.



Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan

There are a zillion “how-to write” articles swirling in the ethers. Once in a while one appears in my in-box that resonates. This article on writing descriptively about characters is an excellent reference.

K. D. Dowdall

Word Painting

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description that Rebecca finds to be very important in writing descriptively.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or 

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The Mystery of Grace. Charles de Lint

Grace is blessed with multiple meanings in Charles de Lint’s 2009 urban fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. She is an idea and also a woman. This strong beautiful tattooed deva is at once kind, charming, thoughtful, and at ease around a classic car. (She grew up rebuilding hotrods with her Abuelo and works wonders at Sanchez Motors). She loves rockabilly and surf guitar. She is virtuous in her own way and both gives and receives divine assistance. She is also dead and therefore, seeking grace early in the story.


In this 2010 interview with Charles de Lint, the author says that the book is about appreciating the moment, not waiting and missing opportunities. For life is short. You never know when you will vanish from this world and reappear in another unknown place. I agree with the author, but I also found this book to be about Faith (with a capital F). And Fear. The fear of what happens after we die permeates this book and it is only through Faith that the characters can stop waiting and walk through the mist into the unknown. Grace Quintero wears her life tattooed on her body. On her shoulder is Grace’s namesake, Our Lady of Altagracia. It is her faith in love and los santos that sees her through the limbo state (about two years in human time). But how does she end up there?

This story is set in the American Southwest. Ironically, Grace goes to buy cigarettes at Luna’s and gets shot twice in the chest by a junkie. “It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in,” my mother, Grace, used to quip. Grace Quintero dies and wakes up in a parallel world. Her apartment at the Alverson Arms, in the small desert town of Santo del Vado Viejo still exists, but she is imprisoned with several other lost souls within a two-three block radius. Some have been there for decades as this limbo world seems to have been created in August 1965, and everyone who dies in proximity to the Alverson Arms lands here.

After making friends with the locals, Grace learns the rules. They don’t need to eat or sleep, but they can. Some end up comatose (sleepers). Henry, who lives at the Solina Library says: “if you don’t keep yourself busy, it all goes away. First your memories, then the desire to do anything, finally whatever it is that makes you who you are” (65). Going into the misty boundaries at the edges of the Alverson world also affects memories, and going back to the real world can be traumatic. Yes. Grace can go back to her home, but only twice a year, on Samhain and Beltane. And no one will recognize her.

On her first visit home, Grace meets artist John Burns and it’s love at first sight. They spend the night together but at dawn, she disappears, leaving John lonely and confused. Their relationship is only a flutter of what this book is about, so I won’t call it paranormal romance (though John is human and Grace a ghost.) This book, like all de Lint’s books, runs deep, crosses genres, and defies labels.

Norm, a distant cousin of shaman Ramon Morago, is the only one who can see Grace when she returns twice a year and he keeps telling her to “find her path.” Norm is Kikimi, and a kind of funky spiritual advisor to the lost girl caught in limbo. Morago and the Kikimi people are the subject of de Lint’s latest novel, The Wind in his Heart—my review here). Norm sees dead people and must use prayers and sacred smudge (sage) to keep the spirits at bay. Once they know you can see them, they keep harassing you. They’re lonely and want to talk. A shaman can choose but Norm doesn’t have a filter. He must pretend not to see them; otherwise, they drive him to drink.

What happens when we die? Will we be reunited with our ancestors? With those we love? Do heaven and hell exist? Or do we go into a kind of limbo to await our next incarnation? The Mystery of Grace inspires us to question our belief in God and the afterlife.

As always, de Lint, weaves a sensual tapestry of landscape, music, love, and culture. I am dazzled by his creativity, his brilliance, and his daring. Into this story, de Lint pours the tale of Juan—Juan can capture a bruja (witch) and turn her magic back on her “because the priest Juan Diego was the first to see Our Lady of Guadalupe” (197). Why does Grace needs to know about Juan? That is a question best left unanswered.

I leave you with a quote by Alice Hoffman.

Charles de Lint is the modern master of urban fantasy. Folktale, myth, fairy tale, dreams, urban legend—all of it adds up to pure magic in de Lint’s vivid, original world.


Crafting a Short Story


22204_Regan_DevineFor several years, I taught English in high school. I’m not a short story writer, though I did write one for a contest last year. I like a larger canvas that I can sink inside. But, what follows is one of the lessons I used to share with my students on how to write a short story. Much of it came from my own amazing high school English teacher, Regan Devine. Is that a great name for a character or what? He’s real and here he is.

How to Write a Short Story

Writing is a craft. Like most crafts it looks easy, but in reality it requires hard work and practice. Manifestos are written on the subject. This is just a wee primer to get you started.

The Bones: A particular character in a particular place at a particular time is beset with a problem or conflict that he or she must resolve. Keep it simple: essential characters (no more than three) in a single setting over a short span of time. Here’s some sage advice:
o Put a man up a tree
o Give him a problem or maybe several, each one worse than the last
o Help him find a way down

Structure: Beginning, Middle, End

I. Beginning

Start with a situation: a man is in a tree. Do not give backstory unless it is necessary. Use a narrative hook. Make your reader ask question(s). How did he get up there? Will he get down? How?

Start as close to the inciting incident (first crisis) as you can. This incident or problem shakes him out of his ordinary world. Problems/conflict can result from nature/environment, humans, or something in his own mind.

II. Middle/Main Conflict

The man struggles as you build tension and suspense by “raising the stakes”. If he succeeds in solving one problem, give him a worse one. Someone is throwing stones, threatening him, or shooting at him, a wild animal waits at the foot of the tree, a tsunami is on the horizon, a hurricane is blowing all around him, he is injured, he is starving to death, he must get down by a certain time or his friend or lover or kids will die. Allow the character a moment to rest and reflect in between crises. Build to a climax.

III. End/Resolution

He gets down, saves himself or whoever was in danger (resolves his problem) and has somehow changed. Or maybe he doesn’t get down and dies trying. Some stories have unhappy endings.

Everything Else

Central Theme or Guiding Light: You must have a reason or point for telling this story, a message or thread of meaning that runs through from beginning to end. Stick to it.

Characterization: Make your reader care about what happens to your character. Reveal one key characteristic in your main character and challenge or change it via conflict. Subtly show this characteristic, rather than tell it. Character is revealed through action (how he acts and reacts), tone and attitude (how he thinks about things), language and imagery (how he speaks).

Point-of-View: You can either write in first person (I came, I saw, I conquered) or in third person limited omniscient (she came, she saw, she turned around and left). The trick with viewpoints is to remember that your character only knows certain things, and we see only through his eyes. You, the writer, know much more. Let your character discover and show things through his actions. Don’t give information your character would not know. Also, only write in one viewpoint, don’t shift.

Pacing: short sentences and paragraphs create speed for fast paced stories. Longer wordy sentences slow things down for a breath of reflection.

Vivid Imagery: Paint a vivid picture by appealing to the five senses. What does the character see, smell, hear, taste, and touch? You want to bring your reader into the non-ordinary world of the character.

Words: Use precise, concrete, accurate detail. Do not use passive boring verbs like: is, was, has, get, take, watch, went. Use particular verbs to convey action and attitude. Avoid using adverbs (anything ending in ly). Instead of “she walked slowly” say “she ambled” or “she strolled” or “she staggered”. This is the time to use your thesaurus sparingly.

Dialogue: There are rules.
o Every time you have a new speaker begin a new paragraph.
o Enclose everything the speaker says in quotation marks.
o Use dialect and grammar to reveal character.
o Break up dialect with bits of action.
o Where the quotation is interrupted by some action or to identify a speaker, do it at a natural pause and enclose each part. “I won’t go,” Jesse said, “unless you go with me.”
o If a quotation extends for more than one paragraph do not close it at the end of the first paragraph, but open the next with quotation marks.
o Put the comma, period, question mark, or em dashes INSIDE quotation marks.
o Use an em dash (two dashes—) when the speaker is interrupted or cut off
o Put colons, semi-colons OUTSIDE quotation marks.

“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“It’s me.”
“Mitch? Why are you whispering? Are you okay? What’s that noise?”
“Look, I need help. I’m stuck up a tree and—”
“How’d you—?”
“Will you just listen?” I hissed. I knew I should have called John, even if Sorcha was my new girlfriend. “Look. I climbed up a tree at the Hellerman place to rescue my mother’s stupid kitten but I can’t get down.”
“Sorry? What did you say? I’m just doing my nails and I dropped my phone.”
I began again. “I climbed up—”
The growling escalated as the dogs clawed hunks of bark from the tree trunk below me.
“Mitch? What’s happening? What’s that noise? Where are you?”
“Dobermans … mean Dobermans.” I heard nothing—no reaction. “Sorcha? Are you there?” I stared at the black screen on my cell phone. “Damn,” I growled, and hurled it at the dogs.


“I don’t know what to write about. My life is boring. I’ve got nothing to say.” This is a common block for writers. The truth is, you have scads of stuff to write about. Our lives are composed of interwoven stories. Some people say write what you know. (That’s a cliche, by the way.) Sometimes this works, but you can also write what you don’t know—what you can only imagine. This is the beauty of Fiction and what Imagination is for. We read and write to leave our ordinary world along with the character, to go to exotic locales and experience through story things we never could in reality. I say: write what intrigues you.

Write about places you’re curious about. Create quirky characters and drop them into unusual situations. Ultimately, we humans have similar wants and needs—love, friendship, comfort, safety, joy, adventure, and to go home in the end.

Finally, write in a genre you love to read. If you’re into science fiction, fantasy, romance, drama, mystery, history, write a story of that type. If you’re hooked on your story, chances are other people will be too.

Revision: To Look Again

o Type your story.

o Run a spelling and grammar check.

o Do a general edit for rhythm, pacing, and errors. When you do this read your story out loud. Have someone else read your story out loud.

o Then complete a line-by-line edit where you weed out: adverbs, clichés, errors, repeating images or actions, too much dialogue or description.