Sheilagh is a young woman from England. It's 1945, just after the war. She has come to Canada as the bride of a Canadian solder to Alberta and a desolate farm, just barely able to sustain the two of them.
As I write, the images solidify as if I were seeing a photographic sheet lowered into the developer. I shift the image in the liquid of my imagination and a tiny farmhouse, partly buried to protect it from the elements, begins to emerge. I drift inside like a spectre and I see the world an English girl from Devon must call home. I feel the weight of her decision. I hear the voice of her Canadian husband, more focused on the property than on the incredulous, vulnerable and lonely woman he has enticed to a life of hardships more disheartening than any suffered during the war. It's going to be a story about love and hate. Strength and weakness and an ultimate resolution that will change the woman forever.
I find myself racing off after dinner to explore the next chapter. I've been staying after work because it's cool in the office, and quiet. I can concentrate. Time flies by the way it does when you've had a solid night's sleep. Hours pass and I bless my wife. She understands me enough to know that this is something I have to do.
Deanna is the only person with whom I've discussed the plot. What's wonderful is - her woman's perspective. She tells me how she would feel in Sheilagh's situation and I see that a woman's strength comes first from intangible things, like love, understanding, reassurance and support - whereas a man's well-being needs the solid affirmation that property, position, power and a means to sustain himself brings. He needs an identity - which we all do, but in the case of two people struggling to revive an abandoned farm, these diverse ways of seeing things can drive a wedge into a marriage - a wedge that goes too deep to repair.
Perhaps this story has been told before. Similar people, similar space. It doesn't matter. Since I opened my mind to Sheilagh's story, it's as if I'm a conduit for her, allowing her finally to say in her own words what happened to her in that bleak, foreign place, with a man she called husband, and hardly knew.
I'm surrounded by strong women: my sisters, my daughter, my wife. Maybe that's where "Sheilagh" has come from. Maybe I'll write her story well. All I can say is - I'm trying, and the chapters are coming into my head more rapidly than I can write them!
I have written seven chapters so far, and the characters seem to appear as if they belonged there. The story begins in England toward the end of World War Two. A young English nurse falls in love with a wounded Canadian soldier. After a brief courtship, she follows him to Saskatchewan where they are married. I had planned the story to take place in Alberta, but the strangest thing happened. When Sheilagh Shaughnessy steps onto the train in Montreal, her ticket is for Bodner Saskatchewan, not Alberta at all! From then on, the story is being written by Sheilagh and not by me. It's as if she has taken charge of my mind and I'm simply writing down what she tells me to.
My Mom has been so helpful. She's a great editor and good at continuity. She asks me logical questions; details about things like passenger cars, luggage, clothes and telegrams. I've had to do quite a bit of research. I want to be accurate and believable, and somehow this is all taking me physically and mentally back in time.
Deanna has been patient and supportive and reads each chapter with enthusiasm. She asks about what's going to happen next, but I can't tell her. Sheilagh and I have to work that out.
I think I've discovered now, what it's really like to be a writer. I thought I knew before. I wrote articles and biographical sketches, advertisements and short stories, but this is different. This is like wakeful dreaming, spirit writing, a self-induced trip into the world of...someone else.
The book I am currently working on has become a story that grips me intensely at times, and at others leaves me like a Hitchhiker at the side of the road without any hope of a ride.
The characters come into my head at the strangest times. Sometimes I'm awakened by them at three in the morning. They take me into their world until the sun comes up and I wonder how time could have passed so quickly. Sheilagh Shaughnessy has married a soldier, but once he's removed his uniform he becomes a different man. The farm house he has inherited is no more than a sod and beam cottage built half underground to protect it from the relentless prairie winter wind. The barn has collapsed and needs repairs before the snow flies. The closest neighbours are two miles away and help comes at a price. Whether it's barter for time or turnips, there's a cost, according to Sheilagh's new husband. Harvey Rood never had anything growing up and whatever he has now, he isn't about to share. He is, however, pleased to have a woman to do some of the chore work. The love he had talked about in England isn't something he really knows how to give. It was all talk. It was all promises - and she believed him.
My mother, as I said, has been helping me with the editing, and Deanna has been tremendously understanding about my time. With luck I'll have the first draft done by the end of October - and I'll see what the publishers I know think of my writing. Just putting down those words gives my guts a jolt.
I must have been crazy to think I could get a first draft manuscript done so soon. It's just not possible! What I've discovered about writing a novel is - you need time. Not just time to write, but time to think. Thinking time is daydreaming time, which means you may be awake, standing in the kitchen, sipping a beer - but your mind is in a shack on the prairies and the winter wind is battering down the door.
Sheilagh Shaugnessey has given birth to a son, by herself. Kneeling on a blanket on the kitchen floor, she has forced a child from her body and wrapped him in a warm blanket - even before she's expelled the afterbirth. She cuts the cord with the knife she's kept beside her and cries over the squalling of her newborn as she produces the placenta that attached the baby to her womb.
With a pad on her rocker to absorb the blood, she takes her baby, still unwashed to her breast where he nuzzles and feeds and for the first time in her life with Harvey Rood she's found something to love. Something to fight for, and a reason to live.
This story fills me with imagery and emotion, so much so that I cannot easily focus on the real world around me. And the real world needs me now, more than ever.
The strength I so admire in women is spilling out into the book I am writing. In this book I am both Sheilagh and I am Harvey. I am an uneducated, arrogant and exploitive sod farmer whose survival comes first. And I am a woman who has been forced into a world of harsh deprivation, a loveless marriage and a way of life that requires stamina, inventiveness, faith and fortitude. She knows she must wait for her freedom; something that will be hard to win, or to die for.
Anon, I'm drifting back into the book.
But I’m stubborn and I’m proud and perhaps these are not virtues. Not now. My manuscript is almost done. The characters I've created overwhelm my senses and as the story comes to a close I can already feel myself mourning for them. I will miss Sheilagh Shaunessy and her children - especially Charlie who's grown to become her strength and her salvation. I'll miss the fantasy into which I've fallen for the past sixteen months or more!
I'll even miss the dry spells and the times I've leapt out of bed at three am to finish a paragraph, a chapter, a line.
I haven't come up with a title yet, but one will come to me. I'll rely on Sheilagh for that.
Once I open the portal, I'm drawn again into the world of Sheilagh Shaugnessy. She has lived for seventeen years, now with a ruthlessly cruel and controlling man. She has learned how to grow and preserve her own vegetables. She has butchered and salted venison and beef. She has given birth four times - two stillborn children and two living. The living buried the dead. Harvey Rood, whose surname she has refused to accept (despite the legalities of marriage) is drinking more and is home less. Their car, no longer driveable, lies buried under a blanket of snow. Their one reliable connection to town is Ben, a sturdy five-year-old, good-natured gelding who knows his way home, even if his master is too drunk to guide him.
Harvey had hoped the small farm would provide enough for them to live on. Having been raised in town, he was unprepared for the amount of effort it would take to force grain from ground long left fallow, and to raise a few livestock for food. A lazy man, he tried without conviction to till and seed. With borrowed machines and borrowed money, he prepared their quarter section, but the wheat he harvested was sparse, due to insects and he cut it too soon. Neighbours helped him bale what he had for pig feed and worked to restore the barn and a small pen for his two sows to run about in. They resented his helplessness and unpaid IOUs.
It didn't take long for friendships to sour. He was a taker, gave little and blamed his indebtedness on fate and family. Sheilagh became an indentured servant, with two young boys to raise. Schooling for them was out of the question. Harvey kept the truancy officer at bay with a rifle and Sheilagh was hit with the butt of it when she pleaded on behalf of the boys. Charlie, 12, and Mitchell, 7, were more than ready for school. It was illegal to deprive them of an education, but the Board had other pressures and other concerns and left the isolated family to their own devices, promising to resolve the matter at a later date.
Sheilagh and the boys became a stalwart trio of survivors. Strong, intelligent, hard-working. They were determined to overcome the unrelenting obstacles that more than once forced them to huddle together for warmth and to pray for guidance and salvation.
People from the church had come to offer a place in their congregation. The man who sold them the horse dropped by to assure himself that the horse was safe, but also to lend a hand. Wilm deGroot worried about Sheilagh's safety, the health of the boys and the volatility of Harvey Rood, whose reputation made him gossip fodder. There was something evil about him. Something repugnant and loathsome and strange.
The story takes many twists and turns. It draws me, like a scribe. I take dictation, I write what these people tell me to write and as I do, I become each one of them. I enter their bodies and their minds. I am Sheilagh, I am Harvey Rood - and my own personality changes as if I were "in character".
Throughout the story, Harvey has told Sheilagh and the boys to fend for themselves. Cold, hungry and sick, they would beg him to stay, long enough at least to help them with the firewood, or to clear a path to the backhouse when the snow was waist-high. "Fend for yourself" he would say. And they did.
Wilm deGroot was a single man, proud of his Dutch ancestry. Now a determined new Canadian, he had several small businesses. Despite the loss of his left hand, he was able to manage a section, break horses, repair most machinery and paint. He did watercolours. Even when paint was scarce, his artistry continued. If black and blue were all he could find, his paintings made use of the somber shades. He bartered for colours. The school was his best resource. In return for repairing furniture and patching the roof, he'd receive a tube of yellow, a bottle of green. Some paint was powder, some came in cakes and paper, when it was available, was the most valuable thing of all.
Sheilagh had seen some of his work on a rare trip into town. There was a show at the church. The man who came by to check on his horse, the pleasant man with the Dutch accent and confident stride, was an artist.
Through Wilm deGroot, Sheilagh was able to get books from the school, lined paper, pencils and exams! He also brought his concern, his compassion and his company. Since Harvey Rood spent little time in the sod hut where his family live, Sheilagh looked forward to the regular visits from the painter, for whom she'd developed a sincere affection.
Harvey was not pleased when he saw Wilm's truck outside. He dismounted, tied Ben to the fence and stormed into the soddy. Wilm placed the package of school supplies on the small round kitchen table and turned to see a red-faced, raging Harvey Rood coming towards him with a small hatchet in his hand. Harvey was fast, but drink had clouded his vision. Wilm dodged left and rammed his right fist hard and high into Harvey's belly. It knocked the wind clean out of him. Wilm looked pleadingly at Sheilagh. She could come with him. Bring the boys. The truck was outside and he would take them anywhere they wanted to go. Afraid of what Harvey would do to them if they left, Sheilagh stayed and paid for her decision.
It was January. Sheilagh had healed from her wounds and was mobile again. She was amazed by the boys, who had done the chores alone, made meals and had ministered to her injuries like two capable men.
The temperature was well below freezing. Minus thirty, she thought. In just the few steps it took to go to the outhouse, your face would freeze, nose and cheeks would go white and later grown painful and peel like a burn from a poker. She pulled the hood of her parka tight around her face. The moisture from her breath hung like solid glass beads from the fur. She picked her way carefully back to the house so as not to fall. Being still in this weather could mean being stiff in no time!
As she reached for the door, the familiar sound of Ben's hooves and the sputter of his breathing broke the silence. Steam came from his body, his saddle was empty, he had run home on his own.
Sheilagh took the horse to the barn, quickly dried him to keep the sweat from freezing and ran to the soddy. The boys were writing notes from the books Wilm had given them. They wondered where Harvey was. So did Sheilagh.
She dressed herself as warmly as possible, stoked the fire and went back to the barn. Ben stamped to keep warm, but didn't protest the weight of a new rider or the command to go back out into the cold.
It was late afternoon. The moon had already ascended into a clear sky. A glow of pink sunset, sliced by the skeletons of bare black trees lined the horizon. Ben retraced the path he'd made in the snow as Sheilagh urged him forward, bending herself into the wind.
About a mile from the house, she found him. Drunk and listless, Harvey had fallen from the saddle and was lying face up in the snow. Sheilagh dismounted. She stood over him. Already, Harvey's cheeks were white, his nose was frozen and his hood lined with frost. Through clenched teeth, he swore at her. He was far too heavy to lift. She could not hoist this man, this weight, onto the back of a horse. A cry for help would go unheard. Harvey raised one arm. A gesture that would instill sympathy if he were any other creature. But Harvey Rood was freezing to death where he lay.
Sheilagh mounted Ben and looked at the man who'd imprisoned and abused her for so long. Harvey swore again. Then pleaded. "Help me".
She'd never done a malicious thing. She had only killed to feed her children. Sheilagh thought for a moment, looked steadily into Harvey's eyes and said "fend for yourself".
I still have a lot of work to do on this novel, but for the most part, I think I've found the right ending. A couple more weeks and I think I'll have the manuscript ready for submission.
Speaking of submission, I am going to submit myself to the warmth of my bed, the presence of my partner, and sleep. But first, I shall check on the children.
Meredith, Robin - I wonder what your dreams are, I wonder where your lives will take you. My children are real characters! I cannot manipulate or think their thoughts.
The writer has crossed into the real world for the night and is content in knowing that all is well.
It was a package I was hoping for, but not really expecting. A contract! Reiner and Browne was the first publisher I approached. Having worked with one of their editors, I knew I might get an "unsolicited manuscript" past the front desk. Without an agent, a new novelist is usually ignored. I hoped that if they read my work and thought I had some skill, they might give me a chance. I didn't expect a contract to be enclosed with their reply. And, it was an AMAZING reply!!
At first I had to blink a few times to let the reality of what I was holding in my hands work its way to my brain. Then I did cartwheels. Well, I ran around hollering like a four year old (to Meredith's great amusement). That contract and the encouraging letter enclosed, has actually validated my existence. I'm a writer - and better than that - a writer whose work an audience wants to read.
Throughout the years I've been hammering away at outlines and bad ideas, reworking, changing, and throwing away hours of work. I've also had the constant support of my family. My mom is a great editor. She catches grammatical errors, storyline inconsistencies and tells me to call it quits when I'm writing garbage! She's more of a mentor than a mom. Having owned a bookstore, she's read more than her share of the proffered paperbacks and serious tomes. She has a feel for what flows, what works and what doesn't. She's available when I need her and gets back to me post-haste. We've formed a real working partnership. Deanna is my muse and my soul mate. She's put up with nights alone as I've worked on whatever "has to be done while I'm in the mood". In the mood meant something else when we were dating. I've spent a year on this book and she's supported me emotionally and physically. She's taken on more of the homestead responsibilities, explained to the kids that "dad's working" and rarely lost her temper (when she should have). I've been absorbed by and lost in this book. I've lived in it and now that it's ended, I feel as though I've been extricated and given my freedom again!
There is still no title. We have a list of potential names which are now being reviewed. A cover and introduction are next, along with information about myself and a brief outline. It will be a paperback, and it will be available next spring. That's all about the BOOK!
I signed my contract with Reiner and Browne, after making a few alterations and deciding on a title. The book will be called Stone Season and it will be published in paperback and will hit the shelves by October. I've had the opportunity to suggest cover ideas, but ultimately the design will be left with Reiner and Browne who will also craft the back cover copy. What does one say about an unknown, first time author? I'll get to proof whatever they contrive.
It's finally sinking in. I'm believing my own hype. And the though that runs foremost is - will my next book have the same positive results? More than ever before, I'll be driven to type until morning and live in a world of fiction and fantasy. My deadlines will be self-determined. And I'm determined to make the best of every minute that fate and family have given me.
My friend, Jo, threw an amazing party in honour of my first published novel. So many friends came. Old friends, good friends. Two of my teachers from university were there as were several of my co-workers from Portrait magazine. All said "we knew you could do it". It seems that I'm the only one who had doubts.
My check came through from Reiner and Browne. We added it to our savings and Dee calculates that there is enough for a down payment on a house in my parents' neighbourhood. Even this house, should my Mom decide she's willing to sell it.
I think that April and I, despite the years between us, are most closely connected. We're both artists in a sense, and dreamers. We see the world through different eyes. We communicate in silence with a look or a gesture and even though we all desperately want our own space, the two of us have become one in spirit and in soul.
My head is firmly wedged inside novel number two. It feels good to be back within the comfortable confines of a world of my own creation. I'm in control. Every character, every event, every turn of phrase is generated by "the gift". Sometimes, I can't quite access the magic that drives the urge to write and at other times, it takes over. Again, I've been swept back into the past. It's 1874, I'm 23. Having fought with my father for the last time, I signed on to a windjammer - one of the large cargo sailing vessels that carried goods between South America and the Southern United States. Having no skills other than short order cooks (learned in my parents' dockside restaurant in Galveston), I was put to work in the kitchen of the SMS Princess Aleksandra Janiak, a worn, iron-hulled "maiden" that ferried everything from sugarcane to guano across the Caribbean Seas.
I am only just beginning to realize the seriousness of my situation as I discover hidden cargo and a captain whose past transgressions include piracy, kidnapping and murder. There is also a stowaway, a man whose ancestry connects him to Mayan royalty and a fortune in Spanish gold.
The most difficult, and yet the most exciting part of writing an historical novel is the research one must do. Everything from the smells of the kitchen to the sounds of the sails must come firsthand, if possible. I was fortunate to have toured a windjammer on display in Halifax a few years ago. This spur of the moment step into the past burned itself into my memory. Like a photograph in sepia, I saw the vessel as it had once been, and I was on it with adventure before me!
I don't know where Leonard Driscoll came from. He is the young man whose life I'm about to change forever. I also don't know what it's like to sail in a storm, to be shipwrecked or to be left for dead on the coast of Belize, but I'll find out. For as long as it takes me to finish this book, I will be Leonard Driscoll and I will be me. As Michael, I will use every resource I can to research my story. As Leonard, I will live every moment of the life he will lead.
With that in mind, I must return to the Windjammer. There are fourteen crew members down with the trots and the seas are blowing high. It looks like a night of bad weather and Leonard Driscoll has his work cut out for him. I should go and see that he does it well.
I am working, still on the second novel. Despite my good luck at getting my first book published so quickly, a writer rarely becomes an overnight success and those who do, may never duplicate their triumph! So, I am learning as I write and with luck, I'll be able to set aside the freelance someday and just produce the stories that fill my head and cause me to daydream when I should be paying attention to life!