Just Below the Surface

Dead Wake

With Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania under my belt, I am tempted to read all of his other books. I know The Devil in the White City is in this house somewhere. It certainly did not escape my notice, but for one reason or another, I did not get around to reading it. Now I have that comforting feeling one gets when they find an author they enjoy; rather than having to wait for the next book to come out, I can backtrack with more interesting reading ahead.

In Dead Wake I found I could not get enough of the details that Larson seems to heap upon the page. Back in my salad days, while some in my midst could not stand James Michener, I was in the opposite camp and loved all of his books. It begs the question of why am I such an obsessed fan of literature in the first place? Do I read to learn about other people and places? Do I read to be swept away from mundane chores of everyday life? Do I read because I often wake up in the middle of the night? Do I read to broaden my horizons? Do I read to add to the bank of knowledge I have spent my life building? Perhaps I could answer yes to all of the above. I do love to learn about the inner workings of things. I also love to learn about what would possess a U-boat captain to fire on a passenger ship. Dead Wake furnished me with enough details to satisfy my never-ending curiosity. I simply could not get enough of learning what was on board that ship. I liked reading about the pounds and pounds of candy, of the many cases of whiskey and the refrigerated bunches of fresh roses. I also got involved with the characters.

There was much about the sinking of the Lusitania that I did not know. It was almost as if it was one of those incidents about which we choose not to think. Considering the proximity in years to the Titanic and the fascination with that story, I found myself wondering why I had not read more about it to date. How does an author manage to hold the reader’s interest when we know the outcome of the story? We know the ship will sink. We know that the event will bring the United States into The Great War. Yet the reader is captivated as if they were in the predicament themselves. U-boats were a new and terrifying reality creeping across England’s moat and striking terror on the high seas. I did not know that Germany gave advance warning to passenger ships informing them that they were crossing a war zone and could very well end up a casualty. I had no idea that the passengers had been informed of this before they boarded. The Lusitania was stuffed with munitions. That I did not know either.


One afternoon up at Bayview, in Idaho, when sitting on a friend’s deck, I spotted a massive submarine cruising along in the depths of Lake Pend O’Reille. What a sight! As the daughter of a naval officer, I heard many stories of the fear one feels while scanning the horizon, constantly on the lookout for the enemy. Previously impenetrable defenses could be breached and almost silently and from the dark and mysterious depths. Yet people had business to conduct, families to visit, and since the only way to cross the pond at that time was by ship, they ignored the risk or did not somehow believe it was possible and climbed aboard the ill-fated Lusitania.

pend oreille sub

Another figure in the story, President Woodrow Wilson, had a part to play as well. It is interesting to note how reluctant the United States was to engage in the war, how badly the Allies needed their support and what it would take to get them to engage. I always thought the sinking of the Lusitania did it, and as with Pearl Harbor, it was almost immediate. Not so. The President was out playing golf every morning and driving around the city in his Pierce Arrow. He was grief stricken and courting a new wife. He seemed very distracted and somewhat removed from the horrors of trench warfare.

Woodrow golf

Dead Wake served to put me in another place in time. I find that there is much to puzzle over. There is more I want to know and to imagine as well. Larson has the gift of depicting an historical event with enough sizzle to make it read as a novel. That is no easy feat. He has been called a master of narrative non-fiction.  I could not agree more.

In This Corner

As the smoke filled Windy Bay on Lake Coeur d’ Alene this week, allergies, the likes of which I have not yet experienced, came along with it. It soon became clear that going outside made the condition about a thousand times worse, and that my best bet was to stay indoors with the doors shut. Along with the continuing work on my novel in progress, I sought escape in the pages of Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa, by James Neff. While fiction fills most of my days, I switch to non-fiction often. I am drawn to history and the history of the sixties and seventies, has always been of particular fascination. For one thing, the period is dramatic, and for another, I have been intrigued by the players.

Going back to why Vendetta became the recipient of my one-click shopping on Amazon, I liked the idea that it was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning investigations editor of the Seattle Times. Reading the reviews, I was struck by the fact that Neff chose to give a balanced approach to the subject. Never in a million years did I imagine I would have one scintilla of empathy for Jimmy Hoffa. My knowledge of him was somewhat limited, and I thought of him as a thug who harassed the Kennedy home at Hickory Hill by having his teamsters drive by the house at all hours.

Robert F. Kennedy, on the other hand, always had my affection and admiration. Having read his own words, as well as the accounts of others, I never accepted the negative adjectives applied to him. Authors have sometimes launched into the tales of the good Bobby, or the bad Bobby, but Neff resisted that trap. Who among us could not be described in those terms? Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas, and Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years, and last, but certainly not least, Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, are among my personal favorites. Vendetta is written with careful attention to detail, and an absolutely thorough look at the motives that drove both men. So reading of Hoffa’s tough upbringing, his ability to connect with people, and his drive to pull himself and his family up by the bootstraps, humanizes him. Seeing the full weight of the Justice Department, absolutely determined to get him, made me cringe a little. On the other hand, his heavy hand was patently evident, and I, too, thought justice would be in order. Reading this book, reminded me of a boxing match with Kennedy in one corner and Hoffa in another.

Rorbert F. Kennedy

It is almost incomprehensible to me to learn that J. Edgar Hoover had an almost hands off approach to organized crime. He was interested in pursuing communists, and the mafia, in retrospect, looked back those times as golden. Picturing the characters swirling around the courtrooms and halls of F.B.I headquarters, I felt I could almost smell the cigarette smoke, and that the picture in my mind seemed black and white. Yet the reader knows the clock is ticking. Time waits for no man. Suddenly it is November in 1963, and we all know what happens next. We know that Hoover will deliver the news to R.F.K. in a chilling and entirely dispassionate tone. President Kennedy once said that in politics one does not have friends, just allies.

Thirteen Days

We are so inundated by tales of good guys and bad guys that a balanced account is almost foreign. We live in a time where the news of the day is so unbalanced that as a nation, we are living in dueling realities. Therefore, Neff is to be admired for his account of a man of privilege setting out to do some good in this old world against a guy who wanted more out of life than the world he saw around him.

The review that sold me on this book came from Erik Larson:

“From the violence of its gripping opening to the sorrow of its close, this is an astonishing and eye-opening account of the vendetta- obsessive, intigue-filled, hatred-tinged-that pitted Robert F. Kennedy against Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, and nearly consumed them both. Amazing stuff, really-a triumph of investigation and revelation.”

The Trough Between the Waves

young finnegan

When we watch surf competitions on television, we see the waves from a distance. Despite great advances in technology to bring us ever closer, we cannot see what the surfer sees when looking up. A great writer can take the reader by the hand. Therefore, if you pick up Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, be prepared to see the sport in a new and piercing light.

Having married a surfer, and having just crossed the thirty-seven- year mark, I can report that most people have the wrong idea about this breed. Based on silly movies, whose makers insisted on dopey characters, the mettle of the man who accepts the challenge of surfing had not been fully articulated. Not until now. If you love a surfer, you simply must give that person this book.

William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and esteemed journalist, has created a memoir that I venture to state will never be surpassed. The time he covers, from his youth in Southern California, to Hawaii and then to the spots around the world that where the best breaks can be found, will not come again. With the Beach Boys and the Gidget movies, even girls growing up in Toronto, Ontario, were pea green with envy about the surf culture of California.

It was a different story when I tried to take up the sport myself. A wave of four feet in height appeared enormous from the trough and been thrashed by one feels like an entirely bad idea once you are under the overhead washing machine. I decided to stick with my love of swimming and remain close to shore. I learned a lot about the culture in my salad days while I hung out on the beaches of San Diego and listened to tales of daring. Having grown up surrounded by the world of hockey, I knew about toughness, I knew about courage, and I knew all too much about hero worship. The flaky, airhead hapless teen, so often featured as part of the culture, bore no bearing on the guys I knew. To me, they were every bit as gutsy, fearless and brilliant as any men I had ever met. Hockey players, off-ice, in my experience, at least, were full of fun, gallant, sweet, kind and nice. Surfers were mercurial, often silent, cold and distant. We could jolly them along, and our friends were full of wonderful humor, but I noticed the younger surfers, the ‘grommets’ who followed them around were too afraid to say a word.

We listened to endless descriptions of breaks, rights, lefts, gnarly, mushy waves, closed out waves, glassy days, and every nuanced condition at Scripps, Wind and Sea or Blacks in La Jolla. I enjoyed every minute of these tales because the ocean is a dangerous mistress. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would come between these guys and their first love. This is the world Finnegan describes with such expertise and beauty that I felt transported. A big wave rider, he impressed me to my toes. I could picture every wave perfectly, and the line he constantly pushed between the wave that could kill you and the wave that could make you weep makes this the best adventure story I have ever read.

Finnegan surfing

I could gush on and on, and readers will have to forgive my fangirling here. Ever since I first saw those big wave surfers on Wide World of Sports, all those years ago in Toronto, I have known that surfers are men of exceptional courage. Mid-way through Barbarian Days, I knew we were going to hit surfer depression land at any moment. It is present in every surf movie, for the time will come when decisions have to be made, and comprises will be required. Dilemmas common to all risk-takers will be staring them in the face. The balance is as tricky as the ride itself, yet it can be done. As a reader, we pull for Finnegan through every phase of his life.

 Barbarian Days

From Page 360

“The takeoff was huge, clean open face, not breaking exceptionally hard, and the wall seemed to hold up reasonably, with no catastrophic sections, all the way down the point. Eventually, Peter caught a wave. With a shout, he jumped to his feet, rode over the ledge, and disappeared for what felt like a very long time. I thought I saw his track once down the line, but I wasn’t sure. Then he came flying over the shoulder far, far inside with arms raised. He came back raving. It was doable, he said. It was insane. I moved over, into the lineup, heart thudding, and caught a couple. The takeoffs were giddy, almost nauseating, but not overly steep. The rides were long and swooping, the blue walls like great stretched canvasses. Each of my rides ended with a safe, gliding pullout somewhere down on the boat ramp. I was very glad I was on my gun…”

People smiled when I said I was dating a surfer. Some of my friends said with disdain, “Oh Liz.” Lots of people thought our marriage would flame out. Everyone waited for me to return to my senses. Not so my grandfather, the consummate hockey man, a war hero who judged everyone by their toughness. He had utter contempt for a lot of the men my sisters and cousins dated. My husband came through unscathed. It was decided all at once. He passed.

Hero worship, plain and simple. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life tops every chart I have to top. Take this book to the beach.

How Did I Get Here?

Sunrise wits end

Do you ever ask yourself that question? This query need not be existential in theory; I refer rather to one’s geographical location. Windy Bay, Lake Coeur d’Alene is our present home.

When I reached the age of seven, I was sent Canoe Lake, in Algonquin Park, Ontario to attend summer camp for the month of July. I had been waiting desperately for the big event. My older siblings had all gone off ahead of me, and I could not wait for my turn. While my mother fretted about me being so young my father had utmost confidence in me. As a camper in training, I swam my three hundred yard requirement with him in the cold waters of Lake Joseph where we kept our summer home. On my first day at camp, I dove in confidently, assuring everyone in sundry that I could do it. In fact, I had already done it that morning at the crack of dawn. I took to camp like a duck to water and loved every minute. The first night, the camp director’s husband, Dr. Harry Ebbs, came to talk to us, and give us a bedtime story. He wanted to tell us about trees. He took us out- a little gaggle of girls in baby doll pajamas with flannel robes wrapped around us and flip flops on our feet, for a brief walk in the woods. He had something to show us. We looked at a beautiful assortment of saplings of birch and fir, protected by buildings on three sides. Next, we walked the length of the island to see an amazing pine jutting straight out over the water with roots clutching to the bare rock. Which trees had the greatest chance of survival, he asked? We thought the protected ones would fare the best, and all chimed in that the trees behind the lodge would have the best chance. He surprised us all by telling us that we were wrong. The dramatic pine, bent by storms and seeming to be facing the greatest of challenges would fare the best. Why? He told us that the saplings were vulnerable because of their protection. They did not have to develop deep roots. A squall could topple them, but the tree that fought for every square inch of its territory had developed the roots to endure. He then added that our parents had sent us to camp in order to develop our roots.

A few nights later we trooped into the lodge, a great building designed for dramatic events, to see a film about the voyageurs, the hearty fur traders who explored the lakes and rivers of Canada. My hair stood on end. They sang as they paddled, and this old film re-enacting their journeys featured a map showing us how far they traveled. The next day we went out to learn how to weave, and I endeavored to make a voyageur belt, a long affair that wrapped around the waist twice and ended in a fringe. Perhaps it was the sight of me in that belt that I would not take off, or perhaps it was my love of camp, or perhaps it was something in my nature that led my dad to call me la fille du bois. We did not speak French in our home, so he explained that it meant girl of the woods.

Years later, when living in Sacramento, California and contemplating our future, we planned a trip north to visit relatives in British Colombia. I had often begged to drive through Idaho as I had been curious after reading Ernest Hemingway. A more direct route was always favored until a fortuitous offer of free accommodation near Rathdrum changed the route. Looking at a map in my father-in-law’s fantastic atlas, I saw the French names of the lakes in North Idaho. That prickly, funny feeling crept across my scalp and into my heart. I knew there could only be one reason: the voyageurs. So we drove up with our kids in the backseat of the old Subaru station wagon full of excitement. We were heading north from Moscow when I saw a sign depicting a boat launch.

“Turn!” I yelled. “Turn! This must be Lake Coeur d’Alene!” We drove down to Sun Up Bay. “It’s great!” I screamed. When we got back in the car, we carried along the upper part of the road until we came to a stop sign. We could not proceed, due to its designation as private.  We stopped to admire the view which by the strangest of all co-incidences, is where we live right now.


More years later, I took an interesting journey with ancestry.com following the line of my paternal grandfather, James Gaudette, a man I never had the privilege of knowing. I was astounded to learn that records kept leading me back in time all the way to 1635 when the family arrived in Port Royal, the first settlement in Acadia, now Nova Scotia.


This summer I read Peter Stark’s, Astoria. Once again, I thrilled over tales of the voyageurs. Peter Stark maintains that many of them had been trapping all through the eighteenth century, originating from Port Royal. Sources of the River, Tracking David Thompson Across North America, by Jack Nisbet, is another excellent tale of unbelievable tenacity in the face of boundless wilderness. It was on that first trip to North Idaho that I read a roadside marker depicting Thompson’s journey. Perplexed, I thought, this can’t be the same David Thompson. I knew him from the old camp movie, for it was he who first mapped Canoe Lake and Lake Joseph in Ontario. Yet it was. I often tell people that it is possible to travel from Montreal to Lake Coeur d’ Alene by canoe and portage. I get a very blank and confused expression in return. David Hackett Fischer’s, Champlain’s Dream, is a detailed and masterfully written book depicting the founding of French Canada. He, too, was a great explorer. In reading Astoria, I learned of John Jacob Astor’s failed attempt at founding a colony in the Pacific Northwest. The idea was to establish a sea route from New York, to Hawaii, to Astoria, in what is now Oregon, to China and from there to London, and again to New York. The overland route from New York to Astoria would be established through the United States. The grand scheme became an epic and legendary disaster. Why do some colonies flourish while others fail? What was the difference between Port Royal, and Jamestown or Astoria? It is a fascinating question well worth exploring. In Astoria, terrible decisions were made on the overland route. The leaders kept going back to Astor’s dictates while the men of the Northwest Trading Company, the voyageurs used their instincts and ability to rely on the wisdom of the ages. Gleaned from the natives who had been here since time immemorial, they learned established canoe routes, and questioned dictates to boldly go where no man had gone before.


How did I get here? Perhaps I followed my heart. I could have followed it right to Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Was it my destiny? That I cannot answer. I do know this, however. I have never been sorry. Not for one single minute. Our children grew to love and cherish this land. Every time I call the Coeur d’ Alene Casino, I am greeted with these words: Welcome Home.

A Bird in the Hand


I first heard about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald when I learned it was a number one bestseller in the United Kingdom. Not knowing much about falconry, I thought I would order the book and take a look. I was not prepared to be utterly stunned by Macdonald’s deft craftsmanship. Her powers of description kept stopping me in my tracks. I would read a page or two and then pause; it was as if I needed time to digest the imagery.

H is for Hawk

It is after the terrible and sudden loss of her father that Macdonald decides to tackle the enormous challenge of adopting and training the fierce and unruly goshawk. The bird of prey she names Mabel isn’t having any part of it at first. What drew me into the story was the battle between a wild creature’s desire to be free, and a woman hurting and alone who accepts the challenge unflinchingly. Turning to the writing of T.H.White’s who in The Goshawk, describes his own triumphs and defeats, we learn about the level of patience the practice of falconry demands. Macdonald’s father taught her to be patient, and in accepting the challenge of taming Mabel, it is as if she has something to prove. It is her desire to show her father that she had not forgotten either his lessons, or the man himself, that drives her and compels her to persevere in the face of many cuts, bruises, frights and frustration. I imagine anyone in the throws of grief attempts to describe the experience, but I am at a loss to recall anyone as capable of getting to all the nuances better than Helen Macdonald.

“And it wasn’t until we were standing on Queenstown Road Station, on an unfamiliar platform under a white wooden canopy, wasn’t until we were walking towards the exit, that I realized, for the first time, that I would never see my father again.
Ever. I stopped dead. And I shouted. I called out loud for him. Dad. And then the word No came out in one long, collapsing howl. My brother and my mother put their arms around me, and I them. Brute fact. I would never speak to him again. I would never see him again. We clung to each other crying for Dad, the man we loved, the quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new, who had captured the courses of the stars and storms and streets and politicians, who had stopped time by making pictures of the movings of the world. My father, who had gone out to photograph storm-damaged buildings in Battersea, on that night when the world had visited him with damage and his heart had given way.” Page 106

There are aspects of Mabel’s moods that mirror the wild panic grief can impose.

On the back jacket sleeve of H is for Hawk I read that Helen Macdonald is “a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.

Macdonald uses her poet’s skill, combined with her naturalist’s eye to craft passages of the most beautiful description I have read in years.

“It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parceled sea fog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet crack the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s stripped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is particoloured and snapping backward to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days now are a bare six hours long.” Pge 242
Our house on Lake Coeur d’ Alene is a lofty perch from which we view an endless array of hawks, ravens, eagles and osprey. They are mesmerizing. A visiting friend whose conversation had drifted off as he watched a circling hawk asked me this question: “How do you get anything done?”
“I don’t,” I answered.

This week the whole world has been sickened by the death of a favored lion named Cecil. More ghastly pictures come across our screen. The President of the United States has stated that something must be done about climate change. We can no longer do nothing while the delicate balance of our beautiful world is disrupted. The west is burning up. The Cape Horn Fire in Bayview, Idaho, a place I revere, ravaged swaths of a mountain forest. The scarred woods are eerily quiet. Even the yellow jackets have moved on. We are not aware of the gentle cacophony of life until we stand in the wasteland. We need our poets more now than ever. We need naturalists and writer’s who can give voice to our plight. H is for Hawk is much more than a pleasant summer interlude; it is a screech in a particular moment in time.

No Need to Flinch at Atticus Finch

Harper LeeGo+Set+A+Watchman


Comments and discussions are flying around everywhere regarding the release of Harper Lee’s long lost manuscript. One of America’s most cherished literary characters, Atticus Finch is now seen in a different light. The image so indelibly imprinted in our minds is the elegant and thoughtful Gregory Peck, sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, portraying the southern gentleman as a kind and intelligent father. In Go Set a Watchman, we may begin reading with that image in mind, but it fades within the first few pages. Another man begins to emerge: thoughtful, yes, judicious, yes, elegant- maybe not so much. What we do see is a very real portrait of a man seen not through the eyes of a young girl, but as a fully fleshed human being, caught up in the changing times. It is surprising to see him clinging to old ways of thinking, and it is slightly horrifying to our modern sensibility. Advance copies given to members of the press yielded the news that our beloved Atticus Finch was a racist.


Having traveled in Jim Crow’s south in my youth, I have a picture of what life looked like back then. We took frequent train trips from Toronto down to Florida. You had the white south and the “colored” south, clearly divided. It was as if each place had two different cultures, living side by side, but with one having the best of everything and the other, out on the fringes. You would see blacks lining up for the bus in maids uniforms, or in overalls with mechanics rags in the back pocket, but rarely in any other roles. One clearly served the other, and for the most part relationships seemed to be jovial. The courtesy delivered on both sides of the great divide was clearly evident to me. Somehow I got the idea, probably from my grandmother, and mother and father that the whole subject was off limits and in polite society, the great divide was not discussed. Efforts should be made to be extra courteous at all times, given the difficulties of the whole history and structure. That is the very crux of the matter that Scout attacks in Go Set a Watchman. Having lived in New York and returning to her hometown, she is no longer willing to hush up.


Going back to what I learned from my parents was more in keeping with the Finch household that Scout thought was the one in which she lived. Every chance should be given to helping people improve their lives. I was never given the impression that intelligence, or certainly athletic ability was in any way inferior. It was more that time and circumstance had created this unfortunate situation, and that change was inevitable. So reading Go Set a Watchman had me pulling for the grown- up Scout to whom I felt so endeared. Harper Lee has an astonishing voice. Not publishing this novel had nothing to do with Lee’s talent as a writer; it had everything to do with its content. What I came away with is an understanding of the craft of writing a novel. Any writer has freely flowing ideas, and things he or she wants to say. Issues, statements, and a desire to create change can keep many a person typing away late into the night. She found the characters, she found her voice, she ripped the scab off polite society in the south and exposed a great deal of fear and ignorance. The story that became To Kill a Mockingbird is embedded here. You see that she did get to have her say, but in a totally different way. I found I was in awe of her editor. Why Lee did not continue writing more books is a mystery. How she had the courage to begin again after hearing she needed to go back to the drawing board is a great testament to her character. Any writer who reads this may well fish out those buried manuscripts and look at them in a new light. Is there one aspect that can be salvaged? What drew me to the character in the first place, and how do I focus on that more fully? Go Set a Watchman may detail a very universal experience in the lives of young women. There is the father you saw at nine, the man with the answers, the work ethic, the discipline and the good judgment versus the flawed human being you confronted later in life. The girls who went from climbing trees and playing with the neighborhood boys to the teen who was criticized every single day in order to make a lady of her often do have something to say. I loved Lee’s brashness, her intelligent voice, her saucy wit and her guts to challenge the archaic social mores.

With events in Charleston unfolding as they have in the last while, perhaps this long- buried story has emerged at just the right time.

Taking a Look at Sarah Waters and The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests

Like most readers, if I thoroughly enjoy an author’s work, I am usually keen to read their subsequent novels. Because I was engrossed in The Little Stranger, which I read it a few years ago, it was with that particular anticipatory glee that I cracked open The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters writes comfortable, homey stories with very adept description making the reader at home in the parlor with her characters. You almost feel as if it is you who dropped round for tea, or came clamoring to the front doorstep having just heard the news- whatever that news may be. She writes of families and groups where you have the odd sensation of feeling you are one of them. It seems so natural and so friendly; I would not hasten to call it a device. Is it not the goal of any story to draw you in? This she manages with alarming dexterity. At first, a sleepy house in a fine neighborhood inhabited by a widow and her unmarried daughter would not inspire most readers to pick this up, unless you happen to be a certain type who absolutely loves this kind of cozy British drama. That was all the impetus I needed.


It would take more than tea and biscuits to keep the story going. When we learn that the two women are to take in boarders, I was prepared to read about all sorts of petty conflicts, judgments and disapproval cropping up everywhere, but that alone would not have been enough either. What keeps the story moving very quickly through 564 pages, is a knack for getting the reader more and more deeply involved. In The Little Stranger, the author had the same effect on me. The tale got darker, the characters in much greater peril, the family in more trouble, until I simply had to know what had brought them so far off course. In both books, it is as if the reader starts at the top of a staircase and then just keeps going consistently down, until you fear for these characters so much that you cannot close the book and go to sleep. They all set out innocently enough, with good food in their bellies, good clothes on their backs, good values and intentions all in place, their standing in good order, but piece by piece, it starts to go south and then keeps right on going. You begin to fear that they are associating with the wrong sort, as they would say in England, and that they are in danger of getting in over their heads. Disgrace, scandal, and being the object of gossip, all being a fate to be avoided at all costs, seems to dog Waters’ characters from start to finish. Reading this book brought me back to the days when I would sit in my grandmother’s living room hearing her recount various stories of people she had known, who seemingly through no fault of their own, had gotten mixed up with someone who had done nothing but drag her friend down, and may be leading them to a bad end. You hear these stories, and you file them somewhere in your mind, not to resurface until you dive into a tale like The Paying Guests, and it all comes back. The warnings were there… but she deliberately went back… and why she wouldn’t listen… and on and on until the unfortunate circumstance can no longer be changed. It is for this reason that Water’s novels become thrillers, although they would not be categorized as such.


As I usually read reviews of books after I have finished them and have formed my own opinions, I was happy to learn that others agreed with my assessment.


“Brings to mind the dark and ominous atmosphere of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. . . . Waters’ skillful mastery of detail and atmosphere brings the suspenseful tale to life.”

—Winnipeg Free Press



“Waters is so confident – and, line by line, her writing so beautiful, precise and polished – that she sweeps all before her. . . . [I was] helplessly pulled along by the magnetic storytelling. Twice in the last few pages I shouted aloud – though whether in joy or horror I will not tell you. Sarah Waters skilfully keeps you guessing to the end.”

—Tracy Chevalier, in The Guardian


“Waters’s page-turning prose conceals great subtlety. Acutely sensitive to social nuance, she keeps us constantly alert to the pain and passion churning under the “false, bright” surface of gentility. From a novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, this is a winner.”

—Intelligent Life magazine (The Economist)


The weather is delightful these days here at Windy Bay. Last Sunday, I lounged on our floating dock in a comfortable chair, getting up from time to time for a swim, and thought that I was actually in “beach read” mode. Reading hour after hour, on a beautiful afternoon, with no thoughts of putting the book down until I reached the end, is my idea of heaven. If it were a rainy afternoon, I would have had the kettle on and be every bit as deliriously happy. A good story teller will have that effect.

Home Sweet Home

The Old Mill          The Old Mill, Toronto

According to James Scott Bell, in his book entitled, “Plot and Structure,” the power inherent in describing the world in which your characters inhabit is paramount. He uses this example from Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River.”

“After work that night Jimmy Marcus had a beer with his brother-in-law, Kevin Savage, at the Warren Tap, the two of them sitting at the window and watching some kids play hockey. There were six kids and they were fighting in the dark, their faces gone featureless with it. The Warren Tap was tucked away on a side street in the old stockyard district.”

In a few short sentences, we know exactly where we are; we can picture it. No back story is necessary here.

A character does not exist outside of a culture. If you describe a traveler, you must identify, not only where they came from, but also the strange new world in which they find themselves. If you are writing about a period in history, the clothes, the method of transportation, or the way the enter a building, will give necessary clues.

Taken to fiction, it means the place and culture of which you are the most familiar, your first home, must now be examined with a new eye. In order to understand the essence of a place, the best way to grasp its meaning can be found in peeling back the layers of civilization. Who was there first? Who was driven out and by whom? Who fought for this land? Who won and who lost? Is a suburb built on what was once farmland and if so, what remnants of that rural community still exist? Is there an Inn that was once a Blacksmith’s Forge, or a Mill? It may still be the focal point of the region.

I used to describe the neighborhood of my youth as a typical, Leave it to Beaver suburb in the west end of Toronto. That may have sufficed for conversation, but in order to create the setting for a novel, it had to be fleshed out more fully and put through the writer’s lens.

We lived on the banks of a river called the Humber. In 1615, the explorer Etienne Brule, traveling with Champlain, became the first European to enter the happy hunting grounds that once were home to the Seneca tribe. A plaque outside an old mill, now converted to a restaurant, and Inn, commemorates this event. As a child, it would give me chills to think about it. 1615! What was our world like then?

More research led me to new discoveries about my former home. The Seneca tribe inhabited those shores for over five thousand years. Then in the 1920’s, a development company bought a vast track of land and created a neighborhood with a theme. Anglia pars, anglia procal. A little bit of England, far from England. They set out to duplicate a setting reminiscent of a fine borough in London. Winding streets, stone houses, leaded paned windows, oh we looked English all right. Did we in any way take on this sensibility? We did indeed, until more groups came and great diversity toppled this little enclave. The buildings remain, remarkably and beautifully preserved; now the inhabitants are different. Nothing stays exactly the same, yet the character of the place is unchanged, immovable and stalwart. As a writer, a place can be the fabric from which we cut the cloth of our characters. The style of the setting, sets the tone, and puts the characters on their initial footing.

Where do they go from there? Do they want to stay, or are they desperate to get out? If they do want to remain, will they be able to ride all the changes in store? Very few of us in modern times live in the places we inhabited in our youth. Given this, the coating of nostalgia can be draped over the past, and we can look at it from a distance and through rose colored glasses. If home is where the heart is, does the allegiance we feel for our first home remain with us forever, or do we shed it as a reptile leaves it skin? If so, do we not still see the outline of the former inhabitant if we happen upon that skin?

While I am not sure who said it first, the old adage of write what you know is apt. If your character is set in a place entirely foreign, then read as much as you can of its history. If writing fantasy, a place still needs its nouns. It needs something indigenous. It must have its rocks and trees.

” Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” Charles Dickens


The Art of Journal Writing



My first journal, begun in the summer between the fifth and sixth grade,  sits on my desk as a reminder of my love of writing. I loved that little blue plastic book with its tiny lock. To record my private thoughts, with no worries about uninvited readers, seemed like total bliss at the time. However, as I apparently come from a long line of hackers, it took the spies in my midst all of two seconds to pry their way into my deepest secrets, only to repeat them for general entertainment at the dinner table. Nevertheless, I plodded on, writing diaries and journals through most of my life. I can be sporadic, missing a year or two here and there, but I am happy to say that I can at least fill a modest bookshelf with my efforts. Lest you think they would make for interesting reading, a record of my time as a teen, then a young wife and a mother, followed by the trials of middle age, I can only attest to the fact that, they are nothing short of pure drivel. How did this happen? I tended to use my diaries and journals as a place in which to beef. The stings and arrows of life that tended to swirl around in my mind, distracting me from my goals, were a nuisance, and so I found a way to expunge them. I have had to make it very clear to my husband and children that they are for my eyes only and in no way a record of my happy, family life. My complaints, when read in bulk, are totally depressing to me now. Why did I not record the cute things the kids said, my thoughts about life, my dreams or my aspirations? I can only confess that they record an inner relationship I have with myself where I like to process things slowly.


In the past, I have thoroughly enjoyed well-written journals and have spent weeks and even months reading volume after volume. The top three on the hit parade are as follows: Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Virginia Woolf, like me, set down many frustrations. The unwanted criticisms, the interruptions from writing, and the stings of patronizing male reviewers are all preserved for prosperity. My admiration for her as a writer could never be overstated. Her brilliant work, A Room of One’s Own, tells us flat out, what we, as women, will have to carve out for ourselves if we are to have any chance at all. To know that anyone would disturb her clear and acknowledged genius, over a question regarding lunch, made me want to chase her housekeeper around the yard brandishing a rolling pin. Her ups and downs, pain and sorrow, small moments of triumph, gave me a clear picture of the path, the road and the way a writer must take. Her bouts of depression and sad end did not deter me either, as it was clear from the start that she suffered from a malady that had no cure in her day. Describing her struggles, in the light of her illness, afforded an even greater level of inspiration. Her courage astounded me.


By contrast, Noel Coward had a much more exciting life of glamor and parties in London, but he had his endless frustrations as well. In reading his journals, I found much to delight in. The obstacles in his life had a similar ring and can be summarized in one word: interference. Again, I was shocked that anyone would dare think they had a better way to say a line or to put on a play than he did. I wanted to shoo them out the backstage door. I also loved his take on critics which would be summarized by, “Insulting review in The Times.” I gained an understanding that opinions that some people seem to value, are often nothing short of hostility, for whatever reason, and the greatest minds in our midst, those who crafted works of pure genius, seem to have a great ability to not listen to any negativity of any kind.


The third and best grouping I did not read until a few years ago, and when I did, I became so involved in them, it changed the way I go about my daily life. For some strange reason, I read the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, in reverse order. I understood her life from her last days to those preceding The Great War and predating the creation of her most famous work, namely, Anne of Green Gables.  It gives me chills to this day to think of her sitting at the kitchen table, in a simple farmhouse on Prince Edward Island, warmed by the fire in the cook stove, with pencil and notebook in front of her, and no idea of the future ahead,  in the process of composing the greatest selling book of all time. Her novel was rejected, and stuffed in a hat box, shelved in a closet, and all but forgotten until a spring cleaning project had her take a second look. Astonished to rediscover it with the understanding that it was quite good, she vowed to try again, and the rest is history.


In many phases of my life, I have turned to reading journals when I am stuck and casting about for ideas. This often leads me back to keeping a journal once again. As I scribble away, getting things off my chest and out of the way, sometimes new ideas begin to take hold. When we see a published group of diaries, we are looking at entries that have been recopied and reworked. Some editing and piecing together form the finished look, and no doubt a lot of what is mundane and downright petty is discarded.


From the Selected Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery

The first entry:



Monday, Jan. 20


“Mollie and I have made a decidedly startling discovery about some of our little personal affairs. I am not going to write it down because it is a dead secret. We have refused to tell Nate what it is but we have hinted just enough to fire his curiosity to the blazing point.”





Love the Idea



When writing about Anna Karenina recently, I remembered a passage from Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries. I only had to type a few words into Google, and voila, there it was. I copied it into my blog post, but something else stayed with me. What lingered was this:

“Yesterday L.N went to his table, pointed at his notebook and said “Oh how I long to finish this novel (Anna Karenina) and start something new. My ideas are quite clear now. If a work is to be really good there must be one fundamental idea in that one loves. I love the idea of family; in War and Peace I loved the idea of the people because of the 1812 war; and now I see clearly that in my next book I shall love the idea of the Russian peoples powers of expansion.”

His great novels had to do with being in love with an idea. Authors are commonly asked this question: How did you come up with the idea for your book? It speaks to the heart of the matter. We all have tons of ideas; we may even have notebooks full of concepts for novels. Once decided upon, our love for the idea must remain in the forefront of our minds for years.
When my father died, I did not want him to go. I didn’t want to forget about him either. I wanted to cling to everything I could remember about him and keep it in my mind forever. It is this idea I am currently in love with, bringing my father back to life. Folly? Yes, no doubt. Can a person we loved appear as a character whom the reader can picture? Can I recreate a certain time in my life, 1961 to 1971, to be exact? Can my interpretation of the sixties rekindle memories for others? Can I bring readers into my story? As I have other family members I am missing now who have gone on to join my Dad, I am in love with remembering them too: I am in love with this idea of family, just as Tolstoy was when he wrote Anna Karenina.  Even though I am not in possession of his talent, not within a country mile of it, in fact, I still persist. Why? The answer is simple:  love. I have a love for my Dad, for my Mom, for my sister and brother, who are all up in heaven now. I have a love for my old neighborhood, for my old home, for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have a love for my city and my country. There is no end to my love. Being in love with an idea, can fill up a lot of pages. The one fundamental idea of my story can be boiled down to the old adage that blood is thicker than water.


Where does it come from, this love? Does it spring from the same wellspring of our most universal emotion, or is it more academic than that?


If you write a novel and get on a talk show, someone will ask you how you came up with the idea for your story. You will have to think back to that first spark and be able to elaborate. If your face lights up and your speech becomes more animated, so much the better. Enthusiasm is infectious: people see it and want to have that same feeling. Readers want to be in love with ideas too. When I gaze at the picture above, knowing I was the baby stuffed into the snowsuit, I see us all as a fun loving, keen and zestful bunch with good times, too numerous to count, just around the corner. When this picture was taken the Queen was beginning her reign and we were part of suburban life, in the post war years, in Toronto. The future looked bright and rosy back then. We were on the dawn of a new era, marked by hope. We all had our parts to play and we certainly played them.


How does this story end? Stay tuned…