How Has Writing Changed Me?

A guest post by J.C. Paulson

On following your muse: it might just save your life, and other benefits.

When I awakened at three one morning a few years ago, as I had for months after a traumatic career ending moment, I was, for a change, not in tears.

I saw a (beautiful) reporter, a (stunningly handsome) cop, a (stupid homophobic) decision made by a church and a (dead) bishop. Where did that come from? Would I remember it all at a more reasonable hour of the morning?

Didn’t think so. But I did.

It became Adam’s Witness, a novel I never thought I’d write. Nor any novel, really.

I’m not much of a believer in intervention, divine or otherwise. Neither do I believe in astrology, but I am a perfect Virgo: analytical, critical, loyal to a fault . . . and very much with my feet planted on the hard unforgiving ground. Lightning bolts from heaven or any other mystical place do not, in my view, occur. At least, not to me.

But something happened. Somehow, my brain was trying to save my sanity, or perhaps myself. The mood did not actually improve much for a long time, in the overall; my father became desperately ill and eventually died, among other rather traumatic life events.

Even so, the creative muse eventually took hold and if nothing else served as a distraction. There’s nothing like diving into someone else’s life.

Even someone fictional.

And now, I am powerfully inclined to pitch my method of mind-bending to others. Simply, it is this: If a creative or athletic or other positive new thing is calling you, I advise answering the mental phone. Even if it’s hard.

Obvious by now is that my own escape from hell came via my creative cells, and I believe that most of us have those. Sometimes we have to go looking for them, but they are there; and in my view, they represent the best of ourselves.

Learning that I could actually sit down for longer than a few minutes, focus, type, research and write a book was an epiphany.

I am also here to tell you that publishing a book online and in print by yourself is not the easiest thing you’ll ever try, creatively or technically. Nor is trying to disseminate your new invention.

(I’m sure similar difficulties apply to all other pursuits.)

But I did it.

It boosted my self-confidence that I could learn something new — actually, several somethings. It cleared my mind of everything but my plot, characters, and message. Then it forced me to think, as they say, outside the box: how do you format a book on Amazon?

It also allowed me to blurt many of my strongly held beliefs (for example, why in the name of all that’s sane would some discriminate against or loathe LGBTQ people? Or any people?) when I had no other outlet.

To this day, I haven’t entirely sorted out why or how walking a new creative path changed my mind. Altered my brain, really. But it absolutely did. I’m quite sure it forged new synaptic pathways, and no kidding.

As to other benefits, there’s always a chance someone else might like, or even love, what you have made. Your book. Your painting. Your photograph. Your song.

You might make someone’s day. You might change their outlook for the better. You might entertain, or elevate, or excite.

But this is for certain. You have created something new and unique that did not exist before. And for that, my heartfelt congratulations.


Joanne (J.C.) Paulson, a long-time Saskatoon journalist, has been published in newspapers including The StarPhoenix, The Western Producer, the Saskatoon Express, allSaskatchewan and a variety of magazines.

She is the author of a mystery series including the novels Adam’s Witness, Broken Through, Fire Lake, Griffin’s Cure, and Two Hundred Bones, a novella. Her most recent works are a historical fiction/western novel entitled Blood and Dust, published by Black Rose Writing, and a wee children’s book, Magic Mack and The Mischief-Makers. Find her books via her website or on Amazon.


Are you a writer who’d like to contribute to this series? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you!

Empress & Soldier

A boy of the night-time streets; a girl of libraries and learning.

Druisius, the son of a merchant, is sixteen when an order from his father that he can neither forgive nor forget drives him from home and into the danger and intrigue of the military.

Eudekia, a scholar’s daughter, educated and dutiful, is not meant to be a prince’s bride. In a empire at war, and in a city beset by famine and unrest, she must prove herself worthy of its throne.

A decade after a first, brief meeting, their lives intersect again. When a delegation arrives from the lost West, asking Eudekia for sanctuary for a princess and support for a desperate war, Druisius is assigned to guard them. In the span of a few weeks, a young captain will capture the hearts of both Empress and soldier in very different ways, offering a future neither could have foreseen.

A stand-alone novel that can also serve as a second entry point into the Empire series.

Electronic ARCs available after November 1, 2022. Email request to arboretumpress (at) gmail.com

Absolute Eden

Just about every September since 1989, the second Sunday of the month finds me at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. Begun that year by author Leon Rooke and his wife Constance (also an author) as a small gathering of Canadian writers sharing an outdoor book launch, it’s grown over the years to one of Canada’s premier writers’ festivals.

Eden Mills is a tiny village about an hour west of Toronto, on the banks of the Eramosa River. 19th century stone houses are scattered among later houses on a very few streets, many with gardens running down to the river. On Festival Sunday, some of these gardens provide the venues for the authors, with the audience sitting in lawn chairs, on blankets, or just on the grass, listening.

Over the years, I’ve heard such Canadian greats as Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, and Peter Gzowski read here. There is fiction and non-fiction, poetry, essays, prose. Writers to make you laugh, cry, think. There is a children’s author venue, to foster a love of words and books among young people. Our local Guelph indie bookstore, The Bookshelf, is there with piles and piles of the featured authors’ books, and a venue to get them signed. There is local organic ice cream and locally-roasted coffee, and a variety of food trucks, and no venue is more than 500 m from another, an easy walk on the quiet streets closed to cars for the day.

And it never seems to rain.

Back when I was still writing apprenticeship novels no one will ever see, I would sit on the grass and listen, and dream of reading at Eden Mills. To do so (in the Fringe venue, for unpublished or limited-published authors, as I was in 2016) was both terrifying and exhilarating. I had won places in both the prose and poetry competitions, so I was reading twice. I stood under a canopy, the Eramosa flowing in the background, 50 or 60 people scattered over the sloping lawn, waiting to hear my words. I did it; people applauded, and by the end of that day, after mixing with other authors both in the readings, the authors’ lounge, and the amazing authors’ dinner given at the end of the day, my perception of myself had changed. I wasn’t ‘an aspiring writer’ any longer. I was, simply, a writer.

(Oh, that dinner. The food was excellent, as I remember, but the crowning glory was the dessert: a selection of pies baked by the residents of Eden Mills and environs, pastry as flaky as you could want, bursting with fruit, and so good.)

For the last few years, I’ve been at Eden Mills in the Publishers’ Way, with one or the other of the small presses that publish my work. It’s a different view, a chance to chat with book lovers of all ages and interests, meet other publishers, do some networking. But I still sneak off to sit by the river and listen to an author or two, buy some books, say hi to old friends, and revel in the beauty of the village and the energy and commitment and vision that has kept this festival going for thirty-three years.

I plan to be back next year, the second Sunday in September. See you there?

Community

 Rob O’Flanagan/GuelphToday

My city, 9 a.m., downtown. A grey and cool holiday Monday. Pigeons crowded on a mansard roof like commuters waiting for a train. Empty sidewalk patios. A few people, out for breakfast or coffee.

My destination is the usual: The Red Brick Café. I’m here to write, but also to meet two friends, fellow writers. We’ll write in more-or-less creative solitude for three hours, and then we’ll have lunch together. A pre-COVID ritual we’ve started again.

The Monday morning writing group began a number of years ago; I joined when we moved back to the city. Time and circumstances mean people come and go, and COVID shut it down completely. But it was a way to begin the week, to focus back on writing, and, at least as importantly, to be in the company of other writers.

We’ve always been an eclectic group, writing across genres; writing for publication, traditional or indie; writing for personal exploration or enjoyment. Not everyone came for lunch every week, but the conversation has always been wide-ranging: Aristotle’s Poetics, Lee Child, poetry, politics, film, television. What we’re reading. What we’re writing.

We are three quite different writers: one a thriller writer, wedded to the three-act structure, fast pacing, clear endings. One is a poet and mystery writer. I write – well, what I write, which is an ongoing saga of conflict and politics in an imagined world. It moves closer to literary fiction with each book. Sometimes we debate structure, style, various ‘rules’ for writing; we don’t always agree. The thriller writer wanted my latest published book to be far more of a classic thriller than it was, and to have a lot less introspection. Good discussion; it made me think about all the possible ways a story could be written, how changing the focus changes the story. But in the end, I left the book the way I wanted it. But it influenced the one I’ve just finished.

Our small Monday morning group is only one intersection in the network of writing supports in my city, and for the most part they flow out from one non-profit organization dedicated to supporting writers. There are a multitude of events, meetings, casual Sunday afternoon get-togethers in cafes, Saturday nights in pubs. I participate in some regularly, a few occasionally, and others not at all. The overall sense, though, is one of respect for each other. We’re all writers, regardless of where we are in our development or interests or route to publication. And we have great conversations.

The sort of conversation social media just doesn’t support. Reasoned, sometimes argumentative, teasing, wide-ranging, following tangents, circling back, but without the binaries and snap judgements that dominate on just about every platform. We listen: not just to words, but to expression and body language and tone, understanding when someone can’t find quite the right words to say what they’re thinking. Something largely missing, and missed, during the months of isolation.

So here I am, writing at The Red Brick. (Where I set a short story recently.) Around me are other writers, one whom I just met on the weekend on the patio here; some are my friends, some aren’t (yet?). Other people are just having coffee, breakfast, talking, reading, working. There’s a real sense of community, even when we don’t know each other’s names.

My coffee cup is empty. Time for another, and a few conversations, no doubt, as I move between my table and the serving bar. How’s the work going? I’ll ask, or be asked. Will you be at….? Have you seen….? And in about 90 minutes, it’ll be lunch time. What will it be today? Aristotle? The Rings of Power? Stephen King’s newest? Or a heated debate on whether a villain has to get their comeuppance at the end of a book?  Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.

September

Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay 

Even after years of retirement, I still plot the rhythms of the year by the start of school here in Ontario. The first week of September starts a new year, as it has since I was five and beginning kindergarten. New clothes, new shoes, new pencils and erasers, new teachers.

I left home for the first time, to attend university 500 km away, in this week in 1976.  44 years ago, I met the man who would become my husband in this week, and 41 years ago in early September, I married him.

For another 33 years, it was the start of the academic year, first studying, then teaching. Even when I was out of grad school and was doing research, no longer a teaching assistant, the university campus changed. Students arrived for the fall semester, and the summer quiet gave way to the buzz of autumn energy.

Eight years ago, I started the chemotherapy that saved my life in this week, too. The year after, when the calendar clicked over to September and neither I nor my husband went to work, it was the real start of retirement.

In the past eight years, I’ve written six books, every one between September and a date 6 to 12 months later. I finished the latest (finished the story; there’s still a lot of work to do) in the last week of August; I began the book in early September a year before. September is still for beginnings: new notebooks, fresh pencils, new courses, new students, new patterns, new books.

It’s new patterns I’m looking for this year. The next book might wait until the calendar’s new year, January. Complicated by the restrictions of the pandemic, I’ve spent far too much time in the last two years at my desk, writing, blogging, doing marketing and promotion, in Zoom meetings, on social media. I need a breather, and I intend to take one.

Across the road in the university’s arboretum, and along the river trails, September brings fall warblers, migrating south. Kettles of turkey vultures will circle above; great egrets and sandhill cranes will move from marsh to marsh; blue jays will gather in flocks, calling raucously. The hedgerows are laden with berries, and the crabapples hang heavy on the trees this year. Thrushes and waxwings and blackbirds gather. September is a new start for many birds, too, the beginning of their long journey to wintering grounds.

I expect I’m wintering here in Ontario again this year, and when it’s cold and the snow is deep and the paths icy underfoot, I’ll be glad of the work to keep me engaged and the computer to keep me connected. But for the next couple of months, I’m putting life away from both first.

Research, Imagination, Empathy

Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In both my next two novels, the work in progress, Empress & Soldier, and the planned last book of my series, Empire’s Passing, death and grief play an important role. In Empress & Soldier deaths transform my central characters in different ways. For both, deaths are the pivots that change the directions of their lives. One grieves in ways he cannot articulate (he may not even realize he is grieving); one is forced by circumstance to pick up the pieces of a shattered life far too soon.

The personal relationships of the characters of my Empire’s Legacy series have always been a metaphor, or a reflection, of the political relationships among their countries, their creation of an unusual ‘found family’ and the depth and expression of love among them echoes their work towards understanding and cooperation among their nations. The loss, in Empire’s Passing,  of two of these central characters, deeply loved, deeply grieved, will also reflect the fragility of the political alliance; both families and political unions can be strengthened or destroyed by catastrophic events.

I am 64 years old. In my life death has, of course, touched mine. But not yet the deep, life-changing grief of losing life partners that my characters will experience. My parents died at 93 and 99: I mourned them, miss them still, but life didn’t change in any significant way. My brother’s too-early death came closer, hit harder, but I wasn’t left to find a way forward alone.

So I turned to others accounts: CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Personal accounts, too: friends, family – not interviews, but remembering what they said or described. Listening, squirreling away words and concepts, as writers do.

I know what my characters do, in response to their losses. The challenge is entwining the feelings, the mental response, the confusion and darkness and irrationality with their actions in a way that is plausible and to some extent explanatory. Grief is universal but intensely personal, and in what I am attempting I am conscious I am not writing from lived experience,  but from research, imagination, and empathy.  Will my characters, who live only on the page and in a world that has never existed, express their pain and grief and love in ways that speak to readers? I will find out in time, I suppose.

Featured Image: Stele of Titus Fuficius in Split Archaeological Museum, Split, Croatia

Of Birding and Writing

May is the month when my two avocations – writing and birding – compete for my time and attention. For most of the year (or at least my Canadian year – our English months had a different rhythm), I write in the mornings, and do everything else in my life in the afternoons. But birds – especially songbirds, migrate primarily at night, dropping down into woodland, hedgerow and grassland to feed in the early mornings. So morning, during migration, is when to be out.

I’ve been birding at some level for over fifty years. I’ve been writing for at least as long. Birding keeps me in touch with the rhythms of the earth, and the non-human lives that we share it with: I may be primarily looking for birds, but I’m also seeing and paying attention to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insect life – and plants. Honing skills of observation, layering experiences of sight and sound and smell – and even feel and taste – into my day and my memory, often to reappear in my writing.

I’m always birding. If there’s light in the sky, whether outside or near a window, if a bird moves, I look at it. Reflexively. (Not always the best reflex, when you’re having a serious conversation with your boss in the parking lot, but, there it is. They were all remarkably forgiving.) I’m always writing, too. Words move in and out of my conscious mind: description, conversation, mood. Sometimes I even write about birding.

Regardless of my respectable list of birds seen, garnered over seven continents, I’m not a world-class birder, and I never was nor will be. I have no ear for song, a requirement to be really good, and, at sixty-four, my eyesight isn’t what it once was. The details are harder to distinguish now. But I was at my best a solidly good birder. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took a lot of work, birding with people who knew far more than I, studying books, making mistakes, learning from them: hours and hours in the field and analyzing that field work afterwards. A lot of work for a ‘hobby’? But a discipline that overlaps with that of writing. I’m not a world-class writer, either. I’m probably a solidly good one. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took all the same steps, the same discipline, the same willingness and drive to learn, and keep learning.

As I walked the familiar paths of my birding patch this morning, I thought about how these two parts of my life complement each other. Birding taught, and continues to teach, lessons far beyond that of identification: patience, for one. But more subtle ones, too: yesterday I watched a bluebird hunting insects. Except I didn’t have my binoculars, and the position of the sun meant the bluebird was only a silhouette. How did I know it was a bluebird, then? From all the things it showed me: its size and shape, how it flew, how it returned to the same branch over and over – all these things said ‘bluebird’, without me having to be told, by an in-your-face, look-at-me view, that it was a bluebird.

Birding taught me, too, about glimpses, how to construct a whole from pieces. Tapaculos are small birds of the undergrowth of central America. They are, most of them, very hard to see, because they skulk under thickets. But if you see enough pieces of a tapaculo: an eye, a beak, the tail feathers – they add up to a whole bird in your mind. Just like worlds and characters are best built in the mind of the reader from pieces, hints, brief views.  

I could keep drawing parallels; I won’t. But this morning, as I left the coffee shop downtown where I’d had breakfast, still early, and stepped into St George’s Square, a raven flew low over the space, calling. Unexpected, delightful, (and perhaps portentous for some). I’m still thinking about it.  A plot twist, if you like.

Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Let’s Talk Success – Again

I spent half an hour yesterday consoling? advising? a new indie writer about ‘success’.  They have one book out, another on its way. They’re worried about sales, about marketing, about making a name for themselves. Here’s what I, the ‘seasoned indie author’ told them.

We live in a world where the popular measure of success is celebrity; fifteen minutes of fame and making the big bucks. But the chances that you can make a living from writing novels, and only writing novels, is miniscule. Look around you, I said. In this very bookish town in which we live, we had three nominees for the Governor General’s Award (Canada’s major literary fiction award) this year. All but one have other careers, and the one who doesn’t is a retired professor. In the ‘before days’, when there was an open writing space freely available to all on Monday mornings, I’ve shared table space with yet another Governor General’s Award short-listed author (who also has another career) and an Edgar-nominated mystery author (who also has another career) and a Stephen Leacock award short-listed writer (who also, etc….). I’ve read at literary festivals with some pretty big names, too – and almost all these writers do something else other than write novels: teach, practice law or work in warehouses, are system analysts or build houses.  And these examples, I will note, are all (except two) traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean your writing is a hobby. It doesn’t mean it isn’t viable. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who can make a living at it. And maybe you’re one of them.

And maybe you’re not. But if you’re not, you’re in very good company in the literary world. You shouldn’t think less of yourself, or that you’re a failure. I consider myself a successful writer, but the actual profit from my books isn’t a major part of my yearly income.

But:

  • ‘your books got me back into reading’
  • ‘your books are my go-to when I need to escape this world for a while’
  • ‘I dread the day when you stop writing this series’
  • ‘I’m waiting for your new release more than any other book in 2022’

and many other similar expressions of what some people find in my books is my measure of success. If your stories resonate with a few readers; if they bring smiles to their faces or make them ask themselves hard questions; if they read until 3 a.m. because they can’t put them down, or leave the light on to sleep because you terrified them – isn’t that success?

Did the new author take this in? I don’t know. But I hope so. Because they are talented, and have stories to offer to the world that some readers will fall deeply into. I’d hate them to waste their time and energy and talent worrying about only one definition of a successful writer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

On Restless Pinions

Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib.  One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.

Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.

Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse?  No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.

So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil:  interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1

Fájl:Philo mediev.jpg
 Cours de philosophy du Paris; Grande Chroniques de France.  Public Domain

This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.