Tag Archives: inspiration

Running down a dream

Today, I ran my first half marathon. It has been a goal six years in the making. I came close in 2008, but then a stupid injury sidelined me. Illness, a couple of surgeries and pure laziness kept me from succeeding.

Last January, when I was on a trip to LA with my sister, I knew I had to make a big change in my life. My health had to become my priority.

After nine months of training (with a 2 month break because of travel and a mild case of laziness), I ran the Niagara International Half Marathon

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

with my husband, who has also been my awesome and patient coach. It was hard. My legs are not fully functional and probably won’t be for days. My head hurts. And I feel awesome.

I finally reached this goal because I had a plan: “do this much running on these days for this many weeks.” I had to start with a walking plan to build up my fitness. Then my running had to increase to be able to run 10 minutes and walk 1. And then my mileage had to build from 3 km all the way up to 20, and finally 21 km today. It meant running when I didn’t want to. There was a lot of swearing, I won’t lie. A bit of whining too. The couch would be calling, but Dave would be in his running gear and I knew I had to get my ass in gear.

At the beginning, I was scared that I would fail again. That it would continue to be this illusive goal. Right up until I went over the finish line, I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I'm 8 years old.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I’m 8 years old.

But I did it.

And now I know I can apply the same approach to writing. I went back and re-read my notes and outline. I’m pretty happy with a lot of it, but I’ve also forgotten a lot of the direction I was heading. I’ve been intimidated by the historical research I need to do. Intimidated by the character sketches and plot points.

No more. It’s time to at start by walking, not just talking about it. So it will start with dividing the work I need to do into one month chunks, researching one key topic at a time, then developing character sketches, then moving on to those plot points.  I won’t do it if I allow the intimidation to stall me or if I try to do everything at once.

I know today won’t be my last half marathon (not quite ready to commit to a full marathon yet). I am thankful for how it has prepared me to go after the biggest goal of my life.



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So maybe the title is a bit of click bait, but in honour of Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughts on writing about sex.

Also known as “Dear God, my mother is going to read this.”

How weird is it? Well, apparently my phone was so weirded out by the word “sex”, it insisted on changing it to “six”.

I can easily blame my hesitancy on my Catholic school upbringing. Sex was included as part of religion class. That won’t mess you up at all. I remember being in grade 4 or 5 and having our theology teacher show us a film that included a line drawing depicting how it all “fit together”. Afterward, she tried to remain calm while she slowly and oh so methodically wound the projector’s power cord around her arm… over and over and over again. She couldn’t make eye contact with any of us and we were all mildly terrified. She said “Well, that was very grown up, and that’s ok.” Everything about her voice and body language screamed “THIS IS SO NOT OK.”

Contrast that with my experience in grade 7, when my oldest sister was volunteering for Planned Parenthood. Along with stellar birth control talks, I also got a Love Carefully pin… which I proudly wore to school. They had a very different attitude about it all.

So that just scratches the surface of my issues.

As for the business of writing a love sex scene, I played with sexuality a smidge in Sometimes Marco Polo Can Go All Wrong, but for a full novel featuring the life of a young female character, there’s going to be love and sex. The question for any good (recovered) Catholic girl is, how far do I go?

The mom issue is mostly imaginary, but it’s real in my head. I’m going to dedicate this book to her. My mom is 87 years old. Sex was not a frequent topic for us. However, my mother is incredibly well read and is by no means naive. So that is a neurosis I just have to get over.

I will also need to get past the feeling that I’m laying myself out there on the page. Writing is already an activity that leaves you somewhat vulnerable because you are putting a piece of yourself out there. When a colleague mentioned he had read my blog, I felt exposed. So to get descriptive about sex feels very revealing. Heck, I feel vaguely naked when I don’t wear my glasses. Yet, I have a feeling my friends would not buy me portraying myself as shy and innocent.

And then there’s the technique. Writing out a sex scene is not very easy. You run the risk of being clinical, lewd or ridiculous. Proper terminology does not make for inspired reading. I could use steamier vocabulary, but that just doesn’t seem right for a piece of historical fiction. There’s always the romance novel route, with such hot phrases as “throbbing manhood”. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth.

So that’s my challenge: how to be true to my character and her story, keep the reader’s interest and not accidentally cross the line into smut. Clearly I need to read more “literary” sex scenes. And practice. Maybe, I should probably get it out of my system and just write a full on erotic short story. Of course, you’ll never know. I’ll be writing it under a pen name.


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Breathing in Life – Part 1

Last week I warned told you that I would take you with me as I work through what seemed like the drier exercise of learning how to take my idea and turn it into a book. I’m working with a book called Story Engineering. It breaks down the six elements that are needed to turn story into a compelling novel. I like this book because it doesn’t give you a formula, it simply challenges you to make sure that you have enriched these elements as much as possible.

The first element is to make sure your concept is strong. That requires knowing the difference between an idea, a concept and a premise. It turns out that having an idea to write about a story strong willed woman set in Italy is not quite enough. I wrote a treatment for the novel a long time ago, and I have been tweaking it over the past couple of months. Let me give you a peek at what I have so far:

“This yet to be named novel is the story of a woman’s struggle living in a time and place where gossip and superstition ruled. The novel is set in Southern Italy in the early 20th century through World War I and the rise of Mussolini to the brink of World War II. The novel takes us through the life of Giulia Cassatto, who we meet in 1911 when she is 15 and her mother has just died.” 

I’m going to stop there. The treatment goes on to describe the major plot points. It gives me a map for writing the full novel, but there are a lot of blanks that need to be filled in.  I still really like the treatment, which is good news, but the concept needs a bit more work. [Insert weepy emoticon right here.]

Of course, I got the idea for this novel from my mother. When you’ve heard family stories your entire life, you sometimes accept the oddities and don’t ask the really obvious questions.

Mom would often talk, with much affection, about her Zia Antonia, her mother’s sister. Mom would always just casually mention that Ciccio (which is a short form for Francesco) was Zia Antonia’s foster son. I had always just accepted this until one day it finally struck me as really odd that this man, who was clearly her favourite child, was always referred to as a foster son. So I asked the question “Why do you say foster son?” I probably used a slightly snotty tone and was ready to preach to my mom that adopted children are just referred to as children. Well, the answer wiped the snottiness right out of me and I knew that I had to do something with this story.

But I can’t tell you the story now, because what I was given that day was the end of my novel.

While it is a remarkable story, it needs more meat to cover 200 – 400 pages. Not to mention subplots and themes … but I’m getting ahead of myself and will save that panic for a later post. For now, I’ll go back to build out my concept, and hopefully not fall into the writer’s trap of never actually being done.


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Vacation Brain

Normally when I go on vacation, I like to pretend I’m a travel writer and blog the heck out of our adventures. I force my family and friends to experience it with me. I loved sharing the beauty, gelato and pizza of Italy. I tried to get everyone to fall in love with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Highest tides on earth.

Highest tides on earth.

This time we went to the Bay of Fundy National Park, which included some challenging hikes (moderate my ass), incredible lobster, spectacular views and some of the friendliest people on earth. But I’m a week back and I haven’t written about it.

At first I considered feeling angst about it, but there are so many other things to angst about.

In moment of pure laziness after we got home, I got to thinking about how the best vacations are the ones made up of stories.  On this trip, although we did stuff, we spent most of our time talking, telling stories and laughing. The most memorable parts of our “big” trips are never the ooohing and aahing at an architectural wonder or an ancient ruin. It’s everything that’s going on around that makes it stand out in my mind. Getting booted out of a church in Rome by a very grumpy priest who had hit his tourist limit that day, meeting a man from southern Italy who spoke English with an Australian accent, accidentally squaring the far-too-friendly crew member on catamaran trip in St. Kitts. It’s those shared experiences that leave a mark.

Vacation stories don’t blog well, but they do inspire. Let me tell you, Beth and Christian (our travel companions) gave me great fodder for stories. This is good because I need a little inspiration.

Beach combing for inspiration

Beach combing for inspiration

Not only is the clutter of life getting in the way, but research is leaving me uninspired. While stories are the best part of a trip and, of course, a novel, there’s this whole technical side that can’t be ignored. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading about how to make a book interesting and quite frankly, it’s boring. Suddenly, I’m back in university in my “What is History” class. But, like sit ups, while it’s not fun, it is necessary.

Time to get my brain back from vacation. I have to get through this part and then start my research on a whole lot of social history in Italy between 1900 and 1939. So I will challenge myself to not only make the technical more fun but to also share it with you! I bet you can’t wait for next week’s post. Now, let’s see how the hell I’m going to do this. Wish me luck.

P.S. Christian’s sister, Carrie Snyder, was short listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award: Fiction for her book The Juliet Stories. Go read it


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August 11, 2013 · 9:11 am

Stealing from friends

When you’re friends with a writer, you run the risk that they’ll steal from you, especially if you like to tell funny stories. My imagination has limited fertility. When I come across great stories, I have no choice. I have to jot them down for future use.

My short story “The Back Up” was based on one friend’s account of finding out her sickly state at birth lost her the chance of having the favoured name. “The Sneeze” was based on another friend’s experience in Catholic school. I have a few other gems I am storing up for the future. I just have to figure out how to incorporate the story of my friend’s aunt who had a penchant for pinching things, including a sequin bathing suit.

Other people call it inspiration. Using that word makes it far more palatable and less likely that friends will stop having coffee with me – or worse, they’ll stop telling me their stories.

But now I have to write character sketches. I need to work out the lives and personalities of about 10 characters. What they like, what they fear, how they’d react to situations, even how they talk – it all has to come alive. They need to be sympathetic and interesting. While the plot for my novel was inspired (there’s that word again) by a distant relative, I don’t want it to be her.

The characters can’t all be based on my cats’ traits. They are interesting, but bringing me dead mice only goes so far. So I’ll have a look around, comb my Facebook friends, and see who has interesting bits and pieces that I can borrow.

Some people have habits and personalities just too delicious not to end up in a book. It’s why we love them, or better yet, it’s the little thing they do that make us want to twist their necks. It’s the friend with the verbal tick that makes you roll your eyes. Or the friend who can’t help but mess up innocent phrases and turn them into filthy, yet hysterical statements. Or the friend whose irrational fear of bees puts you at jeopardy when you walk down the street with them. That’s what makes characters real.

But it can’t go too far. I started to write a character sketch the other day and wrote down “Could be like X, but less uptight”. No, no, that’s just a horrible idea. The details need to be fuzzy enough around the edges that the person doesn’t recognize themselves. I really don’t want a friend to read something and think, “Holy crap, that’s me. She made me the villain. That bitch!”

So if you know a writer and read their work and think “Hey, wait a minute, that sounds a little too familiar”, take it as a compliment. Something about you stands out. You’ve left an imprint. Honestly, it’s out of love.

Oh, and if you ask me if a character is based on you, I’m just going to deny it.

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A Short Story – The Back Up

This week I wrote my first short story in a couple of years. I had a lot of fun with it too. This story is based on the experience of a dear friend, who shall remain anonymous here (I outed her on Facebook). I warned her when she told me her story that I would have to write about it. I warn all my friends. I will steal but it will be with love. I also asked her permission before I went ahead. She has such a beautiful heart that she simply entrusted me to use it as inspiration. So please know that the entire story is made up… except for one little piece. :)

The “Back Up” is also evidence that this blog is working. It was while I was writing the post about names that I realized how I could use the little tidbit I had collected. The thought turned into an outline, which became a draft and then second and a third.

Evidence of my addiction

Evidence of my addiction

Yesterday I took a picture of some of my active notebooks. I may have an addiction. It seems I follow a similar strategy with my blogs. I have a separate blog for my stories and travels. Excuse the extra step, but please click to read my short story on www.talestrailstravels.blogspot.ca.

I hope you enjoy it.

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My mother’s gift – a family history

My mother and her sister Rosa

It’s fitting that I’ve returned to my research for my novel just as demonstrations are rocking Egypt. Maybe the uprising and uncertainty about their future is what inspired me. That and the fact that my library book is seriously overdue.

My novel is set in Southern Italy and parallels the rise and rule of Mussolini through to the start of World War II. As I read, I can’t help but think of what’s happening in Egypt – though there are enormous differences. But where my mind lingers is on my mother and her stories, which inspires my novel. Though, it won’t be biographical by any means. The plot is hinged on the melding of two of her distant relatives and their life experiences. I won’t give it away – you can go on the book tour to learn more.

But I digress.

My mother has told me family stories my whole life. I’ve always loved them but I also took them for granted. Didn’t everyone have a grandfather who escaped from an Austrian work camp during WWI? Wasn’t it normal for a five-year-old to walk from “la campagnia” to their home village six or seven kilometres away, up steep mountain roads? Didn’t other Canadian kids have a steel wedding band that belonged to their grandmother? One that replaced the gold band Mussolini “officials” took to finance a war in Ethiopia?

It wasn’t until these last few years that I recognized what a gift my mother’s stories are. My family has an unbelievable history. My grandfather was a trouble maker and a fighter of fascists, but I didn’t learn that at his knee. By the time I was born, he was already a crusty old man. He didn’t quite earn that title of “Grandpa”. Although he was part of my life for 11 years, I never got to know him, except through my mother’s stories. Without her stories, he would have just been the grumpy man who flicked the cat’s ears.

On a recent trip to Italy, I visited with my cousin’s daughter, Lia. She is in her early 30s and although her grandmother, my aunt Rosa, was a big part of her life for close to 27 years, Lia had never heard the family stories, until she spent time with my mother.

Hearing Lia’s appreciation for the history my mother shared with her and the connection to the past, I finally realized how lucky I am.

Why didn’t my aunt Rosa tell those stories? Zia Rosa was a no nonsense woman. When her mother died in 1939, she was all of 19 years old. My mom was 13, my aunt Camilla was maybe 16 and my aunt Bianca was 4 or 5. My grandfather? Well he would have been neck deep in grief and perhaps not cut out for the job of solo parenting. Oh, and to make it more interesting, Mussolini was at full tilt insanity and was now partnered with his buddy Hitler. Zia Rosa was suddenly “mother”, without the title or authority, to three uncooperative, grief devastated girls. There was a war on her doorstep and starvation in their cupboard. God only knows how they survived.

Maybe remembering and retelling those stories years later didn’t hold any charm for my aunt. I can’t be sure. My mother, on the other hand, has this inspiring ability to see beyond pain to beauty. In doing so, she has kept her family’s history going.

My parents are now well into their 80s (although my mother insists she’s 38 and will be 48 in March). My father was never a storyteller, but lately as I’ve sat with them during afternoon visits, I’ve noticed that he’s telling his stories now too – through my mother – prompting her with “remember when” and “tell her about”. Those moments are precious.

So far in my well overdue library book about Mussolini, the time line has only reached 1924 – the year my father was born. The more I read, the more I understand some of the choices my grandfather made. I always knew it was a difficult life. At times it was a miserable existence brimming with hopeless poverty, violence and danger, malaria and TB, all mixed with shattering hunger. At the same time it had richness and beauty – because they survived.

For my next few posts, I’ll try to link what I’m learning about Il Duce during the years that intersect my mother’s early life to the stories she’s told me – especially stories about my grandfather who was never able to just do as he was told. I wonder where I get it from.


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