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.

Journeys by Journal

Jo’s Journal – ITALY 2011

My wife, Jo, journals every day while we travel. She’s been doing this for almost 15 years, faithfully reflecting on the previous day’s activities over morning coffee. Each major trip deserves a new journal, and by now Jo has amassed quite a collection.

According to research studies, journaling offers many mental and physical benefits to those who habitually record their thoughts and feelings. Journaling…

  • Strengthens immune cells called T-lymphocytes
  • Decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ups the I.Q. by increasing vocabulary
  • Boosts memory
  • Improves comprehension
  • Untangles emotional knots, allowing the writer to solve problems and move forward rather than dwell on the past
  • Lowers stress and anxiety
  • Improves communication skills
  • Furthers creativity: Writing, especially writing quickly, occupies the analytical, rational left side of the brain, thus freeing the creative, intuitive right side.

And the list of benefits goes on. But for Jo and many others who journal daily, the motivation to write goes beyond this harvest of benefits.  When I asked Jo why she journals, she cited other reasons…to chronicle life… to process the everyday … to reference later.  I’ll add another – to leave a legacy.

Recently, on our way back from Arizona where we had wintered for 3 months, we repurposed one of Jo’s journals. The drive home took days and the route we followed cut across miles of nothingness.  There wasn’t much new to see along the way – just an endless ribbon of grey highway.  This was nodding off material of the first degree.

On one particularly long stretch, Jo pulled out a journal from our time in Italy a few years ago. While I manned the wheel, she read to me. What a difference that made!  As Jo recounted each day of our 5 weeks in the land of amore, the miles flashed by. Together we relived moments that we’d mostly forgotten.  We laughed about the times we got lost on roundabouts, sighed over descriptions of luscious meals we’d enjoyed, and marvelled at the enduring construction methods of the ancient Romans.  In short, we journeyed together anew.

Jo ends each of her journals with a summary.  She polls me with questions like “What did you like?”…”What would you not want to do again?…”What was your favourite day?” …   She writes several pages reflecting on the entire experience from both of our perspectives.

After she finished reading to me, Jo closed the book. “Would you go again?”she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

But then, somehow I felt as if I just had.

What You Might Not Know About These 6 Kid-Lit Authors

Ever wonder what Robert Munsch did before he became an author, where Roald Dahl’s hatched his twisted plots, or if J.K. Rowling actually drew a floor plan of Hogwarts before she started writing Harry Potter?  These interviews and articles explore the curious and fascinating lives and work habits of 6 popular kid-lit authors.


10 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert Munsch
The Huffington Post Canada

No Canadian storyteller is more celebrated than Robert Munsch. With over 50 published titles, the children’s author has been stealing our hearts for years with his memorable characters and hilarious stories.  When Robert Munsch turned 70 in 2015, Isabelle Khoo shared these 11 little known facts about the famous author.

 


 

My years with Roald, by the ‘love of his life’
The Guardian

Felicity Dahl was married to the much-loved children’s writer, Roald Dahl. In this article from The Guardian, she recalls the great man’s charms, his impish generosity, and her special relationship with him.

 

 

 


 


The Magic of Where the Wild Things Are
The Atlantic

Brian Selznick, the author of The Marvels, never intended to make books for kids. In this article from The Atlantic,  Selznick reveals how Maurice Sendak altered his career path and showed him the power of picture books.

 



Interview with J.K.Rowling
Scholastic

Caught in the Harry Potter craze, on February 2, 2000, kids went online to pepper J.K.Rowling with burning questions.  From Was it hard to think of the monsters’ names? to How does it feel to know that millions of kids are reading your books? their questions reveal as much about the curiosity of children as it does about author and her characters.

 

 


 


Beverly Cleary on turning 100: Kids today ‘don’t have the freedom’ I had
The Washington Post

When Beverley Cleary turned 100 in 2016, Nora Krug interviewed the prolific author of such classics as Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Dear Mr. Henshaw.  Turns out the feisty lady is still writing.

 

 



Dr Seuss
The Economist

Little known fact: Theodore Geisel became “Dr Seuss” after he was caught drinking gin with nine others at his Ivy League university and lost his position as editor of the humour magazine. From then on, he contributed pseudonymously, using his mother’s maiden name which was also his middle one. In this article from The Economist, Robert Butler probes Geisel’s strengths, foibles, and the habits that led to his success.

 

 

 

Bookmans, A Very Different Independent Bookstore

Wherever I travel, I like to check out independent bookstores in the area.  Chains like Barnes & Noble or Chapters-Indigo offer much the same fare across the nation.  Each Independent bookstore, though, is unique, and I’d count Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Arizona as one of the most original.

Started 38 years ago, Bookmans now operates six stores in Tucson, Mesa, Phoenix and Flagstaff.  Based on the concept of “buy, sell, trade”, Bookmans relies on customers for their eclectic inventory and an assortment of in-store-events that range from art exhibits to yoga classes.

When I visited one Saturday morning recently, the place was a busy hive.  Young and old roamed the aisles, looking for just the right articles to purchase.  Others came in carrying boxes of items they wished to sell – books, CDs, albums, comics, musical instruments, electronics, video games, knickknacks and whatnots.  Maps at the door showed the locations of various items. If that wasn’t help enough, friendly, knowledgeable staff guided treasure seekers to the proper destination. 

I asked one employee how the Bookmans’ system worked.  “Each item is appraised,” he said, unpacking a box of DVDs. “We check Amazon, Craig’s List, Barnes & Noble and other outlets to determine a fair price, and we check our inventory to see if we need more of the item.  Once we fix a price, the seller has two options.  Take the cash.  Or take a store credit.  Store credits are often higher than the cash option so many people opt for that one.”

Bookmans is far more than just an independent bookstore. It is philosophy passionately churned into action.  An advertisement in a local community resource guide put it this way: “Stepping into a Bookmans alters your view of what buying used is and should be, and our philosophy of DIY creativity, integrity and community involvement has helped make us one of Arizona’s most beloved local businesses.”

I left Bookmans empty-handed.  It wasn’t because I couldn’t find things I would love to own.  I’m on a mission to declutter, not accumulate more.  Given the store’s mandate to ‘sell what you don’t use, buy what you need’, I think Bookmans is fine with that.

The Science of Walking and The Art of Creating

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with other’s online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence & diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumps 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many writers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to kick start creativity, channel ideas, and bypass dreaded writer’s block. William Blake, William Woodsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many writers who embraced walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. With walking, the mind roams, free of its usual constraints. While plodding along a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved writing problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

All the while I am solving problems.  Turns out, I am growing my brain, too.  Who knew?

Polish Culture Alive and Well in Phoenix

 

Last weekend, Jo and I attended the 14th Annual Polish Festival in Phoenix along with Jo’s sister, Mary, and her husband Ron. Jo and Mary were in familiar cultural territory. Their father was born in Poland, their mother was born in the Russian Ukraine, and the two sisters and their siblings grew up immersed in the traditions of their parents’ homelands. Even though their parents are no longer living, Slavic traditions continue at family gatherings served alongside platters of kolbasa, perogies, cabbage rolls and other Polish-Ukrainian offerings.

This year’s Polish Festival was held on the grounds of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Glendale. Here are a few highlights of our very enjoyable afternoon:

Crowds collected under the main stage tent and around the many display booths on site.

Check the platter of Polish soul food –  sausage, potato pancakes, perogies, cabbage rolls.  No wonder Jo is all smiles.  Polish beer helped, too.  By the way, just so you know, Jo didn’t consume this alone.  We shared.

Throughout the afternoon, Polish ensembles from Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas danced and sang on the main stage.

Even the kids got involved

A Ukrainian dance group joined the fun

Traditional crafts were on display in the church hall.

Jo & I entered the “Can you polka” contest.  We did okay.  In the end, everyone won a prize.

We had a great time. Polish culture is definitely alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona.

Favourite Hikes – Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek, Cave Creek, AZ

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Fascinating enough to keep a 4-year-old entranced, yet not too difficult or overly long, Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek Trail offers striking views, shaded nooks, a rippling creek, and numerous points-of-interest.  

We hiked the trail with our granddaughter, Rae, and her parents when they visited us in February.  Rae was our designated ‘leader’ much of the way which meant that we veered off the trail to explore craggy rocks and stopped often to study each budding cactus. 

Dragonfly starts high above Cave Creek and winds down to the water’s edge.  The trail follows the stream bed for a short distance to a boardwalk that leads across the creek.  On the other side, a second trail links up to Dragonfly. 

Aptly called Jewel of the Creek, the second trail passes by towering saguaro, over jutted rocks, and through a shaded forest of bushes and trees.  Eventually, Jewel crosses the creek again.  It links to Dragonfly once more,  then loops back to the parking lot at the start of the trail.

We discovered a small cave midpoint along the Jewel portion.  Tempting though it was to investigate, we bypassed it when we heard bees buzzing around the area.  Several benches dot the trail, ideal rest spots or observation points.  Our favourite stop was atop a huge boulder that jutted into the creek.  It was perfect picnic spot for our group.

Combined, the two trails run a distance of roughly 3.5 kilometers.  That was a manageable distance for Rae, and just long enough for the adults to enjoy a short workout. 

 

Favourite Hikes – Butcher Jones Trail, Mesa AZ

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Sweeping vistas…pristine waters… points of interest at every turn.  The Butcher Jones Trail has it all, and more.

Jo & I discovered Butcher Jones more than ten years ago and immediately placed it on our must-do-again list.  We’ve hiked it at least a dozen times, but the allure remains.

Buckhorn cholla crowd the trail
The trail winds around the lake. From here, the beach where the trail begins is visible in the foreground.

Butcher Jones is unique in many ways.  While most trails in Arizona wind through dry desert, Butcher Jones wraps around the two northern arms of Lake Saguaro, a man-made lake in the Tonto National Forest not far from Mesa.  The hike starts at lake-side, winds past the beach area, then steadily climbs as it follows Lake Saguaro’s contours.  At every turn, there are picturesque views of the lake, the backdrop of mountains around it, and the twisting shoreline below.

My favourite stop. From this ridge, the view is jaw-dropping beautiful.

My favourite view lies roughly midway along the 7 km in-and-out trail at a point where the climb levels off and turns sharply.  No matter how many times I hike Butcher Jones, I stop at this spot and invariably snap a photo.  I have quite a collection of shots from this location, all of them showing the green-blue lake and the chiseled cliffs that frame it.

Lunch is served!

Normally when we hike, we pack a lunch and find a midway point to picnic.  Butcher Jones has the perfect picnic spot.  It’s a little off the marked trail and at the water’s edge.  There the water laps the shoreline, and usually a few ducks provide entertainment as they bob for food.

Butcher Jones is a desert oasis and definitely a hike I would recommend.  A day pass costing $8 is required.  The pass cannot be purchased in the park, but many filling stations and pharmacies in the region sell it so you can buy one on the way if you like.

 

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