I’ve had a lovely time recently going to speak to groups about my books, and I especially enjoy groups whose main interest is in writing. There is always a question period, and what I’ve learned lately is that the questions I get actually require a level of self awareness about my process that is quite demanding. I would love to be a glamorous writer, suave, elegantly attired, lounging with a cocktail in one hand and a computer in the other, in complete command of her craft. But the truth is it’s usually just me, dressed in old ratty pyjamas and a deplorable ex-fluffy pink bathrobe, floundering about wondering how I made the whole thing work last time.
In fact…if you move the cocktail over you have a complete picture of me exercising my craft. So I’ve actually begun to think very hard about how I write, because I know more and more that I will be asked quite specific questions about it and these are truly interesting questions, because I suspect that how people approach the whole business is as individual as the condition of their bathrobes.
I’m starting on my sixth book in the Lane Winslow series at the moment, and I can still only really identify two ‘rules’ I follow without fail: 1) Don’t erase anything, ever, on the first write and 2) You don’t know where it’s going until you write it. So I come in to these meetings quite prepared to expound on theses two rules and so far, I’ve never been asked, “What are your two-iron clad rules about writing?” Only this week I was at a school, and a student asked instead, “How do you keep from boring yourself when you have to write a whole book?” This is a real, meaty question and it turns out it is at the very heart of how I write, so I’m going to take a stab at it.
How DO I keep from boring myself? I will admit it now, there are some times when I’m writing a segment and I’m actually yawning as I write. This does not bode well for the readers. (readers will be happy to learn I usually chuck those bits in the bin, but not right away, obviously; Rule 1) The best answer I can give is this: I do not pre-plot the whole thing, because if I did, the whole exercise of writing would be one of trying to infill the sections between these pre-determined plot points. I would bore myself rigid.
Writing is for me a real process of exploration and discovery, and most importantly, it centers on my characters. I never know where my characters, or the situations I’ve created, will take me when I sit down to do my day’s 700-2000 words, but I will always be looking at what they might be about to say and do, and how it moves the story along. Because of that I fondly imagine that my brain is up top beavering away throwing down ideas, and saying things like “Oo! Oo! How about this?” I listen to my brain when it’s doing that, and I am often quite delighted with some clever idea I’d never have thought of if I’d tried to work the whole story out ahead of time.
If I knew before I sat down to work where I was supposed to be going, I’m absolutely certain that my brain would take one look at the pre-worked plot and say “obviously you don’t need me around for whatever this is supposed to be..”, and go off to the spa for the day, leaving me desperately trying to fill in the spaces in an artificial construct I’d pre-made.
Every one of my books start with nothing but a single image, and the general idea that probably someone will have to die, and Lane Winslow, Inspector Darling and Ames are going to have to figure it out. Everything else bubbles up as I’m actually writing and thinking about the people in the story. And that is why I don’t get bored. It is quite literally something new and unexpected for me every day.
I received a lovely note from a reader in Ontario the other day who made the observation that her own immigrant grand parents and others she knew did not talk much about the ‘old country’. This rang true for me. I grew up among people who had immigrated from somewhere, England, Scotland, Russia, China, Germany, and I really don’t recall people talking much about their old countries.
Of course everyone seems to share everything nowadays, but when I was young, reserve was the norm. Yet I wondered about what older people I knew left behind, who they were before. I would sometimes ask, and would get answers like, ‘oh, that’s all in the past’, or even ‘I never talk about that.’ On my happiest days I would get to hear stories, often from people’s childhoods, and almost always about times that were innocent or happy for them, and were preserved, accurately or not, as lovely memories. But it often wasn’t just that they were avoiding discussing, say wartime experiences, but a genuine desire to leave things in the past and focus on the ‘new life.’
Perhaps many of that generation believed as my mother did, that the past was rubbish, and had no effect on who one is at this very moment. Like many of her generation, psychology was an anathema with its insistence on experiences in youth being a determining factor on behaviour as an adult. I was a typical child of the therapeutic sixties, and was a lover of the link between early experience and the lives we live. Jung, Maslow, Erickson, and Bettelheim were my heroes with their trips through childhood, the mind and mythology. “That explains everything!” was my constant victorious refrain. My mother had a genuine horror of being ‘explained’. She felt, and I am not unsympathetic, that it robs people of their individuality and their heroism.
And mostly she was able to live as though no past existed. I did not write books before she died, but I think my experience of being with her in her last moments was where the Lane Winslow series began to take root. I was profoundly moved and saddened to hear her confess on her deathbed that experiences of rejection by her father had caused her to spend her life trying to prove him wrong. In that moment I was struck by her heroism in living her remarkable life as she wanted, and at the same time by the forceful truth that everyone has a past, and it matters.
I see people as having entire lifetimes they have packed up into suitcases and pushed into the attic, both literally and figuratively. Those are the stories I want to understand more, and I try to tease out some elements of these previous lives my characters might have lived, (even if they’d rather I didn’t) because I think they throw light on the present, and for my books, on the events in the stories.
The remark made by the reader made me realize that a key feature in my books, hopping back and forth in time, comes precisely from my desire to understand the pasts that people tuck away. I believe that these experiences matter and reach into the present, and do inform how we respond and what we believe. Past experiences are fundamental to the ability to overcome and thrive. But sometimes, (especially for the purposes of my books!) they plant the seeds of disaster.
My grandson asked me the other day if it gets easier to write as one moves from book to book. It is an interesting question. You would think it ought to. It get’s easier to make bread each time, or do a better fox trot with practice. And perhaps the fluidity of writing words for the purpose of communication, as I am doing now, becomes easier the more I do it.
I’m not even sure it should get easier, frankly, to write a book. But some aspects of it do, I suppose. I told him that because I have a set of characters whom I follow from book to book, in some ways it becomes easier to write about them because I get to know them better. It becomes easier to recognize what they might say or do in any given situation, and if and how they might, say, be dishonest to themselves or each other. But even then, some days they surprise me. I’ll write something and then say, “no…really?” In those situations I do what I always do…never delete…and I wait to till the next day to see if it holds.
Some difficulties, though, don’t seem to change…I won’t say never…I am only writing my fifth book in the series…perhaps by the, gawd help us, tenth book I will no longer be troubled by this. Here it is: every time I sit down to write I have the exact same anxiety, that today, nothing will work. I lead up to writing by making tea, reading the paper, doing a spot of meditation, cleaning the kitchen counter, cleaning the kitchen floor with one of those steam cleaning things…what a pain in the ass that is…and by the way, they never get into the corners… anything to avoid that first eruption of words onto the screen. And then the moment comes when I can no longer avoid it and I crack on.
Because I write at least five days a week, I don’t wait about for inspiration. If I may offer a version of ‘you don’t know what you think until you write it’ which was my mantra for my students who slouched about desperately on their desks saying they couldn’t ‘think of anything to write’, then it is: ‘you do not know what inspires until you see it on the page’.
And so, I just start writing. I have done one thing that makes it easier. I give myself permission to not accept something if it doesn’t work. I’ve sometimes written a whole chapter of 2500 words, and then decided it doesn’t work at all in the arc of the story, or I don’t like how one of my characters behaved, or, in one case I decided Lane Winslow’s war time friend and colleague Yvonne has come for a visit, wrote her in for several chapters, and then decided I didn’t really want her there at all. (A confounded nuisance for her…it was a big deal to travel from France to western Canada in 1947…I hope she will agree to come back another time.) Two or three days’ work, gone. So I highlight the whole offending section and move it to a file I call “rejected bits”. I know I’ll likely never go back and fetch them and put them into service somewhere, but it’s a way of placating the writing gods…Oh…did I mention there are writing gods? Demanding brutes, the lot of them! Believe me, they are not interested in a writer’s ease at all.
In An Old Cold Grave, Lane Winslow spends time at one of the several abandoned houses in King’s Cove, hoping to find some trace of the family of a dead child. Perhaps because of the finding of the child’s body, or the dark rooms in the cold, damp spring, she is not as charmed by the possibilities of abandoned houses and cabins, as I was as a child.
I had carte blanche by my dangerously unworried mother to wander around poking about in the abandoned properties in the community. There were houses and biodegrading log cabins that had not been lived in for several decades, but were still full of intriguing and wonderfully hazardous household items…rusty tools, acrid-smelling white powders in tins whose labels had rusted away. It set my imagination ablaze to stand on the collapsing floorboards of these houses with torn curtains, and broken furniture, the cupboards still holding a few cups, or packets of salt or baking powder, and wonder ‘who lived here?’ and ‘Why did they leave their egg beater?’ Had they died, or just, like the people in my book, been unequal to the struggle of survival and packed off to somewhere else?
There was a cabin up the hill from me with a wooden trunk full of damp music books with notes fading off the pages with time and mold, disappearing like the songs from the distant aeons they represented. Inexplicably, amongst them, was a nineteenth century medical book, with, to a child, shocking ink drawing renderings of reproductive whatnots, that thrilled and repelled at once. Behind my own house there was an abandoned building which I had been told was once a school, and I imagined the children, all in black and white, as if there could have been no colour so long ago. Perhaps they too had seen the medical book, and had abandoned altogether the idea of reproducing.
Maybe it was because I had moved so often as a child, or because my mother spoke with such aching longing of the houses out of the mists of her childhood, but these abandoned homes gave me a strong sense of the transiency of human lives. My mother told me of houses where generations of her family had lived, but this was unimaginable to me. Houses have such pretensions to permanence, and yet I probably lived in ten houses in two countries by the time I was twelve. All around me people seemed to pass in ghostly succession through these derelict homes, waking up to mornings they thought they might wake up to each day, forever, only to disappear in a few seasons.
The last time I was in the hamlet by Kootenay lake of my childhood, I visited the property where I have placed the Armstrongs and their little post office, and the house, upon which their cottage has been modelled in my books, is gone…all except one tiny room, set to one side of the grand new house that was built in its place. I stepped into that one room, empty, the walls nothing but weathered boards, nearly dark in the deep shadow of a cold autumn afternoon, and I knew it at once.
It was the little room that had once been a sunny bedroom.
I called back the light, flowered paper on the walls, and a lovely cherry dressing table with a bevelled mirror, and a sparse and neatly made bed with an iron bedstead. I waved my hand, and flowered curtains again fluttered in the warm afternoons of summer days. I put myself on the soft pink coverlet of the bed, a small and excited child, smelling, as I had been allowed to do whenever I wanted, the magical smell of violets, captured in a tiny, deep blue bottle.
I suppose it is really all I want to do now… capture the lost lives and distant times into the magical pages of books. It is one response, I suppose, to the transiency of us all.
In my last blog I talked about the Home Children, who have a place in my new release, An Old Cold Grave. A second story line in that book looks at the life of a teenaged girl, Erin Anderson, who has suddenly and inexplicably gone on a bit of a rampage and gets arrested.
She is close to my heart, this girl. She is a composite of girls I knew when I was in school in the mid-sixties, and many of the wonderful girls I have had the privilege of teaching and working with during my long career in education.
In a way, I am sad that she is a composite of girls I knew so long ago and girls I know now…I had hoped that in the years since the sixties, the rebellion against ‘the man’ would have netted complete and unquestioned equality of opportunity for brilliant girls... But let me start at the beginning.
I was lucky. My parents who paid no attention to my grades or my work ethic, or any notion of a curfew, and made few demands besides some house chores, believed in education and expected that I would go to university. (Luckily we found an extremely liberal arts college that could accommodate someone with zero math skills and high verbal acuity) My father was away a good deal of the time, and my mother was too busy going to university herself, something she had had no opportunity to do as a young woman, and which thrilled her in every cell. (This love of learning never left: she was studying classical Greek architecture and feminism at UBC when she died at aged 87.) I lucked out. My parents thought a good education was necessary for a good career, whether you were a boy or a girl.
But some of the other girls I knew were not so lucky. Oh, they went to university all right, but the object was not to get an education so much as to meet a suitable man. I remember with particular poignancy one of the smartest girls in my school, who wanted to become a brain surgeon. She, a bit like Erin in my story, was told in no uncertain terms that her job was to use her time at the uni to marry, and marry well. I remember wondering how any one could impose such restrictions on such a brilliant girl. And I remember her anger.
And while women have made a great deal of progress in our society, I still met girls while I was teaching who were brilliant students, but who had to struggle because the resources of the family were being directed more towards the boys. All this, while girls were out-performing them on every level.
But it’s 1947 in my book. The restrictions on female ambition were deep-rooted and nearly universal. I understand Erin’s sudden delinquency. And I admire her combative resiliency. I only hope she was able to do with her life what she wanted. Just as I always hoped that my friend in school was able to spend her life happily operating on people’s brains.
The time is fast approaching for the release of my third Lane Winslow mystery, An Old Cold Grave in September. Lane Winslow continues her sleuthing relationship with Inspector Darling and Constable Ames when the skeleton of a child is discovered buried the base of the roof of Gladys Hughes’s root cellar.
If I think about something that characterizes my books, it is that the person who has died is always someone who has not particularly ‘deserved’ it. That is, they are not people who are unpleasant and have accumulated an intriguing passle of enemies along the way, as in, say, a classic Christie novel. In some ways I think this reflects the real world. Often the suspicious deaths one reads about are of people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or are being robbed, or are the victim of someone else’s carelessness, or inability to get out of a mess without hurting someone.
What matters to me are the stories of the people in my books, and how they intersect and flow around each other, and how everyone arrives at the moment when someone has died at the hands of someone else.
In an Old Cold Grave I take up a theme that has fascinated me since I learned of it, and that is the matter of the Home Children. In the story, Inspector Darling has to ask what the Home Children are, because living in British Columbia he would not have had a wide experience of a program that by 1946 had been going on for over half a century in the eastern part of the country and the prairies.
The program involved removing children from the streets and appalling slums they lived in, often with no regard to whether they had living parents, and shipping them off to the colonies to work on farms. Initially children as young as 13 were considered appropriately placed on Canadian farms, but as the years went on there was even less care about the age, and much younger children found their way here to do back breaking work. Siblings were often separated, especially if a younger child was involved, as they were not considered useful. While some of the children were met with kindness, and sometimes even adopted, many were treated abysmally, and many suffered abuse. Children ran away and are lost to history, many died and were injured. Certainly the oversight and protection for the children was nearly non-existent.
Nearly 100,000 children were brought to Canada, and there are hundreds and thousands of Canadians today who are their descendants. I worked with children my whole working life, both in social work and education, and I am keenly aware of the effects of abuse and deprivation on the ongoing lives of people who have endured it, and on the subsequent generations. But I have also been in wonder at the resilience of so many children who survive and even thrive out of the harshest conditions.
There is a wonderful book that was put together in 1979 called The Home Children, Edited by Phyllis Harrison. In this book Harrison collected first person accounts from survivors of the program and their descendants. While there are books that cover the statistics and the detailed political and social history that led to the forcible emigration of these children, the Harrison book is full of the personal stories of these children as they experienced their lives. It is both heart-breaking and uplifting. You can get more information at http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com
I have received a number of kind notes from readers, many of whom have said how much they enjoy the description of nature in my books. Of course, one can go too far with that sort of thing. A reader may not always want to wade through a forest glade with a writer describing in detail each passing shrub complete with its Latin name in the middle of a thriller. However, the feel and the look of King’s Cove is central to Lane Winslow’s attachment to the place. The descriptions I attempt,(and I certainly do not succeed as well as I would like to) are ones that in some way reflect the feelings of the characters themselves. I want you to be there and experience the place as my characters do.
The scenery of the west Kootenays is probably the first I ever consciously encountered in my life, and though it was eventually superseded by the nearly opposite landscapes of my later childhood in Mexico, the visceral feeling of my early childhood landscapes never left me. Indeed, I feel as if they have been lurking about in my subconscious waiting to be let out and shared both my characters and my readers.
Of course, very young children experience the world with the totality of their being for its newness, so that every one of us has a childhood terrain embedded in our subconscious. I spent a great deal of my time alone outside as a very small child, and now, when I begin to imagine characters doing anything in King’s Cove, those memories all come to the surface, and for a time I am there again. I remember the smells, the feel and sound of the air and wind, the dazzling play of greens and water in sunshine and in shadow as if they were actual beings I interacted with. A rainy day there was more grey and looming, the snow on a morning more dazzling and white and hushed, than any I have known since.
I think that for people living in a rural environment, the landscape and the weather are more of a factor than for those of us who live in cities. One of my favourite books is The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden. In it the author simply describes her surroundings in minute and intimate detail throughout the course of the seasons of the year 1906. She reminds us, I think, to slow down and not miss the intimacy of our deep and human relationship with landscape, colour and light.
Lane Winslow is a fictional character who reflects only one of the hundreds of thousands of roles women took in the British war effort. It is arguable that women made the difference in winning. In a very real way, the more women worked, the more men were freed to engage in actual fighting overseas. At the same time that Britain was scooping women by the thousands into a vast array of roles that ranged from food production, to weapons manufacturing to domestic defense and right through to front line work, Germany was doing the opposite. Hitler ran on a campaign of pledging to get women out of the work force, and during the war forbad absolutely any role for women that was not purely domestic, and focussed on having and raising children for the Reich.
What is remarkable to me is how counter to the current social norms of the day all of this recruiting was. Women in British society were still largely expected to be at home. When they did work it was in strictly ‘women’s jobs’ such as secretarial work, and if they married were expected to give up their jobs and return home. The war was in many ways a boon to women. “There’s a war on, you know” became the underlying patriotic motivation for the many women who dropped everything to serve.
The key in some ways to women’s success was the ingrained view that women were simply not as smart as men. For women like Lane Winslow, serving in the Special Operations Executive or SOE, part of what made their work so effective was the cultural norm in Europe of women as domestic creatures; women intelligence officers were often able to go about freely delivering intelligence, training resistance fighters in the use of explosives and new radio equipment because it was simply unimaginable that that pretty young woman cycling down a French lane with a baguette in her basket could be a skilled technical adviser on explosives.
And of course, women took a lot of stick early on. So deeply ingrained was this notion of the sharp division between a woman’s world and a man’s, that men were often suspicious and surprised by their abilities. One report offers: “Many men were amazed that women could make adequate gunners despite their excitable temperament, lack of technical instincts, their lack of interest in aeroplanes and their physical weaknesses.” My temper would be excitable if I had to listen to men being amazed that I could change a tire.
It is difficult from my vantage point in the twenty first century to imagine the bitter disappointment after the war in being forced back into pre-war roles. Here is what one woman wrote: "Demob (demobilisation) was a big disappointment to a lot of us. It was an awful and wonderful war. I wouldn't have missed it for anything; some of the friends we made were forever”
For university educated women like Lane, giving up the independence and the freedom to shape her world as she would have it would have been particularly hard. There was an excellent series on PBS called Bletchley Circle that illustrates this point so well. Intelligent women, obliged to keep their war work secret forever from even their closest family members. Their own husbands, so immured in the pre-war notion of the little woman in the home, vastly under-rating the brilliance and capacity of the women they loved and lived with. It is no wonder that Lane is shy of any entanglement. She has way too much to lose.
A few reflections on living with silence. I’m sitting here in front of my computer, my husband has the hockey game on in another room, which in our open plan apartment might as well be right in front of me, and I have my phone right by me in case of an urgent beep from twitter, instagram or facebook. Or a bing from The New York Times or some advertiser I’ve unsubscribed from three times already, with critical information I need this very second. There’s traffic outside and because of where we live in Vancouver, if the front door is open on a fine day, we hear airplanes coming and going from the local airport. I’ve often noticed that even if I am in the country, walking in a forest or along a river, surrounded by birdsong, I am still never far from noise; a kind of background rumble of the modern world. Someone once described it to me as being on the holodeck. Even though you are in a seemingly in a quiet forest or glade, you can always hear the engines of the Enterprise working away somewhere nearby.
We live in a kind of ‘noise’ where connectedness seems critical at every moment, without realizing that this compelling need to be in touch is entirely specious. No one could be got at like that when I was a child. You had to phone someone, if they were ‘on the telephone’ or go over and see them in person. Or you could write a letter. That was in touch as it got. You could go days without hearing from anyone, and honestly, it was very peaceful.
Lane Winslow lives in a world I still remember, and anyone my age who lived outside an urban center will remember. It was a world where silence, that is to say, freedom from human racket, was still possible. I haven’t even allowed poor Lane a gramophone, or a radio yet, so anxious am I to preserve this remembered silence. I could lie on the wharf, now long gone, and listen to the wonderful green hollow lapping of the water through the cracks between the boards. I would not, as I do now, have to determinedly push away the sound of motorboats, planes, and trucks in order to hear the sound of just nature. It was just there, by the lake, in the garden on an afternoon, on my long exploring walks through the woods.
I never had to question the existence of silence. Human sounds were the interlopers, the exceptions. If a car was coming up the hill into the community, we heard it, and wondered where it was going. When the car stopped, the world reverted to silence, not just to less noise. Now, looking back, I see such long forgotten silence as one of the greatest losses in the world I live in. I remember it as being soothing on a hot afternoon, or terrifying on a thunderous night. I felt a personal relationship with the earth itself. I’m sure that in some mountain fastness, far from anywhere, or in the middle of a great sweep of desert, somewhere on the globe, silence is still to be found, but for most of us, it is a patrimony that is lost forever.
So, I’m sorry Lane. I know you love Beethoven, and would like to know what the weather forecast is, but for the time being I will not be supplying you with anything noisier than a coffee percolator. You’re lucky I’ve let you keep that phone!
On the eve of the release of my second book, Dark In The Darkening Mist I’ve been given, by an accidental question in a radio interview, a chance to look soberly what it might mean to have spies in the family. I have, like all writers, made use of experiences from my own life, and those of my family to enrich the lives of my characters. I have created a character in Lane Winslow who is somewhat modelled on my mother, because she was a phenomenal linguist and beautiful and charming. It was a bonus that she shared some of her stories about her brief episode of spying for the British when she and my father and my older brother lived in South Africa during the Second World War. She tended to describe her war time work as if the whole thing was a colossal lark, and she was comically incompetent.
Now looking back though, I see that there were two kinds of secrecy in my family. The one she employed, of just sharing selective stories that obscured the more difficult and dangerous part of the work, and the absolute silence that my grandfather maintained with his children. My mother, like Lane, was a situational spy. She wanted to help the war effort, and when it was over, was happy to get on with her life.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was what I described during the radio interview at Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver, as a ‘proper spy.’ Intrigued, the radio host asked me to share some stories about his exploits. In the too-long silence that followed, it came to me that she never told me one story about his life as a spy, except the final one, when he died in a Nazi prison during the war. And that was because she had never learned one story from him.
This sobering realization made me think about the impact on families of having someone who works in intelligence with a serious and long-term commitment. My grandfather was ostensibly a businessman, involved in the production of flax and linen. His family would never know anything about the other side of his double life. He would no doubt be away ‘on business’ a good deal, and unable to share even the smallest, insignificant detail of what he ever did.
The silence she maintained about her father was a great dark void in my family history. I knew that he was handsome, had won my grandmother away from a fiancé who was kind and loved her until the end of his life. And I learned that my grandfather was a hard man, and though he may have loved his wife and children in his own way, was hard on them. We know from studies about what makes a good spy that besides the obvious traits such as being good at languages, sharpened survival skills, sang froid, a fluid intelligence, there has to be an ability to tolerate ambivalence, secrecy, dishonesty. A willingness to give up the intimacy of normal family life in return for the clandestine life. Often these traits are honed and developed as survival mechanisms in difficult and unloving childhood lives.
Lane Winslow, we learn in Death In The Darkening Mist, has never gotten on with her father, and finds she must come to terms with what his silence and secrecy mean to her.