I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember.
I was about five when I first discovered this ability to keep myself entertained. I wouldn’t actually learn about crucial things like the alphabet for another year, so, much like a primitive cave-person, I drew pictures on my bedroom wall. Much to my mother’s dismay. She bought me a pad of paper after that, and some crayons. And encouraged my grandmother in England to send me crayons, too, and coloured pencils. And more paper.
I employed the tools at hand. I drew a series of individual panels, then added text, the narrative and pictures. I told fascinating tales of princesses who lived in idle luxury, surrounded by jewels and velvet, the riches of the land, smiling faces, perfect hair…only to be cast out, fortunes ruined, hair matted, clothing ragged, smiles reduced to scowls, the jewels and the velvet snatched away, luxury lost.
My school was probably the worst in the city, a Roman Catholic institution in a low-income neighbourhood. The nuns were well-intentioned but suffered from their own inadequacies and fears. Creative thinking was not encouraged. We were told that daydreaming was sinful, and that our lives should be dedicated to having pure minds and even purer souls, splashing ourselves with Holy Water at Mass on Sundays, endlessly confessing our sins (perceived and real), then performing a prescribed penance, usually on our knees in front of a benevolent-looking statue.
When I was 12, I taught myself to type. And then I attempted my first novel, which featured Lawrence Jenkins-Hennessy, who was kidnapped and held hostage aboard a ship bound for England. I think I wrote five or six chapters before I realized I didn’t really have a plot. Other than the kidnapping and being thrown into the cargo hold of a freighter. I was more in love with the idea of describing everything poor Lawrence was going through than I was with actually figuring out who had kidnapped him, and why, and what would happen once he got to England.
But the writing exercise was a fantastic experience for me. As I typed up my chapters, I handed them out to my schoolmates at recess. I had kids standing in line waiting for the person just ahead of them to hurry up and finish so they could have their turn at reading the latest installment.
I’d been very badly bullied at school in the years leading up to that moment. As a result, I was deeply unpopular, and extremely shy. But, all of a sudden, I was admired for something. I was actually in demand. I was the centre of attention−but, this time, it was positive attention. And I knew, I absolutely knew, that writing stories was going to be my way forward in life. How I coped. And how I defined my self-esteem.
I wrote five or six more novels before I finally got one published. One was autobiographical, based on my years at that hateful school. Another was called My Teacher The Swinger and it was written about my Grade 10 history teacher, who I fell in love with at the age of 14. He wasn’t impressed.
My fourth novel was called Underground, and it was a masterpiece. My high school was progressive and non-denominational (I outright refused to carry on in the Catholic system). Our Grade 12 teacher told us to do whatever we wanted for our Lit class final project, so I wrote a story about three teenagers (two boys and a girl) who decide to walk from Morden to Golders Green, along London’s Northern Line, overnight when the electricity is switched off.
Roundabout Tooting Broadway, one of the boys decides to kill the other boy−something about jealousy over the girl−and you know what happens in the end, because the only thing that can happen in a story about the London Underground is that someone is trapped when the electricity is switched back on and invariably gets run over by a train.
I enjoyed writing that. And I got a 100% grade for it.
Novel number five, which I wrote while I was doing my degree in English at university, concerned a young man with multiple personalities who goes to England as the pianist accompanying a high school choir, wakes up a year later with no memory of what’s gone on, and discovers he’s been travelling the world as someone else and getting into Rather a Lot of Trouble…
After university, in the mid-1970s, it was impossible to make any kind of living as an author in Canada unless you were Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood. So I deliberately found a series of jobs that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing, so I could save my creative brain for spare time fictioning. I didn’t do too badly. I got a few short stories published, won some contests…and then I went back to university, this time to get my Masters in Creative Writing.
My thesis was a historical novel, The Sloughwater Chronicles, set in 1882 Saskatchewan, the first year in the life of the little town of Pile of Bones, which would eventually become the city where I grew up, Regina. It was an epic−two women meet on a train going west. One is a well-bred Londoner who has married the rogue son of a rich man. Rogue son has been sent to Saskatchewan to cool his heels. Wife is now joining him, with no idea about the fate awaiting her−a sod hut on the flat prairie, husband a cruel philanderer, an unwanted pregnancy, a near-death experience in a blizzard…. the other woman is the wife of a shopkeeper from Winnipeg, joining her husband and sons in Pile of Bones−husband has set up shop in a tent, sons are on the verge of puberty… one runs away with a young girl and ends up in a house of ill-repute…
I re-read parts of this charming story recently and was astounded at just how dreadful it was. The storylines were fabulous. The execution of said storylines… not so much.
I was disappointed when this novel−Number Six in my collection−didn’t get published−but a couple of years later, my next effort, Skywatcher, a tongue-in-cheek spy story that was fairly heavily informed by my obsession, when I was about 11, with the tv series The Man from UNCLE, finally made the grade. I’d entered it in a first-novel competition. It didn’t win−but it was a finalist. And I got a publishing contract, a hefty advance…and my writing career seemed finally about to take off.
Except it didn’t. My timing was horrible. The Soviet Union had just come apart at the seams, the Berlin Wall was being torn down…and the bottom fell out of the spy novel market. Sales of poor little Skywatcher plummeted…I lost my agent…I lost my publisher…and nobody was at all interested in the sequel I wanted to write, The Cilla Rose Affair.
In fact, the best advice I was given was to lie low and wait it out. Wait for publishers to forget that I’d cost Bantam Books a bundle on my advance and that I’d never made it back for them in sales. I wish those advice-givers had also suggested that I try writing under a pseudonym and tackle something new…anything, really, to avoid The Kiss of Death. But, it was the 1990s. And that advice was not forthcoming.
And so I languished in the doldrums, with my one novel−which rapidly went out of print−for nearly a decade. I finished The Cilla Rose Affair.None of the traditional publishers wanted to read it. Neither did any of the agents I queried. But…the publishing world was changing. And we now had the internet. I spotted an ad for a new company that would help authors to self-publish−an entirely new concept in 2001. Yes, it would cost a little bit of money (about $100), but that was nothing like what the vanity presses were charging. I leaped at the opportunity.
I started work on my third novel, which I was going to call Found at Sea. It was about Jason Davey, an actor, who had run away to sea after his wife had died in a fire and he’d been blamed for it. In his new life, he was a purser on a cruise ship. The other characters were Diana Wyndham, an aging and eccentric actress who, through assorted edits and rewrites, turned out to be the main baddie; Katey Shawcross, a travel agent who would ultimately become Jason‘s love interest; Sally Jones, the Captain’s Secretary; and Des King, a tabloid reporter who was chasing down the real story behind Jason‘s wife’s death.
The setting for Found at Sea was the Caribbean. The story and most of the characters came out of my sister’s experiences as a Captain’s Secretary with a well known cruise line. I travelled with her a few times, staying in her cabin, experiencing sea life above decks and below. I found the whole experience incredibly interesting.
Found at Sea was a decent novel. I got an agent in the UK who pitched it to publishers, but, again, none turned out to be all that interested.
Then things took a dramatic turn when my real-life employer decided to downsize. I’d been with them for eighteen years. They offered me a substantial amount of money to go away quietly…and so I did. On a Friday in May 2003, I walked out through the front doors for the last time. On the following Monday, I started a one-year diploma program at Vancouver Film School, where I was going to learn how to write screenplays.
Found at Sea became my major project−a full length feature script. My instructors thought I was nuts, trying to adapt a novel into a screenplay for my first screenwriting project. But I got points for persistence and courage. The main characters were intact−Jason, Katey, Diana, Sally and Des King. The location changed. It became Alaska−mostly because my sister was doing a lot of Alaska trips and I’d been on four or five of them by then, and it seemed an intriguing sort of place to set a story. And the idea of fire and ice as dramatic thematic counterpoints was a good one.
After graduation, and for the next six or seven years, I tried to make my way as a screenwriter. I optioned four scripts (including Found at Sea). None were produced, but that’s typical. Ninety-nine percent of all optioned scripts never make it to the big screen.
And then, Found at Sea, the former novel and then the script, became Cold Play, the new novel.
And it was all because, in 2010, I had a meltdown. It blindsided me. I didn’t even know I was having it, which is usually the case with these sorts of things. I thought everything was normal.
The reasons for my great crash are many…age and hormones; being diagnosed as a diabetic and having major issues with medications that were playing havoc with my entire body; huge stressors at work as I dealt with management issues, moving locations, job changes; my mum nearly dying from pneumonia and COPD; my husband losing his job and getting us into all kinds of financial difficulties; the list goes on and on. Consider all of life’s big stressors, and I had about a dozen of them going on at the same time.
I was a mess.
I ended up seeing a counsellor. I poured out my heart and ended with, “I just want this all to stop.”
By way of a response, he looked at me and said, “What have you done in the past to deal with your stress?”
“I’ve escaped into my writing,” I said. “I’ve written novels.”
“Then that’s what you should do now,” he replied.
And it was true. In the years since I’d gone to film school, I hadn’t written any fiction at all. Screenplays and tv scripts, yes. But they’re not the same as fiction. They’re action lines and dialogue, and for me, anyway, there’d been little room for contemplation, inner thought, exploration of self, philosophy…the essence and inner heart and soul that I think all creative people know and recognize as the way they deal with life, and stay sane. Writing scripts was like writing a very pedestrian outline. Writing fiction was what triggered the seratonin in my brain, the dopamine and the endorphins.
I deconstructed Found at Sea, and turned it back into a novel.
All of the original characters came along for the rewrite. Diana Wyndham, Des King, Sally Jones, Katey Shawcross…And Jason was no longer a purser−he was an entertainer on board the ship.
I added a new character, Jilly Snowdon−Jason’s guardian angel. And I changed the plot slightly, although the storyline was still, in essence, the same storyline I wrote back in 1999. I had an immense amount of fun with the story. I pitched it to about 200 agents in three countries and none of them were particularly interested. I didn’t care. I published it myself. And this time it didn’t cost me anything.
And that, as they say, was the start of something big. It was 2012, and Cold Play became my third novel in print. It’s now ten years later, I’ve published seven more books, and I’ve never looked back. Well, that’s not quite true. After three time travel romances, a friend in England suggested I resurrect Jason from Cold Play, turn him into a detective and write mysteries about him. I thought about it for a few days. And then I decided, why not? Professional musician…amateur sleuth. I loved the idea.
I’ve just published Ticket to Ride, which is the fourth book in the Jason Davey series. And I’ve brought back Jilly, Jason’s guardian angel. In Cold Play she communicated with Jason using direct messages on Twitter. In Ticket to Ride, she’s switched to Instagram. We all evolve to keep up with the times, after all.
And I couldn’t be happier.