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?

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

Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all.  But away they went.

But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.)  And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.

He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.

They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.

She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in  Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect inspiration for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.

I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

The Medium and The Message

Moby-Dick was the first assigned book I never finished. It was part of our American Literature focus in my last year of high school, back in the day when Canadian high schools were still ignoring Canadian literature. I was, and am, a voracious reader. But I just couldn’t read Moby-Dick. The prose was dense, meandering, sometimes unclear. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Fast-forward about thirty years, and a long-haul flight to New Zealand. Seventeen hours plus. I’d started listening to a lot of books: family circumstances meant I was driving eight hours every second or third weekend, and my job also entailed a lot of driving. Audiobooks helped pass the time. So, I decided to listen to Moby-Dick on that trip to New Zealand and Australia.

And fell in love with a magnificent book, a symphony of language and philosophy, of style and story. Whether it was my tendency to skim-read, or a symptom of my ADHD, or just maturity, I don’t know – but this book I couldn’t read is now one of my favourites: one I needed to hear to appreciate it.

Since then, I have learned that I appreciate almost all 18th and 19th century writers better when I listen rather than read. I wonder sometimes if it was that these books were expected to be read aloud, an on-going evening’s entertainment, or if a slower pace of life (for the privileged few, anyhow) meant reading was perhaps more leisurely. Regardless, when I want George Eliot or Tolstoy or Cervantes, I reach for my phone and earbuds, not a physical book.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this ramble: a reconsideration of a recent review. A book I had difficulty reading: P.L. Stuart’s A Drowned Kingdom. It has, actually, a few things in common with Moby-Dick: a dislikable central character driven by hubris, and long expositions on the reasons for actions, to name a couple.  I read it, wrote a neutral and unstarred review (some of you reading this will know I rarely star reviews, for reasons given here), and moved on. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Then one day I was listening to Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which is slow, and definitely not cheery (well, it’s Hardy, what do I expect?) and something clicked. I should listen to A Drowned Kingdom (which coincidentally had just come out in audiobook format.) So I did.

And, as with Moby-Dick, I liked it a whole lot more. Listening doesn’t change the arrogant hubris of the MC, Othrun, but that was never an issue for me. I still believe Stuart is brave, both for creating a dislikable main character and for writing in a style somewhat at odds with much modern fantasy writing. But the lack of enjoyment in my first reading of the book wasn’t due to a fault in the writing, but my own limitations in interacting with the prose.

Story is at the heart of what we as writers do, and stories can be told – and absorbed – in many ways: through poetry, through prose, through oral storytelling, through plays, through visual media. Sometimes, as the audience, we need to find the form that is right for us. I’m glad I could for A Drowned Kingdom.

And yes, I’ll be revising the review.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.

Show, Tell, Hint

Working with one of my editorial clients a few weeks ago, I pointed out to him that he had several dropped story threads in his novel.  “But,” he said, “the entire action takes place over only a few days. Not everything can be resolved in that time.”

My response?  There’s a difference for the reader in leaving a story thread in a place where the reader can speculate about it, and just dropping it.  In one case in my client’s novel, the protagonist had expressed (to himself) his interest a woman he worked with. And that was it. The brief scene was there for a number of reasons, but mostly to show that, regardless of personal grief and a building complex political situation, the protagonist wasn’t entirely wrapped up in those two things. But it went nowhere, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

I made a few suggestions, and in the next draft there were a two more brief scenes of interaction between the two which fit smoothly into the narrative, and leave the reader with the hint that this relationship’s going somewhere. We don’t know it, but we can sense it, and that’s enough. Readers don’t need every thread tied up neatly; in fact, it’s good to leave a few minor open-ended questions for them to speculate about, a technique that helps keep a book in their minds.

In my own work, I have a few of these, the most prominent being a question of what happened to two of my characters. No one really knows, but suggestions are made, the search for them has a role, but in the end, I leave it to the reader to decide whether they’ve survived or not.

There’s another way to use ‘hints’ instead of showing or telling, again to leave questions in the reader’s mind, and that’s to be ambiguous. Not often, but this is the classic ‘is Deckard a replicant or not?’ question from Blade Runner. But the ambiguity doesn’t need to be that central; it can be about a characters’ motivation, or the nuances of a relationship.

Here’s an example from one of my books:

“Cannot we both just be content with what we have, at least for a little while?” I said, straightening. “You are alive, and recovering, and you have Lena, and the baby very soon.”

His hand was still on my arm. “And you, mo duíne gràhadh?”

My beloved man. A sudden restriction in my throat made my voice hoarse. “I have enough,” I managed to say, “being here. With you.”

The first-person narrator here interprets the question ‘And you?’ to mean ‘can you be content?’ – a reasonable response to the first statement he makes to the second character.  But there’s a second interpretation: he has gone on to say ‘you have Lena, and the baby…’  The question ‘And you?’ can also mean: ‘Do I have you, too?’ 

In this case, I know which of these two questions was really being asked (and no, I’m not telling.) But occasionally, I don’t know the answer, or not at the time I write it. And sometimes these ambiguous hints get clarified later in the story, and sometimes they don’t – allowing, again, for speculation.

I believe that for a reader to be fully immersed in a story, there needs to be these unanswered questions that involve them in the world, not just show it to them. What did happen to the Entwives in The Lord of the Rings?  What was it Ada Doom saw in the woodshed? Does Shane ever return?

(By the way, I think Deckard is a replicant. Your thoughts?)