The Story Behind Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

With the holiday season upon us, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is front and center in various media forms  from the original text to film adaptations like The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge (my favourite film version),  But what is the story behind Dickens’ masterpiece?  What was his inspiration?  How was he able to write the entire novel in just six weeks without the aid of computers, spell check, and the Internet? 

From a post of last year, here is the back story to A Christmas Story


All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843.  American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year.  In 1843, sales slumped.  Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.

In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt.  Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly.  Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.

Dicken’s reputation as a best-selling author took a hit.  So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue.  By late 1843, things were looking bleak.

Charles Dickens had been poor before.  In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned.  John Dickens had run into debt.  Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father.  To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging.  He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.

The experience affected Dickens’ entire life.  Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change.  He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.

In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser.  On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum.  The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture.  With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.

With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester.  When he returned to London, he started writing.  Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.

Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation.  The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.

All the elements of success fit except one.  The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price was too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.

Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write?  Probably there many, but for me, one stands out. Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him.  Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page.  Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, perhaps the words will align with speed and clarity.

For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org

Annie Proulx Said It Best

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.

Annie Proulx (Wikipedia Commons)

Anne Proulx, author of such works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, recently received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  In her acceptance speech, Proulx addressed the gloomy state of the world and the promise of a brighter future that literature and books bring to the table. One reviewer called it “one of the best speeches in recent memory.”  I agree, and here it is:

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…

I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.

To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations.

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.”

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
but only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If he happened on something like that,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’s had enough with dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggle to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction,
with its micro-scales.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurried to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly in the last.

Wanted: A Perfect Title for My Novel

Choosing a title can be a challenge as I discovered while trying to give my latest work-in-progress one.  I ran through a number of options while writing the first draft, none of them winners. So for the moment, the quest to find the perfect title continues.

Why are titles so difficult to craft?  Mostly because we expect so much of them.  In a maximum of 5 or 6 words (more for non-fiction where we can have a subtitle), we need something that is snappy, memorable, elicits a strong reaction, creates immediate interest, and says in a nutshell what our story, article, script or book is about. Great titles sell, and authors, editors and publishers toil long and hard to find the perfect one.

If titles could be nominated for something akin to an Oscar, Grammy or Booker Award, I’d shortlist these five among many  others:

day the crayons quitThe Day the Crayons Quit  by Drew Daywall

Humorous, colorful (pun intended), conjures all kinds of plot possibilities – the perfect storm for a title

The Unlikely Hero of Room 138  by Teresa Tollen

Raises questions galore.  What hero?  Why room 138?  Why unlikely?  Snappy, provocative, interesting

The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

Evocative title with an alliteration that makes the words resonate

thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher 2Thirteen Reasons Why  by Jay Asher

Thirteen reasons?  You sure?  Great invitation to dip into the book.

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker & Tom Lichtenheld

Nothing says fun quite like a rhyming title.

Great examples, but where can a writer find titles like these that says it all in 6 words or less?  Here are a few strategies that I’ve used before that proved helpful.  Perhaps they will bear fruit again.

  • Unless a title is obvious from the get-go, it’s often best to wait until you have a first draft. By then, you’ll have a better idea of the theme, structure and major turning points, and thus a better chance of hitting a home run.
  • Look for recurring words or phrases.  For one story in my book Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible, a major character faced critical decisions several times. I realized that I used the phrase – ‘it was now or never’ – at each of those critical moments. The title was obvious – Now or Never said it best.
  • Write a sentence that describes the theme. Do you have words or phrases that echo the message?
  • Create a rambling web of words and phrases connected to your story. Sometimes the magic combination is there, tangled among your connecting thoughts. For one of my books, the words daring, desperate and acts jumped off the page. I worked them into the subtitle for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times.
  • Play with synonyms, rhyming words, alliterations and similes. Often these add snap to a title.

 

 

A Bookstore Like No Other

Wherever I go, I hunt for bookstores.  Not so much the chains like Barnes & Noble or Chapters.  They serve a purpose, but one is almost like the other no matter where you go.  My favourite bookstores are those one-of-a-kind independent types that reek of flavour and individuality.

I didn’t expect to find a bookstore in the town of Oia on the island of Santorini.  Santorini was one of our stops on a Mediterranean cruise that Jo and I did recently.  Oia is perhaps the most frequently visited place on the island, famous for its white buildings topped with blue roofs that hang precariously on steep cliffs above the sea.

On the day we visited, Oia was crawling with tourists like us. The main walkway was clogged with people snapping pictures of the spectacular views or poking their heads into the many quaint shops that sell ouzo, olive oil soap, gold jewelry, figurines of the goddess Athena, and all shapes and sizes of matia, the legendary blue eye that wards off evil for  those who wear it.

The bookstore could have been easily missed, sandwiched as it was between the many shops selling novelties.  Jo, ever the observant one, noticed it first.

“You’ve got to see this,” she said, pointing to a sign outside.

The Atlantis Bookstore is more cave than building.  To enter, you must take a flight of steep stairs to the region below.

The bookstore is a network of small rooms, each one packed with books.

There were signs everywhere – quotes from books, quotes from authors, invitations to participate in literary events, invitations to browse the racks.

And even a sign from the proprietor.

At every turn, visitors were encouraged to wander, explore, pick up books and read.

A highlight of our visit was the discovery of an unusual object hanging above a very low doorway.  Jo, who journals on each day of our travels, described it this way:

The funny part is that someone had bound a pillow to the top of the door, where no doubt, many had experienced a a blow to the head if about 5′ 4″ tall and not looking.

The Atlantis Bookstore in Oia was an inviting and unique place to visit.  For booklovers like us, it hit all the right marks – warm, welcoming, with a diverse selection of books, in a setting both beautiful and inspirational.  Perfect!

To Write a Great Beginning

For many writers, the beginning of any story – long or short, fiction or non-fiction – is a challenge.  Where to start?  What to include?  What not to include?

I’m in such a place now with my work-in-progress middle grade novel.  I’ve finished the first draft.  I’ve started revisions. I know now what the story is about now.  I know the theme, the characters, how the plot evolves and yet….  I’m not quite satisfied with any of the half-dozen beginnings that are stored on my computer.

Why?  Because so much is riding on those first few lines, especially for writers of youth material.

A strong beginning pulls readers forward.  A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This may be particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two, maybe a page, and if they’re not captivated by the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up.

A few years ago, while I was visiting Arizona, I browsed through the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, pulling novels off shelves to scan the first lines in some popular books written for 7-12 year-olds.  How did the pro’s begin? I wondered.  To emulate the experience of young readers, I gave each book a maximum of five lines to establish the basics and draw me into the story. Anything longer and the book went back on the shelf.

Here are ten beginnings that passed my rudimentary test.  Each one teased, prodded or enticed me with a creative hook to read further, sometimes in less than my 5 allotted lines.  Do you agree with my selection?

“I’m going shopping in the village,” George’s mother said to George on Saturday morning. “So be a good boy and don’t get into mischief.”  This was a silly thing to say to a small boy at any time.  It immediately made him wonder what sort of mischief he might get into.

George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl

l

   Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  – J.K.Rowling

Tale of Despereaux This story begins within the walls of a castle with the birth of a mouse.  A small mouse.  The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

                                                                          The Tale of Despereaux – Kate Camillo

My English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, says I have to write something, and it has to be long, on account of the thing that happened over winter recess – which in my opinion, doesn’t amount to much.  It’s not like I meant for Danley to get hurt, and I don’t think that what happened was one hundred percent my fault, or even a lot my fault, even though I don’t deny that I was there.

                                                                                                   Twerp – Mark Goldblatt

  It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.  No.  Wrong word, Jonas thought.  Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen.  Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.

                                                                                                   The Giver – Lois Lowry

The Whipping Boy

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path.

The Whipping Boy – Sid Fleischman

red pyramid We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.  If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger.  Sadie and I might be your only chance. Go to the school.  Find the locker.  I won’t tell you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it.

The Red Pyramid – Rick Riordan

There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.  I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it.

Who Could That be at This Hour – Lemony Snicket

girl who could fly  Piper decided to jump off the roof.  It wasn’t a rash decision on her part.

                                    The Girl Who Could Fly – Victoria Forester

whimpy kid

I wish I started keeping a journal a lot earlier, because whoever ends up writing my biography is gonna have a lot of questions about my life in the years leading up to middle school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – Jeff Kinney

Finding the Next Great Idea

Where do you get your ideas?”

When I visit schools and libraries, this question invariably gets asked.  It’s the most difficult one to answer because I really don’t know.  I usually fumble through the answer by giving examples:

From a newspaper articleCase Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science

The article explained how a forensic study of a single strand of Beethoven’s hair provided insights into the cause of the composer’s mysterious death.   What other cases from the past has modern science solved?

While lost on a mountain hikeSurvivors: True Death-Defying Escapes

Years ago, my wife, two young children & I wandered off a mountain trail and spent several panic-filled hours trying to find our way back.  We succeeded but the experience led to a question:  How do others escape life-threatening experiences?

From a presentation  –  At the Edge: True Death-Defying Escapes

In 2006, Andrew Brash, a Calgary teacher, came to town to talk about his Mount Everest climb. In his presentation, Brash described his team’s rescue of Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber given up for dead by others in Everest’s Death Zone.  To rescue Hall, an act that Brash felt was the morally correct choice, he had to abandon his own climb.   In Brash’s story, I found a theme.   With the clock ticking, when faced with death or loss, what choices do you have?  What action would you take?

From research for a different bookSurviving the Hindenburg

I was looking for a story about a fire to include in Case Files.  The Hindenburg’s tragic end came to mind, but the science behind the fire didn’t fit the theme of the book.  The story of cabin boy Werner Franz’s remarkable escape, though, stuck.  It led to another book.

Fotomek / Pixabay

The truth is, I tell my young audiences, ideas are everywhere.  You just have to be open to finding them. Be curious.  Ask questions.

It’s a pretty simple answer.  But then, the original question is a complicated one, and it leads to other equally complicated questions.  What is the source of inspiration?  Is there a way to jump start the creative process?   Why do some people have a surplus of ideas while others have difficulty coming up with one?

In his web article, Where Do Ideas Come From?, Dustin Wax describes two schools of thought about where ideas originate.  He calls one the ‘artist as antenna’.  Here ideas free float waiting for someone to pick them up, the same way a radio antenna picks up signals when tuned to the proper frequency.

The second school of thought maintains that ideas are the product of hard work and concentration.  For writers, it means this:  Put words on the page, think long and hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, and write, write, write and behold, ideas will surface.

Looking back at my own experiences, I can see both of these schools of thought at work. Simple as it might seem, the answer I give my young audiences is probably an apt one.  Ideas come to those who are prepared to find them, to those who are curious, who pay attention, and keep plugging away even during dry spells when it seems hopeless.

From now on, when I am asked the question, I will give the same examples, but add one more.  It is this:

I took this photo while hiking in Arizona.  I first spotted the dog and his master at the trail head.  Later, I saw them again, this time midway along the hike.  There was something about the dog’s determined spirit, his willingness to rise to the challenge in spite of his short legs that struck a chord.

I am happy to say that this encounter was a productive one.  I just finished the first draft of a middle grade novel.  No surprise, it features a dog not so different from this one.

Exercise (and Write) With TED

A few months ago, my friend and fellow writer Suzanne Costigan, posted a blog on her Living Lunacy website that changed the way I view exercise. Rather than simply walking on her treadmill – a mind-numbing experience at best – Suzanne discovered a way to challenge her brain while still making the minutes fly. She tapped into TED Talks as she exercised.

profivideos / Pixabay

I’ve been following Suzanne’s lead ever since. With every workout at the gym, I tune into one or more topics of interest. There are over a thousand TED Talks online that are available for free listening or viewing on computers, tablets or cell phones, so the choices are many. The TED app keeps track of my favourites, recommends others, and logs my viewing history – a handy reference tool.

TED stands for Technology-Entertainment-Design. Ideas are TED’s currency so it’s no surprise that its slogan is “ideas worth spreading”. Each TED Talk is carefully crafted and presented by a skilled authority. Most start with a captivating story. Most are 18 minutes or less long, perfect for brisk workouts. All aim to weave together insightful facts that inspire, challenge and inform.

So far I’ve listened to a few dozen TED Talks on topics that range from cartooning and robots to library design and the plight of migrant workers. I’ve explored many subjects that are new to me. For those that aren’t entirely new, I often discover fresh angles that I hadn’t considered before – grist for the writing mill or at the very least, a way to keep current.

Not everyone is a fan of TED. Some critics have labelled it elitist and claim that the content is shallow and one-dimensional. I think they might be missing the point. A TED talk is just one person’s take on a subject, served in a bite-sized package. Like most things controversial or new, it’s up to the listener to maintain a critical outlook.

If you decide to hop on to TED bandwagon, no doubt you’d find your own favourites. But to get you started, here are 3 that I’d highly recommend:

Dannielle Feinberg – The magic ingredient that brings Pixar movies to life

Go behind the scenes of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Brave, WALL-E and more, and discover how Pixar interweaves art and science to create fantastic worlds where the things you imagine can become real.

Anne Lamott – 12 truths I learned from life and writing 

A few days before she turned 61, writer Anne Lamott decided to write down everything she knew for sure. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.

Marc Railbert – Meet Spot, the robot dog that can run, hop and open doors

That science fiction future where robots can do what people and animals do may be closer than you think. Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics, demonstrates advanced robots that can gallop like a cheetah, negotiate 10 inches of snow, walk upright on two legs and even open doors and deliver packages.

 

Location…Location: How Setting Influenced My Story

Among many uncatalogued photos on my computer, I have a number taken while I was writing my middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise.  The photos remind me of a research trip and how just being in a place can influence one’s writing.

In 2005, the book was just a vague idea without firm characters or a substantial plot.  The story centered around a teenager who discovers a treasure hidden in a wilderness location but I knew little else at that point.  Then I happened to read a newspaper article about a prisoner-of-war camp that once stood in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. I was intrigued. Could this be the far-off setting for my story?

To investigate, I drove 180 kilometers from Winnipeg to Riding Mountain National Park, then hopped on my bike to ride the final stretch – a bone-rattling 11 kilometres down Central Trail to the site of what was once Whitewater Prisoner-of-War Camp.

Built in 1942 to house German prisoners captured in World War II, the camp had been dismantled in 1945.  Of the original buildings – six bunkhouses, a large cookhouse and dining room, quarters for staff, a hospital, barn, and even a powerhouse for generating electricity – not one remained.

I was disappointed to have come so far for nothing.  Then, as I turned to leave, I noticed two blocks of concrete behind a cluster of aspens.  Rusting rebar poked through the mottled surface.  Clearly, these were the remains of a foundation that once stood on the site.

The two concrete blocks, the only remnants of the old powerhouse

I sat on one block and scanned the scene. I was in a clearing, choked with tall grass and peppered with trees.  In the distance, I caught a glimpse of water – Whitewater Lake, the camp’s namesake.

German prisoners at Whitewater POW Camp

In 1945, this had been a bustling place, filled with buildings and occupied by prisoners captured during the war.  Men had once stood in this same place.  They’d looked across the very same clearing. It took only a bit of imaging to picture the scene.

I knew then that this would the final destination for my treasure-hunting characters. It took a while to work out the plot, but when it came to writing the scenes at Whitewater Prisoner-of-War Camp, they came easily.  Visiting the site solidified the details, making them real to me, and by extension, hopefully real to my readers, too.

Here’s a small sample from the book when Nate, the main character, visits the old site with his treasure-hunting pals, Simon and Marnie.

I took out the aerial photograph of the camp. Simon and Marnie crowded around, trying to catch a glimpse under the flashlight’s narrow beam.  The buildings of Whitewater Camp radiated around a circle with the mess hall at the centre. On the far left stood Whitewater Lake. Between the lake and the buildings, tall pines rimmed the clearing. “Look. There is only one building at the camp with a clear view of the lake.”  With my finger, I traced a straight line from the lake through an opening in the trees to the camp. “There.”

“The powerhouse,” Marnie said.

“The powerhouse,” Simon echoed.

In 2014, I returned to the Whitewater site. This time a marker clearly identified the locations of buildings that once made up the camp.

Three Men in a Canoe – A Fossil Legacy

Over the phone, Don Bell is matter-of-fact and modest, as if just about anyone could have accomplished what he, Henry Isaak, and David Lumgair did. But others didn’t – at least not initially, nor to the same degree – and you don’t have to look far to find proof of their legacy. It’s a floor below the indoor hockey rink in Morden, Manitoba, in a sprawling space called the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC).

During my research for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life (Turnstone Press), Don Bell’s name came up often. “He knows more than almost anyone,” someone at CFDC told me. “You should call him.”

So I did. “Can you tell me how this all started?” I asked.

“We were on a canoe trip,” Don said.

(L to R) David Lumgair, Henry Isaak, Don Bell taken on the day they heard about the fossil find (Photo courtesy of Don Bell)

In quick steps, Don covered the story of a 1972 canoe trip involving a group of paddlers. Don, Henry and Dave were in one canoe, keeping leisurely pace with the others. At a stop for lunch, discussion ensued about a recent discovery of dinosaur bones in the Morden area.

“Hank and I were interested,” Don said.

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Bitten by curiosity, Don and Henry, both teachers, struck out at 6 a.m. on a later weekend to search for the fossil. A mile west of Morden’s Stanley Park, they turned south and drove another 300 metres. Lying exposed in a field, they discovered a large fossil skull. Immediately, they realized that it was not a dinosaur, but a long-extinct – and very large – marine reptile.

“We knew it was important,” Don added.

Ill-equipped to bring the skull home, Don and Henry drove back to town to regroup. By the time they returned, two young fellows were there, hammering the fossil to pieces.

The Manitoba Escarpment near Morden, Manitoba.

The Morden region lies at the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. Eighty million years ago, at the time of the dinosaurs, the Western Interior Seaway sliced across North American dividing it in half. The escarpment is a by-product of Manitoba’s watery past and a rich source of marine fossils from that period.

At the time, the Pembina Mountain Clays Company had been mining the area for bentonite, a type of volcanic clay used in detergents and other products. Fossils turned up frequently, often crunched to bits by heavy equipment.

Realizing the scale of destruction, Don and Henry embarked on a mission to save as many as possible. The two got to know the miners and struck up a deal. When fossils surfaced, miners placed a call to the pair. In the evening, after the miners shut down for the day, Don and Henry salvaged what they could before operations resumed in the morning. Sometimes they worked through the night, excavating and jacketing fossils by the glow of headlights. They carted their prizes home and stored them in Henry’s garage and Don’s basement.

Knowing the demands of teaching, I couldn’t imagine a life of all-nighters. “What kept you going?” I asked Don.

“To me it was exciting, discovering something that hadn’t been discovered before,” he said.

A plesiosaur on display, one of many collected  by Don and Henry.

What started as a small-scale operation mushroomed. Interest spread. Volunteers joined the effort. Henry tapped into government grants and hired university students to help. The pair consulted paleontologists and made weekend field trips to Kansas City, Drumheller, and the University of Calgary, places with Late Cretaceous fossils and people with the necessary know-how.

Early on, David Lumgair – the third man in the canoe – got involved, too. He lived on a farm near Thornhill, a few kilometres from Morden. Fossils often surfaced on his land, and Dave had an open-door policy when it came to the growing brood of fossil hunters. He welcomed them and let them set up shop on his property.

In just two years, the ambitious team unearthed 30 mosasaurs, 20 plesiosaurs, and hundreds of other fossils from the region around Morden. In 1974, David’s farm yielded a spectacular prize – an immense mosasaur. Nicknamed Bruce, it took several seasons to unearth and jacket the entire creature.

Bruce, the world’s largest mosasaur, on exhibit at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre.

Eventually, the collection of fossils outgrew Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. It was moved to the Morden and District Museum, and then in 1976 to its present quarters in the lower level of Morden’s Community Centre.

Two university students with Victoria Markstrom (R), Field Collection Manager
for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at a dig site along the escarpment

Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is a world-class institution. It houses Canada’s largest collection of Late Cretaceous marine vertebrate fossils. The undisputed star of the Centre is Bruce. The sprawling 13-metre-long mosasaur is the world’s largest exhibited mosasaur and a Guinness record-holder..

The Morden area continues to yield fossil treasures, and new finds are constantly being added to CFDC’s holdings. The place is a buzzing hive of research and educational programs, and a fitting reminder of what three people hooked by passion and persistence can achieve.

This post was previously published on the Sci/Why blogsite where “Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?”

Links:
Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre   
Turnstone Press  

Arranging an Author Visit – ‘Who You Gonna Call?’

Suppose you are a teacher or teacher-librarian on the hunt for an engaging presenter. Or conversely, suppose you are a published author who wants to visit schools and classrooms. To borrow a line from the Ghostbusters theme, “Who you gonna call?”

If you live in Winnipeg or rural Manitoba, you might contact Prairie Bookings, an agency that connects teachers and teacher-librarians with local or visiting authors of children and teen material. Started a few months ago by two energetic Winnipeggers, Nancy Chappell-Pollack and Jen Franklin, Prairie Bookings is the only firm in Manitoba to provide such a service.

Chappell-Pollack is a sister to award-winning Winnipeg YA author, Colleen Nelson. When one of Colleen’s books was nominated for a White Pine Award for the Forest of Reading program in Ontario, Chappell-Pollack saw first-hand how an Ontario-based agency – Author’s Booking Service – expedited the process of connecting authors to schools. Believing there was a need for a similar service in Manitoba, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin founded Prairie Bookings.

“I strongly and distinctly remember author visits when I was going to school,” Chappell-Pollack, a mother of four, said in a phone interview. “I can tell you probably all of them and what they wrote or if it was a graphic novel or poetry. Those stick in my mind so I really feel strongly that it is important to have that in our school system.”

While Prairie Bookings might be the new kid on the block, it already has an up-and-running website (www.prairiebookings.ca) and a roster of willing and capable authors with more expected in the coming months. “We connect authors from Manitoba and beyond with interested educators and libraries for professional paid presentations,” Chappell-Pollack said.

Each author has a webpage on the Prairie Bookings site that features a biography as well as details about the author’s presentation, fee structure, and grade level suitability. To connect schools and authors, Prairie Bookings charges a 10% booking fee. This is deducted from the fees collected by the author. When necessary, Prairie Bookings will organize transportation for out-of-town authors. “We take care of the details,” Chappell-Pollack noted.

To communicate with schools, Prairie Bookings emails flyers and announcements to teachers and teacher-librarians on their mailing list. Currently, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin have 100 contacts in their database.  They expect the number to grow rapidly as word spreads. While they are currently targeting Winnipeg schools and rural centers close to the city, they plan to extend their service to other areas of Manitoba eventually.

Prairie Bookings prides itself on offering quality classroom experiences. Chappell-Pollack noted that not every author might have the right mix of ingredients to be a successful presenter. “You could be a strong writer, but not a strong presenter or vice versa. It’s finding that right mix between an author who has a strong product and can also present it well and keep kids engaged that is the key to a successful experience. So far, we have been lucky to have reached out to authors, or had authors reach out to us, who are really strong candidates.”

Prairie Bookings offers a diverse list of presenters, from authors specializing in dystopian fiction (Melinda Friesen) and historical fiction (Gabriele Goldstone, Marsha Skrypuch) to others who write non-fiction (Larry Verstraete) or  realistic fiction (Maureen Fergus, Anita Daher, Colleen Nelson). That said, it is difficult to pigeon-hole the offerings since many authors write in more than one genre and present to a variety of age levels.

Chappell-Pollack and Franklin are hoping to add other published authors to the roster, and those interested can contact them through their website. Teachers and teacher-librarians wanting to be added to Prairie Bookings mailing list can send an email request to prairiebookings@gmail.com. Prairie Booking can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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