Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Writing an Historical Novel :the Underground Railroad

I am having a new experience. That alone is a joy at the age 70. I am writing an historical novel! (One of my sons said I am so old my three memoirs are now historical.) It’s a big undertaking but it keeps my mind alive.
 I did, in fact, already write somewhat of a historical novel in 1985 called SEDUCTION about Darwin and Freud. Although it was placed in a modern setting, it explored Darwin and Freud through their letters and writings. In this novel it is truly historical as it is about the Underground Railroad and takes place years 1815-1860.
 I don’t have a title yet. I was thinking of UNDERGROUND since it works for everyone in the novel—both slaves and abolitionists. We all have feelings that have gone underground as in unconscious things and secrets that we won’t reveal as well as the actual Underground Railroad. So that title would work on many levels.
I have wanted to write this book since I was a little girl. I grew up in Lewiston, New York, which was one of the hubs for the Underground Railroad since it is a border town on the Niagara River. It was the last stop on the Underground Railway since it was on the American border.  All that was left was to row across the river to freedom in Canada. I could see Canada from my U.S. home when I was a child.
New York State has dedicated a statue to Lewiston’s work on the Underground Railroad and placed it at the spot where the slaves crossed the River to freedom. This statue is one block from where I grew up. (See the picture below of me standing in front of the statue on the riverbank.)

The house I grew up in was built soon after the revolutionary war and billeted soldiers in the war of 1812. My relatives lived there for over 200 years and were active in the Underground Railroad in its heyday.  On some of the timber beams in the basement people, presumably slaves, who were hidden there, have etched their initials. I grew up with these stories and their embellishments that have turned into Lewiston legends.
When I started the book I had no idea how hard it was to write an historical novel. In my memoirs I could write almost everything from memory. (My husband calls me an idiot savant since I can remember what I wore to my 8th birthday party but not my present cell number.) Remembering the local and national politics was a piece of cake since I lived through them from the 50’s to the present.
My protagonist, named Lydia, is going to run the Frontier House Tavern and hotel in Lewiston as a cover for her Underground Railroad work. She is a partner with a black woman named Hazelon. One is the cook, the other works the bar and together they own the hotel.
Lewiston, now a sleepy town, was bigger than Niagara Falls and Buffalo in the 1800’s. So anyone who was anyone (as my mother would have said) who wanted to see Niagara Falls had to stay in Lewiston at the Frontier House. (See picture of Frontier House. The records show Mark Twain, Dickens, De witt Clinton, Lafayette, Henry Clay all stayed there—and the who’s who goes on.) James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Spy in Lewiston and included the Lewiston barmaid as a character. It is a daunting but fascinating task for me to find a way to tie all this history into one novel. (The Frontier House was built in  1824 and is still standing. See picture. This is only the upper half.)

As I began writing I realized –oh my God these people at the bar have to have conversation! What will they talk about? I had to read history books to know what happened in the antebellum era.  In order to have chatter at the bar and to reveal the characters in the town, I had to know this history enough to make banter. That means I had to know it as though I’d lived through it.  America grew to four times it size, slavery was debated, Indians were run off their land and “Jacksonian Democracy” (ironic term since it didn’t include women, blacks natives, or landless whites) took over.
Also how did people get around? Does my protagonist jump on a horse or what? In 1830 she took a stage coach, by 1840 their were no stage coaches and she took a train.
What did she wear? I have had to go to costume museums and study what undergarments were worn and what was in style and what was out of style.  If you want to describe someone as out of date in their apparel, you have to know what year men stopped wearing breeches. I know exactly what the 1980's shoulder pads looked like but the corsets of the 1830’s threw me. I had to learn women couldn’t take deep breaths in them and had to pant shallowly so their breasts would flutter.  With the smallest exertion you could feel faint. You had to carry smelling salts in small vials that were covered with the same fabric as the dress.
In my ignorance, I, As Blanche said in A Street Car Named Desire, I had to “count on the kindness of strangers.” I went to Lewiston nearly sixty years after I left there (I now live in Toronto) and knocked on the door of the Tryon House that was the most famous station on the Underground Railroad. It is located on the steep bank of the river and there are three hidden basements that go down to the river’s edge where slaves were hidden.  Often run-aways were hidden for months until the ice broke on the lake. Remember there were whirlpools and strong currents as it was not that far from the falls. It was less than a kilometer to get across and only fourteen miles away in St. Catherine’s lived Harriet Tubman. (See picture below of back of the house with all the basements to the river.)

This is the first time I have had to collaborate. I have probably lived in my own head for way too long. (Only child writes in her Third floor garret for 50 years. Picture a white haired loony like Mr. Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre.)  Three things shocked me in this collaboration. I was surprised by how much information there is on every tiny thing that ever happened in the past and how much controversy there is over every historical event. Secondly, I was taken aback by how many people are fascinated by local history. For example one amateur historian has sent me all kinds of information on trains used to get up the steep escarpment. Another couple dressed in period attire and enacted a short play with abolitionist dialogue for me down by the river. Thirdly, I am bowled over by how kind people are in the donating of their time. People have opened their historical homes, their minds and have given unflinchingly of their time and copy machines. The local historians have researched all the transportation for me, and the town council members and history volunteers have unearthed reams of data. The Lewiston Librarian knows every pertinent document available from the 1800’s. When I arrived she had it all packaged for me. She even has the deeds to the original family homes. People who have lived in the village for generations have passed down tales to their children and their children have gotten wind of my  project emailed their lore to me.
I think Hillary Clinton was right when she said, “It takes a Village.”

Monday, March 19, 2018


If you think you have nothing left to learn at age seventy-—think again. I learned two invaluable lessons this week while vacationing in Mexico. It took an emergency for me to absorb them.For the last three years we have opted to find housing through airbnb in our trips to San Miguel, Mexico. Each year it has worked beautifully. Until this year.
Two days ago we jumped across the dog crap on the sidewalk and entered our rental apartment for the first time  that was misportrayed on line. The pictures were totally deceiving. In fact it was not that much cheaper than the near palace we had last year. We were sent the keys by mail. We discovered the place was tiny, dirty and  had no essentials like toilet paper, towels, hair dryer, front door that closed, and storage space (nearly all the cupboards were  padlocked) we tried to find a phone number. Finally we found one on a dirty scrap of paper affixed to the fridge. When we called we found out we were talking to a person in California who was not the owner. She leases for the season and has sublet to us. (She rents for six months and our two weeks of high season is paying for her whole stay!) The real owner owns sixty apartments and is a slum landlord who lives in San Miguel. He does not answer his phone.( Of course.) The sublet person blamed all the problems on the cleaning lady who was non existnet.
The person who sublet to us  demanded all the money up front for our two week stay. The owner is a big conglomerate and big conglomerates have big lawyers. We were screwed. We came face to face with the downside of Airbnb. Suddenly a hotel sounded perfect but it was too late. Everything for a fifty miles radius was full. You think this is bad. just wait!
The next day I was in my underwear (sorry for T.M.I. but a necessary part of the story) reading in bed. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion and a whooshing sound like standing next to Niagara Falls and then the room was engulfed with the smell of gas. My husband, fully clothed and reading in the living room, screamed, “Gas explosion. Major gas leak, Get out now!” My husband who is never melodramatic (that is my department) screamed, “Now, now, it is going to blow up any second and we could die!” As he was thundering down the stairs and gas was buzzing in my ears and filling my lungs I was struck with a dilemma. Did I want to die in this gas explosion or run out in the busiest street in San Miguel at the age of seventy in my white underpants and bra. Of course everyone over fifty knows the choice in this dilemma. I chose Death.  As the gas filled the room and I had trouble breathing, I donned my blouse, pants and even my shoes. I skipped lipstick since it was an emergency.
My husband was on the street screaming “gas explosion” and clearing the busy street. It was my job to run into the posh hotel across the street and call the equivalent of 911. I ran in so fast I did not notice that there were glass doors as they were clean ( unlike our place) and had no wire grate. I ran into the doors full speed and bounced back on the street. (Everyday I was there the doorman imitated me bouncing off the closed door when I walked past.) I still have a black and blue mark on my forehead.
The gas men came in trucks with screaming sirens and with my husband  cleared the street and evacuated all apartments near ours. Gas-emergency-Men in masks ran up and down the street yelling in Spanish. (see picture with my husband, Michael, who knows nothing about gas leaks, is directing) Finally a gas emergency man donned in an explosion proof blow-up suit that made him look like the Michelin tire man. He fought his way through the gas to the roof and found that someone had jerry-rigged the gas tank valve with their own repair of plastic to cover a leak. This particular day was hot and the gas expanded in the tank and blew the jerry-rigged cap off and gas filled the house. 
The gas men said these giant tanks are only good for ten years and it was now thirty years old and had had makeshift repairs over the years and they insisted we needed a new tank.  We said we would leave if the owner didn’t put in a new tank. The spokesman for the owner said ‘Adios Amigos.” They still have the money from the renter. We were the sublet. I’ll spare you the entire story but let it be known that the landlord paid no attention to the written order. They jerry-rigged it  yet again, and the owner refused to buy a new water tank. We are helpless unless we wanted to fly home and give up all we have spent on round-trip tickets, etc.
 I got a real taste of what people feel like who are helpless with nowhere to go (everything for miles around was full) and had to settle for a substandard domain and a cruel, selfish prick of a landlord can rule your life. I’m lucky I don’t live with it every day.
The other lesson I learned was more complicated. It was not really a lesson but a message I’d absorbed about body image. During emergencies people react with their gut-- not their mind. As an older woman I know society says, “Your body is totally done by fifty. Don’t under any circumstances, including risk of death, show it publically. When you think about it, when was the last time you saw an older woman’s nude body on television or in a movie. You see every other combination of body and sexuality. All those taboos have been broken but not this one. I’d learned my lesson well.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I was having coffee other day with some other writers and they were saying the worst occupational hazard they face is the dreaded Writer's Block; that is  facing the blank  page with nothing to say. Much to everyone's shock I said I'd never once  suffered from writers' block. Some one asked me what motivated me and I thought for a while and then had to admit, if I'm being honest, It is anger.  I recommend it for writers. First it is inexhaustible. Second,  it is always with you and  it gives you a cutting edge. Finally, anger gives you motivation and energy so you can surrmount  all obstacles.  There is nothing like righteous indignation to get you to speed to your computer in the morning.  Anger  has, of course, always been the emotion of choice for me and other Irish Catholics of the American variety.

The easiest way to explain how anger weaves its magic into the writing life is by exploring the  motivation for  my new book  (forthcoming)  titled Good Morning, Monster. The seed for this book originated at my high-school reunion several years ago. The principal had everyone stand up and clap for an alumnus of our class, Tony G.,  a military hero, who had been awarded the Purple Heart at the White House for an act of bravery performed in Vietnam. 

In terms of full disclosure,  this military 'hero' is the same  hyperactive boy who krazy-glued the mouthes shut on the fish I was using for my science project on oxygen for the New York State Science Fair. After months of work, I came into the lab to find them lock-jawed floating on the top of the tank.  Don't bother wasting your breath telling me that was fifty-six years ago and I should give up my resentment.  I nurture grudges. Have you ever heard that there is no such thing as Irish Dementia? Why--because they never forget the grudges.

 The principal waxed eloquent about the traits of war heroes saying they had to have courage, selflessness, humility, patience, caring, and tenacity. Of course, what he said was true and I agree, we  need war heroes. I mean no one wanted Hitler in the white house in 1940.  However, as the principal was expounding on military heroes, I started getting hot under the collar thinking  of the unsung psychological heroes in my private practice in psychology. I have seen more bravery in some of my patients than General Patton ever saw in World War two.

My patients’ bravery is not time limited as a war hero’s is; it occupies their entire life. Why is it that heroism is not measured in duration? Most of the time heroes are brave for one moment in time or in testosterone flashes.  My patients had to be brave every day.  In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Faulkner said bravery was sometimes, "simply  enduring".

If you are an abused child,  life can be your own personal war. Children with cruel parents have to get up every morning and fight a new battle against incredibly uneven odds. They are captive, powerless, behind enemy lines and are held prisoner. They have no loving childhood to fall back on for personal strength; there is no armistice in sight and there will be no glory at the end. Back wards of psychiatric hospitals are full of these grown children who sank from battle fatigue and fell into some form of mental illness. The streets of our cities are beset with substance abusers that could not fight another day. They had PTSD before they were five and had no veterans’ services to turn to. 

As my anger surged, my book began to take form. I would counter the military hero and offer another form of heroism; The kind that is a lifelong fight. There has been a lot written about victims of late and I want to explore strength and resistance. I aim to celebrate my patients' bravery. They won't have my old high school principal's and the White House's adoration, but their stories  will see the light of day, and it will be my way of giving them the Medal of Honour.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Bud, anyone?

I was talking to Bruce my advertising friend  about the new Budweiser commercial that was aimed for the 4th of July. It is where Adam Driver, ( oddly enough) drives across country to a disabled veteran’s home to tell the family that the daughter has a scholarship provided by Budweiser.  Bruce and I could not agree on efficacy of the ad.  It worked for me and he thought it approached The Bachelor in its degree of hokum.

Surprised by our different views, I began to go deeper into what actually is the Budweiser market. What do men and women want who drink Bud? After all targeting your group makes an ad, if not good, is at least successful.
I came across what I thought was an astonishing study and survey done on Bud advertisers. What female Bud drinkers want is a man who is, and I quote from the study “authentic.”  Ok, I get that. It makes sense  you want someone genuine who is not a sleaze artist or some bogus goofball. Just be real; be honest; don’t have a false persona. I could see going for that kind of man in an ad or even in real life. It tells you the Bud woman wants what I want in a man. I mean at least it is not way off the mark.  Of course “Authentic” can be misleading for you can be an authentic psychopath—but let's not delve into semantic hair splitting.
Now what kind of girl does a Bud man want? Please sit down before you read this. If you take heart medicine and you are a woman, please pop a pill under your tongue. You will think you are in a really warped time machine. Ready? The woman they want is, and I quote again, “Low-maintenance!” That’s right. They could have picked intelligent, genuine, funny, ambitious, kind, family oriented. Nope.  They want “Low-maintenance.”
What exactly does low-maintenance look like in a woman in a relationship with a man? She wants whatever the man wants. (That is referred to by the Bud man as ‘No drama.”) She doesn’t need restaurants or dating. She will just stay home, have a beer, ( Yup, a Bud)  and two minute sex which she says was perfect and then say goodnight. If you don’t call her on time or cancel to watch football with your bros she is fine with it. She has no demands, which is what the Bud man wants.
 Why doesn’t she have any demands? What does it take to be “low-maintenance.”  There is no one home and she has no boundaries and denies her personal needs. That ends when one day she just gets depressed ( as the Rolling Stones say there is a little yellow pill for mothers--I suspect low maintenance mothers) or silently walks out, or the man walks out because he is bored stiff or not stiff.  “Low maintenance” is a way of saying I want a woman with no needs. The only important needs are my own. Also you never work on a relationship or have romantic highs with out sorting out personal needs of everyone in the relationship. Low-maintenance women are the ones that are still on the Titanic.

The  results of this study done by Bud reflect any decade since the 30’s. It does not reflect any social change. I think that male Bud drinkers are living in a time warp and mistake fear and powerlessness in women as a time when “America was great.” Bud drinkers carry on, but I’ll take a foreign beer anytime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Horns-a plenty

This piece on my elk battle was originally published in Reader's Digest in 2001. However, I am going back to do another residency at Banff this September 2016  so I am blogging it.  I think it is worth republishing since there is never enough known about rutting. 


I’ve never been a good student.  Whatever is happening in the front of the class usually fails to captivate my attention.    On the plane I’m the type that never listens to the disaster routine that the stewardess regurgitates about all the different ways you could die and the heroic ways the person at the emergency exit could save you. Instead I read the En Route magazine and wait for the drinks trolley.
True to form at the orientation lecture at the Banff School for the Arts, high in the Alberta Rockies, where I’d gone to take a mystery writing course,  I tuned out the forest ranger who dressed like a Canadian Mountie in a pointed hat and high boots.  Instead I checked out the anthropological differences between the mystery writers and the poetry writers. The Elmore Leonard wannnabes were muscular, smoked filter less cigarettes, wore tight black pants, had short spiky hair and red lipstick. The poetry writers were wan with Botticelli hair, wore wire rimmed glasses, ironed blouses (where did they find them), baggy pants, and no  makeup.  The New York writer beside me was also happy to ignore the lecture on “The Emergency Measures in the Event of a Bear or Elk attack” and regale me with her mystery plot about  a lap dancer who kills men with pelvic thrusts. 

Instead of listening to the content of the lecture we focused on the form.  As this giant blonde Albertan told us about the annual rutting of the elk, the New Yorker said she wouldn’t mind mounting the Mountie, or locking horns with that Nelson Eddy of the new millennium.  She said she had a weakness for men who wore pointed hats and tagged horns.
As those around us diligently wrote down what to do when faced with an elk, of course those in the poetry section used fountain pens, we giggled uncontrollably saying that for sure these guys had seen one too many episodes of wild kingdom.  We agreed that men in charge had to have a “Beware Schtick”.  It’s part of “the territorial imperative”. Translated it means, “Hey man, we are in the know. This is our turf.”  In New York it’s Central park at night and taking a cab to Harlem and here in Alberta it’s bear and elk.  Men are here to tell you what’s dangerous and the women are here to be scared.  But as the New Yorker said, it had its appeal. She said it got to “the inner gatherer” in her.  I agreed they didn’t make those coonskin Davy Crocket caps for nothing. It’s all part of the collective unconscious.  
She found elk a tad more frightening than I did for all I could imagine were those guys who called themselves benevolent, wore Wall Mart suits had flushed faces and  folded their arms across  their chests and then flapped their hands in greeting to one another.  I think they had a secret handshake and horns on their hats. (Wasn’t the father on Happy Days an Elk?) Actually they are sort of scary when you think about it.  Would you rather run onto a two or a four- legged elk in the forest?      

The muscular Mountie, or as the woman from Vancouver in my class referred to him as the “I’m Game Warden”, earnestly regaled us with how important elk horns have become to the Alberta economy. According to studies at the University of Alberta, testosterone  increases at least fivefold when men take ground up  E.V.A., or Elk Velvet Antler for the initiated. Women may take it as well since it does not increase testosterone, but only enhances oestrogen. I guess that means they don’t grow horns. One can only imagine what women do with more oestrogen: freeze more casseroles, laugh harder at men’s jokes, begin to find Tom Jones even more  attractive, buy a Victoria’s Secret preferred customer card?
 I always wondered why all those elk and deer horns were such a big deal. I don’t know why people scoff at Freud when what he says about sexual motivation seems to be fool-proof.  I should have known when even our bicycle courier at work wears one of those silly hats with turquoise felt elk horns sprouting from the crown that sex, in the form of male virility, was behind the whole thing.  People that live in the Rockies have elk horns mounted on the front of  their car grills  the same way the MTV’s on the east coast  have Black fly bug screens.  Over every fireplace the doe-eyed elk follows your gaze and no matter from what angle you look at him, he appears to be gazing back at you, silently begging you to get over this dorky velvet horn thing and get him down off the wall.
The next morning I was leaving my forest cabin and lo and behold there were three giant elk that had to weigh around 1000 lbs. and have a five-foot antler span.   I decided even though they were blocking the way I’d just motor between them.  However, as I stepped forward they closed rank.  I inched ahead.  One began scraping his hoof on the pine needled forest floor.  I wondered what that meant.  I thought it had a Hemingway ring of   “I’m ready to take you on little lady since these Rockies are my turf.”  It was one of those classic I’m charging numbers. At least that’s what bulls in the cartoons used to do when smoke came out of their noses and ears.  Weren’t all those horny quadrupeds in the same genus if not same species?  One lowered his head so his antlers were parallel to the ground and, more importantly, perpendicular to my heart. 

I racked my brain. ( As opposed to the elk who had a rack on his brain).  Now what had that Mountie told us to do?  I hadn’t listened--story of my life. There was something about a phone number.  I backed into the door and checked the automatic dial . There it was – “elk  911". I pressed the number and my adrenalin stopped pumping as the familiar voice of our favourite Game Warden said ,  “Elk 911.  How may I help you?”  I explained my situation. “Oh that’s our old boy Donnie.  He’s kickin’ up his heels for the spring calving.  Just likes to show off for the girls. You should see him in rutting season. He really goes to town.”  After explaining that I was an angry, hungry and trapped Homo Sapien, he suggested I should hold up a large broom on the top of my head and then I should balance a hat on top of that and walk out and face the elk.  In turn, the elk, would think I had a large rack, become intimidated and would disperse.   Fearing that the kind warden was retaliating for our rude behaviour at orientation night, I enquired  “Are you serious?” In a tone of one who had dealt with the doubting Thomas from the East on more than one occasion he said,  “Trust me”.
What were my options? I held the broom handle on top of my head with a blue jays cap precariously balanced on the top of the pole and stomped out on the front porch and strode confidently, far more confidently than a I felt, down the porch stairs. Now I know elk aren’t rocket scientists, never having grazed in the Harvard yard, but were they dumb enough to fall for this? If an elk came out of the forest with a pen and pencil, even though I’m blonde, I am quite sure I would not have mistaken him for a writer.  

But lo and behold the elk took one look at my new horns and tore away as though my rack compared to no other.  I had an antler span of well over five feet and they knew it.  Take that you velvet antlered single digit I.Q’d cowards.   I confidently strode down the forest path and past a large group of music students from England who were on their way to breakfast.  Naturally I looked a bit odd so I explained to the gaggle that I had to balance a broom stick on my head with a baseball cap swinging from the top of that to ward off  the elk that were following me.  However, when I looked around there were no elk.   They had run off into the mountains. Being English  they said they understood perfectly, and quickly excused themselves and rushed ahead. 
Thinking I had put elk behind me, I went to class to begin an exercise in researching for accuracy in plot details.  Our teacher suggested we work in pairs. My partner was a writer from Calgary who is currently writing a mystery story set  in Banff  with elk  as the main focus.  I wondered what kind of messuages was this?  Who was the detective-- Bullwinkle? She patiently explained that the killer   makes his murders appear  to have been perpetrated by an elk gone wild.   Sensing my scepticism, the elk- murder- writer told our group that there have been a plethora of human elk conflicts. In fact it was pointed out in Research Links, the Parks Canada periodical, that there were seventy-five incidents reported in Banff alone in 1991 up from three in 1987. The most current statistics suggest that the fatalities have now doubled.  Last year a Japanese tourist was actually impaled while taking a picture outside of the Banff Springs Hotel.         The elk murder woman asked me If I’d go with her at dawn, to hear the cry of the elk as it looks for it’s mate.  Apparently they make an unearthly cry as though it were their last breath.  She wanted to hear it so she could write about it in her murder description.  I was writing a Freudian Murder mystery--what was I going to do-- take an excursion into her psyche, I petulantly thought as I trooped through the pre-dawn forest on her elk excursion.

Even in April we had to wear full winter gear-- even though by noon you could wear shorts a tee shirt. I guess that’s what they mean by mountain air.  The first night nothing happened, the next nothing.  Now I was getting too tired to write, but Donnie had become my Moby Dick.  I, the Ahab from the east, was determined to find him.  Up again at 5:00 a.m., stalking  and finally we heard the unmistakable bellow.  Elk-mystery-woman was ecstatic. It sounded as though someone was dying, literally being turned inside out.  It sounded primordially eery and somehow gut wrenching, actually perfect as a murder mystery sound. I had to hand it to elk-murder-mystery-woman on the sound score. Was it a cow that had lost her young?  Or the bull looking for someone to make his breakfast and tidy up his horns.    The echo of the mountains threw us off.  We kept losing the sound and finally we came upon it in it’s final desperate heave. There, doubled over a stump retching, was one of the British high school music students.  He looked up green at the gills and said between heaves in a proper British chirp,  “ I seem to be tossing my cookies on my way home from a rather protracted evening”. As an explanation for why we were stalking a drunken teenager at dawn, I offered,  “Sorry, I thought you were an elk.”