A Simple Christmas Gesture

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So the Christmas rush has begun—a frenzy of buying, crowds and wrapping. I stood in a shop yesterday watching three men (very clearly fathers), standing in front of a rack of children’s bit and bobs. A haze grew around them as they stared blankly, automatons with “I don’t want to be here” written all over them. I had to leave. I couldn’t watch their pain for another moment.

As I drove away from the crowded parking lot, it made me think of what I yearn for every year during the holiday season—to have a simple, relaxing holiday with the people I love most in this world. Those thoughts rolled into the things that truly bring happiness to my life. Of course, family soars highest of all, way above the Earth’s atmosphere, making me dizzy at times with love and worry and joy and all those things that mothers and wives experience.

Just under that invisible shield circling our world is another layer. Yesterday that layer unfolded itself in all the kind, everyday gestures that people have done for me and I for them. Waving another driver into the queue made me giddy with happiness. For that tiny moment, I was beaming over such a simple gesture, but one that people appreciate. I know I do, when someone does the same for me. And it’s so easy, isn’t it? Easy just to be kind.

Yesterday, I woke up to a lovely message from a fellow writer, Caitlin Hicks, author of A Theory of Expanded Love, letting me know that my book, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, along with hers, was included in Judith Collins’ 50 Must Read Books of 2015. She wasn’t obligated to inform me, but that gesture made me smile and grateful to be part of a community, the writing community.

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When I see the tsunami of books flooding the market every day, it is easy to get overwhelmed, realizing you are just one of thousands of writers out there trying to find an audience. It is a ruthless industry but one with creative people at its core. Writers have this incredible innate desire, I believe, to be supportive of other writers. It might be a kind word, advice or actively participating in the development of another writer. We understand how grueling the process of writing is and how hard it is to be recognized for our efforts. So, when a kind hand reaches out to us, we take it. During the holiday season, when everyone is tripping over their To-Do lists, it means that much more when people are kind, and authors are no exception.

cover_frontI haven’t even met in person, Cecilia Lindblad, author of Och Sedan Aldrig Mer, here in Sweden, but through our husbands we connected and exchanged books. I received a lovely message from her recently offering her support within the Swedish market. It is remarkable to me when someone reaches out in such a way, giving what he/she can to help another person. Likewise, my constant supporter, Lille-Mor Arnäs, author of the children’s fantasy book series, Fyrklövern, is cheering me on, offering advice and inspiring words. She is an inspiration.

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There is a lovely sincerity that I feel from her and others in my community of writers. How can I not appreciate them during the holidays? They, along with my non-writer friends, give me that extra push when doubt floods me. Every writer suffers from doubt from time to time. It’s part of the package. In any case, when you find yourself in the shops this holiday or fighting your way through the crowds, pull back and remind yourself what is real, what is important. Is it important to fill every nook and cranny under the Christmas tree? Do something instead. Something kind. Something real. Something lovely.

Smile at a stranger. Let someone into the queue ahead of you. If you liked someone’s book, let him/her know. Nothing needs to be fluffy. A simple gesture of kindness might just make someone feel giddy. And oh, isn’t that a wonderful feeling?

Merry Christmas

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A Castle by the Sea

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In the wake of all that’s been happening in the world over the last week, the atrocities, the deluge of grief, anger and compassion, I was reminded yesterday of simpler times. I was reminded of the beauty that sits just down the road from me when my daughter asked us to go to Tjolöholms Julmarknad (Christmas market) at a nearby castle by Gothenburg’s archipelago.

As we strolled through the barns, I watched regular folk who had lovingly crafted their art; beautiful pendants made with glass, earrings and necklaces made from old silver cutlery, knitted garments, and baked goods made that morning. I watched little Swedish children scurry through the crowds, some crying because of this or that, some chasing their siblings, toddlers on their dad’s shoulders. Roasted almonds and cashews filled the air with sweetness outside where the frost was sparkling on the ground. IMG_8898

The old carriages that stood proud in another barn hooked me straight away. I imagined myself a hundred years ago stepping into one—stepping into history. For a writer, this is such a wonderful feeling. The seeds of a story get planted whether we want it or not.

Christmas lights festooned along the walkway toward the castle, and the cold breath puffing from our mouths as we weaved in and out of visitors, pulled us toward the grand castle that was once home to several distinguished families. A truly remarkable building.

Christmas music sounded in the air and people were happy. As I wandered the halls of Tjolöholm, I couldn’t help but imagine a child running through the corridor, playing hide and seek in days gone by. Petticoats and crinolines whooshed through my mind. I could almost touch them.

IMG_8932As we rounded the corner outside, heading toward the sea, the sunset met the arched bridge under which the carriages must have stopped all those years ago. It was magical.

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On our way out, we stopped in one of the barns for a little evening fika (snack), sipped on warm glögg (mulled wine), ate pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and Lussekatter (saffron bun) and always some julmust (Christmas pop), beloved by Swedes.

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Just three hours there, but it was enough to enchant me once again. It was enough to remind me that we need to enjoy simple moments. A grand castle perhaps, but what lay within its walls, was the ability to stir my mind into tiny stories that may one day make it into one of my books. It carried me into a time that I’ve always wanted to visit. It made me look at my family and appreciate a lovely Saturday outing with the people I love most in this world.

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A Time to Remember

When I was a child, I jokingly referred to Remembrance Day as the day to remember that the following day was my birthday. Even then, I really didn’t mean it. Even then, as a child, the poppy worn by everyone I knew, stood for something important. What was missing at the time, however, was a true understanding of it all. I knew it was to commemorate those who had died during the First World War and war thereafter, but how does a small child so far from war really understand?

img_2044 GrandpaI knew my grandfather had served in the British Army during World War II and was away from his family in Berkshire for the better part of six years. I listened to my grandmother’s stories of how he was stationed on Sicily and would return to England on leave only to have his two young sons hardly recognize him. I remember a faint giggle when my grandmother told me how my uncle, only a tot at the time, had stuck his tongue out at him, saying that he couldn’t tell him what to do, but how he was then quickly reprimanded.

It was only as I grew older that I realized how sad that was. Imagine not really knowing your own father then having him return from war expecting everything to function as it once did. My grandfather fought in something horrific, the most gentle, soft-spoken man I had ever known. How much my father-in-law today reminds me of him. Such a lovely reminder of a good man, yet a reminder that I know very little of what he went through during those war years. Did I ever really ask him? I don’t think so. An incredible source of family history as though sleeping in a tiny box that I never dared to open, I want to open it now. Only I can’t.  I had numerous opportunities to ask him as I grew into adulthood. But I didn’t. Then he died.

Here I am, a writer writing stories that take place during the world wars, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, WWII and my current novel taking place during both WWI and II. Had I known what my grandfather experienced, had I heard about it from his lips, I can’t help think how much richer my words would be. My grandfather’s brother, who lost both of his legs at eighteen years old in battle, has spent most of his life with prosthetics. It is incredible to think how such a traumatic event must have changed his life. Yet I have heard very little of his story, apart from the fact that he married his nurse, had a family and never once seemed to consider himself anything other than able-bodied and high-spirited.

When my brother told our family that he was planning on leaving his medical practice to join the Navy as a physician, it was a shock to say the least. Never once would any of us have thought he’d have a career in the military. It seemed so against his ideals, war, guns, violence—everything he stood against. But I was wrong. That’s the beauty of the Canadian military, those in the Commonwealth, and other countries like Sweden. They are peacekeepers first and foremost and I feel very proud of that. I feel proud that my brother’s role in the military is one of helping others and doing what’s morally right and humane. He wanted our support even though it was difficult to understand his choice at first. But we gave it. Through time, we were able to see how a career in the military made him happy. FullSizeRender soldier

I may not have opened that tiny box with my grandfather, a box that was no doubt overflowing with stories, good and bad, but I’ve been able to hear some of my brother’s stories. His time in Afghanistan was perhaps the most frightening for all of us back home, but he did a lot of good for the people of that country while he was there. He was able to reach remote villages to give medical care and advice to Afghans, some of whom had never even seen a toothbrush in their lives. He worked in some of the most extreme and perilous circumstances, but he earned his unit’s trust and loyalty and has built a successful career—a career that surprised us all.

So today is Remembrance Day. All the untold stories that will never make it into a book, all the stories that may have died in battle with those soldiers, yet on this day, we remember them—the soldiers of yesterday and today. “At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”

Photo Source (top photo) – Poppy Appeal 2013

Finding Inspiration

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Writers find inspiration in the most unlikely places. For me, yesterday, I found it when Halloween fell over the sunset in Sweden’s west coast archipelago. Although Halloween isn’t celebrated in Sweden in the way that it is in North America, (no trick or treaters, no witches or ghosts or candy), the orange sky melted its way over the small fishing village of Grundsund as a truly lustrous charm. It was as though all the pumpkins turned Jack-o-lanterns in my childhood had flickered their flames across the water, bringing me home once again. I was grateful. It felt as though the sun had given me alone something special to remember Halloween by.

I’d had a lovely day trip with my family up the coast with lunch at Brygghuset IMG_8785in Fiskebäckskil, where I was once again faced with the dilemma – to reap the rewards of the sillbord or not. In plain old English, herring buffet or no herring buffet before the main meal? That was the question. Please don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for my Swedish family, friends and their Viking ways but “sill” is not one of them. Not for me, not ever. I may have dual citizenship now, but I am Canadian through and through when it comes to keeping some order to my plate of food. Let me present my husband’s appetizer plate: pickled herring (stekt inlagd strömming), boiled eggs, pickled fried herring, pickled red cabbage (rödkål), pickled mustard herring (inlagd senapsill), pickled in a different way herring (matjesill), herring cake (silltårta), herring potato salad (potatissalad med sill).

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Are you inspired?

That’s what I thought.

How about my son’s plate?

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No, didn’t think so. Whereas my very Viking boy was licking his lips when he sat down to eat this feast for the eyes. His eyes, I reiterate. In fairness, I have to add that the food at this restaurant was otherwise absolutely delicious and I would recommend it to anyone. And who knows, I’m sure there is a herring lover somewhere in Canada, too.

Now where is this all going you might be asking yourself? A writer’s inspiration. How can a plate of Swedish food inspire a writer? Well, all I will say is that I am absolutely certain there is a writer somewhere in Sweden who is inspired by this food enough to win a Nobel prize in literature, but not me.

As we sat in Brygghuset mulling over our options for the afternoon, I peered out the window to find inspiration headed straight toward me—a twenty-three meter luxury yacht from Norway. All that oil, you know. Before it made it to the dock, I was already conjuring up my next novel, taking place on a tiny island in the South Pacific and arriving on that.

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A few photo bursts later, we were walking along the newly built dock in Grundsund, the one that wraps around the shoreline hugging yet another of Sweden’s lovely fishing villages. IMG_8812 The orange sunset was the crowning glory to a perfect day. How could it not inspire you? As we drove off, not exactly into the sunset, but rather in the dark to the ferry to Orust, a sea of flickering lights all over the local cemetery, on all the graves of loved-ones, reminded me how Halloween is Allhelgona (All Hallows’ Eve) here in Sweden. It is a “gentle remembrance of the saints and of those loved ones who (have) died.” Once again I felt inspired and know that somehow that sea of candle light will work its way into my writing.

What I love about writing is how those lovely moments of inspiration seem to come when you least expect them. As I sat writing this post, my son shouted across the house for everyone to look at the sky. What had been unusually and completely orange on Halloween, tonight on November 1, the sky was a stunning purple.  No, not just purple, it was amethyst! I’ve never seen anything like it. Click, click went the mobile phone. It was something I simply had to capture—a moment that was gone as quickly as it came. But what a jewel!

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I would love to know where and when and even what inspires you. Please feel free to comment below.

Every Time, Times Twenty

1) Every time I sit down to write a blog post, I wonder what can I write that hasn’t already been written.

2) Every time I wake to a cold house, I feel like I’m living in Little House on the Prairie as I light a fire for warmth. (That’s a good thing.)

3) Every time my husband travels to the far corners of the world, I feel grateful that I miss him even more today than ever before. IMG_8392

4) Every time I doubt myself as a writer, I remind myself how fortunate I am to be published at all.

5) Every time the sun shines here in Sweden, I close my eyes and let it soak into my skin.

6) Every time my friend needs a shoulder, I realize how lucky I am to have my children safe at home and how I wish I could take her pain away for all time.

7) Every time I see my daughter dancing on stage, I cry.

8) Every time I start reading a new book, I rid myself of expectations.

9) Every time I fall in love with a book, I try with every fibre in me, to read it slowly and make it last. FullSizeRender.jpg kate morton

10) Every time I see a person sitting outside the shops with a cup and sign, I feel uncomfortable and angry and ashamed of myself all at once, when I walk right past.

11) Every time I look them in the eye and smile, it feels good.

12) Every time I step out of my comfort zone, I tell myself that if nothing else, this will be a great experience.

13) Every time my teenage children confide in me, I whisper to myself, “Don’t blow it, Susan, just keep quiet and listen.”

14) Every time I keep quiet and listen, I can feel their appreciation.

15) Every time my children tell me a grade from school, I try my hardest to react like my husband does—non-judgmental and proud.

16) Every time I have writer’s block, the frustration is so excruciating, I think I could go mad.

17) Every time I come across one of those melt in your mouth expressions or words, I feel like I’ve gone to writer’s heaven.

18) Every time I think of my sister, I wish she was close enough to drop by for a cup of tea.

19) Every time I see an overweight person jogging, I feel admiration and inspired.

20) Every time a moose visits our garden, nothing else matters. FullSizeRender.jpg moose

If you would like to share your twenty or even ten “times”, I’d enjoy hearing from you.

A Writer’s Fleeting Moment? Maybe or Maybe Not. – believe in yourself and be happy for others

As I watch the writing career of a childhood/high school friend fall beautifully into place – her books gracing shelves in bookshops around the world and translated into multiple languages – I thought I might feel envious. Strangely, I don’t. I think as writers, we know and understand the grueling, painstaking work behind what we do. Yes, there are those perhaps who are in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, I believe we make our own luck by being prepared, hence “when preparation meets opportunity.” What we see (the readers looking in) is that silver lining, the joy of those authors in the public eye, representing their work and their publishers. My friend, Susin Nielsen (author of We Are All Made of Molecules), who is currently at Festivaletteratura in Mantua, Italy, is living that life. She was invited there and even had two representatives meet her at the airport. What writer wouldn’t enjoy that? But she has worked hard to get where she is. For most of us in this business, nothing is given on a silver platter.

It’s true, good fortune can come more readily to some people but persistence is something in which I strongly believe. I have only recently stepped into the publishing industry officially, but unofficially, I’ve been at it for years. Rarely does it happen overnight. I know what it’s like to watch that mountain of rejection letters grow into something that looks an awful lot like humble pie. You go in feeling high, and so you should. You’ve finished writing a book! How many people can say that? Slowly reality surfaces when you realize what you’re up against – the ever-growing number of daily submissions. There’s a staggering amount of competition out there. So we, as writers, need to revel in our moments of success.

I am thrilled for Susin Nielsen. She deserves this success. I am equally as thrilled that I’ve managed to climb to the top of my rejection pile and see a glimpse of what’s out there for me. Writing is the most creatively challenging pursuit I have ever taken on, but it remains a very natural part of me. I like telling stories. I always have. I like making up names and places and characters and describing them so all my reader or listener has to do is close her eyes and see for herself.

I wanted someone to believe in my writing as much as I believed in it. When the time was right, when my right place and my right moment came, as prepared as any top-selling author, that’s when I was offered a contract. Ever since, I have reveled in those lovely moments of success.  Success perhaps on a different scale.  But isn’t it simply a question of how we measure success?  On the other hand, our goals are ever-changing! I first wanted to complete a book – I did. Then I wanted it to be published – it was. Then I wanted someone whom I didn’t know to buy the book and genuinely enjoy it – they did. And now, yes it’s true, I hope to sell it many times over.

I was invited to speak at a book club in New Delhi, India two nights ago via Skype. One member even joined us online from home since she was ill. What a joy it was to see women in another part of the world reading my book and sharing their thoughts and feelings about it! They were expats from various parts of the world, all of whom could relate easily to the characters and places in The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley.  All of them have experienced the feelings of adventure, isolation, thrill,   India Book Clubcamaraderie and a sense of homelessness about living abroad – a rather sacred and oddly lovely confusion that rests with expats. These feelings are no stranger to my main character, which resulted in this book club bonding with Gilly on an intimate level. How marvelous was that? Yes, it was one of those moments in which to revel.

I have been invited to speak at The American Women’s Club in Gothenburg, Sweden next week. I am honoured and very excited about it. I am a local author yet will likely understand these women before I even meet them. They, too, are experiencing living abroad, just as I have done for many years.

IMG_0412 KoboWhen we work hard at our craft, we feel validated when someone sits up and notices. Recently, I was bowled over to learn that my book was in the top ten bestsellers in historical fiction on Kobo Books and was running alongside Kate Morton’s, The Distant Hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes, KATE MORTON! Okay, so my ranking wasn’t quite as sustainable as hers but I’ll take what I can get.

These may all be fleeting moments in any writer’s life. Do we shout from the rooftops or quietly soak in these moments? I rather like the idea of a bit of both. After all, we writers have to claw our way through the slush pile and make ourselves noticed. Trumpet to the world if that’s what it takes. We need to believe in ourselves and stand by our writing, even when the odds are against us.

I am over the moon for my friend and her success. It’s inspirational at the very least. Yet, I am grateful beyond words to have even a taste of it myself. All the fluff is wonderful—cotton candy at its best. But what matters in the end is that we write. And if someone reads our books and is touched by them, I don’t know a purer form of success. I may not have representatives greeting me at airports to take me to this event and that, but a writer can dream. After all, that’s where it all started—this thing we call writing—it started with a dream.