Guest Blogger–Jan L. Coates

Today, I am pleased and excited to welcome Jan Coates to my blog. I met Jan a bit over a year ago just before her book, “A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk” was published. Jan’s book made the shortlist for the Ann Conner Brimer Award this year and has also been nominated for Saskatchewan Young Readers Choice Awards (SYRCA) Snow Willow Award; USBBY Honor List of Outstanding International Books 2011; Skipping Stones Honor List, 2011 Way to go Jan!!! Check out Jan’s blog over at Jan L. Coates, Author

A Lost Boy, a Cup of Coffee, Hares and Elephants

When I visit schools as an author, I confess to students that one of the characteristics essential to being a writer is nosiness. They usually giggle, but lots of them are willing to admit to being nosey, too. Well, the younger students will admit to it, anyway. When I describe myself as nosey, I mean it in a good way – I’m simply interested in people and why they do the things they do. Most days as I go about my daily life, I see four or five things that are story-worthy; if only I could retrieve them from the dark recesses of my memory at the right time! Four years ago, when the Acadia Alumni Bulletin asked me to interview Jacob Deng, then an Acadia student, I jumped at the chance as I already knew a little of his story because he had visited my daughter’s school a few weeks earlier. So, we arranged to meet for coffee.

Little did I know that a two-hour meeting over coffee would lead to me spending three years researching and writing Jacob’s story as a Lost Boy of Sudan between 1987 and 1994. During our first two hour meeting, we laughed and cried, and Jacob talked and talked while I listened incredulously. How could boys as young as 5 survive being ripped away from their families by war, only to have to walk for weeks through unbelievably grueling conditions? I was already a children’s writer when Jacob and I met, but I had never written anything longer than picture book manuscripts. As I walked down the street after saying goodbye to Jacob that day, I was already thinking that his story needed to be told for young readers; readers who, like me, are most often blissfully unaware of, or at least not paying attention to, the horrible conditions people around the world are forced to endure on a daily basis.

Of course, I had no idea of the work that would be involved in writing a 300-page novel, regardless of the topic. But I was determined, and once I decide to do something, it takes a lot to deter me from that course. An unexpected heart attack a few months after my initial meeting with Jacob, a striking reminder of how precious time is, spurred me on and gave me time to begin writing. As I started to research and write, things fell into place. I received a mentorship from the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia which enabled me to write the bulk of the manuscript under the wise and intelligent guidance of Gary L. Blackwood. I then submitted it to Peter Carver, children’s editor at Red Deer Press, and he called to say he loved it – a dream-come-true telephone call that made me weepy.

Twelve months later, A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk was launched. Proceeds from the book are being shared with Wadeng Wings of Hope, Jacob’s foundation through which he’s raising money to build a school in South Sudan, the world’s newest country! It’s all good, and it all began with a 400-word magazine article and a cup of coffee…

Speaking of coffee, the first time Laura and I met for coffee, I’m sure that meeting lasted for at least three hours – yay, coffee! Thanks, Laura, for asking me to be part of your blog

*I admit to scarcely remembering the taste of the coffee, Jan. Just the great conversation we had that day. Thanks for dropping in and sharing this with us. :)

Laura Best, juggler

I’m going to take up juggling. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, but haven’t made any attempts so far. Today might be the day. Make that tomorrow or the next day. Well, one of these days. I promise.

So, I’m dragging my heels. Big deal. There is a good reason. The truth is, I’m not quite sure I’m capable of juggling, but after this weekend I’m willing to give it a shot.

So what happened this weekend?

I asked a question on facebook.

How many of you have worked on two books at the same time?

Almost immediately I began to hear from published authors. Most of them admitted to juggling manuscripts. One author said she had four manuscripts on the go in various stages of completion. Most all of the jugglers writers who commented said their books were also at different stages.

Author, Elaine McCluskey said :” I like to have more than one thing on the go at one time. If I am working on a novel, I like to still write short stories. If a story is then published in a journal, I feel as though I have accomplished something immediate. This practice also keeps me from putting irrelevant material in the novel…(ideas, insights, anecdotes). They can go in a story. Everyone works differently…”

Lately, I’ve been toying with two book ideas, trying to decide which one I wanted to devote my time to, and which one could wait. The problem with waiting is that the enthusiasm I first feel when an idea is forming might fizzle away and that other story might never get written.

I admit I like beginnings. Beginnings are exciting. Beginnings are challenging. Beginnings are a love affair with those first strands of inspiration that makes your heart quicken. Sometimes I can scarcely wait to get started. Perhaps this is why I love writing short stories. So many beginnings.

Come to think of it, I used to juggle short stories all the time. It was nothing for me to be working on several, jumping back and forth, weaving my way in and out of characters and settings and plots. No problem. It was a piece of cake.

Before someone accepted my book for publication, I told myself that if editors wanted to publish my short fiction there was no reason why someone wouldn’t want to publish my book. Publication is publication. Right? At least that’s what I told myself. And hey, someone published my book, didn’t they?

Maybe I’ll try that same tactic with juggling. If I can juggle short stories, why can’t I juggle full-length manuscripts? Okay, that’s it. I’m going to give it a go. It might not work for me, but at least I can say I tried. So for now, just call me: Laura Best, juggler.

Do you typically juggle manuscripts, or do you stick with one story at a time?

Later, this week Author Jan Coates will be dropping in to do a guest blog. She’ll be telling us about the inspiration for her book, A Hare in the Elephants Trunk, a story about the lost boys in the Sudan. Hope you’ll drop in and say hello to Jan. Hmmmm. I wonder if Jan juggles.

Making Dreams Reality

“Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.” Ashley Smith

At some point, most of us come to the realization that we must fight to make our dreams reality just as Ashley Smith points out. While dreams may allow our imaginations to soar, dreams alone will not produce anything concrete or lasting. Holding your first published book in your hands will not come about by dreams alone. We all know that.

Nothing is going to get us where we want to be if we don’t do the work involved to get us there. I wish it were easier, that I had some special magic to tell others but, the truth is, it isn’t easy. It’s a lot of work, a lot of making ourselves write when we can think of a hundred other things that requires our attention. It is sitting at our computer while we miss out on another gorgeous day unfolding around us. It is persistence, and determination, and the ability to pick ourselves up as many times as need be. It is writing the story that just won’t go away, the one that occupies our hearts and minds, the story that will make us feel incomplete if we don’t eventually write it down.

I’ve never known any writer who has not, at some point, struggled to remain optimistic in the face of rejection. It is something we can take comfort in, knowing that we are not alone. Surely, the most optimistic person in the world suffers through moments of despair.

When things aren’t going so well, when we look at what we’ve written and totally hate it, it might help to realize that we are not alone with those feelings. I’ve heard tell of some pretty awesome writers who battle with feeling of insecurity, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many books they have had published. Get used to it. We’re all going to be there a time or two. Knowing that those feelings won’t stick around for long usually helps me when I’m feeling down.

I like to get out a paper and pen and write about how miserable I feel and whine about what a horrible writer I am until I cannot whine anymore. I write until the words that come out are words of encouragement and optimism that flow effortless across the page. It’s great to have those around us to help us through those time, but their words of encouragement will not help if we don’t believe it somewhere deep in our being.

Many people in my life come to me for encouragement and I’m always more that glad to give it. It’s the least that anyone of us can do for another. On this blog I will offer what I can in the way of encouragement for anyone, but in return, please promise that you will offer that same encouragement to yourself, remembering that we must all fight to make our dreams reality.

So I’m going to give you the opportunity to write the most encouraging comment to yourself that you can muster. Don’t be shy, tell it like it is. Make that inner you smile. :)

Atwood Gives Bitter, Sweet the Nod

“Aren’t you the author of Bitter, Sweet?”

I turn around; a strange feeling comes over me, as I come face to face with Margaret Atwood. She’s a tiny woman, with a spark in her eyes, and a faint look of amusement on her face.

“Yes, I am,” I say feeling shy. I keep my words to a minimum. I don’t want to come off sounding like a gushing fool. But look at that, I never in a million years thought I’d be recognized by Margaret Atwood. I wanted to die!!!!!!

“You’re book is lovely, simply lovely,” she adds.

Nice piece of fiction that was, huh? Okay, so it was nice to daydream for a few seconds, and as Margaret Atwood said last evening, fiction writers do make up lies…. Still, it was kind of fun to pretend even if I giggled all the way through writing it.

Now for the real story.

Tuesday evening was the Champagne and Sunset with Margaret Atwood event at the Best Western. We arrived early and went into the conference room to look around.

All these books, written by Margaret Atwood; pretty impressive I’d say. This didn’t include all of her published works, mind you. I noticed a few titles were not present.

Yes, there was champagne, and the “maritime snacks” that were promised did not disappoint B or I–bacon wrapped scallops, salmon and cream cheese, quiche, to name a few. I was in heaven.

Before the event began, we stood in awe as we noticed Margaret circulating the room. She stopped right beside us, and said hello. I of course took the opportunity to tell her about the our kids having given us the tickets as a gift—like she’d remember that story the next day, but hey, you only get one shot, right?

One gentleman asked her how old she was when she wrote her first novel. She politely replied six or seven, and that it was a novel about an ant.
“There were a lot of plot problems,” she said, with a small grin. You’ve got to love her sense of humour.

Later, she took the podium, delighted us with some wonderful stories about how her father and mother met, and who all in Nova Scotia is related to her. Nope, I’m afraid no Best’s in that family tree. We were also treated to a reading before it was time to have our books signed.

The line was long. We didn’t make our way to the back of the line immediately, but stayed on the sidelines as I was hoping to get some more photos. At one point she motioned for someone, anyone, in our direction to come over, and no one made a move. I had no idea what she wanted but thought I’m going to find out. Turned out, two women wanted their photo taken with Margaret, and she wanted someone to snap the picture. Hey, that was the least I could do.

Finally, it was my turn. B was determined to get some clear shots. All evening I was having difficulty finding the right setting on my camera. Many of the shots I took in the dim light didn’t turn out. So he asked if she minded if he took some photos of the two of us. He snapped three to make sure he’d at least get one good one.

Upon reflection, I’m thinking I should have asked for her email address so that I could send her a copy. Do you think she would have fallen for that one? Nah, probably not.

So that’s it. A great evening with lots of pictures that definitely won’t get deleted off the camera before I have time to make copies.

Evolution in Writing

The whole notion of including healing plants in Bitter, Sweet evolved over time while I was writing. I didn’t set out to include it, and I don’t know exactly why it came to play such an important part in the book. Well, yes and no. Maybe I do know more than I’m letting on.

Sometimes an idea begins so small that we have no thoughts as to where it might end up. We find a place for it in our story because it feels right, but it doesn’t want to go away. It comes back again and again until it evolves into a full-blown story idea. Soon that one little idea begins to play an important role without our planning it right from the start. I imagine that’s the best way for me to describe how medicinal plants became so important in the book.

Queen Anne's Lace

When I was growing up my father showed me where gold thread could be found. As I recall, it wasn’t far from our house. He dug in the ground with his hands and delicately brought out the tiny gold threads. I remember thinking how totally wonderful it was that these tiny gold threads were hidden beneath the ground and could be used as medicine. This scene sticks in my mind even now, and so I decided to add a scene in the book where Pru’s mother shows her gold thread one day while they are out in the woods together.

My father also knew about brewing juniper berries and a few other native plants in the area. I’m fairly certain that these things were common knowledge to many people, in this area, back years ago. But then modern medicine came along and for some reason people started to believe that medicine should come from a bottle instead of the plant world around us. Kind of sad to think that many of the older ways have been replaced. I’m sure to some, this whole idea of using plants for healing feels new; a bit trendy–and it is—but of course this is nothing new. It just feels new to those of us who did not grow up feeling that closeness, that connection we all have to nature.

Medical Herbalist, Jeanette Poirier

Yesterday, we attended the Mi’kmaq & Acadian Cultural Festival and Reunion at the Fort Point Museum. Herbalist, Jeanette Poirier, took a group of us on a herbal walk around the area where we looked at Queen Anne’s Lace, yarrow, plantain, and golden rod. She explained to us the importance of being respectful of all living things around us and to always say thank you whenever we harvest something from the earth.

I’m still keenly interested in this subject, and have an idea that I might one day revisit this subject again in my writing. I sometimes think that the notions that are brought to us in childhood hold more importance to us during our adult years than we often want to admit. One thing I am most certain of is this: just as the world and all life in it evolves and changes, so do the things we write about.

Sunset and Champagne

Margaret Atwood is coming to the Best Western in Bridgewater on the 23rd. I had a conversation with my daughter a few weeks ago where I remember saying that, although I’d like to go, I didn’t think I’d pay $100 dollars for a ticket. Now that also includes a signed book, “The Year of the Flood,” and the money is going to support the South Shore Library—a good cause and yet I could think of many more things to do with that money.

So today, my middle daughter a.k.a Grub (don’t ask because no one in the family even remembers where the name came from) surprised B and I with two tickets to see Margaret Atwood. The tickets say, “Sunset and Champagne with Margaret Atwood.” Sweet! My three wonderful kids chipped in for the tickets—a birthday present for B and I; maybe Christmas too. It also came with a poem that I won’t post on account of the fact that when Margaret Atwood reads this post she might be insulted. (Okay, so that’s a joke.)

We’d been to the Pearl Theatre in Lunenburg a few years back to see her, which had ended up being one of those family stories when the photos I had taken of Margaret and I got deleted from my camera. Poof! Gone! No proof that I was actually there. No one took the blame. I ‘ve had my suspicions but….. The truth is, had I learned how to remove photos from my camera it never would have happened.

So on August 23, B and I will be chatting it up with Margaret Atwood. Hopefully, I’ll have photos to share.

So thanks, Mel, Grub, Skippy! You really are the Best kids!

Writing Through The Mist

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~Anaïs Nin

Lately, I’ve been feeling as though I’m in a fog. Not in my every day life, but my writing life. I have a story idea in my mind but can’t seem to get my brain in gear. It’s as if the story is far off in the distance and I’m in the foreground squinting my eyes to see.

I’ve tried not to make it a big deal. There are other things I can busy myself with, other stories to be revised; notes to be made. There is even cooking and cleaning to do if I am desperate enough. Always, there is a book I can pick up and read. But it’s difficult to feel settled hearing the whisperings of this story inside me, niggling, taunting— “Write me..”

The ground work for this next story is already in place. The characters exist, and for weeks now I’ve been living with a vague sense of where the story will go.

But today, I had a break through. I caught a small glimpse of the sun through the mist and fog, and I ran with it. Suddenly, the story began to unfold before me, details began to reveal themselves to me. All those vague plot ideas came together and made sense.

I jotted down the storyline at lunchtime, in the notebook I carry with me to work. I love when a story, that once seemed murky, begins to make its way though the fog and mist. This doesn’t mean the story will simply write itself. I’m sure along the way the fog will overtake me again, but for today I saw the sun and I was well pleased.


Have you ever felt as though you were writing through the mist? Did you wait for it to clear or did you trudge your way through until you made it through to the other side?

Books That Go Bump in the Night

How many of you have been haunted? Was it a good experience or a bad one?

Okay, just so you know, I’m not talking about spooks or ghostly apparitions, ghouls or even goblins. I’m talking about books and characters, and those haunting stories you just can’t seem to shake. It’s not about horror or Stephen King, or any specific genre. A book capable of haunting you can be a book of any genre because it’s not the genre, it’s the book itself. You know what I mean, those characters brought to life on the page by their thoughts and actions, leaving you wondering just how the author was able to create such believable, and memorable characters.

Characters who live on after the story has expired, who leave us wondering and thinking about their actions, especially if it’s a character we’ve grown fond of, is not always an unpleasant experience. As a matter of fact it can be kind of fun as we speculate what might have happened had the story continued on. Sometimes we replay our favourite scenes one more time or relish a particular phrase or sentence. Have you been there, done that? I sure have.

This weekend we made a trip to New Brunswick. It is a four-hour drive so I took along a book to help pass the time. The book is one of those stories that haunted me from the very beginning. I was immediately drawn in. The main character wouldn’t leave me alone.

I feel sympathy for him. He’s the underdog. He’s being bullied and it’s horrible. I want him to do something to retaliate, to get back at those who are bullying him. But he takes matters into his own hands because he can’t think of a better way to deal with his situation and emotions. I don’t want him to, in fact I’m appalled at the action he does take, but it does little to change the fact that this book, this character haunted me on the trip home even after I laid the book down. He’s still the underdog and I’m still sympathetic. I’m entering Part Two, my feelings toward this character may change. My feelings should change, I even want them to, but I’m not so certain they will. Is there something wrong with me?


I’m a bit curious about my own emotions concerning this book.
As I read through the story, I’m reminded that for every criminal act we hear about in the news, there is a real person who committed this act, someone who has their own story to tell, who may be trying to deal with life the only way they can. There are things we don’t know, and aren’t privy to. That’s the way life is. We can’t be everywhere, know all things. It’s impossible. Life isn’t a book, a small sliver shaved off a few people’s lives and presented to us. Even if it were, it still wouldn’t make their criminal actions right. It would only inject a bit of understanding and reasoning to it. The book I’m reading does just that, and maybe that’s why it’s haunting me. The main character is so believable. He could be someone I’ve met or have known about. Perhaps he is even me, if I were in that same situation at that age. I can’t be sure.

I’m not certain what my best line of attack is, how best to deal with this haunting. Do I plough through the story just to get to the end, face whatever is awaiting me, get it over with? Or do I read a bit here and a bit there, let the story settle a little at a time, find ways to distract myself in the meantime, stretch it our for a week or more, and hope my main character atones for his actions?


How many of you have been haunted by a book you’ve read, by characters you just can’t shake, characters who get inside your head and don’t want to leave? And how did you tackle the book, a little at a time or in one big smash?

Write by Me

You can catch me over at a Hopeful Sign today. I’m blogging about the need for a writer to view their characters and their story without being judgmental.

Come on over and say hi. You’ll even see the photo I took of the Supermoon back in March.

The Face in the Glass

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with this poem but when I came across it this evening I found the message particularly inspiring. I hope you find some inspiration in Dale Wimbrow’s words as well.

The Face In The Glass
________________________________________
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to a mirror and look at yourself
And see what THAT face has to say.

For it isn’t your father or mother or spouse
Whose judgment upon you must pass;
The person whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

Some people might think you are a straight-shootin’ chum
And call you a wonderful guy or gal,
But the face in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look it straight in the eye.
That’s the one you must please, never mind all the rest,
For that’s the one with you clear up to the end.
And you know you have passed your most dangerous test
If the face in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of life
And get pats on your back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the face in the glass.
~ Dale Wimbrow ~

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