Sunday, December 31, 2017

Writer Resolutions

I've never made a resolution I haven't kept... I almost wrote that with a straight face. Why, I nearly spit out my tea. Let's be honest, shall we? In the past I've fallen short in so many ways whether its resolving to lose weight, pay off debt, or become more organized I always seem to fall short of the initial image in my head. Sometimes by a smidgen, sometimes by a mile. 

 Truth is, resolutions are challenging but that doesn't stop us. Year after year we resolve and fail. Resolve and fail. I love resolutions myself.  For one day we are allowed, nay encouraged, to dream big. We are shown a blank calendar, 365 days of promise, and are told to make something of it. That something can be anything, anything our little hearts can dream up. The prospect is both thrilling and disheartening at the same time. 

It's times like these that I think of Anne Shirley's famous quote, "Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it." How encouraging, yes? Each day, each year we can make our lives what we want of them. But any true Anne fan will remember the reply Anne received from her school teacher, Muriel Stacy who says, "Ah, no mistakes in it yet."  

Was Miss Stacy merely attempting to burst Anne's bubble, to bring her down and make her more sensible and realistic (ie: boring)? In my opinion, no, she wasn't. It's easy to dream big. We can't help ourselves, but often times in dreaming so large we create an almost impossible feat. We set ourselves up for failure by not recognizing the realities of the task and the limitations of our own abilities. Resolutions can be achieved but only if we approach them like we do any other goals in our lives. We need a plan of actionable steps. 

Action plans are the blueprint for success. We start with a mission statement, a goal that is measurable and by measurable I mean, is it something with a tangible finish line. Resolving to lose weight is far too vague, whereas resolving to lose 20 pounds is far more measurable. When thinking of your resolutions think of how you will know you have reached success? What will be your signal to yourself that you accomplished what you set out to do? My mission statement for 2018 is a big one, bigger than anything I have ever done before. 

I am going to finish writing 3 books before December 31, 2018. 

Holy crap, that's huge. I can feel my heart bouncing even as I wrote that, but let's step back a notch. Is this a goal I can reasonably achieve? Well, given that each of my first drafts run approximately 60,000 words, to reach my goal I will need to have written over 180,000 words. If I divide 180,000 by 365 days I get 493 words. That tells me I will need to write a minimum 493 words a day. That's not too bad. Even on my worst days of writing I average 1000 words a day, sometimes I can achieve as many as 3,000 words a day. Given that I am already 18,000 words into the first project (Thanks NaNoWriMo!), I think it's fair to say my goal is achievable. 

The next step when planning out your resolution is to break it down further into smaller chunks. How do you eat an elephant? (Forget the why, OK? Assume you have no choice.) The answer is simple, one bite at a time. I want to take that 180,000 words and break it down by project. I want a measurable goal for each book. A finish line. An end date. A champagne and chocolate kind of day.

For my resolution, I have set one deadline for end of February 2018. The next is set for June 2018 and the last is set for sometime in November. This gives me a nice 4 week buffer in case of any mishaps. Yay! 

So now, instead of trying to keep on track for an entire year, all I need to do is make sure I am on track for each project. Three to four months is a far more immediate time frame than 12. But I never stop there. Each week on my planner I have written down goals. Sometimes it's words written, other times is revision progression but the end game is always the same. I have an action plan to follow. I have measurable goals to gauge my progress. I have the means to get me where I want to go. 

That's not to say I won't have hiccups. I will. I've made allowances for that so hopefully I can make up time if I fall behind and not get too far off track. Once I took my 2018 goal and broke it down into project goals and then monthly or weekly goals my resolution became far more achievable. The real resolution becomes following the blueprint I've laid out. 

In the end, this means a lot of new material coming from me over the next year, new stories, new challenges, new murders. I'll try to keep you up to date but, as you can see, I'm already planning on being very, very busy. 

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! All the best for a happy, healthy, prosperous 2018! 

Monday, December 18, 2017

RECIPE: Gingerbread Not Gingerbread

Let's face it, Christmas is 70% food. We plan food, we buy food, we gift food, we consume food. Christmas Cookies have practically been made into it's very own food group.

Every November I sit down with my recipe book and write out my family's favourites: fudge, whipped shortbread, mini cheesecakes, magic bars, chocolate truffles etc. I write down all the ingredients needed using tally marks to let me know quantities. Then I hit the grocery store in one single shop. I do this so I can just make something whenever I have a hankering and I never need to worry about whether I have everything I need. Sometimes if I am really on the ball, I make everything over a week or two in November/early December and put it all in the freezer. Whenever a child or husband of mine comes home and tells me about a last minute potluck or last minute teacher gift I break out the cookies. I may not be domestically inclined the rest of the year, but damn when it comes to Christmas cookies I am freakin' Martha Stewart.

Today, I am sharing my secret Gingerbread Not Gingerbread Christmas Cookie recipe.

What is Gingerbread Not Gingerbread, you ask? Well, as traditional as I am, the one tradition I don't like at Christmas is gingerbread. I've tried countless recipes and the verdict is always the same. Bleech. However, I do like the look of gingerbread on my cookie plates and baskets. So I came up with a cut out cookie recipe that looks like gingerbread and can be iced like gingerbread but is actually CHOCOLATE. Perfect.

So here it is...


I cup of Butter, softened
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2  & 3/4 cups of flour
1/2 cup of cocoa
1 tsp baking soda

icing and sprinkles to decorate

This is how you put it together.

In a large bowl or stand mixer, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla.

In a separate bowl combine flour, cocoa and baking powder. Slowly add to large/mixer bowl and stir.

It looks like this.  

You can cover and refrigerate or you can use right away.

Roll out on a floured surface and cut into desired shapes. Bake at 375 degrees F for 7-9 minutes.

That's it. It makes a ton of little ones or a number of larger ones. Heehee. No exact numbers as it all depends how thinly you roll them out. This recipe can also be used at Halloween  to make skeleton cookies!! So cool.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Most Underrated Christmas Movie of All Time

Two weeks until the big day. If you haven't sent out your Christmas cards, bought most of the gifts on your list and watched at least one Christmas movie by the time you read this, you might want to get your butt in gear. For something that happens every year, at the same time on the calendar too, Christmas has a way of sneaking up on people. I've been shoulder deep in writing and revisions for the better part of autumn. Most of our winter preparations here on the farm have been two (sometimes even three) weeks behind but we finally got there. Our Christmas tree and other decorations are up and I even got a head start on my annual holiday baking. (Winner!)

With winter prep taken care of, and a head start on Christmas, I think it's safe to say we've entered the second phase of Christmas. The second phase is the phase that comes after writing out your naughty & nice list, casually hitting the craft shows and the mall, and non-noncommittally eyeing decorations in the store. It's the phase that comes before the packed grocery stores on Christmas Eve-Eve, office potlucks, last minute stocking stuffer purchases. The second phase is essentially the calm before the storm phase, the 'this is so lovely' phase. Twinkling lights. Gently falling snow. The odd Christmas song on the radio. In my opinion this is the phase where panic doesn't live and the Christmas Season is at it's PEAK. Forget Christmas Day. I mean sure, that's fun too, but my favourite time of the entire season is right now.

It's the best time sit down with the family to enjoy a Christmas movie or two. I bet you've seen a ton of blog posts/articles listing the top 10 Christmas movies of all time. There's that repetitive list spanning decades of legendary Christmas classics... White Christmas (meh), It's a Wonderful Life (a fave of mine, for sure), Home Alone (definitely fun) and Elf (candy, candy canes, candy corn & maple syrup). But I'm going to remind you (or perhaps introduce you) to one you may never have thought of as a Christmas movie. In fact, many people I know challenge my assertion that it even qualifies as a Christmas movie.

No, I'm not talking about Die Hard. I'm talking about WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING with Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. If you haven't heard of it here's a link to the trailer:

I think the main mix up regarding WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING 's status as an official Christmas movie is based on it's marketing. I mean, look at the promo cover, no where is there any Christmas decoration or tree. It looks like any old, ho-hum romantic comedy but if you ask me, it's much more than that.

Since her father's death Lucy has spent her Christmases alone. It's such a sad state of affairs for someone so funny and bright. As a character, Lucy is such a treat (in fact, the child in my fifth book, Prayers for the Dying was named after this Lucy, not Lucy Maud Montgomery, another heroine of mine who preferred the name Maud). From the get go, we know Peter is not her type. Sure he's handsome, and suave but he's not for her. Jack, a down to earth guy next door, is way more Lucy's type and he proves it as the story progresses. We begin rooting for them early on.

But it's not just Jack we love, it's Peter and Jack's family, the Callahan's. Who doesn't wish they had a loving, dotting mother and a cheeky and welcoming grandmother? The family (and neighbour) are just the sweetest which only further emphasizes Peter's short comings because he's never appreciated them. The saddest part isn't that the Callahan's have accepted Lucy into their lives based on little more than a few words said under her breath, it's that they all deserve to be a family together. They deserve Lucy just as much as Lucy deserves them. But they are expecting her to marry Peter when she really should be marrying Jack.

The story of Lucy and Jack's relationship is the main thing, and Christmas appears to be just a backdrop. How exactly does that differ from other romantic comedies like THE HOLIDAY? These are movies about people at a pivotal point in their lives who are alone, people who don't deserve to be alone at a time in the year when no one should be alone.  In WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING Christmas simply magnifies Lucy's loneliness. It makes us root for her success. We want her to find love, be happy and finally put a stamp in her passport, damn it!

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, in my opinion, is the quintessential Christmas love story about loneliness, family and enduring hope. I watch it every year. I cry when Lucy finally confesses the mix up.  I smile when it all turns out in the end. Honestly,  it's the perfect Christmas movie (and I mean this because I didn't write it though I often wish I had). It should be played regularly on television within the standard rotation right up there alongside Elf, Home Alone and all the others. It should be part of the Holiday Movie displays in department stores. And it should be a regular part of your holiday tradition too.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Black History Month: The Town of Buxton, Ontario

In the fall of 2015 my family and I were required to make a long 5-hour journey south-west to Windsor, Ontario to retrieve something we needed for our farm.  It seemed a long way to go to just pick up something yet that was exactly the situation we were in. Usually when faced with this sort of 'business' travel I try to think of what else we can do in the area to make it more worth while. We were spending the gas and time any way, why not enjoy something else in that neck of the woods.

As it happens, there are a number of historical sites and museums in that part of Ontario which I am never able to visit. While my kids were growing up I made it a point to take them to every pioneer village and museum within three hours driving distance. How I longed to be able to take them further afield to see all those places just out of reach. The Buxton Museum was always on my list.

Buxton, or the Elgin Settlement, was one of four organized settlements in Ontario reserved specifically for former slaves who had escaped to freedom in Canada.

This is a plaque at the modern day site that shows the original division of plots in the Elgin Settlement. The settlement was comprised of 9,000 acres, which was subdivided into farms of 50 acres each. It's main purpose was to provide the black population with the same education and prospects as white society. 

The idea, which was first proposed by Rev. William King in 1848, did not sit well with neighbouring communities but George Brown, who would later become a Father of Confederation, championed the proposal and became a great ally in the cause.

Settlers were able to purchase the land at $2.50/acre and were given ten years to pay off their loan at a rate of 6% interest. By 1850 the Buxton Mission School was built which also offered night classes for adults instructed by Rev. King.

A 550-pound bell was erected at the school, a donation from the African American community in Pittsburgh, PA. Whenever a fugitive slave found their way across the border and into Buxton they rung the Buxton Liberty Bell as a symbol and celebration of their newly won freedom.

Our trip to this museum was inspirational to say the least. Not only do the exhibits showcase the horrific capture, transport and treatment of early British slaves, but it progresses to a message of hope and prosperity. I found myself staring at one black and white photo in particular of one of the early classes displayed in the school house. I couldn't take my eyes from the little faces looking back at me. Were they haunted by memories of slavery? How were they treated once their families made it to Canada? Was there anyone they lost and were still waiting to join them? Were they able to achieve the dreams their parents imagined for them; the dreams of education, fair treatment and freedom? I would love to go back in time to ask them these questions and to find out what more can we do to remember them and their race to freedom.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Shadows of Madness is finally out, Dear Readers. 

Paperback coming soon!

I'm so excited to share with you all the 6th book in the Marshall House Mystery series. While I've said before this is the last book in the series, I have very much decided that this is not the last we will see of Peter and Margaret. Stay tuned for more details or follow me on Facebook for all the latest news and developments. 

Summoned to Edinburgh after another inexplicable vision, Dr. Peter Ainsley and his sister, Margaret Marshall, are shocked to discover their good friend, and Margaret’s secret lover, has been arrested for murder.

Dr. Jonas Davies, a celebrated surgeon and newly appointed professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, was found at the grisly scene with the bloodied surgical knife at his side, but both Ainsley and Margaret know that is hardly enough evidence to convict a man.

With a police inspector determined to prove Dr. Davies’s guilt and his medical colleagues distancing themselves from the nightmare, it falls on Margaret and Ainsley to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their friend had no motive to kill his fellow professor and didn’t perpetrate the crime.

As the investigation moves forward, however, it becomes clear it won’t be enough to convince the court Dr. Davies didn’t kill the professor. They have to find the person who did, along with enough evidence to convict him before the Scottish judicial system sentences Jonas to hang. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Cover for upcoming Marshall House Book #6

It's finally here, the last cover for the Marshall House mystery series.

SHADOWS OF MADNESS will be ready for devouring in a few short weeks, but in the meantime you can feast away on this gorgeous cover designed by Jessica Allain at EnchatedWhispers. A fellow Canadian, Jessica is an amazingly talented digital artist who took my rambling word-image and made it into something that surpassed all my expectations. I am deeply indebted to her and her creative eye.

You really can judge a book by it's cover and this cover clearly says "This book is AMAZING!"

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Choosing & Working with a Cover Artist

It's that time of the process again. I've nearly signed off on the final proof of my cover for SHADOWS OF MADNESS, the sixth and last book of the Marshall House Mysteries. As a self published author I have final say in how my covers will look. That can bring about great excitement but also great trepidation.

It's often said, you can't judge a book by it's cover, but I could argue, that's not true, at least not when it comes to actual books. Readers do judge books by their covers and that's why it behoves any author to ensure they've put their best cover forward.

A cover is a book's most valuable advertising piece. It sets a tone for the story and gives readers a sneak peak into what they can expect. A bad cover can cause an otherwise brilliant book to sit on a shelf unread. When it's time for me to acquire another cover, I remind myself of a few simple rules for choosing a cover and working with my designer.

1) Before you start, look online at other published books in your genre. See what covers look like for books that are performing well. Obviously, it's performance is relative to how well the story is written but sales can also be indicative of how eye-catching the cover is. Make a note of elements you like on certain covers. Create a Pinterest board to keep notes and keep all your favourite cover styles in one easy to view place.

2) If you don't have a regular go-to designer yet, scope out the internet for premade covers. Premade covers are (sometimes) less expensive and are easy to evaluate. Signing on with an untested artist for a cover may turn out disastrous (as it did for me once) and you could end up losing a lot of money if the proofs they provide are horrible. Avoid signing any contracts for a custom cover with a artist you haven't worked with before. Instead chose a premade cover where all the design elements are visible and rest assured that the cover you have selected is what you will get. Self publishing is a big money maker for those looking to cash in and unscrupulous people often advertise themselves as having more skills than they actually do (this goes for editing as well). If you've signed a contract and provided a down payment/deposit you may be out of luck when the proofs they provide are not AT ALL what you were expecting. Buyer beware.

3) When evaluating a cover check for these things:

use of colour (are the colours used pleasing to the eye. Look for complementary colours -red/green, blue/orange. yellow/purple. Remember, if a colour is used on one part of the cover, such as in a title or even a small detail, that same colour must appear somewhere else as well. Otherwise that element will stick out and look like it doesn't belong)

use of composition and balance (watch where your eyes go. It should flow across the image like a backwards S, starting at the top left hand side, your eye should move down into the centre of the page, circle around and stay there. It doesn't matter if the title and author name are on the top or at the bottom of the page but the image should look balanced. I would also advise against using any model who has their back to the reader unless there is something else interesting to look at like a detailed dress/corset, extravagant hair style or complicated weaponry.

4) If you decide your ready for a custom cover with a trusted, proven artist, remember communication is key to a happy transaction. Show them your Pinterest boards, give them ideas but allow them to chose what works best visually. If you don't like something say so. It's your cover after all but remember working with artists can be emotional (I should know, I'm an artist myself) so make sure you praise your designer sometimes. Tell them what elements you like before asking for changes or tweaks. Always keep the communication professional and respectful.

5) Pay them on time! Some contracts require all up front, others are good when half and half while others are cool to accept it all in one instalment at the end. The process you both decide on doesn't matter (though I would caution you to never pay all up front) as long as you respect their time and talents. Just like you like to be paid promptly so do they, especially when they've already committed a substantial amount of time to your project.

6) Make sure you give yourself lots of time to find and/or design your cover, especially if you intend to offer your book up for preorders. It's not your artist's fault if you are under pressure. This is not something you want your designer (or editor) to rush on. By the time you are nearing the end of the first draft you should have an idea what you want for your cover, if not then you are already behind.

Did I miss anything? Any tips you'd like to offer your fellow writers? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Experience: the best way to learn to write

Are you squeamish?

I'm not. I once watched (perhaps a little too intensely) as an emergency room doctor stitched an inch deep gash on my daughter's thumb. Before he started he told me I could wait in the hall if I'd be more comfortable and I laughed and laughed (not out loud though).

You're probably not squeamish if you're a fan of my Marshall House books. I tend to write certain autopsy scenes in great, unforgiving details. A professional reviewer once called my style "unsympathetic". It can be quite a shock for any readers who are used to Agatha Christie or other mild whodunit writers. I've received a few negative comments regarding this particular style, enough to make me question whether I should tone it down. In the end, after reflection, I don't concede. I merely tell the story as it wants to be told.

 I don't set out to make things extra gruesome and I certainly wouldn't want my books to be fluffed up. I like to think my style represents the Victorian culture in that death was all around them and they didn't shy away from it. Some loved it and all it's salacious details. Others dealt with it and moved on, knowing they could not run from it. Death made an impression on every parlour (where the dead where laid prior to burial) and in every dark corner in every back alley. In an age when germ theory was still in it's infancy death came to everyone; young, old, sick and healthy. It did not discriminate.

I learned how close death was to us all as a 22 year-old newly married mother of one with another on the way. As the result of a car accident on a wintry road every single member of my family looked death in the eyes. I nearly lost my baby and my husband in that horrific crash and I am forever changed by it... but that is a story for another day.

Today I want to speak about an experience I had last night that presented itself as a responsibility to another family member but ended up being an opportunity to better myself and my writing. My daughter needed to complete an assignment for a senior high school chemistry class. Students were required to interview someone who works in the field of science. While most students chose to interview relatives, nurses, engineers and the like, my daughter wanted to give herself a bit of a challenge and chose to interview a funeral director.

I was asked to come along to film her while she asked her questions. It was a mundane task that I thought would at least get me a ballot for the "Mom of the Year" award. Never in a million years did I expect her interview subject to take us in the room where three bodies lay ready for their funerals. His intention was to show us the chemicals he uses and some of the devices at his disposal. It was a highly educational experience in more than just chemistry.

I had never seen a dead body other than relatives and I will admit I was taken aback. I repeat, I am not squeamish. The sight of the dead bodies did not affect me. My shock came more from the fact it had never occurred to me that we would be permitted in that space, that sacred space for the dead. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized how many others interact with the dead on a daily basis; doctors, nurses, police officers, medics, soldiers, anyone in funeral services, pathologists, medical examiners, archaeologists. I mean, death is all around us, and I, a full time author who writes about murder and death on a daily basis, have been so sheltered from it.

I write my stories, and conduct my research without ever having to witness it or touch it. My books seem so sterile now, so abstract. The Victorians knew death. Infant death was common, diseases had no cures. Daily life was one big gamble. Anything could take you out.

So what exactly has changed? We have medicines now, vaccines. We have experienced leaps and bounds in the medical field. We understand the impact of diet like no generation before us, as well as environmental impacts (smoking and work environments). We have instituted seat belts, helmets, air bags, and any number of other safety protocols, but even with all that there are no guarantees. Daily life is one big gamble. Anything can take us out.

Like I said, I'm not squeamish. The room did not jar me because of the bodies in it. The longer we stood there, talking and asking questions, the more I understood what had been missing from my writing. (There's a circle of life analogy somewhere here, but I'm purposely avoiding it.) We spent the better part of twenty minutes in that room which was only a quarter of the time we spent at the funeral home. We were given a tour of the offices, the casket showroom, the consultation rooms and the chapel. So many questions were answered and at times our guide must have wondered who the student actually was (guilty).

All in all, I am grateful for this experience and the time our host granted us. I think  my views on death, and my manner in writing about it, will change going forward. But I have no intentions of changing the tone of my books, not unless I decide to write a romance. In that case the gothic, murderous undertones might be a bit too much.