On writing mystery

June 17th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, my family is either fighting or has succumbed to a nasty, gastro-ish, high-fever bug that’s making the rounds. I assume you don’t need photographic evidence of our misery. Instead, here are Parts One and Two of a group interview I did with Susan Hughes of Open Book Toronto. It’s about mystery writing for children and young adults, and the interviewees include Norah McClintock and Shane Peacock.

Writing Mystery for Kids, Part One

Writing Mystery for Kids, Part Two

Oh, and here are some strawberries. Those who follow me on Twitter know that last year, chipmunks and robins ate all our strawberries. EVERY. SINGLE. BERRY.

This year, we stretched nets over the strawberry beds and TA DA!

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Even from beneath this virus’s heel, I feel smug and triumphant when I look at this photo.

 

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Hmm.

June 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

Cover of the 2013 edition (University of Chicago Press). The pavilion on the cover looks very little like the pavilion described in the novel.

Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

An early edition

Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”

“Does he sell them too?”

“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.

 

When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”

 

In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:

“Did you like her?”

“Yes, I liked her.”

…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”

“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”

“I’ll manage, I expect.”

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.

*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*

I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?

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Nona Baker

June 3rd, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m currently time-travelling in the colony formerly known as Malaya. I’m interested, specifically, in the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War and how different groups of Malayans responded to the threat.

Here in the west, many people don’t learn about WWII’s Pacific theatre of war at school. Certainly, my own education focused on France, Britain and Germany, with a dash of Russia and Italy, and a rousing finale by the United States of America. However, there was also a Pacific War and its Axis aggressor was Japan. The most famous incident in the Pacific War, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, was just one part of a multi-pronged assault. On that same night in December, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The next month, the Japanese turned their attention to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Australia.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, the local population was an ethnic mixture of aboriginal peoples, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a small percentage of white (mainly British) colonists who controlled the colony’s industry, politics and, of course, wealth. In the prelude to one of military history’s most ignominious defeats, the British failed to take the Japanese threat seriously. Their attitude is well represented by the the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas: when informed of the invasion, he reportedly said, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Far from shoving the little men off, however, “Fortress Singapore” fell to the Japanese in just 70 days.

By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had evacuated – and had done so, very conspicuously, at the expense of the local non-white population. One remarkable exception to the white flight was Nona Baker, “a parson’s youngest daughter” from Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Nona Baker

Nona Baker first travelled to Malaya to keep house for her brother, Vin (V. B. C. Baker), who was general manager of a mine at Sungei Lembing, “the single largest tin mine in the world”. Before the war, her brother was the most powerful man in the region, universally called Tuan Besar, or “Big Master” in the Malay language. Nona became known as Missie. Vin Baker seems to have been a classic Victorian paternalist in his management of the mine and his workers. Nona believes that “he was a king and father to the people, and they certainly adored him”.

When the Japanese invaded, Vin couldn’t conceive of a British defeat. Even as the Japanese advanced rapidly south through Malaya, Vin refused to leave his community. He made plans to hide in the jungle with Nona: after all, it would be only a matter of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months at most. Three trusted workers built Missie and Tuan Besar a hut in the jungle and stocked it with a primus stove, paraffin and tinned food. Still, denial prevailed. When the Japanese Army rolled into Sungei Lembing, Vin and Nona were quite rattled: “In the hurry of our departure, I had seized the tool kit from the car and taken it with me, instead of carrying something which might have been of some use.” They also forgot to bring any reading material, an omission they bitterly regretted during their long, idle days in hiding.

As it turns out, they weren’t in hiding for a few weeks or months. Nona Baker remained in the jungle for THREE YEARS. Despite the danger of being caught by the Japanese or betrayed by spies, their faithful servants visited them every ten days in the jungle to bring them fresh food, coffee, paraffin and news. (The servants also had Vin’s false teeth repaired, again at immense personal risk: the dentist who fixed the dentures recognized that they were made in Europe.) After the first year, Vin and Nona’s supply of money ran out and they took the decision to go live among the orang bukit, or “hill people”: a euphemism for camps of Communist guerrillas who lived in the jungle and actively resisted the Japanese occupiers.

Nona and Vin were welcomed by the Communists, both out of principle (Nona says that she never saw a refugee turned away by guerrillas, even when food was extremely scarce) and financial savvy (Communist leaders recognized that they could raise funds locally, using Vin’s name). For three years, Nona and Vin lived as very few white people had ever done, in Malaya: on terms of relative equality with local people.

In 1944, Vin Baker died of illness – a combination of malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. He’d suffered from bouts of depression since going into hiding, and these must have contributed to his weakness. What’s much more remarkable is that Nona Baker survived. She gives a few dutiful reasons for her persistence: wanting to demonstrate that not all British were cowards and quitters; looking after Vin; the need to tell her mother, after the war, how Vin died. But there must have been something beyond that – an essential desire to learn, to know, to live. Despite her self-effacing explanations, Nona Baker was an extraordinary woman.

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

Nona Baker was briefly famous after the war, when she was delivered into the care of Force 136 (the equivalent of SOE in Southeast Asia), contributed information to Freddy Spencer Chapman‘s report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England. But it was only in 1959 that she felt able to dictate a memoir of her time amongst the Communists. It’s called Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker. (Pai Naa, the name she was given by the guerrillas, means something like, “White Nona”.) Nona Baker remains the only documented white woman to have survived the war by living in the jungle. While it is true, as she admits, she was only “busily saving my own skin”, it is remarkable to have her even-handed portrait of life amongst the guerrillas. It’s an intimate record that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

(This post also appears today at the History Girls.)

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“I’m stuck.”

May 27th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, I felt tired. I was easily irritated. I slept poorly, drank too much coffee, and didn’t get enough fresh air. It follows that I also didn’t write as much of my novel as I’d hoped – and not for lack of honest effort.

In the past, I’d have been angry with myself. I’d have decided that I was a slacker and an impostor, and found ways to punish myself. It would not have occurred to me that a) I don’t treat others this way, and 2) I would not tolerate this treatment from someone else.

However, in a small but encouraging sign that change is always possible, I didn’t fall for the own-worst-enemy routine. Instead, I decided to be gentle with myself. I gave myself an hour off. And when that hour was over, I went to my writing shed and happily fixed a scene that had been troubling me for 2 days. It really works, not being a jerk to oneself.

In an effort to step back and protect myself in future rough weeks, I’ve made a checklist called, “I’m stuck/tired/lethargic/don’t feel up to writing, WAAAAAH.” As its name so subtly suggests, I’m aiming to train myself to refer to this list every time I feel stuck, etc.

When I mentioned my checklist on Twitter, I got an immediate response and fell into a really interesting private conversation with another writer, which made me think that I should share my list here. It’s geared to me as a self-employed writer, of course, but I think it’s much more broadly applicable.

So, on days or in moments when I feel stuck, etc., my goal is to step back and consider: why do I feel this way? Is it a) low mood, 2) mental fatigue, 3) physical fatigue, or 4) a combination (or something else entirely)?

Then, I have a list of strategies for each type of problem.

Low mood

  • Focus on self-care: go for a walk, practise yoga, or make a cup of tea and drink it while looking at the garden.
  • Do a couple of small tasks that cost little energy and are satisfying to check off on a list (viva the bullet journal!).
  • Organize something small; choose something that gives positive concrete results.
  • Think about another aspect of my life that I could change, with satisfying results, and make a plan to take care of it.
  • After an period of self-care, try slipping into a writing session. Even a couple of hundred words can be a triumph.

Mental fatigue

  • Take a short break from work.
  • Focus on something concrete and personal (NOT for the children!).
  • Maybe do something domestic: garden, bake, tidy.
  • After a break, turn towards the WIP: where am I in this project? What tweaks do I need to make? Make notes towards the next writing session. Maybe slip into that writing session, or maybe not.

Physical fatigue

  • Rest, already!
  • Read (secondary sources or go over the existing WIP).
  • Think about an aspect of the WIP and where it’s going. Once the brain is humming, slip into a writing session.

If progress on the WIP remains elusive

  • Work on a secondary project (mine is currently a picture book)
  • Make a list of scenes, flesh out in the historical detail in the existing WIP
  • Read secondary sources
  • Figure out how to start the next writing session with a sense of momentum, inevitability – map out where I need to go

That’s my checklist-in-progress. It’s far from exhaustive, though, and I hope to build on it. What do you do, friends? How do you manage work slumps and protect yourself from your harshest critic?

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Two Truths and a Lie

May 18th, 2015

Dear reader, would I lie to you?

Indeed, I would. I’m going to lie to you today, as part of The YA Dash.

This is the YA Dash first prize: 14 new-release suspense novels!

This is the YA Dash first prize: 14 new-release suspense novels!

With debut novelist T. A. Maclagan as our ringleader, 11 authors of YA suspense novels are teaming up to give away some great prizes. (The graphic says 10 authors, but Elizabeth Wein has just joined the gang!) For the rules of engagement and prize descriptions, click here.

Are you ready to play?

Below, you’ll find three statements about my fiction or me. Each statement contains a number (expressed as a numeral). Two of these statements are true; one is a lie.

Read through my website to deduce which is the lie. Make a note of the numeral in the lying sentence. Then click to the author team’s other websites and figure out their truths and lies. Add up all the numerals in the lying statements to get your grand total, and use it to unlock the rafflecopter!

Here we go…

Two Truths and a Lie

Truth or Lie? The first Agency novel, A Spy in the House, won the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s inaugural John Spray Mystery Award in 2011.

Truth or Lie? The Agency series was intended to be a trilogy but I added a 4th novel, Rivals in the City, to make it a quartet.

Truth or Lie? The Agency novels are published in English and 5 other languages: French, Spanish, German, Italian and Korean.

There are your three statements, and only one of them is a lie.

Remember to check in with Mary Elizabeth Summer, Valynne Maetani, Laurie Stolarz, Susan Adrian, Lindsay Cummings, Diana Renn, T. A. Maclagan, Lee Kelly, and Elizabeth Wein for other truths and lies.

If this is your last stop, here’s the rafflecopter entry form:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Best of luck to you, dear reader! I hope it’s a blast.

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A beautiful reminder

May 13th, 2015

Hello, friends. How was your week? I’ve  been writing, weeding, baking, and judging a teen writing contest, among other things. A few days ago, I received a large parcel from my former literary agency. Most peculiar! Most mysterious!

I opened it and found these, to my great astonishment:

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean edition)

I’m extremely embarrassed to confess this, but I’d pretty much forgotten about the Korean edition of A Spy in the House, which is published by the delightfully named Tomato House.

Can you make out that gorgeous embossed key motif? The keys seem to dangle from the top of the cover.

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean ed)

Here’s the spine:

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean ed)

I can’t read a word of Korean, but I do love poring over the first page:

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And I adore these endpapers.

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Sometimes, I get a bit too accustomed to being a working writer. My daily life of creativity starts to feel very normal. And then something like this arrives and elbows me sharply beautifully in my over-privileged ribs.

Thank you, readers of the world! I’m so very fortunate to do what I do, and it’s because of you.

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A History of Violence

May 6th, 2015

A couple of months ago at the launch party for Rivals in the City, I read aloud a scene that takes place in front of Newgate Prison. The year is 1860. A wooden scaffold has been built outside the prison gates, as it was before each public execution. The hangman, William Calcraft, is testing the gallows and trapdoor to ensure that they work. And the crowd is eagerly, boisterously, anticipating the day’s entertainment. All this is historically attested.

The public face of Victorian executions, William Calcraft (c. 1870). Image via wikipedia.

The public face of Victorian executions, William Calcraft (c. 1870). Image via wikipedia.

In the scene, I add a detail featuring ragged children “playing Calcraft”: taking turns pretending to be executioner and condemned. I invented this game, and have never formally researched “macabre children’s games, past and present” (although now that I’ve typed that phrase, it sounds like a fascinating topic). But the idea of the game rings true for me. Games of the imagination are how children process the world around them, and how they imbibe their culture. In my novel, the game of “Calcraft” has several functions: it’s a means of including children in the Victorian streetscape; a way of shifting and blending perspectives of the execution-day milieu; and, of course, a comment on the idea of a public execution in general.

Newgate Prison, mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.

Newgate Prison, mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.

After I’d read this scene aloud, one of my listeners expressed concern about the scene. Was it, he asked, appropriate to explore violence and death in a book that was written for children? Didn’t it glamorize violence and death, to see it represented in fiction? He was talking about the contemporary young adults to whom my book is marketed, but I wonder if the presence of children in the Newgate scene is what triggered his very real anxiety. It was an earnest question and I attempted to answer it with the seriousness it deserved. The party was hectic, though, and I compressed my response into a couple of brief points. Now, I think it’s time to answer the question more fully.

So is it, in fact, appropriate to explore death and violence in children’s literature? My first instinct at the party was to cite historical realism. During the Victorian era, people were much more pragmatic about death and suffering. Infant mortality was much higher than it is now; adult life expectancy was shorter. A death in the household also meant a corpse laid out in the parlour or spare bedroom. And in many cases, the women of the family washed and dressed that corpse themselves. The Victorians were less squeamish about death in general. People didn’t spay or neuter their pets; they simply drowned the unwanted litters. In Wuthering Heights, Hareton Earnshaw famously “hang[s] a litter of puppies from the chair-back in the doorway”. The shocking part of the scene is not the puppies’ deaths, but the fact that their suffering is a form of entertainment for Hareton. But remember: in Emily Brontë’s vision, even Hareton Earnshaw, Animal Sadist, is redeemable. With Cathy Linton’s love and support, it becomes possible to imagine a somewhat happy ending for Wuthering Heights.

Still, the defense of historical realism only takes us so far. After all, history contains an endless amount of truly gruesome detail. How do we decide which of those bits belong in historical fiction for young people? Let’s go back to human developmental principles. Children learn about death in bits and fragments, starting in toddlerhood. By the time they are eight years old, they are “consistent in showing adult ideas of death”. So the idea of death – with variations according to age and circumstance – is a normal part of children’s understanding. I’d go a step further, here: if a novel like Rivals in the City deliberately downplays the existence of death, it’s insulting the intelligence of its readers.

Knowing this, perhaps we can agree to acknowledge historically realistic deaths. But what about violence, and the much-feared “glamorization” of violence? Once again, let’s think about real, present-day children. Children understand violence because they are human beings. They negotiate conflict from toddlerhood. They can act violently towards others. They hear about violence on the news. They see instances of injustice all around them. The real question here is, What do they do with all this experience and all this unformed knowledge?

At this point, we must return to the specific scene or image that prompts the question. Is it an image or description of violence on the news, presented without context or consequence? I imagine that would be haunting, confusing, and possibly traumatic. Is it a video game, in which the hero-player is rewarded for acts of violence? In that case, I see how that trivializes the gravity of violent acts. In my novel, however, the threat of violence is mediated by a heroine, Mary Quinn. She is a former victim of violence who understands its impact. She has strong feelings about the uses and abuses of power. She offers readers a thoughtful perspective on the violence of her culture, and how to resist it.

If anything, I’d argue that this kind of ethically grounded violence is essential to children’s literature, and to the project of learning about the world and about oneself. I’m proud to be part of a long tradition of children’s authors who imagine the world as fully as possible, as humanly as possible, as respectfully as possible.

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Well hello, spring.

April 29th, 2015

So, it’s been winter in Kingston for about a hundred years. A few weeks ago, we had a teasing preview of spring followed by an interlude with some ice pellets that I’d rather not discuss. But now, at long last, spring is here.

We are now so confident of spring’s reality that we cleaned out the shed, changed over our winter tires, and tidied our compost pile to really honour the season. And last week, this absolutely magical fairy garden appeared at my daughter’s preschool.

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Isn’t it amazing? It was made by a ridiculously talented parent.

Other spring-like things in our lives…

The appearance of scylla (amongst the goutweed. The Battle Against the Goutweed continues.)

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We started some seeds about a week ago, and on Sunday morning woke up to this sign on our bedroom door:

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It’s true, too. Just look at them. Beans are infamous troublemakers.

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Even the tomato sprouts look cheeky.

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And that’s how my week went. How about yours? How are you enjoying the season?

P. S. I scheduled this blog post, logged into Twitter and found another sign of spring!

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We are still the Victorians

April 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is Earth Day – a useful time to reflect upon what our environment is like, what might happen to our world in the future, and how things used to be. As you know, I think we’re a lot more like the Victorians than we’d prefer to believe. It’s so comforting to view them as boring, prudish, ignorant dinosaurs. It’s so flattering to congratulate ourselves upon how much we’ve changed and how modern we are. But I’m here, once again, to argue that we are much more like the Victorians than we might think.

 

I’ve written in the past about the Great Stink of 1858, which I chose as the backdrop for A Spy in the House. It’s satisfyingly revolting to think about it – all that sewage and waste in the Thames! – and I, like most people, am really glad we don’t live that way anymore. But the Great Stink of 1858 was also a major turning point. That summer, the citizens of London learned that they couldn’t expect the river to absorb all their waste and pollution. They were forced to build modern sewers, to reconsider the amount of waste produced by factories and, above all, to change their ways. Sound familiar? As we confront our own ongoing environmental crises – oil spills, climate change, flame retardants in our water and soil – we’d do well to address our problems as directly and effectively as Londoners have done, over the last 150 years. After all there are, once again, fish swimming in the Thames.

It’s also tempting to refer to “the Victorians” as a huge, undifferentiated group. (I do it all the time here on the blog, for the sake of convenience.) But we should remember that there were Victorian environmentalists, as well. They were outnumbered by industralists, of course, much as they are now. Still, here is the future poet A. E. Housman describing a lecture he attended in 1877, as an undergraduate at Oxford. The lecturer was the art critic John Ruskin:

This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner‘s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, “You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.” Then he caught up a paintbrush. “These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-tiful iron bridge.” Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. “The colour of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.” Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. “On the other side by the soap factory.” Soap dashed in. “They mix in the middle — like curds,” he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. “This field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is not occupied in a proper manner.” Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. “The atmosphere is supplied — thus!” A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilisation amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches. (quotation from Norman Page’s A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, via the Victorian Web)

Despite Housman’s dismissive tone (“a great outburst against modern times”), he does suggest that, in 1877, Ruskin had caught the prevailing mood. The undergraduates “crowding” his highly emotional lectures are not so different from the curious, critical-thinking young people of 2015 wondering what their contribution to the world will be.

And, as this cartoon shows, Victorians got it: London was filthy.

Despite the clean-up of the past 150 years, it still is. Today, if you walk past Coram’s Fields, you can see sheep living in the heart of Bloomsbury and they are, indeed, quite dingy with accumulated soot. As we think about Earth Day and what lies ahead, let’s do so knowing what changes are possible, how much change is yet to come, and how close we are to our Victorian roots.

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Note to self

April 15th, 2015

Hello, friends. Sometimes, when it comes to organization and work habits, I am a very slow learner. I’ve blogged before about learning to be my own good boss, and most of those lessons have stuck. Three months after starting my bullet journal, I’m still very happy using it as a system. Still, the really obvious things often elude me.

Until recently, one of my great frustrations was not being able to work effectively at home. Some days, between dropping off and picking up small children, I have a 3-hour work slot. On those days, I walk straight downtown to a café, order a coffee, and write about a thousand words with very little fuss. On other days, I  have a 5- or 6-hour stretch at home. You’d think I could accomplish even more, given the extra time, but those tend to be the days that I am less productive.

You see, on those longer work days, I tend to come home, clear away the morning chaos, throw in a load of laundry, prep dinner, make some phone calls, answer email, and check my favourite blogs. The error seems so obvious, when summarized like this. Basically, I am allowing myself to be distracted by domestic responsibilities. (Domestic labour is the very definition of tyranny: no matter how hard you work, there is always more to do.) Perhaps the most wasteful part of my distraction is that I’m not using my real work space: my delightful, peaceful, warm shed.

That changed this week. Yesterday, before heading out the door with the family, I left my laptop, notebook, and mug of coffee by the door. When I came back from the school run, I performed the most critical act of the day: I did not take off my shoes. Instead, I tiptoed into the kitchen, microwaved my coffee, and fled to the shed.

Result? Efficient bliss. I cranked out 1000 words in just over 2 hours, came inside and practised yoga, then had time to wash salad greens for lunch. After lunch, I critiqued the first three chapters of Stephanie Burgis’s dragons-and-chocolate MG novel (it’s FANTASTIC! You will love it, world!) and caught up on email before heading out to pick up the children.

Lesson learned: for me, writing is all about disconnecting both from domestic duties and from the internet. And, of course, keeping my shoes on.

Readers: what techniques do you use to trick yourself into work? Are you one of those superhumans who can tweet while writing?

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