Going Back to the Gym

Except not an actual gym. I don’t like gyms.

No, what I’m trying to get it in an admittedly clumsy way is what happens when you had a routine, and it was working well, and then you fell off that routine for whatever reason. In my case, probably a few zillion little virus-y reasons. I’ve had the flu this week. It came out of nowhere, with a fever and aches, then quickly progressed to the hacking cough/sandpaper-sore throat stage. I’m nicely into the mucous bomb phase of things now, so I know I’m getting better. My brain still feels as if it’s wrapped in paper towel, not quite connecting with anything, and I’ve got enough energy to function for a couple of hours at a time, but then I turn into floppy, slimy seaweed until I recharge.

And I fell off my write-every-day wagon. Once or twice in there, I tried, but I gave it up as a bad job.

When I started this resolution back on January 1, I knew there was a danger in it. I made myself a promise that if I missed a day, for whatever reason, that wasn’t going to be a reason to not try again. Just like (in theory) skipping the gym for a week or two is not ideal, but is made worse if you let that failure keep you from going back. In theory. Okay, fine, been there.

But like I said, I don’t like gyms. I do love writing. So tomorrow, I’m back to it.

 

Andrew Pyper Workshop

WCDR writing workshop days are the best. The great thing about having a close-knit, enthusiastic writing community is that every workshop is like “old home week.” Half the fun is seeing friends, colleagues and writing group members. Today’s session, led by Andrew Pyper, included CANSCAIPers Lena Coakley, Heather O’Connor and Bill Swan, members of my writing group Critical Ms. including Ruth Walker, Susan Malarkey and Shannon Overend (and yes, Bill Swan), my lovely Moose Factory travel buddies Naomi Mesbur and Barbara Hunt (and yes, Ruth Walker again), and at least a dozen other friendly, familiar faces from the WCDR and the Ontario Writers’ Conference planning committee.

It was so much fun, we hardly needed Andrew Pyper to show up. But don’t worry — he did. And boy, did he ever make it worth our while.

I’ve heard Mr. Pyper speak before. It turns out he’s a chronic planner, a man after my own index-card-loving heart. I’ve had novels published that take up fewer pages than his outlines. He must put just about that level of preparation into his workshops, because he always has valuable things to say. I like it when speakers keep the information coming as fast as I can type. This speaker always does.

Today’s topic was ‘Taking your story from good to great.’ I won’t share too much from the lectures, but I had a couple of lightbulb moments that seem worth noting. The first was the idea of ‘aboutness.’ The idea is that a book can contain many key questions, but can only really be about one of them. Mr. Pyper suggested writing a logline of the book and sharing it widely, to help figure out where the magic of the book is — the essential, living core. More than that, the logline is helpful as a sort of compass, to keep the writing on track.

He also talked about the main plot points of the novel. I’ve read a lot about plot structure, and even heard Mr. Pyper speak on it before, so what he said wasn’t really new to me… but sometimes you need to hear the right thing at the right time. I realized that the end of ‘act one’ in my book, the point of no return, comes earlier than I thought it did… and as a consequence of that, I need to make the moment bigger.

He also suggested imagining the opening and closing images of a movie made out of the story you’re writing. That was a useful exercise in thinking about the focus of the story and the tone that I want, and more specifically, the way I want the reader (and the writer!) to feel at the end of the book.

Ruth Walker tells me that if I enjoyed Andrew Pyper’s workshop, I might want to consider Writescape’s Falling Leaves retreat this year. I will definitely think about adding that to my writing-event calendar.

 

Notebook Fetish

We’re early in the basement-renovation process at home. So early that we’re still in the clearing-out-the-stuff phase. I’ve been sorting through boxes and piles, discovering things squirrelled away in various recesses of the house, and in that process, something has come to my attention.

I may have a problem.

Empty notebooks. Some lovely hardcovers, some spiral-bound. Solid-coloured covers, patterned fronts, textured cases you can dip your fingers into it. Some with lined paper, some blank… I go back and forth on whether I prefer to write neatly or have the freedom to sketch alongside my notes. There are even a few truly beautiful notebooks that my sister-in-law made herself.

In summary, I have a lot of empty notebooks. Also some partially-filled ones, class notes mixed in with story ideas mixed in with grocery lists. The partials go in a separate box. I’m not sure I’ll ever comb through the old story ideas — after all, I haven’t yet — but it seems wrong to throw them out. At the very least, I can rescue the notebooks and fill up the remaining pages. They’ll be “purse notebooks,” used for the miscellaneous. But they don’t have the same status as the blank ones, the ones that get recruited to be dedicated story notebooks.

There’s something about a blank notebook. All that potential. And I do use them. Just… slowly.

I knew I had extras lying around. It wasn’t until I put them all in one place that I realized quite how many. Oddly, I feel quite unrepentant about my giant notebook collection. With each discovery, there was a feeling of, “Oh, there you are! I’m happy to see you.”

Of course, the nicest notebooks are the hardest to write in. The ones that my sister-in-law made, in particular, are beautiful to look at and touch, but I’d have to make a few drafts of anything I was going to set between their pages. Since I use notebooks for rough notes, that seems a bit silly. Still, I keep them. They’re aspirational notebooks. Someday, if I work hard, I might write something good enough to be set between their pages.

They say the first step in getting help is recognizing that you have a problem. The thing is, I don’t have a problem with my problem. I do acknowledge that an impartial, logical observer (Hello, Mr. Spock) would conclude that this is an abnormally large collection of blank notebooks. But I don’t really intend to do anything about it.

Except write more.

 

Brick by Brick

In the Six of Crows (and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom) by Leigh Bardugo — my daughter and I listened to the audiobooks this year, and they’re wonderful — one character swears to dismantle another’s empire brick by brick. There’s something wonderfully specific about that image. It speaks to slow, meditated thoroughness.

My use of the phrase is not quite so enchantingly dastardly, I’m afraid. I’m drafting a manuscript, and using the same mantra for my approach. Brick by brick. One small piece at a time.

Over on Writer Unboxed this week, there was a discussion about writing too much and why it might be better to set smaller goals rather than shooting for the moon and failing. I don’t know; I used to be a shoot-for-the-moon kind of person. I could go away for a weekend and burn through thousands of words. In a week, I could push through a whole draft. A messy, uneven draft, mind you, but a draft. But something has changed.

Maybe it’s the kind of book I’m writing now. My previous books were written for imprints that had length constraints — I think the longest were the Orca Sports books, at 24,000 words each. At those lengths, I always had trouble fitting in all the story I wanted to tell, but with the help of my writing groups and my oh-so-patient editors, I managed to wrestle the manuscripts down to size. More importantly, the set length meant I had to tell a certain “size” of story, in terms of timeframe, subplots and so on. As it happened, it was a size I could hold in my head. I could tell myself the story, see the shape of it, climb up on top of my pile of index cards and get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing. I am a plotter by nature, so that pleased me immensely.

My more recent projects seem to require a different approach, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The long and the short of it is, I don’t have things as tightly planned as I would like. I tried. I’ve made many plot outlines for this project, but haven’t been happy with any of them. When December 31 rolled around and I saw the turn of another gosh-darned year without a finished manuscript to show for it, I decided to do something ridiculous. I still didn’t have a plan I felt great about, but enough was enough. I’d write the book anyhow.

I know my big plot points, more or less. I know where the story is going. More or less.  My screenwriter friend Kim Sparks would pull out her hair over this approach.

I know some characters we’ll meet along the way, but I’m sure others will pop up to surprise me. Some will stay, some will probably end up being cut in later drafts, but they’ll all help me navigate to the end of the story.

Right now, I’m writing every day. Right now, I start each writing session with something easy — I write by hand in a spiral-bound notebook. If nothing else, I jot down what pen I’m writing with, what has happened so far today… mundane details that I don’t have to think too hard about. It makes a nice, low barrier to entry. Then I keep writing in that notebook, and turn my attention back to my main character and what just happened in the book. Again, that’s easy, because it’s whatever I wrote the day before. From there, I write about what might happen next, either in the same scene or in the new scene I’m about to tackle. I usually keep writing until I feel as if I have a handle on at least what might happen in the next 500 words, and then I start typing. Because that’s all I have to write — 500 words. That’s my brick.

Sometimes it goes well and I write more. Sometimes it goes well and I hit 500 and feel good about it. Sometimes it goes terribly and those 500 words take forever and stink like something even my dog wouldn’t bother with (and you don’t want to know what she was eating in the back yard this morning). I write them anyhow, and then I give myself a little checkmark in my agenda and move on to the next step.

Back to the spiral notebook, back to writing by hand. I jot down some thoughts on the scene I just wrote, some things I might need to go back and check or seed in, and some thoughts about what might happen next. Those thoughts are going to help me out the next day, when I do the whole thing over again. And then I put it away.

I’m not sure how well it’s working. I’m writing way too much right now… length-wise, I wrote more than an Orca Sports novel in January alone, and in terms of plot structure, I’m not even at the end of the first act. But that’s okay. I know that a lot of those words I wrote were me figuring out the world and the characters, and that later on, I won’t need them. There will be a hack-and-slash revision some time in the future, where I figure out what every scene is for and take out the rest.

Every now and then, I step back and look at the whole thing and move some scenes around so it flows better. I make notes on what I might need to add later, to join things together. I don’t think about taking things out yet, because I’m still not sure which pieces I’ll need later in the book. I don’t want to eliminate any possibilities too soon.

Mostly, though, I keep writing, one brick at a time.

 

 

The Best Parts

My plan was to start blogging again this week, and to dive back into Twitter, too. Life has a way of sideswiping sometimes, though. Something happened this week that I didn’t want to share about on social media, but that made posting about other things feel wrong.

So I’ve decided to write about some good things. Moments in this past year or so when I’ve absolutely loved being a writer, and felt like the luckiest person in the world.

A victory — I was awarded a grant through Access Copyright, administered by the Saskatchewan Arts Board. The thing with grants is that the money is nice, obviously, but it’s so much more than that. It means that someone has taken a look at your writing and your plans for this fledgling work-in-progress and decided that they’re worth investing in. That it might be something someday. It’s affirmation and encouragement in a business where we sometimes go a long time without either.

This was a research grant, to be used toward a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to research my current work-in-progress. The trip was incredible. I spent six days stuffing my brain full to overflowing. Historical walking tours, museum visits, libraries, wandering the streets and taking pictures and jotting down sights and smells… and quite a lot of time in the archives. (Tip for historical writers — check to see if there are fire insurance underwriters’ maps for the area and time period you’re writing about. Those things are incredible — every building on every street outlined and coded according to building materials and purpose.)

I returned with a much more solid understanding of some of the key events in my book… but also some doubts. My research didn’t turn up what I was hoping, in terms of where one of my characters might have come from. I tried to make it fit, but it just didn’t. I was asking the wrong questions, or looking in the wrong places. The facts I found didn’t line up with what I was looking for, and there were gaps. But beyond that, it just didn’t feel right.

A few months later, I made a last-minute decision to venture north to Moose Bay and Moosonee for a writing workshop that was being led by my good friend Ruth Walker. Actually, I won’t say much about that here… mostly because there is so very much to say. It was a trip that was more than a trip, and the beauty of the land and the kindness of the people we met there deserve more space than I’m able to give them here. But that’s where I found my character’s home.

In terms of writing practice, I tried some new things this year. Some worked, some didn’t. Some I stuck with for a long time, some just weren’t a fit. I’ve had to loosen up my planning process, which was difficult for this chronic plotter to do. I’ve learned that I need consistency, and that it helps me to not start a writing session with a blank page and expect to come up with story, but rather to ease into it. For me, writing around the project is just as important as writing the words that build the scenes. At least that’s what’s working now, and although it feels less controlled than I’m used to, I’m thrilled with how things are going.

I’ve continued to be fortunate in my writing groups and writing friends. Writing works best as a team sport, I think. We work alone, but we’re in it together, sharing advice and support. My writing community lost someone this week, someone who was and is important to me.

Going forward, I think my blog posts will have a different flavour. I love reading and researching, and I want to share some of the great books and cool facts I find. But for now, a list of some of the good moments from this past year, while I remember a good friend.

 

Christmas Ornaments

Ready for a sappy post about Christmas trees? (Yup. We’re starting off with a bad pun.)

Our tree, which is artificial and therefore not sappy at all, had a short run this year. We’re always late getting the tree out — there was a rule in my home, growing up, that the Christmas decorations couldn’t appear until all of the December birthdays had been celebrated. But this year, thanks to a combination of renovations and deadlines, it didn’t make an appearance until just a few days before Christmas — close to the wire, even for us. And today I took the decorations off.

All Christmas trees are pretty. Some are even tasteful. Ours is not. I don’t colour coordinate. I do anthropomorphize, which is why all of the ornaments have to come out, every year. All of them. Otherwise their feelings might get hurt. So we end up with a tree that looks, as my twelve-year-old daughter put it, “like Christmas vomited all over it.”

Just the way it should look.

Some of those decorations are old. There’s a little paper star with a Barbie sticker on it. Sarah made that one in nursery school, which means Barbie has been doing Christmas duty for almost a decade. There’s an egg-shaped Santa that Mom painted, back when she was doing folk art, and there are several macaroni- or pinecone-based angels that my younger cousins made. Some could use the attention of a glue gun.

There are ornaments that hung on our tree when my brother and I were young, so I flash back to Christmas in the 80s, to oranges in our stockings and Dad with a beard. Every year, Michael would be given some kind of G.I. Joe vehicle as a toy, and every year, as the older sibling (and the one most likely to work through an instruction booklet), I would have the honour of putting it together for him. I think I liked doing that just about as much as he liked playing with it.

There are ornaments that belonged to the grandmother I never knew, little plastic birds and snowmen witnessing their third generation of Christmases. When I hang them on the tree, I think about her. I know her only by her imprint, by who my mother and her siblings grew up to be, but for a moment every year, I touch the things she touched, and I remember her as best I can. There’s usually some kind of thank you wrapped up in that.

My memory, which can’t be trusted to tell me to get eggs at the grocery store or to hold onto a thought for the time it takes to walk down to the basement, latches on to Christmas ornaments. I know that the glass pirate chest filled with iridescent bubbles was a gift from C, the same friend who taught me to fold origami birds and stars in chemistry class. The plastic seal on an iceberg came from G, who played first clarinet and made me laugh at least once every band practice, and who loved music as much as anyone I’ve ever met. J gave me the unicorn, and thanks to a series of what my husband calls “co-Whitby-dences,” at least I know she’s doing well. She’s a teacher now, happily married to her high school sweetheart and raising two beautiful girls. I don’t know where C is now, or G, or any of the other friends who rise up like ghosts when I unwrap a piece of crumpled tissue paper to find their ornaments.

But I think of them every year, and I wish them well.

The ornaments are tucked away now, and my plan for this afternoon is to make a couple Christmas-tree-inspired phone calls. My friend H is living in Ohio now, and J (a different J) is just outside Vancouver, and I haven’t spoken to either one in far too long, given that we were inseparable for most of high school. It might take a moment for us to brush the rust off the years in between, but I think we’ll manage. We usually do.

It’ll be a good way to finish out the year.

 

 

Roundup of Magic-Related Blog Posts

9781459806450So I’ve been blogging lately, mostly about Forcing the Ace and my experiences researching magic, but not here. A set of links to my magic-related blog posts and other related content:

Getting My Watch Stolen (okay, this one’s old, and it’s from this site)

Magic Workshop (blog post for Orca, link to follow when available)

Win a Copy of Forcing the Ace (Canada’s Magic)–includes review

Report on Forcing the Ace (review by a young reader on Canada’s Magic)

A Q&A with Erin Thomas (Canada’s Magic)

Watching the Magic Unfold (my guest post on Canada’s Magic)

 

A huge thank you to Nicole of Canada’s Magic and Amy Collins of Orca for helping to arrange this and being just generally wonderful people.

 

 

 

News and More News

I’m working (slowly) on a new website, which will have a news tab for things like upcoming events, classes I’m teaching, and maybe even cool conferences and things like that — such as this one in November, which I’m very much looking forward to!

In the meantime, a kindly friend pointed out that although I may potentially be teaching an editing course at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge starting next week, there is no information here about it. Which led me to realize that there is also no information about my lovely new book that came out recently. Or the course I’m teaching through the Oshawa Seniors’ Centre, which is actually wrapping up this week.

So here we have it — a news roundup. Regular-style blog posts will resume after this, including one on the CANSCAIP Packaging Your Imagination Conference and one on pink shoes.

9781459806450New Book! This is probably the biggest news. My new book, Forcing the Ace, hit bookshelves last month. It’s received some nice official and unofficial reviews, such as this one from CM Magazine.

Forcing the Ace was incredible fun to write and research. I’ve written in another post about how much I enjoyed meeting magicians and talking with them about their craft, and how welcoming and friendly they all were. And now the book is out, which seems slightly surreal, possibly because it’s been a crazy few months.

There was a Goodreads giveaway. There will not, alas, be a book launch this time, I don’t think. It’s just not realistic, given all that’s going on right now.

Next news item: Editing Course at Blue Heron. This will run Wednesday nights, starting this week. A couple of years back I put together a one-hour workshop on editing, and many of the participants wished for a longer version, where they could actually work through some of the ideas and get feedback. This is that. Plus a lot of other ideas that I’ve picked up in the meantime. It’s intended for writers who have a manuscript well under way, if not complete, but could still be useful for someone in the earlier stages of a project.

What’s Next?  The Writer Unboxed un-conference is looming pretty large in my thoughts right now, as is the manuscript I’m planning to take down there. Looking ahead to the new year, I’ll be teaching again at the Oshawa Senior Citizens’ Centre, this time an eight-week course. My initial thought for that one is to tweak the assignments a little bit to encourage longer work, while providing alternate assignments or variations for those who just want to write new, short pieces week-to-week.

And, of course, more blog posts. Of the usual, chatty essay style. And a new website, with a news tab. Eventually.

Drowning in Research

rapidsThere’s a place near Port Sydney that I want to use in one of my stories. It’s very Muskokan — big dam, tall trees, lots of rocks and rapids. Of course, for my story I need to relocate and put it near this other place, which is actually several hours away. But when your stock in trade is making stuff up, that’s no big deal. I’m lousy with directions, anyhow.

Even a made-up story needs some basis in reality, though, which is where the research comes in. I collect settings with photos and videos. That’s what I was doing at that place near Port Sydney, this past weekend. As an added bonus, there was a real-live group of teenagers there, hanging around and sliding down the rapids pretty much exactly the way the teens in my story would be doing. Now I had video of how it was done, from approach to recovery — where they stand at the top, how they sit to slide, where the current pushes them, where they swim clear. Jackpot!

I tried to be inconspicuous, with the photos and videos. My husband assures me that pictures of people in public places are fair game anyhow, especially if you’re taking wide-angle shots that include groups of people. Groups of people are what I need — they’re great for scale, and for showing how people interact with your setting. Still, like I said, I tried to be inconspicuous. But I guess the bright yellow lifejacket made me hard to miss. (Yup, I was standing on the rocks, wearing a lifejacket — but I made my daughter wear one, so I had to, too)

So yeah. Bright yellow, poofy lifejacket. Waving an iPhone. Inconspicuously. One of the boys approached, politely.

“Excuse me — were you taking video of us in the rapids?”

I cringed. How to explain that that was exactly what I was doing, without sounding like a creepy old lady? Of course, if he asked, I’d erase the video. I didn’t want to, but I would.

He wasn’t finished, though. “Any chance we could get a copy of that?”

Yay! Lacking pen and paper, I wasn’t sure how to trade email addresses until my tech-savvy husband pointed out that the iPhone in my hand could, in fact, be used for such things as information exchange. Huh. Who’d have thought?

That dealt with, it was time to experience the water first-hand. Not the slide down the rapids; it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, and that part scared me. I waded into the lower part of the lake-river-pool, where the current swept from the waterfall to the far shore before curving back around.

It was take-your-breath-away cold, at least at first, and the algae-slicked rocks made for tricky footing, even with my grippy-yet-stylish water shoes. The pull from the current didn’t feel too strong. Maybe earlier in the summer, when the water was higher, but not now. I waded to waist-high, then swam.

A second later, I tried to stand up again. No rocks. No sand. No bottom. I pushed myself lower, as low as the lifejacket would let me go, and couldn’t touch. I looked back — I was farther from shore than I thought. That had happened fast.

Research, I reminded myself, and paddled into the white-churning water. Before long, though, I was driftwood, swept along the arc of the current towards the rocky-sloped far shore. But that was okay. I’d seen the kids do it. They let the current push them to a certain point, and then cut across. I waited until I was in about the right spot, then started to swim. Nothing happened, except that my lifejacket bobbed up and tried to pin my arms together. I wrestled it down. The waterfall was a lot farther away than I thought it should be, given the strength of the current. The water here had looked calm enough. But my kicking wasn’t doing a whole lot of good, and the ancient, reptilian part of my brain was starting to clamour that being in the water and not completely in control of one’s location was not a good thing.

I don’t tend to panic easily. My reptile-brain reaction tends to be of the time-slows-down variety, leading to absurdly calm, inane comments like “This isn’t good,” while spinning in circles on an icy highway. Shaky-knees time comes later. Still, I was groping for a backup plan. The current couldn’t last forever, right? Eventually I’d be able to swim across, and then I’d shove my way through the underbrush and hike back to the dam. I had a lifejacket on — I wasn’t going to drown. But a deep-inside part of me was starting to quiver, because the weeds were getting close. There’s a large grey area between “in danger” and “in control,” and I wasn’t at all where I wanted to be.

Around this time the boy who’d spoken to me was walking away from his friends, towards the end of the rocky beach — the last easy landing place before I was swept downstream. Walking with purpose. Which filled me with an odd mix of gratitude, relief and embarrassment. The boy wasn’t that much older than my daughter, and I can swim, darn it! Maybe never before in a place like this, but I can swim.

So I did.

Side-stroke. Not glamorous, but my strongest stroke, and one that didn’t result in my lifejacket trying to throttle me. I don’t know if it was just because I was farther from the waterfall now, but I was finally able to kick free of the current and make my way back to shore.

The boy waited there, in a non-committal sort of way that made me feel less like a complete idiot. A kindness. I don’t remember what we said — my brain wasn’t fully engaged yet. Something about the rocks being slippery. Something about the current.

I asked if anyone in the group was a lifeguard, thinking it astonishing, now, that they risked the water without lifejackets or rescue boats or trained dolphins to drag them to shore.

“No,” he said, “But I was coming to get you. When I saw you going so far downstream I put my drink down and started coming over here.”

Whatever people say about teenagers these days, there are some pretty great ones out there.

I don’t remember if I thanked him. I hope I did. He headed back to his friends and I pulled myself out of the water.

Maybe I’ll stick to photos and videos for book research, at least for a little while.

The best part? When I got back to my daughter and husband, my daughter wanted to give it a try. “That looked fun!”

I smiled at her and explained that there was no way on this lovely planet of ours that she was getting into that water, now or ever. And then we went home.

 

Empress of Ireland Exhibit

lifepreserverYesterday I walked through a story.

It happened by chance. I was at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, doing research, and I got lost on the way to the Canada Hall. In the process of trying to get un-lost, I came across the museum’s brand-new Empress of Ireland exhibit. A crowd had gathered outside its doors.

It looked like a tour, the kind that some museums have every hour or so. I decided to tag along. I’d heard of the Empress, but knew next to nothing about it.

The Empress of Ireland (subtitled Canada’s Titanic by the museum) collided with another ship on the St. Lawrence River in May 1914. It took less than 15 minutes for the Empress to sink into the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence. More than 1000 of the 1477 people aboard died.

The disaster gets forgotten. Although the world cared, and cared deeply, the Empress belonged to a time that was about to be swept away by World War I. And in the contemporary imagination, thanks partly to James Cameron’s movie, the Empress is left in the Titanic’s mighty wake.

displayThe tour started in the museum’s version of Québec Harbour. There were sounds of seagulls, of people coming and going. Harbour noises. Trunks and luggage sat atop display cases. We learned about the people travelling aboard the Empress — who they were, why they were aboard, how this trip to Liverpool would carry them closer to their hopes and dreams. The man giving the tour explained that in this large, optimistically open space, the museum was trying to create a feeling of safety, of confidence. This was a routine voyage. What could go wrong?

As we move through the exhibit, he warned, the spaces would get darker and narrower, conveying the sense of rising tension. Communicating, maybe, the sense of the inevitable — the feeling of being unable to escape.

As we moved into the next zone of the tour, learning about the ship and her captain, I noticed that many people in the group were taking notes. More worryingly, most of them wore name tags. I tried to linger at the back. By now I was hooked — I wanted to hear what the man had to say — but I had to admit that I probably didn’t belong. Maybe it would be all right to stay on the  fringes, not blocking anyone’s view. But a tour group shifts and wraps like an amoeba, front to back and back to front, and my purse is the size of a life buoy. I don’t skulk easily.

“You’re lucky,” a woman beside me said, “You managed to get in on the training session.”

“Is it all right that I’m here?”

“Of course, you’re welcome,” she said. “But you’re lucky. Most people don’t get to see this.”

Lucky. Lucky was good. Lucky was not ‘I’m about to call security and have you arrested.’ Thank you, kind lady. I smiled and took out my notepad.

The tour guide pointed out that we were moving through both space and time in the exhibit, exploring the interior of the ship and learning how passengers and crew filled the hours of the voyage. And the hours, of course, were counting down. We saw glass display cases, filled with artifacts from the time period and some from the Empress herself. Black and white photos of the ship and the people aboard were projected onto the backgrounds of the display cases. You could almost feel that you’re moving through the real ship.

It’s haunting, being met with the faces of individuals who were aboard. The photos are well chosen. There’s no reducing these people to statistics; you’ve seen them skipping rope on deck, playing cards in the lounge. Smiling, or looking worried or tired. Looking out over the water. They’re real.

The ship artifacts are real, too. You see the torn-off leg of a grand piano, water-twisted and worn to bare, gnarled wood, and in the background, you see the same piano, polished and smooth and whole, waiting for the first-class passengers to slide into the gilded lounge.

Past and present, all one.

The exhibit moves through a  narrow passageway that details the timeline leading up to the collision. This part of the exhibit is more minimal. The events speak for themselves.

The passageway empties into a wider room, dark and round.  A single brass ship’s bell, pulled from the wreckage, sits alone in the middle. The bell is lit so that it seems to glow. There’s little to read here, no analytics to reduce the impact. On the walls, pictures play. People falling, swimming. Going under. Artist’s renditions, put together from the stories of those who survived. The soundtrack is voices, calls for help. The room is all image and sound and emotion.

A long time ago, I read a book on cartooning. The more basic the drawn figure, it said, the more people can identify with it. Mona Lisa is one specific person, but a stick figure could be anyone. The people on the walls of the bell room are cartoons. That doesn’t diminish the impact; it increases it. They could be anyone. They’re themselves. They’re us.

lifeboat lanternAfter the bell room comes the aftermath. The rescue attempts. Bringing the survivors, and the dead, ashore. A small community opening up its arms to an influx of damaged, grieving people.

The display space widens again, and brightens, as we move through the global reaction, the newspapers, the support efforts. The inquest. Walking through the last moments of the exhibit, we start to be able to breathe again. The immediacy of the tragedy fades; things are put into historical context.

“How did you like it?” the kind lady whispered.

“It was incredible.” It was on my tongue, the thought that had been growing in my mind. The display had moved me, so of course I’d had my knee-jerk writerly reaction. “I write books for children. I want to write about this.” A story and a character had been bumping at the edges of my brain since not long after Québec Harbour.

“Hmm,” she said. “I think someone already has.”

A few moments later, the tour guide confirmed it. “Our own Caroline Pignat has just published a book on the subject. We’re hoping to have an event here later in the summer.”

Had I been feeling slightly less gutted, I might have laughed. The day before, at a book store with some friends, I’d noticed a new book with Caroline’s name on it. I bought it without really even looking to see what it was.  There aren’t a lot of author names I’ll jump at like that, but if Caroline wrote it, that’s enough for me.

Unspeakable coverSure enough, Unspeakable tells about the sinking of the Empress of Ireland through the eyes of a fictional stewardess. Sigh. At least I get to look forward to reading it. And maybe someday there will be room for another story.

As the tour wrapped up, I learned what I had suspected — the tour guide was Dr. John Willis, the Curator of the exhibit. The man who had done most of the historical research. The one training the volunteer tour guides who would take other people through the exhibit. The one who knew EVERYTHING about what they had included or not included, who knew the conscious decisions that had been made in putting together this display so that people wouldn’t just learn about the events, they’d feel them.

It was fascinating to learn about the Empress of Ireland and her passengers and crew, but no less so to learn about how an exhibit is put together — how you build a story with sound and space and pictures so that people can walk through it.

I’m glad I got lost in the right place, at the right time. Lucky, indeed. Thank you, Dr. John Willis and volunteer tour guides, for not kicking me out of your fascinating training session. And thank you to everyone who took the time to put this incredible exhibit together. I went through again on my own, later that same day, and took the time to read all the captions and listen to all the witness accounts and audio recordings. It was no less moving the second time through.

The display will be at the museum until April 2015; I think it moves to Halifax after that.

It’s worth a visit. Or two.