Research provides the backbone to a story. Sometimes, we can base the story on our lives, and we have years of "research" to draw on. But far more often, writers create a world, a character or a situation that is new to them. And then we have to discover all we can about it to make the story come alive.
I love researching places. It was a pleasure to return over and over again to the San Diego area when I was writing Plastic. My trips allowed me to soak in the atmosphere, pick up on differences in dialect or vocabulary and heighten my descriptions of the natural surroundings.
Researching characters is practically a daily occurrence. I'm always storing away tidbits of information heard or seen: the way someone reaches for a pen, compassionate glances, angry words, etc. Once I start writing a book, I build the character partly by gathering up some of these tidbits and partly by putting the character into scenes and seeing how he or she reacts.
Where the real work of researching comes in for me is the unknown situation. This takes time. The main character in Plastic was a former beauty queen. A world I knew nothing about. I read books about former beauty queens and spent far too much time on the Internet reading about pageants, watching videos of contestants and looking at photos from the time period when Debbie would have been competing. I discovered a few uncomfortable things but they made me cringe more than cry. Not so with my next book.
My next book has a much darker subject matter, and the research can be tough. It's important to me that the story be told, and I want it to ring true. So I am delving into the research when I have little pockets of time. And then I need to take a breather. How lucky I am to be able to pull back from the darkness. For some people, this is their truth. In telling this story, I have to honour the people who actually live through such difficult circumstances. The women who have so little choice in their own lives.
Gung hay fat choi. Welcome to the year of the dog!
I got a head start on the year back in November when
I welcomed Cory into my home. As I mentioned in my
last post, Cory is a black Lab in training to become
a service dog with the BC and Alberta Guide
Dog Association. And Cory is teaching me a lot
about hard work, loyalty and sacrifice. My life
changed overnight, and it was not at all what I
expected. But then few life-changing events ever are.
As with any such adventure, training a puppy comes with a whole set of challenges. Dogs don't speak English and find our fussy ways confusing and frustrating at times. Add on to this the myriad rules specific to guide dogs, and we have a recipe for mutual frustration. Cory couldn't be crated and she suffered from separation anxiety. If she couldn't see me, she panicked. And then destroyed things. We had a very rocky start to our year-long relationship. She demanded constant attention, which put a halt to my writing, my social life and even my job. Unless she was sleeping, I had to focus my attention on her. Cory did not like to sleep during the day. So my evenings were crammed with trying to catch up on work and finding silent ways to cook or clean so as not to wake her.
Then there were the nights. Cory woke up between two and four times each night to do her business. Sleep became a precious commodity that I stole in two-hour chunks. As the weeks progressed, and my lack of sleep made it harder to focus and keep smiling, I really questioned whether I could make it through an entire year with her.
Then, a full two months after she arrived, things started to improve. Small miracles appeared, like sleeping from midnight to 7 am. Her baby teeth started to fall out, and she bit and chewed less often. She took naps during the day. She stopped freaking out if I left her alone for short periods. As she matures, she is becoming more manageable and more enjoyable to be around.
But the experience so far has taught me two important lessons: I can never take on such a demanding volunteer role again while I am working and I am not cut out to be a puppy trainer. I will honour the contract I signed and do my best to make sure Cory passes her service dog evaluation. At times, the thought of her helping a person with a visual impairment or autism has been the only thing keeping me going. Because I know my year of sacrifice will give someone else a decade or more of companionship and assistance. But I also know that these dogs deserve to have the best trainers, people who have more time and energy to devote to them.
Cory will continue to teach me about compassion, patience, consistency and a few other surprises. I know I will feel proud of my efforts when it is time for her to move on to advanced training. But I also look forward to having my life back and to devoting myself to my writing again. With a little distance, I will be able to distill some of the mayhem of this year into my fiction in one form or another.
It has been a different kind of Christmas for me this year. Usually, I fly home to Halifax on Christmas Eve and then spend a jam-packed week visiting as many relatives as I can squeeze in. It's a run, run Rudolph pace with the occasional panic of being stuck in an airport in either direction due to storms.
Not this year. I stayed in Victoria. I'll take it as a kind of Christmas miracle that it snowed December 24, granting me a white Christmas after all. On Christmas morning, I Skyped with my family, who later enjoyed a turkey dinner in candlelight due to a power outage. As for me, I enjoyed a Christmas feast with new friends I met through Cory, the reason I stayed in Victoria this year.
Cory is a three-month-old black Lab I am raising for BC and Alberta Guide Dogs. She is adorable, rambunctious, strong-willed, goofy and exhausting. And she will spend a year with me in puppy training. So I am dubbing 2018 the Year of the Dog. It just so happens that the Chinese calendar agrees. On February 16, Chinese New Year ushers in the Year of the Dog. A year of lifestyle changes, which I can already attest to, thanks to Cory. More on that in the next post.
For now, I will appreciate the kindness of friends who have been helping me adjust, supporting me over the initial hurdles and enveloping me in their holiday traditions. I will leave all of you with a wish for peace and joy in 2018 and with a photo of Cory to melt your heart.
A powerful movement has begun. I link it back to the women's march that happened the day after Trump was sworn in. I attended the march here in Victoria and was awed by the energy of the crowd, which was made up of women of all ages. Women's rights felt threatened and en masse we stood up to protest.
Flash forward nine months to the #metoo phenomenon. Women once again are standing up to say no more. You cannot touch my body without consent. You do not have the right to sexually harrass me, denigrate me or demand sexual favours for a job, promotion or service.
Over my lifetime, I have experienced various forms of sexism, harrassment and assault. From a pat on the rear to attempted rape. The sad truth is that every single woman I know has similar stories. The disturbing truth is that we all just tried to forget these injusticies. Because they are so commonplace, they were accepted as part of the culture. "Men are pigs." We shrugged our shoulders and moved on.
But increasingly this fall, brave women are calling out abusers and demanding justice. I applaud all women who find their voices and come forward. Our culture will never change if we allow our sons, our male friends, our boyfriends, our bosses or any other man in our lives to mistreat us and other women. Say it calmly and clearly: you do not have the right.
I await news of criminal cases against serial abusers like Weinstein. Only when the police and the courts take these crimes seriously will we truly turn the tide. When I called out colleagues at two former jobs, my supervisors did nothing. In fact, they made excuses for their bad behaviour. That has to end.
The vulnerability of women is a key theme in my writing. Although we make up half the population, we are not afforded the same privileges, opportunities or rights. It is easy to point the finger at other countries, but the #metoo movement shines a light on where we must do better right here at home. Let's keep the conversation going.
My book tour wrapped up in Victoria on Tuesday, October 17. I had a fabulous time reading from my book and meeting fellow writers and readers in the different cities across Canada. I am so appreciative of the support shown by the book stores, the FogLit festival organizers, my publisher and the family and friends who came out to cheer me on.
Now I turn my attention to the next book, while keeping a watchful eye on the reviews and feedback that continue to come in. I'm excited to immerse myself in a new world and begin the creative process again. For inspiration, I have the books I recently picked up while on the tour. I am anticipating a very cozy fall and winter in rainy Victoria, either curled up by the fire reading or sitting at my computer writing.
Happy fall reading to you as well!
A writer's journey