It’s All About the Stairwell – or So I Thought – A Gift for any Historical Writer

Just over a year ago, my brother in-law and his family bought a bed & breakfast in Malta. Naturally, I was both thrilled for them and as green as any ripened avocado. For the time being, they are renting it out as a single family home until one day, they can bring back to life the charm of a B&B’s revolving door, filling it with guests from around the globe once again.

I had only seen photographs of their new home away from home until recently – photos that were enchanting. But there was one image that stood out – one I found rather captivating. It wasn’t the towering rooms that bathed in light or even the hideaway courtyard in the back that whispered “Susan’s future writing nook” (provided I’m a good sister-in-law) or even the fabulous roof deck that dons a healthy slice of the Mediterranean only meters away. No, it wasn’t any of that. It was the stairwell that connected all those bits together – the heart of their new home. IMG_8049stairwell

A recent invitation to Malta for some holiday fun was an opportunity for the family to share in their new adventure. I was curious about the country and excited to step into those photographs. When I walked through the skinny blue doors that rescued me from the sweltering heat of the street, what welcomed me was more than I’d expected. Instead of the stairwell I had remembered from a photograph, it was something truly incandescent. I was immediately drawn to it as it curled upward like a thirsty plant trying to reach sunlight. As I followed its winding treads, my hand floating along the wrought iron railing, I found my eyes were drawn to the bath of light at the top.

I hadn’t yet noticed the beauty of the limestone, how some treads hung like a falling wave in the centre – held heavy by the footsteps of a hundred plus years of life. All I wanted to do was reach the top so that I could peer down at the spotted tile below and… imagine.

I was so taken with the stairwell and how something this grand could sit so gently in its space, that it took several trips up and down before I had noticed the gem waiting patiently on its walls. Following the curve from the ground floor to the second, a quiet beauty hung in four frames. Actually, two beauties – both draped in easy fabric – one sheer falling to her bare feet. Both images conjured up a handful of romantic stories, or more accurately questionsIMG_8208lady2

As a historical writer, I wanted to know the time period, why were they dressed this way, what social class were they from, was this leisure time in the garden or simply posing, did they have a love-interest and what, pray tell, could they be thinking. Whether or not they were paintings was insignificant to me. It was about how the images made me feel. And that feeling was romantic. All those questions melted away as tiny stories took their place. I was hooked.

When I had arrived in Malta, I imagined that a new story and possible project would jump out at me by watching the people and life on the small island. I thought the colour of limestone that covers the isle in beige would bleed a fiery red love story. Maybe the salty sea would taste of the next great beach read or the passionate Maltese way of speaking would somehow write a new story on its own. Certainly, the evening was intriguing the way it brought out the older generation to socialize along the promenade. It was wonderful.

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In the end, it wasn’t any of these marvelous things that captivated me, it was an old staircase with four hanging picture frames. Before I left, I took photos of them. I didn’t want the details to escape me. What I didn’t realize until I returned to Sweden, was that in each photo that I took, the reflection of the staircase had become part of each image. Look carefully at them. Somehow, I think they enhance the pictures – fit together nicely. How appropriate I thought since it was the stairwell that drew me to them.

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So will a story emerge from these images one day? I would hazard a guess that most historical fiction writers can and do easily get inspired by photographic images, old paintings and definitely old staircases. We love to imagine what could have taken place, what love story might have happened as we swirl our pen into making it reality. So the answer is unequivocally, “maybe”. A writer’s got to leave an audience with a little bit of wonder after all.

Please share something that has inspired your writing.  I would be thrilled to hear from you.

A Book on A Shelf and Travel – a great combo!

For the past two weeks, my family and I have been visiting the United States in a combined effort to see friends, have some fun and do a little marketing of my book, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Puglsey. Our visit to North Carolina was wonderful, despite the humidity. From southern cookouts to chauffeuring the kids back and forth to friends to a very successful road trip with my publisher, Light Messages, I couldn’t have been happier. Meeting with Baker & Taylor (one of the world’s largest distributors) was a joy. They loved my book so much that they plan to spread the word with a review in their newsletter to over 1000 booksellers. This is big for me and I couldn’t be more grateful. FullSizeRender Trip 8

I was also able to fulfill a dream when I saw my book on a Barnes and Noble store shelf for the first time – and not just any store, but the store that I frequented every week during my three years living in North Carolina, dreaming that one day, my book would be there gleaming with pride. IMG_7237 Trip 7That was the first of four Barnes and Noble shops in North Carolina to take in my book for their shelves. I am immensely grateful and excited.

Then off to California we flew. We have been working our way up the coast, visiting with old friends and stopping by every Barnes and Noble in the area. I must say that each and every manager I have met, has treated me with such respect and kindness. They have not only been more than happy to try my book on their shelves, but they have appeared chuffed to meet one of their B&N on-line authors – making me feel very welcome indeed!

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Four days left of our vacation as we work our way up to San Francisco. We spent yesterday watching dozens of elephant seals lounging on a beach. We admired the crashing waves outside 17 Mile Drive. We have been surfing on this trip (well, I have watched my kids and husband surfing) in Encinitas. We’ve taken a fabulous tour of Warner Brothers Studios. We’ve visited the Hollywood sign, done the Beverly Hills thing, met two TV celebrities and have followed the stunning coastline up to Monterey. It has been a whirlwind trip and I look forward to riding a cable car in San Francisco and visiting a few Barnes and Noble shops there. IMG_7658 Trip 4  IMG_7609 Trip 3

News on this trip of two dear friends hurting and struggling – reality hits hard. It makes me extremely grateful for a happy and healthy family, for this amazing opportunity to travel and for this weather, which fills me with energy. All of it can be taken away in a snap. So for today, I will love life that little bit more!

Below is a list of Barnes and Noble Stores where you can currently find The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley: (Please Note – if you go to my home page, you will find links to several of the on-line booksellers carrying my book)

California

1) La Jolla – Bookstar (owned by B&N)

2) Calabasas

3) Marina Del Rey

4) San Luis Obispo

5) Santa Monica

6) San Bruno

7) Corte Madera (north of Sasaulito)

8) El Cerrito

9) Emeryville

10) San Mateo

11) Redwood City

12) Santa Clara

13) San Jose (Eastridge Mall)

14) San Jose (Almaden Plaza)

North Carolina

1) Southpoint Mall – Durham

2) Brier Creek

3) Cary

4) Crabtree Valley Mall – Raleigh

Is Midsummer a Writer’s Dream?

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Now that Midsummer celebrations are winding down here in Sweden, it gives me time to reflect on the weekend. Swedes cherish Midsummer festivities, an occasion to celebrate the longest and lightest day of the year. This is not to be taken “lightly” in Scandinavia since much of the year is dark and dare I say dreary. Although it was calling for rain, that never stops Swedes from a having a fabulous time. If that means dancing in a downpour in rubber boots, flower crown and traditional blue and yellow dress around a May pole then so be it.  FullSizeRenderMidsummer10

This year, my family decided to try to outrun the rain and head to the islands in the west coast archipelago where the clouds are often pushed aside just for us it seems. Smart decision. The weather was glorious, not hot but pleasant—so pleasant you could go without a cardigan and feel the sun on your skin. We borrowed farmor and farfar’s (grandma and grandpa’s) boat and headed north, first to Mollösund—a seaside town that never disappoints. From the distance, you can actually feel it pulling you toward it. It is a happy fishing village with white or red houses with traditional clay tile rooftops. People are friendly. What I’ve always liked about Swedes is that you can trust their behaviour. They are either genuinely happy to greet you or they’re not. And if they’re not, you’ll know it straight away. Believe it or not, there is some comfort in that. They mean what they say and don’t put on a front. Mollösund is no exception—only in its case I have yet to meet a miserable soul.

Truth is, Midsummer brings out the best in Swedes. In a country where it’s the norm to walk right past a person on the street and not only not greet them, you dare not look into their eyes. What will happen? Well, that’s another blog post altogether. But on Midsummer, boaters are waving to each other from a distance, shouting “Hallå” and smiling from yacht to rowboat or even from water scooters.IMG_3549[3]Misummerseadoo National flags are flapping in the wind and people are people-watching. Oh, the people-watching is so much fun. Children are racing around with their friends, jumping into the freezing sea and laughing like true little Vikings. There is a feeling that I truly love about Sweden during vacation time. You simply know that everyone is relaxed and happy. Yes, of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but in Sweden’s case, vacation time is met with sheer, utter glee. It is cherished in this country and you can feel it in the air.

In our case, albeit happy, we were on a mission to find the perfect island to stop for the night. Of course, one island looks like the other. The archipelago is a series of scattered islands that look like giant sleeping walruses. Don’t you think?  The writer in me sees it anyway. We weren’t disappointed either. We have always managed to find just the right spot. This time, we were tucked into a lovely bay with only a few sailboat neighbours moored on the opposite side. We didn’t discover them until we hiked to the top of the rocks to get a view of paradise. And boy, were we met with a view—the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen. We stood in awe as it slowly wrapped around a lovely seaside town called Lysekil. I’m sure our neighbours in the distance we watching it, too. Of course being Canadian, I enjoyed for a few moments kidding myself that we could go without Swedish traditional Midsummer food being on our own out at sea. NO! Forget that, Susan! As soon as we set the anchor, had our little trek, IMG_6901Midsummer6 there was hubby, boiling his beloved potatoes and pulling out the herring. Yes, herring of every kind and flavour. Our son, clearly inheriting the dominant Viking genes, later licked up the herring juice that was left over! Seventeen years married and it still makes my skin crawl. That said, I reveled in the smoked mackerel and devoured the fresh shrimp. Shrimp in Sweden is truly the world’s best!

IMG_6906Midsummer7  Apart from the gnats enjoying their Midsummer feast on us later that evening, we enjoyed our engångsgrill and summer sausages as we watched the sun set on the horizon. Well, I just added that for full effect. The truth is the sun doesn’t really set this time of year in Sweden – but I could imagine it. So the boat lulled us to sleep in the land of the midnight sun.

The morning scooted along those gnats and they were nowhere to be seen. The sea was calm and it was stunning weather. We spent the day visiting other islands and seaside villages—Smögen being one we like in particular. Although it is a party place during Midsummer, it brought happy vacationers. To me, that’s what Midsummer is about—the people. And if the sun shines, there’s no one happier than me.

So is Midsummer a writer’s dream? It’s certainly a time when the senses are on overdrive; the smell of the sea, the glittery swells, the taste of tradition, and human behaviour that explodes with joy. What better way to observe tiny moments that one day may work themselves into your next novel? In ways, Midsummer is a writer’s dream, but here in Sweden, it is very much a writer’s reality, too.

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walrus photo source

Writing in the Face of Tragedy

A few years ago, I had a colleague say to me that when most people wanted to stay away after tragedy struck a mutual friend, I ran toward her instead, and that would be something our friend would never forget. At the time, not even the Atlantic Ocean could keep me from her and I found myself on a plane two days later. I couldn’t bear to think of the pain she was going through and somehow felt that my presence would be of some comfort. Over three years later, I sometimes wonder whether I did it for her or for me. After all, maybe I could be a shoulder, maybe I could be of some use, maybe it would make me feel needed. Was I being selfish? Perhaps, though my intentions were honourable. Perhaps others were right to give her space and come only when she reached out. In the face of sudden tragedy, my actions were reactions. Reacting out of love for a dear friend.

I didn’t know how to deal with such a life-changing event. Even though she fell into my arms at the time, I suddenly felt useless and intrusive. I hadn’t suddenly lost a child – she had. I had never been faced with grief – she had. I couldn’t possibly feel the depth of her pain. All I could do was be there. One week later, I had to go back to my life abroad – to take care of my family. A string of emails would have to suffice until I could see my friend again during the summer and try to be that little bit of a crutch for a few weeks until I had to go away again and again and again.

This is where writing comes into play – for me at least. How can a friend truly understand another’s pain? Our heart breaks for them, but unless we have experienced such a tragedy, we cannot come close to understanding, not for a millisecond. I’ve come to realize though, that as close friends, we hurt too. We hurt because we feel some of their pain. We don’t know the pain, but we do feel it. Our tendency is to brush off how it affects us, because we’re not the important ones here, our suffering friend is. It’s taken me these three years to understand that we do matter, our pain matters, too. It hurts to know that I can never heal my friend. I can’t bring back her son. But I can do something. I can write.

When I began writing my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, I had already developed the premise of the book. But as fate or the gods or whatever one wants to believe in would have it, her son found a place in my heart through my writing. It was through his inspiration that I was able to heal as a friend. It was through him and weaving his personality into my character, that I became stronger. I felt as though I was doing something worthwhile. It was as though my character, Christian Hunter wouldn’t exist without her son. And he wouldn’t. I needed a charismatic young man in my story. I needed him to be someone people felt good to be around. I needed him to be the kind of character that made others feel as though they were the most important person in the room. I needed him to be a good listener, inquisitive and down to earth. He needed to be someone who didn’t care how much money others made but still appreciated the finer things in life. He needed to be comfortable in his own company, sit and read a book in a crowded restaurant and thoroughly enjoy it. He needed to have strong morals and be deliciously easy-going. Only one person could fill my characters shoes and that was my friend’s son. He gave my character life and I will forever be grateful.

We are fortunate as writers to be able to use our passion to help heal us or in many cases, help ease the pain. Through writing, I was able to recognize my own pain through my friend’s experience. It helped me validate it and give it a voice. The result was a character of whom I am immensely proud, one who reminds me every day of the incredible son that my friend raised. It reminds me of the incredible parents he has and will always have in life and in death.

Image source

 

Get Outside, Go for a Walk, Play, Hangout, Do Something – but get off that smartphone!

Something has been nagging me for quite some time and as a mom it cannot be swept under the rug. In fact, it’s plaguing most moms these days and I would hazard a guess that the culprit lay heavily in those little machines that our children seem to worship – the almighty smartphone. It would be unfair of me to target only our children. We adults are quite addicted ourselves. I read a very good article yesterday on Today.com by Jen Hatmaker, What Would My Mom do? Like hers, my mom would tell me to go outside and play. Now that my own children are apparently too old to “play”, and apparently “hang out” now with friends, I find they are actually “hanging out” via FaceTime and Skype. Unbelievable! Go outside, meet people! This morning, I went for a walk in the neigbourhood, through the forest and over to the paddocks where horses usually graze. Didn’t see any today. The sun was shining, two deer pranced away when they saw me approaching, no children, no smartphones but plenty of birds skittering after each other. It was heavenly. I thought if only my children would get out of bed and enjoy such an early morning walk. If they had, they could have met the interesting character I did this morning. No smartphone can imitate those surroundings, the sounds, the fresh spring air finally seeping into the west coast, and the chance meeting at the fork of two country roads. Interesting indeed! This man looked like something taken straight out of a Tolkien book – a forest-like hermit really. I wasn’t sure whether to run in the opposite direction, but clearly we were both only out to enjoy the gorgeous weather. This man had a no-nonsense dog with him that I could hear panting behind me until he caught up, sniffing my leg curiously. Not the man but the dog! His name was Rambo. Yes! I repeat, Rambo (the dog not the man). Quite unlike Swedes, who generally don’t look at passers-by, this older man was cheery. I’m quite sure the sun put a spring in his step. We began chatting and within two sentences, he said to me that he detected an English dialect. Here we go again, I thought to myself. I replied, “You could hear that directly?” (in Swedish of course) “Ja,” as though I should be surprised. I like to kid myself into believing that if I speak Swedish quickly enough, I will fool the locals with my very natural Göteborgs dialect. Somehow I always fail miserably. Needless-to-say, he was very curious and asked me all sorts of questions about Canada. He had heard that Canada’s landscape was similar to Sweden’s. Yes, that’s true. He even had some relatives living there – in Ontario was all he could remember. Then it was time to part ways when I asked about Rambo. He asked me if I knew where the name Rambo came from. I looked at the beast, no longer wondering if he’d take one of my limbs away with him, and said that of course I knew the film. He proceeded to tell me that the name Rambo comes from the Swedish immigrant Peter Gunnarsson Rambo, who brought apple seeds to the United States in 1637. It’s possible that the Rambo seeds are responsible for the first truly American apples. Now, if I hadn’t gone for that walk this morning, I may never have learned that bit of trivia. So, get off your smartphones kids, get outside and go for a walk. You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet, and you will never, ever regret walking away with all limbs in tact!