Secrets in an old wallet



mauriceI have been stuck for quite a long time in the writing of the third installment of the trilogy based on my father-in-law’s life, Walking Out of War.

Until I pulled a little slip of paper out of a tattered, old wallet and broke the logjam by putting the subject of my story, Maurice Bury, into a real time and place.

Writing this trilogy that began with has taken a lot of research. I don’t want to begin estimating the number of hours, but literally, the effort has spanned more than
10 years.

It began with Maurice’s stories about the war. Then, we sat down to serious interviews, where I took extensive notes.

His wartime experience fell into three phases, the first two of which I have already published in Army of Worn Soles and Under the Nazi Heel.

ArmyofWornSoles-smaller

The third part, Walking Out of War, covers Maurice’s experience as a private in the Red Army from 1944 to 1945. And while I still had those interview notes, Maurice passed away 12 years ago, so I cannot ask him about questions that come up only when you try to write a story like this.

So I had to turn to historical records. Thank you, Wikipedia and Professor Orest Subtelny.

Bringing the story to life

Anyone who has tried to tell an accurate story about the Second World War can tell you how confusing it can be, with many different forces acting in several
different theatres of war at the same time.

I used a range of sources, including some of Maurice’s personal effects. They included a tattered, battered old wallet containing some fascinating documents:

  • alliedtravelpass-tovienna-inside Allied Expeditionary Force D.P. Index cards, signed by Maurice in Cyrillic script
  • a notarized affidavit from Maurice’s aunt in Montreal, mentioning Maurice as a Canadian citizen living in a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration Displaced Persons camp in Landeck, Austria
  • Allied Travel permits authorizing Maurice to go from Landeck to Vienna in early 1947.

These and other documents supported Maurice’s story and my notes about going from Berlin to Ingolstadt, Bavaria, and then Landeck, Innsbruck and finally Vienna before coming home to Canada.

But I was still having trouble getting Maurice’s journey clear in my own mind.

 

The final clue

tdbnletterMonths later, I saw a thin pocket in the old wallet that I had never noticed before. From it, I pulled out a thin slip of yellowed paper. Typed with an uneven manual
typewriter was the following:

 

Recen. Co. 692 T.D.Bn.

July 7, 1945.

To whom it may concerns:

 

     The following two men, Maurice Bury, and Tkacz

Bazyli , have been working for us as K. P.s for the last

xxxxx month, and we have found there  work to be very

satisfactory.

We recommend them very highly.

signed,

John Gardner

1st Lt. W.A.

commanding

 

I was very excited. I showed it to a retired Canadian Armed Forces general, who explained some of the abbreviations at the top. “T.D.Bn” stands for “tank destroyer battalion.” And the reference to “K.P.” indicated an American unit.

Maurice had told me that, following the war, he had worked for the American Army, first helping out in the kitchen and then as a translator—he spoke English, German and Russian as well as Ukrainian.

A Google search for the 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion told me that it indeed had been formed in 1942, arriving in France in September 1944. It was attached to the 104th Infantry Division, and then to the First Canadian Army, which it supported in its attack on Antwerp, Belgium and the crossing of the Maas River.  The 692nd repelled the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and in February 1945 its accurate artillery fire preserved the Regamen Bridge over the Rhine, allowing the Canadian troops to cross, saving lives. It was also the only unit called upon to break the Siegfried line more than once.

This was the unit that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

At the end of the war, the 692nd took on occupation duties in an area around the Bavarian-Austrian border.

At last, I had corroborating evidence putting Maurice Bury in southern Germany on a specific date shortly after the end of the war: July 7, 1945. It gave me two other names, as well: Lt. John Gardner, commanding officer of the 692nd on that day; and “Tkacz Bazyli.”

That’s just one of the mistakes in the letter. You’ll notice the other typos, too. “Tkacz” is a Ukrainian surname, and Maurice was friends with a man named Basil Tkacz in Montreal.

Why is this important?

This little slip of paper helped me put the end of Maurice journey out of the war into order.

This little slip of paper makes an anchor. He was in southern Germany, or maybe norther Austria, on July 7, 1945.

It gave me a timeline.

And that has allowed me to finish writing the story.

I know that I promised to release Walking Out of War before the end of 2016, and I’m sad to say that I won’t be able to do that.

I have written the draft and completed the re-write, adding all the little details. But now the manuscript has to go to an editor, a proofreader and some beta readers. It will also need a cover design before I format it and publish it as an e-book and a print book.

But know that it is imminent. All the pieces are in place, anchored with historical detail. So don’t despair, readers. The final installment of the trilogy will be in your hands soon.

 

Get your leash ready to walk the big dog — on Facebook



Get to more about your favourite books, characters and their authors

Sydney Rye and her big dog, Blue, are among the most popular characters in fiction today. They’re the stars of eight novels and one novella by their creator, Emily Kimelman, as well as six novellas by other authors in the Sydney Rye Kindle World — including me.

Sydney Rye has also shown up in the Jet Kindle World in Emily Kimelman’s It Takes Two. The popularity of these titles shows that readers love Sydney and Blue and can’t get enough of them.

And now’s your chance to get more. The authors in the Sydney Rye Kindle World have teamed up with Book Rhythm to bring you the Walking the Giant Dog Book Party.

Come to the Facebook book party next Monday, November 21 between 7 and 9 p.m. Eastern Time, where you can win books, gift cards and other prizes. Chat with Emily Kimelman and the other authors in the Sydney Rye Kindle World. Get to know more about Sydney, Blue, Mulberry, Dan, Merle and all your favourite characters.

Who’s going to be there?

Emily-author-photob648f-delshereegladdenJulie Gilbert 2013 (5 of 25)bev

And of course, you!

Be ready to answer some tricky Sydney Rye questions:

  • Other than Sydney, who’s your favourite character in the Sydney Rye Kindle World?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
  • What breed do you think most shares Blue’s personality?

You can post a picture of your “Blue” and win e-books and Amazon gift cards.

Come to the Facebook page now and click “Going” just under the top graphic.

See you then!

sr_unleashedWifeLine-final-smallCatalystCoverFatalInterestWOWalkSoftlyLargerNemesisCoverStrangeBehavior 600x900

Who are Sydney Rye and Blue?

Sydney Rye is a woman who remade herself — with a lot of help from Merle and Mulberry — as a strong woman, dynamic and determined person after a series of traumatic events told in the first book, Unleashed. Sydney is fit, blond with gray eyes and two distinctive scars on her face.

Blue has the body of a wolf but the size of a Great Dane, the markings of a Siberian Hustky, the long, elegant muzzle of a Collie and the instincts of a German Shepherd. Also, he has one blue eye and one brown. He’s taken a bullet for Sydney and saved her life countless other times over the course of eight books.

They appear in eight Sydney Rye novels by their creator, Emily Kimelman. Sydney and Blue also appear in Emily’s JET Kindle World novella, It Takes Two.

 

Come to a party with me



November 21 at 7:00 p.m.
Chat with authors — get free books — win Amazon gift cards

SRKWbadge3On Monday, November 21, I’ll be joining six other authors in the Walking the Giant Dog Facebook party, and I want you to come with me.

All the authors who have published books in the Sydney Rye Kindle World will join Facebook to share our experiences in writing these books, and to answer readers’ questions.

Have you ever wondered

  • Why we wrote Kindle World novellas?
  • Where did Van Freeman come from, anyway?
  • Why is the dog so big?
  • What is a “wife line”?
  • Why does Sydney have a gun?

We’ll all be here:

Emily-author-photo

Emily Kimelman, author of the Sydney Rye series

Pawlish

Renée Pawlish, author of Walk Softly, Danger

jennharlow

Jennifer Harlow, author of Nemesis

Julie Gilbert 2013 (5 of 25)

Julie Gilbert, author of Fatal Interest

DelSheree Gladden

DelSheree Gladden, author of The Catalyst

UseThishires

And me, author of The Wife Line

 

 

bookrhythmAnd it’s all organized by Book Rhythm.

 

We’ll be asking you questions, too, like

  • Who is your favourite character in the Sydney Rye world, other than Sydney herself?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

All for more chances to win prizes.

Save the date — November 21, 2016 at 7 pm. Eastern Time.

SRKWlaunchimage

Get ready: read the books

The Catalyst, by DelSheree Gladden

Fatal Interest, by Julie Gilbert

Nemesis, by Jennifer Harlow

Strange Behavior, by Bev Pettersen

Walk Softly, Danger, by Renée Pawlish

The Wife Line, by Scott Bury

Rough Road, by Toby Neal

Have you read all the Sydney Rye novels yet? Here’s your chance to get the first volume, Unleashed, for free.sr_unleashed

 

 

 

A Hallowe’en treat: A free short story



The Graveyard

A few years ago, I published a short story called “The Mandrake Ruse,” which is the first instalment in Dark Clouds, a novel that I would write as a series of episodes or short stories. The story of the witch queen and her son, the only man immune to magic, it became minor hit, which I followed with “What Made Me Love You?” This is the fourth chapter, which appeared on my old blog in 2012. For a Hallowe’en treat, here it is on this blog for you, my faithful readers.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Sundial Butte Medicine Wheel, Alberta,
photo courtesy travelingluck.com

“Did we have to arrive at sunset?”

“What’s wrong, Matt — afraid of the dark?” Julian turned off the ignition and let the clutch out at the same time, making the gears grind and the whole jeep shake.

“I have no reason to be afraid,” Matt said.

“I’m not afraid, either,” Teri said and got out of the back seat. Matt knew she had very good reason to be nervous about cemeteries, but she strode with long steps and swinging arms to the fenced graveyard, her ponytail swaying. The failing light made her brown hair look black. She pushed the waist-high gate hard as if she were picking a fight with it. Matt saw her jump just a little when the gate squeaked loudly, but she strode through, looking at headstones.

The driver’s door slammed shut much too loudly for Matt’s liking, and he scowled at Julian. But the pudgy warlock did not notice and followed Teri into the cemetery.

Matt twisted in the bucket seat and fumbled to get a flashlight from the bag in the back. Teri or Julian may not have needed one to see in the dark, but he did.

He pulled the satchel’s strap over his shoulder as he climbed out of the Jeep. He closed the passenger door as quietly as he could, but the clunk echoed off something he could no longer see. He felt tingly all over and walked as quietly as he could toward the fence.

The light was failing fast. He looked to his left, where the sun had left behind an angry red smudge along the horizon. He marveled again, briefly, at the prairie’s flatness. His thighs connected with something and he bit back a curse: he had bumped into the iron fence around the cemetery while admiring the sunset. He could now barely make out Teri’s slight form and Julian’s rounded silhouette among the headstones, but for a reason he could not express, he did not dare to turn on the flashlight. He groped until he found the gate and jumped, too, when it squeaked.

“What are we looking for?” he asked in as low a voice as he could when he came up to Julian.

“What?” said Julian, in a normal tone, which made Matt jump again. “Why so jumpy, man?”

“What are we looking for?” Matt repeated, a little louder. “And I’m not jumpy. I’m just trying to be careful, that’s all.”

“Careful? Careful of what? Who do you think is way out here in the middle of nowhere at dusk?”

“I don’t know, but neither do you. So let’s just be careful, okay?”

Julian shrugged. Just as Matt was about to ask “what are we looking for” again, Teri said, “I think this is it.”

Matt followed Julian to the darkest corner at the very back of the graveyard where a stand of trees, now almost completely bare of leaves, leaned over the back fence, casting a shadow that blocked out what little light filtered through the ragged clouds. Matt stumbled three times until Julian took his elbow.

Teri was looking at the trees. Matt had to shine his flashlight at the ground in front of her before he realized that there was no fence here; the trees marked the cemetery’s boundary.

Teri pointed to two whitish rocks on the ground in front of her. “Look at the inscriptions,” she said.

Even with the flashlight, Matt had to bend down close to see what she was talking about. On the rock on the right, he finally made out: “A bird?”

“A Thunderbird,” she said. “And look at the other.”

Matt moved the light. “A cross?”

Something about it bothered him. It was worn, yes, the way only crumbly century-old carved stone can be worn, but …

“Someone’s defaced the cross,” Julian said, his voice as low as Matt’s now. He was right: it looked like someone had scrawled some kind of carving tool across the symbol several times in an attempt to erase it from stone.

“Why would someone carve these two symbols in rocks on the ground, then deface one?” Matt said. He raised the light to see a gap in the trees, an opening to a path lined with a row of white stones on the ground on each side.

Together, Julian and Teri walked down the path marked by the white stones, drawn by something that Matt did not feel. He followed, afraid for and exasperated by his wife at the same time.

He shone the flashlight left and right. As they walked down the path between the white stones, the trees became more and more stunted, more and more twisted.

“These trees aren’t just bare for winter,” Teri whispered. She had to force the words out. She felt her throat constrict until it was hard to breathe in the chill air. “They’re dead.”

Julian snapped off a branch. “They’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Then why are they still standing?” Matt asked.

Teri had to stop and drag breath into her lungs. Julian was having trouble breathing, too.

“It’s a spell making it hard for you to breathe,” Matt said. He took his wife and Julian by the arms and pulled them along the path until their breathing became normal again.

Julian stopped suck air into his lungs. “It was a gateway spell,” he said. “Put there to convince anyone who’s not serious about coming here to turn back. We’re through the gate, now.” He tilted his head slightly. “Do you hear that?” he whispered. He started down the path again, a look on his face suggesting he was following a sound that Matt could not hear.

“What language are they speaking?” Teri whispered back. A sibilance drifted by her ear, words at the edge of hearing and comprehension. She followed Julian.

“Well, I don’t hear anything, so they’re not natural,” Matt growled. Julian and Teri didn’t slow down, so he added, “They’re supernatural.”

Teri and Julian still ignored him. Somewhere, far away, a coyote’s howl made the skin on the back of Matt’s neck tingle.

The moon disappeared behind a cloud and the flashlight dimmed. “Damn. I just put in fresh batteries,” Matt muttered.

Teri did not the same light to see that Matt did. She saw the trees shrinking, being replaced by dead bushes that merged into the prairie. She could see that the grass was dead, too.

Matt shone the dying flashlight around. White stones on the ground receded on either side in curving rows. “We’re in a circle.”

“It’s a medicine wheel,” said Julian. “I didn’t think there were any this far north.”

“What’s a medicine wheel?”

“They’re rings or circles marked in stone on the grasslands,” Julian said. “They were made by the Cree thousands of years ago on sacred or important sites all over the prairies. As I recall, there are more in Alberta than anywhere else. But I thought the northernmost was well south of here. I’ve never heard of this one.”

“How do you know so much about medicine wheels?”

“Shut up, you two,” said Teri. In the centre of the wheel was a cairn of grey stones, as high as Matt’s head, set on a patch of gravel and sand.

Matt caught her arm just before Teri touched the cairn. “Haven’t you noticed that everything here is dead?”

The flashlight went out completely. The wind whispered in Teri’s ear again, but she could not make out the words. It was maddening — she felt like she should understand them, as if she once had, but could not longer remember. The sound faded like a dream in the morning, then circled her head to come at the other ear.

“Can you understand what the voices are saying?” asked Julian.

“No.”

Matt fought to keep his voice down. “I told you, they’re not real!”

“They may not be natural, but they’re definitely real,” Teri said sharply. “Look, there’s another Thunderbird inscription on the rock.”

Without the flashlight, Matt could not see any inscriptions. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said.

Teri walked around the cairn, Julian at her side like a dog. “I’m afraid…” he said.

Teri stopped. “Me, too.” An unaccountable fear chilled her from the inside out. Both Teri and Julian began to tremble.

Julian fell to his knees. “Yes, yes,” he whined. “Just stop whispering.”

“It’s a trick,” said Matt. He pulled Julian to his feet. “It was one of my mother’s favourites. She used to do it to my dad all the time.” He put his arm around his wife’s narrow shoulders to quell her trembling. “Don’t worry. Nothing here can hurt you.”

“Nothing here can hurt you, maybe.” The weight of Matt’s arm chased some of the fear away. At least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.

“I won’t let anything hurt you.”

Teri shook his arm off her shoulders. “Matt, you may be immune to magic, but you’re not invulnerable.”

A gust revealed the moon and at the same time brought a new sound that did scare Matt: a deep growling that came from all around them, all at once, rising up from the hostile ground itself. The sound woke memories deep in the ancient, back of his brain, memories he never imagined he ever had, ancient, undeniable. His skin was suddenly covered in a thin layer of sweat from his scalp to his toes.

His eyes had adjusted to the moonlight. He could now see rows of small white stones radiating out from the central cairn to the stone ring, like spokes of a wheel.

“That’s why it’s called a ‘medicine wheel,’ said Julian.” Then he caught his breath as he looked beyond the ring. “Oh my, are those coyotes?”

Matt could not see past the rock ring, but the ancient part of his brain knew: “Those are wolves.”

Unconsciously, Matt crouched a little, feet seeking security on the dead grass, muscles loose, every sense alert. He felt as if he was confronting an ancient enemy.

Then he saw them with senses adrenalin-sharpened: wolves standing just beyond the ring of white rocks—at least a dozen, big, calm. None of the grey shapes had bared its teeth, but a constant growl came from the pack, steady as surf on a beach. Matt, Teri, Julian and the wolves all knew: there could be no escape for three humans from their oldest competitors.

“It’s time to get out of here, Teri,” said Matt.

“You’ve always said that wolves don’t attack people,” she answered, but she wasn’t looking at them — she seemed to be studying the cairn.

“What if these wolves don’t know about that,” said Matt.

“Look: something is missing,” said Teri, pointing at a spot on the north side of the cairn.

“Come on, Teri.”

“No, look — there’s a place for something there. This cairn, this whole medicine wheel, was made to hold something, and now it’s gone.”

Teri pointed to a flat spot half-way up the north side of the cairn. Matt couldn’t be certain in the dark, but Teri and Julian could see clearly a flat stone, obviously chiseled, and other carved stones arranged on three sides: a kind of stone box, almost like a trophy case in a school.

“That’s very interesting, Teri, but something doesn’t want us here,” Matt insisted. “Those whispers were a warning, and now they’ve sent the muscle!”

“I thought you were immune to magic,” Julian said.

“I’m not immune to teeth and claws.”

“Give me the drumsticks,” Teri said, holding out her hand but still looking at the cairn.

“Teri, never mind that — we’ve got to go, now!”

Teri just held out her hand like a queen, eyes intent on the cairn. Matt fumbled with the satchel’s flap and pulled out the decorated Cree drumsticks. The wolves growled louder.

“Matt, Teri, they’ve crossed the ring,” Julian whined. He grabbed Matt’s arm in both hands, and even Matt could see his wide eyes darting. “Come on!”

Teri ignored them. Matt wondered if she had been hypnotized — no, enchanted by the cairn. She carefully put the drumsticks on the flat stone in the side of the cairn. Immediately, the wolves stopped growling. They stepped closer, but they did not seem as threatening anymore. Matt took the chance to look away from them, toward the cairn.

The sticks’ placement on the cairn seemed somehow just right. Despite the presence of a pack of gray wolves at his back, Matt felt calmer when he looked at the sticks on the cairn.

“Matt, Teri, can we get out of here? Now? The wolves are getting closer all the time!” Julian whined.

The wolves had formed a semi-circle and stepped forward, closer, deliberately and slowly. To Matt, they looked calm, almost … well, not friendly, he thought. How could a wolf look friendly? Not immediately threatening.

“I don’t want them any closer than they are,” he said, and pulled Teri by the arm around the cairn, away from the pack and toward the trees.

“The path is gone,” Julian said.

They had entered the medicine wheel by a gap in the ring, but where the parallel rows of stones intersected the wheel, the ring continued, unbroken, around the cairn as far as they could see.

Pulling Teri by the hand, Matt stepped over the stone ring toward where he thought the path was. Teri fell back as if she had hit a wall.

“Teri, what the hell?”

She rubbed her forehead. Julian held his hands in front of him and pushed like a mime at a make-believe barrier. “Matt, we can’t get past the ring. We’re stuck in the medicine wheel!”

Matt stepped back into the ring, then out again, unhindered. “This is ridiculous.”

Teri shook her head. “We can’t get out, Matt. That’s what the gap in the stones was for.”

Matt ran several steps along the ring in one direction, looking for a gap, until he could see the wolves near the cairn. He turned and ran back in the other direction until he saw the wolves from the other side; no gap either way. He wrapped his arms around Teri’s slim body from behind and pulled. He could step over the stones, but as soon as Teri’s shoulder came even with the stone ring, he felt something stop her. He pulled harder until she cried out.

“It hurts, Matt!” She pulled out of his grasp and rubbed her shoulder.

Matt stepped back into the medicine wheel. “Okay, Teri, get us out of here your way. Can you take us back to the Jeep?”

Teri pulled off her jacket and dropped her pants. “We all have to be naked.”

As she unhooked her bra, Matt looked nervously at Julian.

“Don’t worry about me getting a cheap thrill from this,” said Julian, already down to his boxers. Every inch of his skin was covered with dark hair, even his back. “Now get your britches off.”

Matt scrambled to take off his clothes, feeling the chill of the October night. Teri lifted her arms over her head. Despite the situation, Matt could not help but watch her breasts rise as if to follow her hands up. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the transportation spell. Minutes went by; clouds shrouded, then revealed the moon. Teri’s brow furrowed, but nothing happened. She could not find the energy, the place where she had found the power before. “It’s not working,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Matt wasn’t sure whether he should be afraid or relieved; he hated traveling by Teri’s spell.

“I don’t know. I cannot see the Jeep, or anything beyond this … this place.”

“I can’t help you, either,” said Julian.

Matt looked at Julian, at his wife, at the cairn. Were the wolves coming closer?

There was no flash, no bang, no smoke. One moment, Matt was looking toward the cairn; the next, a woman stood in front of him. It was hard to see her features in the dark, but she wore a toque with long tassels on the sides and what looked like a shawl.

Teri and Julian could see better than Matt: the colours in her woolen shawl, the beads, four bands thick, around her neck. She was young, beautiful, with smooth skin and long dark hair hanging from under her hat.

“What the hell are the three of you doing out here in the middle of the night, naked?” she demanded in the flat tones of a First Nations accent. “Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?” A wolf nuzzled the woman and Matt, Teri and Julian knew what she meant by “No Trespassing.”

Matt’s hands went in front of his crotch and he shivered. But neither Teri nor Julian was embarrassed to be naked in front of the stranger.

“I was trying to cast a spell,” Teri said, as if it were as common as “I was looking for my watch.” “Something is blocking me.”

“Why did you come out here to cast a spell?” the stranger asked.

“Who are you?” Matt demanded. He wondered if he should pull his clothes back on. He could barely suppress shivers, but would that be a sign of weakness in front of a stranger? Would he be vulnerable with one leg in his pants and one out if the wolf beside her suddenly rushed him?

The woman held his gaze for a long pause. “Who are you?”

“We’re from the government,” he answered. It’s not really a lie. He tried not to be obvious about looking for his clothes on the ground.

“Canadian government has no say here. This is Grizzly Bend Nation land. First Nation land. Nêhiyawahk land.”

“We brought back the sticks for the medicine drum,” said Teri.

You shouldn’t have said that. Too late, now, Matt thought. He remembered that they had left the drumsticks on the cairn, where they looked so right.

The woman in the shawl looked almost impressed. “Really? Who told you to bring anything here?”

“We put them on the flat stone on the cairn,” Teri said.

The woman disappeared, just as she had arrived: no flash, no smoke. Matt blinked and stared at the spot where the woman had been standing.

“Where did you find it?” she said from behind him. “How did you bring it here?” Matt turned and stumbled over his own heaped clothes on the ground.

Teri stepped up to face the woman directly. Julian summoned all his courage and stood beside her while Matt tried to find his footing in the dark. “We took it from Ottawa,” she said calmly.

The woman turned to Matt. “You look strange. The other two, I understand why they are here. But I do not like you.”

Matt did not know what to say.

“Go,” the woman said.

“But we brought the drumsticks back,” Julian protested.

Matt could not believe what Julian and Teri did then: they stood absolutely still, staring at the woman in the shawl, mouths slightly open until Julian fell onto his bare butt.

But what Teri saw was very different. She felt as if she had no more control over her own body. She could do nothing but watch the woman change. The shawl became fur, thick and shaggy, the hat disappeared, the hair became a mane that reached over her head, animated by a will of its own. Her face morphed, jaw stretching into a snout, mouth gaping, long fangs drooling.

And she grew, legs and arms and torso lengthening and thickening. She grew until she towered above them, reaching toward them with claws that glimmered in the red light from her eyes.

Julian fell onto his naked butt on the cold ground. Teri’s knees shook, but she could not will her feet to move even as the claw came toward her and touched her bare chest. The tip traced a red line from her collarbone down to her navel, but all Teri could do was to look into the beast’s red eyes.

The beast’s head came closer. Its jaws opened impossibly wide, but Teri still could not move as it took her hand in its mouth and slowly closed its jaws. Pain flashed up her arm, replaced immediately by a blank numbness. The beast drew its bloody snout away and Teri saw her hand between its teeth. Blood, her blood, dripped from the beast’s jaws. She watched, unable to make a sound, as more blood spurted from the stump of her arm, bright red in the dark night.

Matt watched the strange woman step closer to his trembling wife, and realized they were the same height. When the woman lifted Teri’s hand in her own and lifted it to her face, Matt decided that was enough. To hell with the wolves, he thought. He stepped between the women. “What is the medicine drum for?” he demanded.

The woman stepped back, outrage on her face. Now that he was close, he could see she was middle-aged, with creases from her nose to the corners of her mouth and deep crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She was as short as Teri, but stouter, and there were strands of grey in her long black hair.

“Go,” she said again. She stepped aside and a wolf took her place, and Matt was suddenly conscious of its mouth at his crotch level. He backed away, pushing Teri farther behind him.

To Teri, the beast vanished, replaced by the familiar sight of her husband’s naked back. Beyond him was a huge gray wolf, teeth showing. Behind it were the rest of the pack and the woman in the shawl. She could hear the wind again, as if she had not heard it for a long time, or as if she had become aware of a different sound only after it had stopped.

Teri gasped when she looked at her arm: her hand was intact. She flexed her fingers, fascinated by the way the little scar on the back moved. She looked down: no scratch on her chest, no blood. “It was an illusion,” she whispered.

Matt wondered whether the wolves would really attack or were just putting on a show, a display to scare them. The question became moot as Julian scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could.

“Go away. Go now,” the woman screamed and the wolf snapped its jaws. Wolf spit hit Matt’s genitals. Matt grabbed his wife’s elbow and ran. She pulled out of his grip to pick up a piece of clothing from the ground. “Never mind that!” Matt snapped and hauled her away. He pushed Teri ahead of him to follow Julian as fast as they could go. Stones and twigs scratched their bare feet, but there was no more barrier at the stone circle for Teri.

Somehow, they found the path through the forest and tried to move their feet even faster. Teri stumbled but Matt held her up and willed his feet to move faster as they heard wolves growling at their heels.

This path was not this long on the way here, he thought.

Something sharp cut into Matt’s foot. He fell, gasping. Teri shrieked a little and stopped beside him, but Matt pushed her farther down the path. “Go!”

He pushed himself back up to his feet and tried a step. Pain shot all the way up his leg and out his mouth in a hoarse cry. He heard the wolf pack behind him and fear overrode pain. He ran at top speed, catching up with Teri. His foot felt like it was on fire, and flamed hotter every time it hit the ground.

If I’m immune to magic, maybe my blood will slow them down, he thought. The wolves bayed louder. Great. They smell blood, and now they’re excited.

Which means they’re real wolves, not magical.

His bare toe hit something and he went down again, hard, naked skin scraping over the rough ground.

Teri ran back to him, fumbling with something: his jacket, which she had picked up when they ran from the medicine wheel. She reached his side seconds before the first wolf and thrust Matt’s open knife at its snout. It yelped and sprang back. Hot wolf blood splattered Matt’s legs.

The wolf hesitated only a second and sprang, sinking fangs into Matt’s forearm. Matt screamed and thrashed but the wolf held on and Matt could feel its teeth sinking deeper into his flesh. The wolf shook its head. Matt hit the wolf’s head with his free hand and kicked with no effect. He could feel the fangs hitting bone. A deep fear filled him.

He felt a thud. The wolf let go and fell sideways with a yelp. Julian stood over them, holding a big rock. “Come on!” he panted. Teri helped Matt up and he stumbled behind them. His forearm throbbed and the sole of his foot stung with every step. Scrapes stung his skin on his legs, his side and his back. Blood tickled his skin as it ran down his arm. The smell of the wolf’s musk stuck in his nostrils and sweat stung his eyes despite the cold air on his naked skin. But Teri held his side and pushed him forward, and her hands warmed his skin.

Something scratched his shoulder, then the opposite side. “The path’s getting narrower,” Teri panted behind him.

“The trees are closing in on us,” Julian exclaimed ahead of them. “We have to move faster.”

Somehow, they made their legs move faster. Matt saw Julian hesitate, and then they were out of the little forest and back in the cemetery. They stopped, hands on knees, panting, searching for enough breath. Julian fell to his knees, then onto his back, chest heaving up and down.

Matt looked back. The woman in the shawl stood under the trees at the entrance to the path, a wolf on either side of her. “Never forget how I let you go,” she said in her flat tones. “Now leave and never come back.”

“Who are you?” Teri stammered. Julian was already across the cemetery, heading for the jeep.

“Tell your people that Jessica Piyesiw has warned them,” she said, and vanished as she had before. The two wolves looked briefly at the naked trio in the cemetery, then turned and disappeared under the trees as only wolves can.

Teri put her arm around her husband to try to support him as he limped to the jeep. “You always think so clearly, Teri,” Matt said as she fished the keys out of his jacket pocket. She and Julian helped Matt into the car; Julian checked for a first-aid kit while Teri took Matt’scell phone from his jacket pocket.

“Call Racine,” she said.

“And tell him what? That we’ve lost the drumsticks as well as our clothes?”

“Tell him you need emergency medical help.”

As usual, Matt could not argue with his wife. He pressed the speed dial button.

This is going to hurt, he thought. Julian brought out a bottle of peroxide and some cotton swabs. And so will that. But not as bad.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Author’s note:

When I first wrote Dark Clouds, I thought it would be the first chapter of a novel called The Mandrake Ruse, which would be the first instalment in the series called The Witch’s Son. Since then, I have come to understand that The Mandrake Ruse is the title of the first chapter of the novel, Dark Clouds.

So far, I have published five chapters:

When I have more chapters ready, I’ll publish all of Dark Clouds as a serial. Watch for it!

 

How can you not be inspired by fall?



img_0864Autumn is my favourite season. I love the cool air and the lower light come as such a relief after the heat and humidity of the summer — especially this past summer with its long drought. And of course, the colours of the leaves.

I’ve heard people say “Fall is the season when everything dies.” But the cool air energizes me. Fall is the season of the harvest, of pies and soups and my favourite sweaters and leather jackets.

Fall is also the season of Hallowe’en, the funnest holiday of the year.

To me, fall is the best time start new projects. Let’s face it: 17 years of my own schooling, and a further 17 for each of my children has conditioned me to consider the autumn as the beginning of new chapters in life.

A spot on my daily ride along the Ottawa River.

But I think the one aspect of fall that is most inspiring to me is the colours of the leaves.

I wasn’t able to ride my bicycle all summer, since I tore my quadriceps tendon in May. I was only able to get back to it in September, and after just a couple of days of riding 25 kilometres to the office, I noticed my mood getting much better. Being outdoors gives me a boost.

My biking route is spectacular in the fall. This year, the colours of the leaves seem especially intense, with lots of red and orange. They look brighter when the sunlight hits at a low angle, early in the morning or later in the afternoon — when I’m on my bike.

Last week, I took a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York to see the area and also sample the wines I had been hearing so much about. When my wife and I got there, we found the leaves were just starting to turn colour. But each day, there was more red, orange and yellow on the vine- and forest-clad slopes.

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In New York’s Finger Lakes, when the autumn leaves were just starting to turn.

Inspiring? Definitely. Driving, viewing, tasting wine, relaxing in cafés, chatting with other guests at our B&B — somehow, that allowed my brain to put some vague ideas together. Over four days, I worked out the plot for a new novel, and it’s going to be my best yet.

For a long time, I’ve had the idea to write a novel that uses two songs as a starting point: Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”  But I couldn’t even get to an outline. Until, strolling along the edge of a Finger Lake in New York, I had a flash: “What if I made this a new Vanessa Storm, and Vanessa was the Barefoot Girl?” This book would be something of a departure from the previous Vanessa Storm books, but it would still fit within the Lei Crime Kindle World.

This new will tell two parallel stories: about Vanessa as a teenager, wondering which direction to go in life, about whether to go to university like her parents want her to, or to ride off with the bandit with a heart of gold; and then today, dealing with the consequences of the choices she and others made. It’s more than a typical action-thriller or mystery. It’s more about what makes us who we are, and how we change the others around us.

In the meantime, I am finally making progress again on the third volume of the series about my father-in-law during World War Two. I have one last chapter to finish now before I start with the second draft. Here’s to hoping that I’ll finish before the end of the year!

What do commercial publishers really want from new writers? Not what they tell us



Photo by Wonderlane on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Surfing social media a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to an article from Penguin Random House, one of the Big 5 worldwide publishers called “What Our Editors Look for on an Opening Page.”

It was advice for writers who wanted to have their manuscripts published by a big commercial publisher like one of Penguin Random House’s imprints. But rather than advice, it’s really just reinforcing the narrative that the big publishing houses put out good books — when the truth is that they don’t take chances on good books from new authors. As proof, let’s look at the opening pages of the latest releases from Penguin.

Let’s look at what they say they look for in a manuscript from a new writer

1.      “A powerful opener”

is the most important thing, because it’s the first thing that editors see. If the opening doesn’t grab them, they’ll move onto the next submission in the slush pile.

For example, consider Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins. It was published last year by G.P Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Group, which is a subsidiary of Penguin Random House:

Jesse Stone no longer felt adrift. No longer a man caught between two coasts, he had finally left his days as an L.A. homicide detective behind him. If not his private shame at how his life had gone to hell. He was chief of police in Paradise, Mass. This was his town now. Yet there were still some things about the East Coast and the Atlantic he had never gotten used to and wasn’t sure he ever would. Nor’easters, for one. He found the brooding, slate-gray clouds and rolling tides a little unnerving. These late-fall or winter storms seemed to blow up out of spite, raking across whole swaths of New England or the Mid-Atlantic, leaving nothing but pain their wake.

As was his habit, he drove through the darkened streets of Paradise in his old Ford Explorer before heading home. He wanted to get a few hours’ sleep before going back to work. Maybe a drink, too. The storm wasn’t supposed to make landfall until about midnight, but the winds were bending trees back against their will, sleet already pelting his windshield. Jesse shook his head thinking about that. About how storms in the east warned you they were coming. About how they told you when they were coming and then kicked your ass.

Sorry, this doesn’t count as powerful. It’s an info dump, paragraphs of back story — exactly the kind of opening all the advice blogs and creative writing courses tell you not to write. Get to the story.

For all you writers out there, this opening breaks one of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules: “Never start with the weather.”

Of course, The Devil Wins was not written by Robert Parker, who died in 2010. Reed Farrel Coleman, a successful mystery novelist in his own right, won the contract to continue the Jesse Stone series.

Homecoming

Speaking of information dumps, consider the opening of the newest volume in the Boys of Fall teen romance series by Shannon Stacey, published by Jove, another Penguin imprint.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room with a pack of scared and sweaty teenage boys while wearing a little black dress and high heels wasn’t Jen’s idea of a fun Friday night.

Nothing could have dragged her out of there, though. Not even the promise of flip-flops and her favorite yoga pants. The police officer leaning against the wall and staring at the ceiling was Kelly McDonnell, one of her best friends. Kelly had been the first to arrive when the 911 call came in from football practice. Kelly’s dad—Coach McDonnell—had collapsed on the high school’s field and they were afraid he was having a heart attack.

When Kelly called her from the emergency room, Jen had been in her car on her way to a second date with the first guy in a long time who actually had potential to make her forget the man she spent too much time thinking about, but she hadn’t even hesitated before cancelling. Kelly needed her.

That’s a lot of data crammed into three paragraphs, and there’s been no action, yet. Just a girl in a party dress, sitting in a hospital waiting room.

2.      Unique perspective – ““What is one thing this book does better than any other book?”

Consider The Madmen of Benghazi, by Gérard de Villiers.

Ibrahim al-Senussi was stark naked when he stepped out of the shower, and he stopped dead at his bedroom door. Cynthia was sitting on the edge of the big bed, making a call on her cell phone. That wasn’t sexy in itself, but between the lapels of the young woman’s Chanel suit—his birthday present to her—he could see her nipples straining against the raw-silk blouse.

Cynthia’s shapely legs were bare from her upper thigh to her tawny, very high-heeled boots. The length of her skirt had once been quite proper—until she had the hem raised.

Al-Senussi felt the blood rushing to his crotch.

This does not do anything better than thousands of other books out there. In fact, it’s just plain bad writing. Who isn’t stark naked when they step out of the shower, other than drunks?

3.      Attention-Grabbing Characters

Consider the opening of Danielle Steel’s Rushing Waters, published August 30, 2016:

Ellen Wharton was pensive as she studied the clothes she had hung on a rolling rack, and the folded items she had laid out on the bed for her trip to New York. Organized, impeccable, meticulous, she was a woman who planned everything and left nothing to chance—her business, her menus, her wardrobe, her social life. She was consummately careful and precise about everything she did. It made for a smooth, order life, with few surprises, but also very little opportunity for things to go awry. She had been planning this trip to New York since June, as she did every year, to see her mother. She also went on Thanksgiving every other year, and she usually went once in spring. She intended to do some shopping for two of her clients, and she had an additional purpose to her trip this time.

Ellen ran a successful interior design business, with three assistants, a color specialist, and clients in several cities in Europe who loved her work. She created beautiful environments for them …

For decades, Danielle Steele has been on bestseller lists with title after title. She’s popular. But that opening does not portray an attention-grabbing character. She strikes me like any number of uptight business people who think they can control the universe.

This opening also breaks a rule from all the creative writing classes: “Show me, don’t tell me.” If I submitted this to an editor, I’d be told to describe how she carefully folded every item of clothing, how she entered appointments into her daytimer, how she checked her airline tickets for Thanksgiving. But Danielle Steele has enough bestsellers behind her, and enough of a fan base to write whatever she damn well wants.

But they sell

Yes, they do. The success of these books supports arguments I have been making for years:

  • The accepted tropes of creative writing classes do not translate into sales. Readers don’t care about Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Only writers and editors do.
  • Commercial publishers do not necessarily publish quality fiction.

“But you can’t blame a commercial business for making money.”

I don’t. What I blame the commercial publishing industry for is their snobbish pretense that only they can produce quality prose. And for not pushing for better, fresher, more innovative fiction and non-fiction. And for contracting a writer to continue a dead writer’s series, instead of publishing that living writer’s original work.

Some of the Big 5’s titles are examples of great writing. The Girl on the Train is a timely example. But some of the most innovative and gripping work is published by individual, independent, self-publishing authors.

What I want you to do

Don’t settle for commercial quality. If you like good books, look down the lists for independent authors. And if you want to find some of the best, check out these two independent authors’ groups:

And tell me what you think of the books on those sites.

 

Writing tip: When “inappropriate” is inappropriate



Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Last week, someone wrote racist comments under a story on the Ottawa Citizen’s online edition, about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook. Charles Bordeleau, Ottawa’s Chief of Police, called the comments “inappropriate.”

“I can tell you that the comments are inappropriate. They don’t reflect the values of the members of the Ottawa Police Service, they don’t reflect the values of this organization, and they certainly don’t reflect my values,” he said in an interview with the Ottawa Morning CBC radio program.

That’s the standard response when we’re confronted with expressions of racism or sexism, or any other sentiment that goes against the values we claim to espouse: “That’s inappropriate.”

But is it? What does “inappropriate” actually mean?

According to the Oxford dictionary: “not appropriate, not suitable.”

Which takes us to “appropriate”: suitable or proper

Is that what the Police Chief meant — that racist comments are not suited to the occasion?

Why not say they’re “objectionable,” “offensive” or “wrong”?

A living language

Every so often, we notice that words have changed meaning. Sometimes it’s through appropriation, like “gay” or “tweet.” The Internet — or more accurately, marketing people at companies that transact primarily via the Internet — is responsible for most of the recent examples, from “spam” to “friend” to “cloud.”

Words not only shift meaning. They also drop out of the common vocabulary. Often, we stop using words because they feel old-fashioned, like “thither.” Sometimes, we stop using words because they seem associated with ideas that we no longer agree with. No one calls anyone a “blackguard” or a “handmaid” anymore.

A living language changes over time, for many reasons.

Inappropriate is a weasel word

I think the impetus behind calling objectionable ideas or statements “inappropriate” is weaselism. That is, the urge to weasel out of responsibility for your own convictions.

To avoid confrontation, we’ll tell someone their actions or words are “inappropriate,” instead of “racist” or “sexist” or just plain wrong, of stirring up evil.

Saying “inappropriate” gives you a way out, too, if for whatever reason the argument goes against you. It gives you an escape route.

It’s a form of cowardice.

It’s weak. It’s inappropriate in itself as a response to racism — not suited to the need. Like a cardboard goalie mask.

Courtesy Wikipedia.org

I’m not going to use “inappropriate” inappropriately anymore. If I object to a statement or an action, I’m going to say so, and say why.

What about you?

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever: Independent book review



fndlfcoverCaleb Pirtle III has proven that he’s an original writer. His books do not follow the usual tropes and stereotypical genre tales, whether he’s writing mysteries, sports stories or anything else. He’s not a genre writer — he’s writing modern American literature disguised as genre books.

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, his latest release, is an excellent tale, told in the author’s trademark  staccato, declarative and lucid style that brings the reader not just into the scene, but behind the character’s eyes.

An original plot

Set in the mid-1980s, the story of Friday Nights starts where the typical high school sports story ends: at the state championship game.

The high school in the small town of Avalon, Alabama, has had an underdog football team for decades. But this year, the team has been blessed with the golden arm of Casey Clinton, and the almost magical abilities of wide receiver Lucas Calhoun. In game after game, play after play, Casey has managed to find Lucas, who has caught every pass.

The state championship game attracts scouts from college football programs who want to see whether Casey is for real. But the night of the big game, it rains. In the final minute, with Avalon needing just one more touchdown to win, as Casey winds up for the forward pass, his foot slips in the wet mud. He falls, his pass goes wide, Lucas cannot reach it and Avalon loses.

It’s all over. There will be no more Friday night glory for Avalon, for Casey, Lucas, coach “Balls” Baldwin, nor anyone else in Avalon.

But it’s not over. It’s only early December, and the school year stretches ahead. The story continues through December by juxtaposing the experiences of Casey and Lucas.

For Casey, December is a season of continual phone calls from scouts from high-profile college football scouts, including the legendary Frank Hatchett, longtime head of the football program at the University of Alabama.

Casey feels the pressure of not just competing coaches who tempt him with scholarships, cars and sex, but also from his family, who want him to bring glory to them as well as the town; town leaders with competing interests; his wide receiver but never friend, Lucas Calhoun; and of course his teasing, virginal girlfriend, the cheerleader Chelsea Sinclair.

Lucas, meanwhile, the other half of the magical team that brought so many touchdowns and so much glory to the Avalon high school, is completely ignored. No scouts call him. The coach doesn’t talk to him, the rest of the football team shuns him. Chelsea, the “Virginal Queen” of Avalon, actively scorns and bullies him because he’s “trash.”

The contrast becomes starkest when the Alabama football program invites Casey to come see the Cotton Bowl in Texas, where they’re playing for the holy grail of college football. Lucas, in the meantime, begs Casey, whom he despises, for a scholarship, too, if he accepts a scholarship from a competing college.

Characters

calebpirtle

Caleb Pirtle III, author of Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle’s lean style drives the reader through the story, where we meet many three-dimensional supporting characters like Brother Bailey Proctor, the sex-hating Baptist preacher; his frustrated, sexy wife, Karen; “Crazy Legs” Epperson, who was once a football star but whose scholarship hopes were destroyed by an injury; “Balls” Baldwin, the football coach, who allowed himself to hope for a state championship before he retired, but sank back into defeat; and Lucas’ alcoholic, father, Charlie. Readers quickly come to hate Charlie, for good reason.

A drunk who abandoned the family when Lucas was small, Charlie began to pay attention to Lucas during the final football season to try to get some reflected glory on himself. But after the team loses the championship game, Charlie is mostly out of the picture again until a murder in the second half of the book. The author’s skill allows him to achieve not redemption, but a little sympathy by the end.

Of course, as quarterback and captain of the football team, Casey’s girlfriend is the head cheerleader, Chelsea Sinclair. But Pirtle does not let stereotypes lie quiet. Chelsea is a clever little bitch with an agenda, simultaneously promising and withholding sex to keep her boyfriend on a short leash.

Bottom line

I read an advance copy in return for an honest review. As such, I found a number of minor typographical errors in the version that I read. But the story and the writing style rise far above those issues. This is an excellent read by a polished, professional author who knows his subject and his characters intimately.

Buy and read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

5*

Find it on Amazon.

Interviewing the book reviewers



BrookeTramFor the third time, we’re turning the tables on book critics and reviewers, asking them what makes them tick and why they review books the way they do. This week, it’s good friend and fellow iAi member Frederick Lee Brooke, who in addition to being an author of six books himself, is also a prolific reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads.

What genres do you review?

I review most of the books I read, because I think we do a service to other readers when we summarize our impressions of a book. So asking which genres I review is the same as asking which ones I read: mysteries, thrillers, psychological thrillers, biographies, literary novels, some science fiction.

Why do you prefer those genres? What do you get out of them?

I like reading mysteries and thrillers because there’s a set structure, whether it’s a story about a serial killer or a kidnapping or whatever. There’s something satisfying about revisiting that structure over and over again. I also like spending time again and again with detectives I’ve come to know, whether it’s Karin Slaughter’s Faith or Gae-Lynn Woods’s Cass Elliot. In any book I read, I expect to meet characters who are tested by their circumstances, and I expect them to read true.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

I look for characters who ring true, who develop into interesting full-blooded people before my eyes. I look for surprises in every chapter. I look for good writing that makes me sit up, including dialogue that sounds real, and interior stuff that makes me ponder. I look for a story and a conflict that matters, that has some weight to it.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

I keep reading books by big name authors that are full of clichés, and I’m surprised to encounter them. Clichés in the language used, or in descriptions of characters. Another thing I hate is when a narrator has gaps in their story due to their own drunken blackouts, as in Girl on the Train. I feel ripped off.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

It’s very off-putting when authors basically go on Facebook or Twitter with twenty-six versions of “Please buy my latest book”. I think authors need to put their books out there, and put themselves out there, and trust the reading public to find them. I wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans from a guy blocking my way in the street, pointing to a rack of jeans for sale; I would be sure to give him a wide berth. But when I need a new pair of jeans, I go where I know I can find jeans, and pick out a pair I like.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style?

If the characters aren’t fleshed out and real, I won’t read the book. If the characters are totally unique and unforgettable, like Harry Potter and his friends, just to name one well-known example, the story and the style both fade in importance. However, poor writing (style) can sink a story with well-drawn characters as well.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal.

Creative Commons

In the realm of psychological thrillers I greatly admire Gillian Flynn, and her books Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But I also find the less well-known Cody McFadyen fascinating. I think these two authors are exploring the grungier side of human nature in absolutely spellbinding detail.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players).

Prince’s Purple Rain would be in my bag, and Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight, and then maybe a Motown Mix with some Temptations, Marvin Gaye and other classics.

Thank you very much, Fred!

Frederick Lee Brooke recently completed his dystopian science-fiction Drone Wars trilogy with The Drone Wars, which was preceded by Saving Raine in 2013 and Inferno in 2014.

DroneWars3a3319-inferno_ebookcover1c103-saving_raine_cover_final_600px_72ppiHe launched the Annie Ogden Mystery Series in 2011 with Doing Max Vinyl and followed with Zombie Candy in 2012, a book that is neither about zombies nor sweets. The third mystery in the series, Collateral Damage, appeared in 2013.

A resident of Switzerland, Fred has worked as a teacher, language school manager and school owner. He has three boys and two cats and recently had to learn how to operate both washing machine and dryer. He makes frequent trips back to his native Chicago.

When not writing or doing the washing, Fred can be found walking along the banks of the Rhine River, sitting in a local cafe, or visiting all the local pubs in search of his lost umbrella.
b1551-collateraldamagehirescover ZombieCandy2

 

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I wasn’t eaten by a bear



Paddlers

Seven out of ten Missinaibi paddlers on the day we set out. That’s me, third from the left, with Super Nicolas in the steering position behind me. The reason for the helmets? We were running rapids, which means big rocks all around.

But I have to admit I came close to losing my cool a couple of times

If you’ve missed me on social media since July 30, here’s why: I’ve been literally hundreds of miles from Internet access. Besides being the most physically challenging thing I have ever done, this “vacation” made me rediscover some things about writing.

Over the past two weeks, I joined my younger son, Super Nicolas and eight other people to paddle the Missinaibi River in northern Ontario to the Moose River, and then down it to Moose Factory and Moosonee on James Bay. It was 11 days of paddling eight to ten hours a day. On some days, we paddled over 50 kilometres to reach our next camp site. Other days, we faced portages up to three kilometres long.

MeMattice

One of the few pictures to survive: me at the monument to paddlers at Mattice, Ontario.

We began our paddling journey at Mattice, a tiny village mostly remarkable for being the point where the Missinaibi River crosses Ontario Highway 11. (That’s the same highway that begins at the Toronto waterfront as Yonge Street.) We paddled white-water canoes 325 kilometres from there to Moose Factory, near where the Moose River empties into James Bay. Moose Factory is the site of the oldest Hudson’s Bay Company establishment, or “factory” where the company transferred its traded furs from ships to canoes that ranged inland on Canada’s network of rivers, including the Missinaibi, Abitibi and Mattagami, portaging overland to other river systems that brought all of North America in reach.

From Moose Factory, we paddled across the river to the newer town of Moosonee. At its train station, we loaded our canoes, gear and ourselves onto the Polar Bear Express, a train operated by Ontario Northland Railway. We rode back to Cochrane, Ontario, where we had left one car as a shuttle to get the others in Mattice.

Eagles every day

There are so many remarkable things about paddling through northern Ontario, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the beauty of the landscape, first of all.

Mattice is on the Canadian Shield, the geography where I grew up. The journey to putting in the canoes felt a little like coming home.

The Shield is a rocky place, mostly low, rolling hills with many outcroppings of bare rock and cliffs, covered with spruce and fir trees, dotted with thousands of lakes and marshes. It carries a huge feeling of wildness. Once we left Mattice, we did not come within hundreds of kilometres of any human civilization until Moose Factory.

This landscape is as wild as wild gets. We carried in our own food, supplemented by fish that one of the members of our team, Gil Lepine, caught nearly every day. We also carried out all our garbage as we believe in no-trace camping. We camped on the shore of the river, several times on beaches, and dealt with the mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies and deer flies as best we could.

We saw at least one bald eagle every day, along with loons, geese and other birds. Except for squirrels, we not see much other wildlife — no sign of bears, deer or moose. I did see some wolf footprints on one beach, and took photos of it. Unfortunately, on the second-last day of the trip, I knocked my waterproof camera out of the canoe into the Moose River. Any pictures are contributed by others in my group. Alas.

Far, far away from the Internet

MapofMissinaibiOur only means of communications with the outside world were a SPOT geo-locator, which we activated once a day. It communicated our longitude and latitude to a satellite, which then sent emails saying “we’re okay” along with our coordinates to our loved ones in civilization. We also had a satellite phone for emergencies.

The only way I can say I missed the Internet was any kind of automatic uploading of my photos to the cloud.

Along the way, I’d sometimes think about how I would post all my pictures to Facebook and create a photo essay for this blog. Alas, again.

I recorded some of my thoughts and impressions on paper in a notebook, as did Nicolas. We each plan to work those notes up into some kind of story about the journey. But to tell the truth, I’ll have to rely on memory more than on notes. Each night, I was too tired to write more than a few words.

When we returned, one of the members asked “I wonder how many stupid things Donald Trump said over the last two weeks, when we were away.”

“Fourteen,” I ventured — one for each day.

Persuasive communications

Why did I take this on? Moose Factory and James Bay have always intrigued me, and since I first heard about the Polar Bear Express as a child, I’ve wanted to ride it.

But the real initiator of this trip was my son, Super Nicolas. When he was in Venturers (a part of Scouting), he somehow discovered the idea of paddling the Missinaibi to Moose Factory and taking the Polar Bear Express back. He made a presentation to his Venturer Company, who were, like him, 16 or 17  years old at the time. I still remember the slack-jawed shock they all showed. None of them wanted to do it. They thought it was just too challenging.

Undaunted, Nicolas presented the idea to the entire Scouting organization of the Ottawa area. His presentation caught the imagination of some adult Scouting members, but in the end, Nicolas was the only “youth” member of the group to go, at age 21.

It was a lot of work, took a lot of planning and commitment and cooperation. But as Nicolas said, “It’s a dream come true.”

Two new communications projects

Besides learning just what I am capable of (paddling all day long for two weeks; shooting Level II rapids) and not (sleeping comfortably in a tent night after night for two weeks), I came away from this with two new ideas for books.

The first is the obvious one: a recounting of the journey, something like “Paddling with Super Nicolas.” The second comes from a discovery I made in Mattice.

FredNeegancropAs we were preparing to launch the canoes, a man approached us on a four-wheel off-road vehicle. He’s Fred Neegan, a Cree man who has lived on the Missinaibi his whole life, having paddled up and down it many times. Now 85 years old, he’s called the “Guardian of the Missinaibi,” and there’s a monument to him, with his likeness, at the Mattice put-in. Fred warned us about the low water levels and gave us some other valuable advice about paddling to Moosonee. He also told us some of the interesting history of the river and some of the troubling aspects of being Cree in northern Ontario, even today. I asked if I could talk to him about his life story, and if I can manage it, I’d like to write the book about the Guardian of the Missinaibi.

Another story to come!