What makes a good story?

My daughter informed me the other day that if I wrote a book that began with, “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out and a maid screamed,” she would most definitely read it. Shortly after she said those words, my favorite TV show, Murder She Wrote, came on. You may recall the popular series about Jessica Fletcher, a feisty middle-aged mystery writer-turned sleuth that ran for 12 years, with three TV movies following its cancellation. Well, all rules of fiction were broken in that episode. It began with a dark and story night in Cabot Cove. Within minutes, a shot rang out and someone screamed.

By George, I believe my daughter’s on to something. But you see, she’s a reader, not an editor.

Ever since I began to study writing seriously, I’ve learned that the dark and stormy night gambit is anathema to editors. Cries of, death to the writer of such clichéd, hackneyed pulp go out across the land.

We were told in school never to use contractions or clichés in creative writing. But you can’t swing a cat without hitting them all over the place in popular fiction of all genres. So, what is a writer to think?

Do we sacrifice readability for literary perfection? Do we litter our stories with clichés, mixed metaphors, overdone similes, and contrived plot points? Is there a happy medium?
Frankly, I believe that although an opening such as my daughter prefers might grab a reader, he or she will only continue if likable characters come alongside. We will only care about the stormy night, the shots, and the scream if they are affecting a character we like.

Someone once said that there are no new stories, just different angles. I don’t know if a real person ever said it, but a character from a TV show did, and I remember it, because I liked the character. See?

The harshest criticism an editor ever gave me was that she found my main character cold and unlikeable. Not that my opening was a cliché. Not that my plot was thin. Not that I used too many contractions. No, the main character just didn’t appeal to her. Right there, my chance for manuscript acceptance ended. The editor stopped reading. No matter how good my writing might have been, my story failed for lack of sympathetic characters in the first ten pages.

With a heavy heart I admit that this, ahem, character flaw in moi may be insurmountable. What with my hermit tendencies and my solitary life, I’m challenged. The thing is, writers keep writing. Even as we live in fear we have no more books in us, we slave over a story we hope and pray will knock your socks off and make your hair stand on end. (Which I’m doing right now).

So, please stay tuned…

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Beyond retirement, or, Is being a hermit a legitimate occupation?

Life is full of People. In fact, it is impossible to live in this world without relating to someone, at some point, for some reason. Often, I wish it weren’t so. Relationships are hard work for me. Always have been. I gave up my childhood ambition to be a hermit when I was informed I would still have to earn a living. I chose an odd career for a hermit–nursing. Happily, for over forty years it worked.

Now it’s time to revisit my original career choice. I believe I have what it takes to make a fine hermit. Allow me to make my case.

A while back, my sister and I had a conversation about the way one’s personal world seems to shrink as one gets old, uh, matures. It reminded me of the old Star Trek Next Generation episode when the Enterprise began closing in on itself and one by one the crew disappeared, leaving only Dr. Crusher… My sister was not referring to that TV show of course, merely pointing out that as we age, our social circle tends to grow smaller. We retire. Old friends may sell their homes and move in with their kids thousands of miles away; young friends with growing families no longer have time to spare much of it for us. And tragically, our circle narrows through death. Whatever the reason, it happens. It probably doesn’t have to, but it requires effort to reverse the trend.

I’m someone who doesn’t mind her world shrinking. (i.e. doesn’t have the energy to stop the process). I’ve led a busy, active life that was littered with people; all sorts of folks paraded through my life over the years. As fulfilling as that parade was, it’s not particularly troubling for me to watch the last float go by. I can now head home for a nice quiet cup of tea and mull over things.

I must say that so far hermit-hood looks grand!

But as usual there is a fly in the ointment. I’m beginning to suspect, sadly, that being a “legitimate hermit” is like trying to put a genie back in its bottle; i.e. impossible. In a world full of people how does one do Hermit-ing? Short of going to the wilderness–been there, done that. It was full of people, too–I don’t know how to really excuse myself from all society. For one thing, I live with my daughter. I have two other children who still require my social interaction. There are other family members who tug at me on Facebook, and to whom I must at least click, LIKE, once in a while. there are grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, oh my. And my two siblings–I can’t just cut them all off. That would be cruel as well as impolite! On the other hand, have I overestimated my value to said family and friends? Hmmm.

Perhaps I’ve underestimated my desire to be a true hermit. I just don’t have the courage–why is that the word I chose?–Surely I meant, desire –to completely cut myself off from people. I just want to downsize my social obligations, I guess. (Again, “obligations”; is that how I view relating to people?)

In summary, I’ve concluded that I’m a pale imitation of a hermit at best, or seriously schizophrenic and in need of intensive therapy and strong medication at worst.

Well! After that exhausting exercise in futility, I’m off to Starbuck’s for a pleasing beverage and a little people watching…

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Another Sonny and Thor adventure, or, Locked out!

My grown children worry about me. Isn’t that sweet?

For years I worried about the thousands of possible disasters and catastrophes that could hurt, maim, or destroy them. I believe my children thought they were impervious to harm. Burns, falls, poison, electric shock, traffic fatalities–all these were on my worry watchlist. And then came the teen years–years I’ve almost succeeded in wiping from my memory. If they missed curfew, I just knew they must be lying in a ditch somewhere, unable to get to a phone. Should I call the police? Hospitals? Get a ransom together? Oh my.

You’ll be pleased to know that all my children made it through the minefield of possible tragedies of life. They didn’t escape them all, but they did survive, grow up, and are now taking care of themselves. Whew! (wiping the sweat off my brow.)

When I decided to retire, one of my daughters invited me to live with her. I moved lock, stock, and barrel into her lovely old home, and began my life of ease. It’s been a blessing to me that my thoughtful daughter lets me know where she is and when she’ll be home so I don’t worry anymore. It’s beginning to dawn on me, however, that she does all that because she’s worried about me. I now believe that her check-ins are geared more to her making sure I can text back; in other words, to ascertain that house is still standing, and so am I.


Recently, my daughter went away on a three-day weekend trip and left her two dogs, Sonny and Thor with me and Max, my mixed-up Maltese. I affectionately call them the three caballeros. Whell… after feeding Sonny and Thor, I let them out the back door as usual, automatically locking it behind them, as usual. I then fed Max, who prefers to dine alone. While Max was thus occupied, I heard Sonny and Thor barking. Together, they sound like a fog horn and a donkey joining forces to repel all invaders. I opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. Without thinking, which can be said of many a thing I do of late, I closed the door behind me, which immediately locked. Oops.

I realized instantly what I’d done. However, sure that the spare key was in place, I remained calm and attended to the task of quieting the dogs. Tired from all that barking, they were more than ready to go in, so I explained to them (yes, I did), that we had a minor setback. With complete confidence, I went to retrieve the key.

You’re getting ahead of me, I suspect.

Exactly. The key was not where it was supposed to be. I looked more closely, feeling the first niggle of disbelief, which was followed by that familiar sinking feeling. It occurred to me that the key could be in my jacket pocket INSIDE the house. Had I returned it to its hiding place after that last time, I wondered, or had I forgotten? Oh no.

I then tried to pick both front and back door locks. After several failed attempts, I vowed to sign up for a lock picking course as soon as I got back in the house. I checked for other ways in but discovered both to my chagrin (and, for another time, relief) that it would be very hard to break into this solid structure.

I assessed my situation. It was now about five o’clock in the afternoon of a sunny spring day, warm with a light breeze. My daughter was due home that evening; she had sent me a text that morning that she had started for home, but might stop here and there on the way. It would be a leisurely drive. I estimated her arrival time might be around 11 p.m. Six more hours. Humph. It would be cooler and dark by eleven, but not freezing. I could sit on the screened in front porch on a patio chair, surrounded by two big dogs, and be quite cozy. Sonny and Thor couldn’t understand, as the breeze stiffened, why we weren’t just going in where it was warm. Meanwhile, Max was watching me through the big window, looking puzzled. He scratched at the door to get out. I would have given him a lifetime supply of bones if he could have opened any aperture at all to let us in. After a while he went to his room to take a nap. The two caballeros and I settled in for a long wait.


Little did I know that my daughter had texted me right around the time I discovered the key was missing. My cell phone was inside the locked house. When she received no answering message from me, she called the house phone. Again, inside the house. I didn’t even hear it ring. She tells me she began to worry. She checked with the family, but no one had any news. She became more concerned, speeding home, making no unnecessary stops, all the while envisioning every disaster known to man, up to and including, finding my cold, dead body! It must have been horrible for her.


My daughter turned up at around 8:30, her worry like a roaring tiger in her gut. As she drove up and saw me relaxing (her less than accurate view of things) on the porch, she felt foolish for worrying, and then a little angry that I had put her through it all. How the tables had turned!

On the other hand, I regarded her as my ticket to INSIDE, the closest thing to heaven there was at that moment!

In the end, we all had a good chuckle. Max finally got to go out while Sonny and Thor trampled each other to get in. Turned out the missing key had been pocketed by an authorized party who had not returned it promptly. I say this now in strictest confidence; it has since been replaced. I haven’t locked myself out since. No further slip-ups on that front, although there was that slightly burnt frying pan incident…To be fair, after I put the burner on, I became distracted when my glasses broke and I tried to fix them with crazy glue. The pan survived, but I’ll need new frames.

In the meantime, I keep the children guessing; they never know what will happen tomorrow…

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A Joy Shared

This week is Nurse’s week. It is always celebrated around the May 12 birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.  Ms Nightingale would have been a remarkable person in any epoch, but the fact is she grew up in an age when females were rarely educated in anything other than domestic arts: needlework, arranging flowers, and genteel conversation. Fortunately for the world, her father believed girls should know as much as men, and taught all his daughters himself.

Although a brilliant organizer and nurse, Florence also excelled in mathmathics. She initiated the pie charts we see today, so that the men she dealt with could comprehend her medical stats. Thanks in large part to this remarkable woman, nursing is today a respected profession, and a trusted one.  In the beginning, nurses came from the lowest strata of society, had little or no training, and were often outcasts. Only these women would venture into the slumpots of…

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Max, the mixed up Maltese, meets Sonny and Thor

Hello again.

It’s been a while since I last posted anything, anywhere. It’s almost Christmas; time for an update.
Last year, I wanted (desperately) to retire. I decided I was too old to be slaving away for thankless taskmasters still working. However in order to retire there were a few logistics to overcome; my sister and I shared a home and a dog. We sold the house. My sister moved to the UK to be with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, where she is a resident “Grammie” lapping up hugs all over the place.

But how to divide up a dog?

Max spring 2010 002

Max, our mixed up Maltese, didn’t fancy a boat ride across the Atlantic and decided to stay with me. He may be wishing he’d made a wiser choice. I moved to a place with two dogs in residence. One is a large husky cross, Sonny. The other is a short, built-like-a-tank terrier mix, Thor. Both were quite delighted to have a new addition to the family. Both have tried hard to engage with Max on some meaningful level, but Max will have none of it. He disdains his own kind; taking great pains to be wherever the other dogs are NOT, using every ounce of his cunning to evade capture by either of these beasts.

sonny and thor 2

Max has the advantage of being small. He fits into places neither dog can reach. Also, Thor was born blind; another break for Max, who takes full advantage of it. Every now and then I catch Max sniffing Thor when the guy’s back is turned. Max then scoots away as Thor tries to pinpoint his presence.

My aloof little dog could learn a thing or two from his new companions. From Thor, he could learn to deal with obstacles with grace and aplomb. When Thor runs into a table, chair, or door in his way, he simply stops, backs up, and finds a way around it. I hear his head bump many times in a day, but he never yelps, murmurs or complains. He could also show Max how to accept what he can’t change.

What can Max learn from Sonny, besides how to avoid being stepped on, you ask? Maybe patience and nurturing. Thor and Sonny are best buds; Everywhere Sonny is, there is Thor. They go out the door together, come in together, eat side by side, drink from the same bowl. If Sonny is present, Thor races around fearlessly in the yard after him. Alone, Thor becomes, quite literally, lost. He needs his pal to guide him.

But Max remains apart, refusing to enter into any kind of social interaction with his new colleagues. I observe him watching Sonny and Thor playing together, and fancy I see a glimmer of wistfulness come over him. I live in hope that one day he’ll join in the shenanigans and hijinks, maybe even become the third musketeer.
After all, Christmas is a time for hope, is it not?

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Swing on a star or be a fish?

My older daughter told me once that she has the heart of a fighter. Knowing her as I do, I concur, but it started me thinking. What does it really mean to have the heart of a fighter?  Rocky movies aside, I think of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Now we all know that a fish “can’t do anything but swim in a brook,” according to the old song. Yet is there anything more heroic, more inspirational, more heartbreakingly noble than the mighty salmon battling against currents, hurtling up waterfalls, being pummeled against rocks in his quest to reach his goal? 

In life, we don’t always see in the average Joe or Jane, a fighter’s heart. When my niece   announced that her son has successfully completed potty training, there were appropriate cheers from all concerned about it. Although the toddler was credited, certainly, for mastering the feat, my niece (who represents countless other mothers ) surely demonstrated the heart of a fighter. She saw a goal. She set to work. Despite setbacks, accidents, and tears—her own and his—she fought through the frustration, the stress, and all the doubts (was he too young? Too old? Would he have bowel phobias? Would he be scarred for life?) Despite that, defeat was not an option for her, and she pushed through it all. Her son would be potty trained, or she would die trying.

That’s the essence of a salmon’s final journey. He must reach his spawning grounds or die trying.

What keeps us fighting? For a fish, it’s instinct. God-given instinct. A fish, as far as we know, has no plan for his life. He’s just swimming in a brook, remember? He simply follows that inner, most amazing urge to head upstream. If it’s instinct, is it all that noble? Perhaps not. Except that I still see in that single salmon fighting his way past rocks, up mountains of water, with predators on all sides, a tenacity that I admire. He simply never gives up, right to the end.

So then, perhaps the heart of a fighter is more about not giving up than about heroic deeds done. It’s about when the boss says, ‘you’re fired,’ and you go home, have a good cry, then update your resume. The heart of a fighter comes to life after you receive your fifteenth ( or 50th) cold-hearted letter of rejection for your novel, and though you swear you’ll never again write another word, you find yourself jotting down notes for a new story on a napkin at Starbucks. For some of us, just getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of another is as much about the heart of a fighter as that salmon swimming upstream.

But whether it’s potty training a toddler or writing the next great novel, it’s about not giving up.  For the salmon, it’s all about reaching the calm waters at the end of his monumental struggle. There, he passes on his fighter heart legacy to his progeny. There he dies, a hero in my books.

In my view, he’s not a hero because he made it–he’s a hero because he never stopped trying.  A salmon may not be able to “write his name or read a book”, but he embodies the heart of a fighter–in spades.

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A look back…

Sometimes it’s good to look back to see how far we’ve come. Or, to see how on earth we ended up here. In this new year, I am looking back as well as ahead, hoping it’s all been worth it, hoping the best really is yet to come…

From childhood I knew I wanted to be a nurse. But a secret desire to be a writer lurked below the surface. After graduating from Nursing School, I went to work in a small Northern BC community for a year. My first job, my first time far from home; adventures abounded. (I incorporated many of those in my book, “Out of the Shadows” many years later.)

In the seventies, I almost threw away my nursing career for ever by becoming involved with a cult-like group of enthusiastic young people who wanted to give their all to and for God. Ending up on a primitive wilderness community had never been on my wish list, yet there I was, trying to spin wool on a spinning wheel right out of Sleeping Beauty. Oh yes, and delivering babies in log cabins by gaslight.

Leaving this group was easier than re-entering the normal world I’d left behind seven years earlier.  I went into the group single; I came out married with two babies. I moved to my husband’s home town in California. We tried to be a normal married couple, but we were behind the eightball all the way; we didn’t know how to be normal, married, or a couple.  After one more baby, we separated, eventually divorced, and he remarried. This story is in my memoir, “To the Wilderness and Back.”

The rest of the story goes on from there:

I returned home to Canada, to my family. I took stock. I was now in my late 30’s, had three young children to support, and my parents had no idea, really, what had gone before; how badly I was coping with a broken life.  Despite that, however, I still knew how to be a nurse, and found a job in a doctor’s office with regular weekday hours, a must for a single parent.  Thanks to that I was able to support us; keep a roof over our heads and food in our tummies. Nevertheless, we all felt the lack of a husband and father’s presence. At times I felt stretched so thin, it’s a wonder  I didn’t break apart.

It was at this point that the idea of writing a romance novel (for profit) began to take root. I needed money. My office job was not only boring, it paid poorly. Conflicts with the staff arose which isolated me from them for a time. (Fallout from my wilderness experience, perhaps?) I started a story in my head, and used my lunch hours to write furiously as it began to unfold. It kept my mind occupied. My father had recently purchased an electronic typewriter which he used to send letters to editors. He was very interested in politics, and wanted to have his say. He used to campaign for a Western Canada party, even going door to door, bless his heart. And he wielded the written word like a sword.

Whenever I could, I’d borrow his typewriter and transcribe my hand written pages, sometimes having to do a whole page over again just to change a paragraph around from here to there. These were the days before computers, or even word processors!  Yes, there was a time in the not terribly distant past, that computers were merely a twinkle in someone’s eye!

The upshot of my hard work was that my typing skills improved tremendously, so much so, that after their secretary quit, my employers decided I should fill my spare time transcribing their letters. This cut down on my writing time, but I continued working on my story at home…


The children became teenagers. All at once. Together. My time and energies were used up,  keeping them from riding too far off the rails. We all have scars from that epoch, but are in recovery. Those stories have yet to be told…

The manuscript lay dormant for years.

Computers became small enough to sit on a desk, and cheap enough to buy.

I invested in a correspondence writing course, learning the nuts and bolts of preparing and submitting manuscripts, as well as receiving some valuable critiques by a professional on the story exercises he gave me. One of those stories became the basis for The Real McCoy.”

As my  nursing career winds down, I can focus on my newer career. Writing, like living, is an ongoing process; some days flow, other days are like labor of the worst kind. Some critics are kind, others are cruel, but the readers who tell me they’ve liked my stories keep me enthused, inspired, and hopeful.

One day I just may get them both right–writing and living.

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