16 Things That Change When You Live Abroad

1. The hardest part is making the decision to go. — After weeks of teetering, “should we or shouldn’t we?, once you finally say “yes”, you realize it’s just to get on with it and take each hurdle as it comes. Then you wonder why on Earth it took you so long to decide in the first place.

2. Your family of four instantly becomes the four musketeers. — You depend on each other, especially in the beginning. Evenings and weekends once again become real family time with lovely family day trips – discovering your new world together.

3. You learn that home is wherever your family is. — Over time, you come to realize that you can find happiness and make a good life just about anywhere as long as you have each other.

4. You become an expert at hellos and good-byes. — While you make new friends in your new country, you wear an invisible shield of armour – one that you don’t realize is there, because you know that one day soon, you will need to part ways. It’s a form of self-preservation in ways, one that perhaps your new friends cannot understand unless they have lived abroad themselves.

5. Genius becomes defined as juggling annual tax season in two countries simultaneously. — There is only one word for American tax season, “paperwork”, plus “OMG, more paperwork”.

6. Applications and forms take on a whole new meaning. — Same as above, but you can add another OMG to that!

7. You find yourself mixing languages. — Especially when you live in a household with two languages at all times. “Please pass the hallonsylt, snälla?” Or “Do you want gräddfil with that?”

8. Your accent changes depending on who you are talking to. — In the US, I apparently sound somewhat English, though I’m sure a hint of North Carolinian twang is in there somewhere. My English friends in Sweden laugh at that and when I meet my family in Canada, it goes right back to good ol’ Canadian again. I’m just waiting for someone to mistake my accent for real Göteborgska. Stop laughing now – it could happen!

9. Longing for home is never satisfied. — Even when you visit, you know your visit is only temporary. It’s sweet while you are there. You indulge in all the things you’ve missed while abroad; the food, the people, the scenery, but then the itch to get back to your new world comes creeping into your skin again. Then #4 comes calling again.

10. You become more patriotic abroad. – Everything is wonderful about your home country; the food, the people, the landscape, the culture. You nearly have a coronary when you see a packet of Singoalla, or Kalles Kaviar on a store shelf. Not only do you grab every single one but you try to order more.

11. You discover that your very Swedish husband’s Spotify playlist is now dotted with country music. — Yes, I believe it was the Keith Urban concert in NC that was the culprit. I’m sure somewhere hidden in our unpacked boxes there lurks a cowboy hat waiting to be donned!

12. The simplest task becomes a monumental challenge. — Try walking into a shop without being bombarded with “hello, can I help you find something.” Let me at least get through the door… please. Ordering “milk” in a fast food restaurant isn’t something to be taken lightly either – at least not when you ask for it with a Swedish accent. I was the translator on site – I asked for it with my Canadian accent. No problem. Now my husband knows how I feel in Sweden when I ask for something (in Swedish) and they just stare blankly as if I’ve spoken Russian. Hello!

13. Going home doesn’t feel quite the same anymore. — While you’ve been living a harried life with a constant set of new challenges and cultural changes, everything back home feels as though it’s stayed the same. Nothing has changed while you have changed in ways you can’t even define.

14. You discover who your real friends are. While friends come and go, there are those amazing people in your life who don’t take notice of the ocean between you. It is something you will always be grateful for.  And what a lovely surprise when you realize the seed of a friendship that began in your new world continues to blossom once you’ve moved away.

15. Things are just things and people are just people wherever you go — no better, no worse, just different, even though some customs hit the weird list easier than others.

16. You feel like a real Viking — When you return to your home country again, you realize that you could do it all over again, that you want to do it all over again – only somewhere new – that there’s no mountain you can’t conquer. Hear me roar, I am Thor!

/Susan

Women in History – Is a picture really worth a 1000 words?

I am intrigued whenever I see photographs from the past—always have been. I cannot help but imagine what is behind a smile, a stance, the backdrop, the life of a person in a blurred, greyed photo. I’ll never forget when my grandma showed me a photo of her family standing in front of their residence in Ireland, their nanny holding one of my grandma’s siblings. The clothing and hair and how stilted everyone appeared. The photograph hinted of some wealth given the size of their house and having employed domestic help.

But it was the photograph of my great grandmother that stole my attention, with the long, elegant lines of her silhouette and full “Gibson Girl” hairstyle. There was a confidence in her gaze, one that was telling of the early 1900’s woman. I felt admiration yet I hadn’t known her. I felt awe, yet I hadn’t walked in her footsteps. I felt curious, yet I didn’t know why. Why should a photograph elicit such emotions? Evoke fictional stories if only for a moment? Perhaps it’s the unknown that is luring. Perhaps I want to believe there is a fascinating story behind every greyed photograph; a story of splendor, one of trials and grief and elation—that women endure hardship no matter their status in society. Of course, this is true for men as well, but since I write historical women’s fiction… Yet greater than the hardship, is their ability to claw their way through it and save themselves and often times more than not, save their families. What a woman wouldn’t do for her children! My great grandma proved that with her life during childbirth.

It’s incredible to think that a simple photograph can pay such tribute to a life, that a single photo can carry-on a memory or in my case, create a semblance of a relationship where once there existed nothing. I always reveled in the idea of spending a day or week a hundred years ago—to jump back in time and live in that grey photograph. I suppose it’s no wonder my minor at university was Canadian history with my favourite course being women in history. Dates bored me, but diaries and journal entries from real women in history mesmerized me.

So when I came across a photo of a woman who had spent ten months with her mother at the Ballaqueeny Hotel on the Isle of Man during World War II, I was hooked. The Ballaqueeny—a building that housed internees of mostly German and Austrian descent, was part of the internment camp at Port St. Mary—the town where my main character, Gillian Pugsley, makes her home. Unlike other photos and the countless articles I had read about the time period and camps, this one stood out. It was accompanied by a voice recording of the daughter who had stayed there. Hearing her voice as an adult looking back, somehow made the grey photo sharp as though it was becoming real to me—making the fantasy slip away. Please click on this link to hear Ursula Moeller’s account on the Isle of Man.

http://cowbird.com/story/80676/Isle_Of_Man_By_Ursula_Moeller/

So is a picture really worth a thousand words? In Gillian Pugsley’s case, I suppose it’s worth about 89,000.

Writing Historical Fiction

I have been curious recently about those writers who churn out book after book as though on an episode of “How It’s Made”. I watch in awe of the assembly line stamping the book’s spine with a different title on each, and a giant robotic arm packing them into boxes marked and destined for, “World’s Largest Chain Bookstore”.

In a meeting with my editor last spring when this subject came up, she told me that there is a simple formula these authors use—a formula that enables them to write books very quickly. This baffled me somewhat. Yes, I could understand having a basic storyline that changes primarily with the introduction of new characters. Someone falls in love, they go through a hardship, someone dies… the end. But it hadn’t occurred to me until this past weekend, when I read an article about writing historical fiction, that a similar formula cannot be applied to this genre.

Writing historical fiction is anything but “simple”. It is so far on the opposite end of the spectrum to writing contemporary fiction that the article made me revisit my process with The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. I have written contemporary fiction before, but hadn’t realized at the time how I took many things for granted. If a character needed to go to another country, they’d hop on a plane and go. Hold on, as I skid my heels into the dirt! When writing Gillian Pugsley, I didn’t know if she could just hop on a plane and go. It was the 1930’s. I needed to research how international travel was possible. Was it for the wealthy only? Was there only one airline in Britain? Which one? (Imperial Airways, so it seems). Did they only fly out of London? How often? Was it more common to travel by sea? Which liners existed then? What did they look like? How did the average person purchase a ticket? How often did they leave port and at which port did they arrive?

The list of questions was endless. I often felt as though I’d only written a sentence or two before the next question arose. It was constant research, whether it was in the details of how a stove was lit during that time period, or whether or not they even called it a stove, or the clothing my characters wore. Did women wear trousers at that time in Canada, or was it only in the United States? Was it seen as garish to wear them in England or trendy? Again, on and on… Often was the case that I’d research an area, coming up with a slew of new information only later to delete it from the story entirely.

Somewhere along the way, I relished all the niggling and fussy bits. It swallowed up my time, but it has proven a feast to remember. How could any historical fiction be churned out like a weightless product? After reading Elizabeth Crook’s “Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction“, I understood why my writing goes through the nitty-gritty and dissecting process that it does. I understood that rich historical fiction takes time to marinate—all the gaps need to be filled with the flavour and spices of that time period, and the characters need to bring that flavour to life. Having an idea then plotting a storyline out is one massive undertaking, something we readers take for granted. On the other hand, in my experience as a writer, the heart comes in the details—those well-researched, time-consuming, delicious details that instantly transport a reader to another time.

The Clues to a Great Story – TEDtalks

The power of a well-told story is boundless, snagging me time and time again, whether through film or words on a page. I adore being taken away into an imaginary world that becomes so real, there are moments it holds me and I see nothing else. As a writer, I am constantly questioning what will hold an audience. This morning, I came across a TEDtalks that addresses this very question. What stood out most was what the audience wants from a story—what we want from a story:

Make me care.

Andrew Stanton expresses some fundamentals no matter what kind of storyteller you are:

  • Make a promise that the story will lead somewhere.
  • The audience wants to “work for their meal” –they just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s our job as a storyteller, to hide the fact that we are making the audience work for it.  In other words, we don’t need to fill in all the bits, trust the audience and their own imagination to do that job, but we need to make them “feel” in order to accomplish that.
  • Change is fundamental in a story.
  • 2+2. Don’t give your audience the answer.
  • Have you made the audience want to know what will happen next?
  • Like your main character.
  • Who are you? A strong theme is always running through a well-told story. Maybe everything a character does in a story is an attempt to find his/her place in the world.
  • Can you infuse wonder? Can you hold your audience still for just a moment? 

Please watch Andrew Stanton’s TEDtalks: The Clues to a Great Story

Whether you are a writer or the audience, you won’t regret it.

The Sun, Writing and Me

photo[3] copy

I woke up to something this morning that someone living in the south may take for granted – something, apart from a glorious trip to Paris recently, I haven’t seen in over four weeks – the sun. Four weeks may not seem like a long time. I once counted nearly eight straight weeks of absolutely no sunshine whatsoever here on the west coast of Sweden. In the doldrums of the long, dark, wet autumn months, I have always ached for sunshine. Is a clear blue sky too much to ask for, I often wonder? I don’t think anyone living in the south can know what it does to the mind, body and spirit looking up at grey skies and a landscape of drizzle every day, though my Swedish counterparts dare not complain “after the summer we just had”. On the other hand, “they” hadn’t just spent three years in the American south.

I remember friends in North Carolina asking me what I liked most about living in the US. I would always answer, “the weather”. Their bewildered look was often followed by the sentence, “Don’t you like living here?” I suppose they expected me to say, the people or the way of life, etc. But they couldn’t truly know how the sun and the constant blue skies fed me with such joy and inspiration.

So anyone reading this blog might wonder if the sun is worth its own dedicated blog post. Well, if you’re a writer, you will understand that inspiration can come from a myriad of sources. I look at the sun now, just over my shoulder, and it reminds me of my little guest room in North Carolina, painted sea foam green, or maybe a nice robin’s egg blue would be more accurate, and how the sun streamed in past my shoulder lighting up Gillian Pugsley on the screen in front of me. I never tired of the warmth the sun fed me in that little air-conditioned room. Air-conditioning and I are not a happy mix.

I sat at my little desk for hours and hours on end, without actually noticing time pass, and was often alarmed when I’d snap out of my “zone” suddenly realizing it might be time to fetch the kids from school. But Gillian Pugsley always came with me. There I sat in car pool, a truly American phenomenon by the way, with the sun to keep me company as I worked on my novel from behind the steering wheel.

Every day.

Blissfully.

Now that I am back in Sweden and struggling with the weather, I will take my bit of sun today and let it feed my imagination for my new project. I know it plays an enormous role in my energy and creativity, though I now see it being pulled into the clouds again, clouds that cover the sky in a light grey blanket. I better get outside before it disappears entirely.

 

A Book Selling Mission in Paris

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In recent years, I’ve found myself browsing the large chain bookshops more often than not. I’ve found myself scrolling down the list of today’s bestsellers on the internet. I even read my first Swedish novel on an iPad. I suppose convenience has played a part in my search, tousled by the busy life of today. Yet, somehow the charm, the wonderment of the search seemed to have escaped me just a little, until a lovely reminder this past week in Paris.

I had my list of English bookshops in hand and a grand purpose behind it – to promote my debut novel. The first shop was all boarded up, closed to the outside world – for good it seemed. It was the second shop, with a man stacking reams of books, lugging them from crates on the sidewalk and into the shop that intrigued me. I approached with uncertainty, muscling up the courage to introduce myself. He replied as he crouched down to lift more books, with not a single glance my way. I couldn’t have felt more intrusive. He insisted that I speak my mind while he finished up. In and out of the threshold he stepped as I meagerly said my piece.

Once all books were nestled in the corner, he sat down behind the counter, piled high with secondhand books from Dickens to Jamie Oliver. I glanced down the narrow aisle flanked by aged books that seemed to tower through the ceiling above. My eyes traveled back to the shop owner when I quickly learned that I had his full attention. So full that he perused my list. Then with the care of a mentor, he congratulated me on getting published then one by one proceeded to give advice on each shop in the vicinity. He knew them well having owned his little corner of the market for umpteen years. Not an easy task to keep an English bookshop’s heart pumping in the centre of Paris, especially one called San Francisco Book Company.

It was his final comment to me that made me laugh, though it was weighed down by the reality of all artists; grueling, tedious work we love with often little to no recognition. “It’s a tough business. Thank God you’re not a painter. Writers feel sorry for the painters. And the painters feel sorry for the poets. I’m a poet and I run a secondhand book shop.”

I took his advice and re-arranged my list. Before I knew it, I found myself stepping into a shop that oozed the charm of his, with an added “je ne sais quoi”. Who am I kidding? I know exactly “what” that “quoi” was; the creaky floors, the attempted bustle of people squeezing past each other to reach for that one special book, but the towering shelves with ladders forced the bustle to calm down. I could almost hear the rushing hearts from the tourist frenzy across the bridge at Notre Dame, suddenly slow when the tinkle of the bell sounded on the shop’s door. As I walked along the aisle, people buried in this book and that, I rounded a corner that held crevices where book lovers could get lost. Though the hall was a tight squeeze, it felt friendly as it led to a narrow staircase wrapped in stone walls.

Unlike its browsing customers and those coming up for air every so often, I was on a mission – to promote Gillian Pugsley. Although I had to fight my way through a shop that could have easily swallowed me for good, in the end, I was able to say my piece. Now, Mademoiselle Pugsley needs to work her magic even in a country that’s not her own. Shakespeare and Company, as English as it is in the heart of the Latin Quarter as well as the other shops I visited, will be that much richer if they dance a little jig with Gilly. Fingers crossed.

Recipe for a Rainy Day

It’s early morning in the land of the Vikings, and the tickling of rain on the windows reminds me of the biting Swedish autumn outside. It’s the perfect weather to take me away into my imaginary world, the world I enjoy to its fullest, the world where images flutter past telling momentary stories, until that wonderful turning point when one settles into something more.

My favourite time to write is in the early morning when I know the world around me is in deep slumber. There are no lights in the neighbouring windows and only a distant car can be heard in irregular intervals. With a hint of light, I can see leaves waving furiously to get my attention. But I won’t let them rob me of this moment. Before long, the thieves of the day will join forces anyway and take me back to the world we all live in. A candle lit and a throw to curl up in with my trusty companion in my lap. No, not a dog – my laptop. There’s something not quite right about that, I mutter, scratching my head.

What is right though and infinitely remarkable, is how that single flame can turn into the trailing dress of an Edwardian artist at the turn of the century England. As the flame flickers in the hurricane lamp, the woman is jostled when she hears the trampling of feet at her back. She knows he has come to tell her the truth about what happened that night. And as the flame grows unexpectedly, she hears him dismount his horse as she faces the raging coastline. Whisking around, her dress picking up the dirt at her feet and feeling the dagger between her fingers, she’s ready to ask herself, should she or shouldn’t she?

When I look out the window, the light of the day has come and I hear twitches in the other rooms. The thieves have awakened.

Reviews, Stats, Books, Oh My!

Flags - review

I was roaming the aisles of Akademibokhandeln the other day, a large chain bookshop here in Sweden and came across a narrow section of English books. At eye level, staring nearly right through me was the blockbuster hit “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. Suddenly, everything in the shop disappeared and I was alone with this beast I couldn’t take my eyes off. Flynn’s incredible talent snagged me from the first sentence. When I feared the manager might approach me to buy or leave, something that would never happen in Sweden, I decided to investigate the author a little further once I got home. Her personal story is wonderful, not really unlike mine in ways. Okay, she’s actually sold a book, or two, or three – million, but who’s counting? The world is, that’s who.

When I washed away the curtain of success that is surrounding Gillian Flynn, what was left was the skeleton, the bones of her personal story—a story that began with trial and error—a story that began with writing. Not just writing one or two books but several, some of which faded into oblivion but far from nothingness. Every time she put pen to paper, or in today’s world, fingers to keyboard, she paved her training ground, another layer each time. She honed her skills just that little bit more. All of it, without knowing I’m sure, was in preparation for her debut novel, “Sharp Objects”.

She wrote what was familiar in the beginning, but it wasn’t until she had a sleepover with Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River”, that everything fell into place. How is that different from me? I asked myself. The answer was simple. It’s no different at all. When the time was right, “Mystic River” came looking for Gillian Flynn. When the time was right, my grandmother’s poems came looking for me. And so it began, my great journey into a world of new characters for me, a world that still leaves me breathless every now and again when I read and re-read what my pen swirled on the page. Forget about keyboards, they sound too mechanical for the gorgeous process of writing fiction. Shhh, the world doesn’t need to know just how mechanical, laborious and utterly grueling writing can really be.

I thought about Flynn’s exposure, something absolutely key in this industry. I know of her staggering sales just weeks after releasing her debut, but I have no idea how many she reached before the release. I have nothing to compare to. I have only my website. Yes, there’s a huge difference between a mass market book like hers and one written for a particular niche, my baby, my historical women’s fiction. But what I can say is that since I launched this website last month, it has been viewed in twenty-three countries, the flags representing those places above, with nearly four thousand views. Maybe that is nothing in this industry but it is anything but nothing to me. It is staggering to me, staggering to know that people from other countries have viewed my site. It is humbling in this world of mass market this and mass market that to think that my book can squeeze in there somewhere.

Recently, some advance praise came from fellow authors in the United States for Gillian Pugsley, authors who are fighting for their work just as much as the next author. I am honoured that they not only took the time to read my advance reading copy, but that they have endorsed it with such finesse and conviction. Readers will find their comments on my site’s homepage.

My grandmother’s poems didn’t just fall into my lap, they were given to me to share in a way that would make her proud, and I think that I have achieved that with this book.

“The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley” is far from “Gone Girl”, but the skeleton, those bones that rattle underneath the pages of even the top bestsellers is there. What’s more, I am proud to say that I have layered those bones with the meat of an exquisite love story. I hope you will agree.

Happy Thanksgiving, Canada! Skål from Sweden!

Another Thanksgiving has rolled around and I hear the distant jubilation of far off Canadians ringing in their turkeys. If I twitch my nose and sniff a great sniff, I can almost smell a sea of spicy stuffing wafting across the big pond… just for me. In fairness to the turkey, I never agreed with such an abomination of inners, and have never once in all my years at a Thanksgiving table devoured the concoction—to my mother’s dismay of course. On the other hand, my mother’s cranberry sauce to this day leaves me perfectly pleased.

But the joy of squeezing at the dinner table among a sea of family members, who all revel in talking at once, was changed immeasurably the day I brought a Swede home for Turkey Day. Imagine flying all the way across the Atlantic to celebrate such a day with little ol’ me? The sizzling sweet potatoes begging for attention and the flaky apple pie I’d grown up adoring, quite recklessly left me dreaming of times to come… the unknown… the language… the food.

With a trip to Sweden in the works for Christmas, I could only assume that the delights of roast turkey would be appreciated as much there as it was in Canada. After all, it’s a bird that can feed a whole slew of hungry Vikings at one table. Oh, how wrong I was!

What was once the most glorious of all meals, the one meal you could almost taste on your lips months in advance, a meal enjoyed twice each year by just about every Canuck, was instantly shattered. Like the Canadians, the Swedes’ favourite meal, the meal that leaves them salivating at the mouth, is one that sent shivers down my spine.

Herring.

Not just any herring. Herring in every dish possible, in any way possible, in any sauce possible. Herring with cooked onions in a dish of scalloped potatoes. Mmm Jansson’s Temptation, I write with great reservation. Herring in mustard sauce, pickled herring, herring and more herring.

Thank goodness for lax, or rather salmon, there is plenty of that at the julbord. Of course, you have a variety of other dishes where you gather in a queue to scoop up what you may. Meatballs and teeny, weeny prinskorv sausages, though we can’t forget all the potato and beetroot salads.

It’s true they do not celebrate Thanksgiving here in Sweden, but just the way Canadians have the same meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Swedes have the same meal at Christmas, Easter and Midsummer, with the exception of strawberries. Midsummer offers a dazzling dessert of strawberries, as many as you can stuff into your body. It is truly magnificent.

Fortunately, the watchful eye of my future mother-in-law that first Christmas resulted in a small cooked ham, just the right size for one, has made its way to the feasting table each holiday, year after year since. She is a gem that woman.

The Swenglish Thanksgiving is representative of our Swenglish life here in the house at the top of the hill. We have two languages going on at all times, we have two Santas who come each year, “Tomten” on Christmas Eve who visits the house and hands out the gifts himself and the Canadian Santa who makes his way to us during the night then dashes back to Canada. We have prinskorv with turkey and bullar with brownies. We have herring in mustard sauce on sandwiches for breakfast with Kellogg’s Cornflakes in a bowl. We have pancakes for evening food and much to the chagrin of Swedes, pancakes for breakfast! We have mashed potatoes on hotdogs. Okay, that’s carrying it a bit far. Only my husband likes that!

So to Canadians far and wide, it doesn’t matter how you celebrate it, it just matters that you are thankful for the good in your life. Happy Thanksgiving!