I got such a nice note from a fan a the other day who was holding a book club event in which Death In The Darkening Mist was the chosen book. That was lovely on its own, but her description of the tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, put me in mind of the teas of my childhood in the community upon which I model King’s Cove.
Tea was as necessary to life as the water in the creeks. It was breakfast, mid afternoon and often, for those who seemed unaffected by caffeine, the drink before bed. Most days tea was accompanied by some packaged biscuits, which we more commonly think of as cookies. The two that were ubiquitous that come to mind are both English; digestives and bourbon crèmes. Children were often given arrowroot cookies, which I loved, because when you dunked them in tea they became, I now see in retrospect, an unpleasant fat, soggy, paste sort of texture. If you weren’t careful the whole dunked end would cascade into your cup, where you would try to fish it out with a spoon. It was always too late, of course, and the cookie disintegrated, leaving a mess of cookie sog in the bottom of your cup. For some reason I have never understood, arrowroot was good for children. Based, perhaps, on some Victorian consistency scale; soft and pasty, children, grainy and full of roughage, grown ups. My favourite of course, were the bourbon crèmes, though I felt they too were for the grown ups, because they were fancy and tasted good.
And in the summer the glorious high teas. Teas at church fetes, or summer teas on Sundays served outside. These were the teas where the cakes came out, and the egg salad sandwiches, and on a very special day, devilled egg. There was a cake I loved, with nuts and spices and billows of icing, which I have learned is very traditional at English teas; walnut cake. And a sort of pound cake with cherries, and always something with chocolate. Brownies, maybe some sort of single layer cake that predated the sheet cake. There was a kind of fruitcake, ubiquitous in the homes of my elderly British relatives, but rarer in my childhood community. These appeared around Christmas, having been sent from ‘the old country’, and were kept in round tins and worked on till they were finally gone, some time in February. I and my childhood friends avoided these sinister, dark, slightly burnt-tasting objects. Now of course, I love a good fruitcake.
The church fetes were fantastic. I have been to many a church tea over the years since my childhood, and they have never measured up to the first ones. They were in high summer, always outside under spreading trees on tables set with a myriad of styles of table cloth. Tea wasn’t served from an urn. Milk wasn’t in a carton. Sugar wasn’t in packets. Somewhere offstage water was being boiled constantly, and the china tea pots were full all day long with hot tea. We poured milk out of a little jug into our cups, and added sugar, and a grown up, tsk tsking by the third spoon of sugar, would fill the cup with tea and send us off to sit on a rug on the grass, with urgent warnings not to spill it.
Cakes of every kind lined the tables. Of course, there were sandwiches, and we ate them if any adults were watching. Soft white bread spread with butter or margarine, still very popular after the war, with egg, or cucumber, or canned ham. It was the cake, though, that was of paramount attraction, and for these parish teas bakers put their best foot forward with cakes with three layers, and jam fillings, and icing that looked like a whirling storm at sea. If you were lucky, some of the cakes were not part of the bake sale, and were cut up to serve with the tea. I only ever rebelled at one cake; coconut. To this day I do not care to encounter shreds of coconut, tasteless and like little strips of cardboard, in any cake.
In a world where nearly everything a child was likely to want would ‘stunt your growth’, I am ever thankful that endless cups of tea with unregulated amounts of sugar and milk, never made the list.
I was asked by a woman attending a reading I did recently how I came to choose detective fiction as my chosen genre. When I hear a question like that my mind tumbles down through my years of reading to near the beginning, my Nancy Drew phase.
The Nancy Drew mysteries I read came out of the 30s’ and 40s’ when Nancy was portrayed as confident and bold. I admired her relationship with her father because she came across almost as his colleague. It mirrored my chummy relationship with my own father, and because of my rather fraught relationship with my powerful mother, it suited me perfectly that Nancy’s mother had long since died and provided no impediment to her peace of mind.
No one, in my recollection, was trying to make Nancy marry Ned, or tone it down and she never seemed to be afraid of anything. I aspired to be unafraid, and I loved Nancy for that. Certainly there was very little modeling for hesitation and fearfulness, or even good sense and natural caution, in my house. Nancy Drew was a girl that culturally I could relate to, and whose bravery I could aspire to. And in spite of my adolescent misgivings about my mother, I can see now that she was the very model of what Nancy Drew would surely grow up to be.
After I had run through all the Nancy Drews I could find, I turned to the Hardy Boys, which, as I child I assumed had come along later so that boys would have some wonderful strong characters to read about. (Of course, it was the other way around: she came along in 1930 to attract the female reader.) I wasn’t very impressed. The adventures were fine, I’m sure, but they lacked this shining central character, who always appeared in illustrations in some dangerous place at night, armed with nothing but a flashlight, and wearing a lovely dress and those high-heeled, laced or strapped shoes of women of the period. I still love the look of those shoes!
It’s probably a mistake not to be afraid of things. I remember the first time I wondered if I ought to be afraid. I was 20 years old and in a situation in a Balkan country in which I had placed myself far from help and with no notion of how the men around me might behave. Fear and caution are natural human emotions that it is prudent to have to hand, but I was disheartened to learn that beginning in the 1950s, under some social pressure I assume, Nancy Drew was made less bold, less back-chatty, more feminine in giving way to fear and her father’s expectations. It’s probably realistic to assume that someone pursuing a clue in a mineshaft at night on her own OUGHT to be afraid, but I loved it that that in those early books, she didn’t seem to be.
I have said from time to time that Lane Winslow is Nancy Drew for grown ups. I don’t mean to diminish either character with this. Lane reflects the mad crazy fearlessness of my own mother as I knew her. And here’s what I learned about my mother late in her life: she WAS afraid of things and her response was to suit up and go confront them directly. (Exhibit A: a photo I have of my mother at the age of 75 dressed in full fire-fighter’s gear after she and her colleagues at the local volunteer fire department have conducted a practice in an actual burning house. She was absolutely terrified of fire.)
Even though I love mysteries that, as Dame PD James said, are good novels, and have wonderful conflicted central male characters like Lord Peter, Dalgleish, Poirot and so on, when I began to write, I never considered for a minute that a man would hold the central spot. How could I with Nancy and my mother keeping a keen and supervisory eye on my output?
I had an interesting question asked of me at my recent book launch for It Begins In Betrayal. I was asked about the role of feminism in the actions of my heroine. This is a massive question. I have a character who is clearly a strong individual, and who sets out to be the ‘rescuer’ in It Begins In Betrayal. Where is a character like that positioned in the question of feminism?
The business of feminism in the post war years is an entire Women’s Studies course. Though there are ample histories of bravery and leadership by women coming out of the war years, I write characters based on my own experience of people, in this case my own mother, and the people I knew in the small community I write about, and the stories I heard about my family. Women I knew as a child in that community had been through wars, had lost husbands, or worked on an equal footing with them in agricultural pursuits. They were strong out of necessity, but I perceived them as strong by inclination as well. Everyone I knew just ‘got on with it’. My own English aunts just got on with things as well in spite of setbacks or societal expectations.
Based on the balance of power, as I perceived it in my household, I truly believed that women were much stronger than men, and I still remember my genuine surprise at twelve or so when I was finally in a proper school, that society in general called women things like ‘the weaker sex’. I was quite shocked when I learned that my father’s younger brother married a fully qualified doctor and then immediately forbade her to work. I was disappointed by him, though by then I was in my twenties and I had begun to understand how men lived out their privileges, but I was puzzled by her. Why had she accepted these terms? The most I could ever glean from her in all her uncomplaining years was that she perceived it to be her duty. Subsuming your personal ambitions to duty is very surely a kind of strength as well.
An examination of what went into the solidifying of my mother’s strength reveals that though she had social, class and educational advantages, nevertheless she had painful experiences that had a profound influence on her behaviour and attitudes. She was poorly treated by her father, and much disappointed to find that marriage to her husband meant that she would be alone for much of her life, both because he was away for most of the war, and because in peacetime he was away doing geology. These disappointing circumstances undoubtedly strengthened her and fed her desire refuse to settle for a life in which only men could have adventure. She embarked on adventure and doing whatever she darn well wanted to beginning when I was three, and never really let up. My father was certainly powerless to stop her for the most part, and in fact revealed after she died how much he admired her.
She acquired four master’s degrees after the age of fifty (much to the delight and admiration of my friends in high school who rarely saw such things) after growing up with little formal education as we know it here, having been educated by governesses and a brief and unhappy stint of boarding school. One of her Master’s degrees was in philosophy. She was intolerant of the growing fascination of psychology in the sixties because she believed all it provided was excuses. She believed profoundly in individual will and agency. “Just get on with it,” was the strongest lesson of my childhood.
So to answer a question about feminism and my characters, I have to consider what benefit there might have been to women who were ‘feminists’ by nature, but not attached to any political movements that forward the advancement of women. The world, after all, is full of women who are powerhouses, but not political. I think the service they provide to the advancement of women is to be found in modelling. In this case, especially in the times, modelling strength and agency. Modelling intolerance for the attempt to restrict their movements and activities. Of course, there were women all around Lane trapped in restrictive marriages, or indeed, who believed profoundly in the institution and the proper role of women in the home, but what people like my mother and the many other powerful women I knew did was to model this one fact: it doesn’t have to be that way. You can just get on with it.
In less than a week, It Begins In Betrayal, will be out, I would like to reflect on one aspect that goes into the writing of the books…no, not the giant cups of tea and mornings wrapped in my now deplorably tatty fluffy pink bathrobe, (I may be on the verge of simply nationalizing my husband’s fluffy blue bathrobe…but that is a discussion for another day. )
Rather, I would like to talk about the values that Lane and Darling share. They are values that my very British parents, who were born in 1911 and 1912 respectively, inculcated in me from the moment I arrived. Because my mother herself was presented at court when she ‘came out’ in the 1929 London Season, she considered us part of the gentleman class, and therefore very much bound by the values that in her mind were central to our identity.
I can see now that four of these values are inherent in the behaviour of the characters because Lane, as Lizzie Bennet said of herself, “is a gentleman’s daughter”, and Darling is what my mother very much admired, a ‘natural gentleman.’ These are, if I may give them names, 1. the duty of escape, 2. the word of a gentleman, 3. the obligations to others with whom one has ties and 4. an absolute stricture to never draw attention to oneself. While these four values are deeply woven into the stories thus far, they are a prominent undercurrent or driver for the action in It Begins In Betrayal.
1. Duty to escape. I remember my mother told me about this when I was a child, and I thought it terribly noble, and on a practical level I came to understand it to mean ‘get yourself out of your own scrapes’ and so whatever messes I got into in life it never occurred to me that anyone else should help me. The idea for the book came because there has been an ongoing discussion between Lane Winslow, the heroine of my series, and Inspector Darling of the Nelson Police about Lane being rescued. During their adventures, Lane has several times been in dangerous situations and always manages to rescue herself, or get a damn good start, just as he is about to sweep in. He finds it challenging that she should want to do everything herself, she finds it intolerable to be in a situation where she is in danger, and believes profoundly that she must exert every personal effort to extricate herself. She does not think for an instant about being a woman, and while she is grateful to see Darling looming up to help, she has already done most of the work. Now, I thought, what if she had to rescue him?
2. The word of a gentleman. In this book, Darling is accused of the murder of his young rear gunner in battle conditions. Lane does not doubt for a moment that he is innocent. He has said he is and she trusts that. For one thing he has already proven beyond a doubt to her that he is a thoughtful and profoundly ethical man, but for another, she is very much driven by the idea that a gentleman’s word is his bond. So strong was this value in my home that I have lived my whole life believing what I am told by people, and I will say, in particular after 40 years of working with adolescents including those in the gravest difficulties, I have rarely been proved wrong. Believing people is the right thing to do, and Lane believes Darling without a shadow of doubt.
3. The obligation to help a friend. This value is most amusingly captured in literature by PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who is constantly obliged to help his friends out of scrapes because of the ‘old school tie’. As a gentleman he must come to their aid, regardless of how it imperils him. So too must Lane. We could certainly say that love is a motivation, but it is deeper than that. She would never leave a friend in the lurch. It is her duty to help, regardless of the cost to her, and it is great.
4. Do not draw attention to yourself. Finally, there is the value of not making a fuss, a kind of humility about what one has done. Both my parents absolutely embodied the gentlemanly, as I saw it, code of dismissing their achievements as being inconsequential, (many people today recognize this one in particular to be quintessentially British) What they did ‘anybody would have done’ and it is considered the height of poor taste to draw attention to oneself, let alone overtly boast about anything. I was certainly taught that no one wanted to know how I felt about anything, and I grew up imbibing that peculiar brand of British modesty that some may see as a kind of false modesty that in fact draws attention to itself. “Well, yes, I did climb Everest without oxygen wearing flip flops…but my dear, a child of five could have done it.” It is nevertheless a real value, and people who embody it feel a genuine embarrassment about having achievements celebrated by others unless they are made light of.
I’ve had the great good fortune recently to attend two outstanding and very different literary events; the first was the Galiano Literary Festival, and the second was the Tucson Festival of Books.
Galiano provided a wonderful combination of a very intimate and beautiful setting, and a real chance to mingle with both new and legendary Canadian authors, as a writer myself, but also as a worshipful reader. The opportunity in a setting like that to meet and mingle with proper writers, to be called “Iona” by the great Mary Walsh (Canada’s own politician-harrying warrior princess) at dinner in the evening, simply because she remembered me from a very likely inane comment I made in the morning is exciting enough. But to earnestly discuss writing and story building with thriller writer Elle Wild with whom I presented, and Sam Wiebe, the great Vancouver ‘noir’ writer over a glass or two of wine was actually thrilling. It is perhaps not surprising that endless discussions about writing is enthralling to writers, but it is clearly of interest to readers as well, who had really engaging questions to ask about our books, our characters and our process.
Being able to engage in that intimate way really helped me to both learn more about my own process, by having examine it more closely, and to articulate it. In fact, it helped me to prepare for…The Tucson Festival of Books!
This is a fantastic free-to-the-public event with literally hundreds of authors in every genre. It has been held every year for the last ten years and gets upwards of 300,000 visitors to the vast complex set up on the University of Arizona campus. Here is everyone you’ve ever worshipped as a reader! For an author it is very generous; the events are set up as moderated panels, and some of the questions are emailed in advance, so that you don’t really have to create a special presentation, and are given an opportunity to sound intelligent and amusing to a large room full of complete strangers. Of course I came away with piles of author-signed books, (Francine Mathews, Charles Todd, Rhys Bowen, to name a few and, oh joy, Billy Collins!) and with any luck, other people came away with piles of my author-signed books.
Honestly, especially gratifying at the Tucson festival, is that just when you think reading is disappearing over the horizon like civilized discourse in our political life, you see the hordes of children and teenagers crowding in to sessions with their favourite children’s and YA authors. I felt hope coursing through me like a good hot toddy on a winter’s day! Congratulations to both events!
I was at a really good book club the other night…it started with a bang when I was handed a cocktail called a Vesper, which was invented by Ian Fleming for 007 to consume, and had the effect of making any sudden movement unadvisable. It also generated a very comfortable free flowing discussion about mothers (they all had fascinating mothers, many of whom did war work) the books, the characters, and whether we wanted more Vespers or should move on to wine. (There’s a reason this book club has lasted three decades…)
Here is a question asked that night that has made me think: “Is it hard to write real incidents into your stories?” My initial response was ‘it’s hard to keep them out.’ Certainly your brain feeds you a steady stream of all you know and have experienced. But the incidents don’t go in as-is. I take them out of bits and pieces of my life, or what I know of the lives of my parents and grandparents from snippets of stories, and then are kneaded and flopped around to fit the circumstances of the book.
My favourite example happened when Lane was about to go over edge of a cliff on a snowy night in a car being driven by a mad kidnapper, (book two of the Lane Winslow mysteries, Death In A Darkening Mist) and I was trying to figure out how to get her out. I suddenly remembered that when I was eight my mother taught me how to roll off the back of a speeding truck, should that contingency ever arise. (Only my mother would imagine such a precaution necessary...)
But my most interesting discovery has been that sometimes I find the truth about something after I’ve written a scene. My mother and her father did, in real life, have a rocky relationship, and I’ve borrowed that for Lane and her father. Like my mother, Lane has a younger sister who was very much favoured by her father because she is vivacious and undaunted by her father’s dark moods. In the same book where I nearly drove Lane off a cliff, I described the death of Lane’s mother when Lane was five, but her sister was only a baby. I wrote that Lane, who had known her mother’s love and mourned her, became a quiet and internal child, while her sister, who never really knew her mother at all, grew up free from the sorrow Lane experienced. Thus her sister grew up only knowing her father, and was also blessed with the more of the diablerie of many a younger sibling and so had a happier and less complicated relationship with her father. Lane on the other hand grew up thoughtful and internal, and her father had no idea how to deal with her, and as a consequence disliked her.
When I finished writing that scene I realized something I’d never thought of during all the years I knew about my own mother’s unhappy relationship with her own sister and father; that what I had written was exactly true for my mother and her sister, and their very unequal relationship with their father. It seems obvious now that I see it on paper, but I honestly didn't know until I'd written the scene for Lane.
This experience of discovery really reinforced for me my theory about brains…that our brains take in ridiculous amounts of information, and because we’re too busy watching Netflix or having Vespers, the brain has to do all the work of processing and finding meaning on its own. But if you give it any opening, like deciding to write without, (see previous blog), too much pre-planning, it comes into its own, and provides amazing insights, and some half decent stories.
here to edit.
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.
Meet Lane Winslow!