Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back to Work!

So I'm back to work at writing.
For now I'm working on completing about twenty different story fragments that may end up being a collection of adult interest short stories. They've been sitting long enough that I can see their good parts and their faults; just as you see your friends and family more clearly as time passes than when they are up close to you in newness or in new adulthood.  We all need to step back a few paces to get perspective...
Next week I will start contacting Scholastic Canada to see if they want to put out another Canadian Disasters that is updated and
improved.  Meantime I have to see about getting some of the older books sold.  They are still a good read and I have been neglecting 'my dream job'.
   I talked to Bill Sweet at the Books and Company bookstore in Picton and he was happy to order some copies of my Disaster book with his next order.  Kathryn at Lighthouse Books in Brighton also keeps copies available for people asking.
   Compare that to the Chapters store in Belleville.  I found their "Local Authors" shelf, near the front cash and very visible, had three rows of genuine local talent and the bottom shelves were filled with books by other writers, notably The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  Ruth got to fill the bottom two rows with multiple copies of her new book - except Ruth comes from London in the U.K.  How is she a local author?  It seems CHAPTERS/INDIGO  is unable to find enough local authors in the Quinte West area to fill their single mobile bookshelf.  I spoke to the assistant manager and told him politely how I feel. Local authors are plentiful, and I'm not talking about the many self-published 'authors', who peddle their books around. I mean those worthy individuals who have submitted multiple times, been rejected, submitted again, been rejected again, submitted again... until a publisher has agreed to take them on.  Their work shows the clearness and strength of a healthy collaboration between a writer and an editor.  (No you shouldn't include that sentence... etc.)
There are about fifteen I can think of that have excellent books on various topics who live close enough to Belleville to qualify as Local Authors.   Anyway they promised to get back to me about my concerns.  We'll see...

Meantime here's a sample of something I'm working on for the short story collection.

“Ow! That wasn’t a beetle!”
“Was so!”
“Was not!”
“Butt head!”
“Is that your face or did your neck throw up?”
The boys were playing punch-buggy in the back seat and the punches were getting harder. 
“Time for a break, boys. Daddy, these guys need to run around,” observed Shirley. 
We were driving through the Badlands of Alberta. Our pre-teen boys were stir-crazy and needed to get out of the car. Again.
My needs were even more basic. I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me and the spasms in my gut told me I needed to stop even more than the boys did. We were passing through a genuine ghost town, with nothing in it but the grain elevator.  We stopped in the field of a desolate and overgrown community park.
Spying a large wooden outhouse shouted, “First dibs on the outhouse!” and ran for it. At this point I didn’t care if it was clean, as long as it wasn’t locked.
            The old plank door stood ajar. Inside were two sections. I jogged into the toilet part while unbelting my shorts. Relief flowed through me as the noise and olfactory offense of my emergency purge filled the little room. As the pressure dropped and my heartbeat returned to normal I began to look around me.  My eyes adjusted to the modest illumination from a neat and square high window. I saw straight boards silvered with age, a perfect vertical from a level floor. Every plank had been cut square and every joint was a snug fit. The two-by-fours were rough finished and a full two inches by four inches in size and not planed smaller. The wood was rough and durable, like the country around here.
            Finishing, I stood and belted up my shorts again.  Beside the toilet section was a half-wall separating it from the washing area.  A plain counter had an enamel basin set into it and a pitcher of water stood on the shelf with a neatly lettered label ‘ for hand-washing only’.  Sure enough it contained some summer-heated warm water and I used this with a dried bar of soap to wash my hands. 
Despite the reek of my recent void, I found myself going back to examine the wooden plank walls. I sought and found the logically distanced nails, pounded in perfectly. No smiles, no missed hits. By the age of the silvered wood and the type of nail heads it was clear this was all built years before nail guns become common. The nails had been hammered just into the wood with one of those last hits that expertly sinks a nail without touching the wood itself.
“Dad, I need to pee,” a voice called from outside. A small hand pushed on the door but the hook and eye latch remained properly fastened.  
“Be out in a sec,” I replied.
Behind me, framed into the corner was a vent stack, formed of plain boards to carry away any smelly fumes from the shitter box below the building to the airy breezes outside.  
Simple, effective and low-tech, this building may have been forty years old or eighty. I marveled at the handiwork of this craftsman, probably long dead. Did he or she ever wonder if someone would notice this perfection?
Probably not.
The art of this place came from long practice and fingers grown used to forming, measuring, and cutting with millimeter accuracy. People this able don’t consider their talent any more than they consider breathing.  
But I admired the craftsman and remembered his work. 
One year my friend Kevin called and asked if I would build an outhouse for his cottage on Rice Lake. The old biffy, many years old and rarely used, was no longer good for emergencies. Kevin knows I like to build things, but I was busy. Too busy.
            Days went by and it nagged at me.
My work was frustrating and I wasn’t seeing results.  A vision of that old outhouse in Alberta, with its weathered old boards and perfect joints kept coming back. Within a few weeks I had arranged for a quiet autumn weekend at Kevin’s cottage. Kevin is an excellent cook and knows how to take time to create a perfect burger.  Likewise I felt inspired to take my time and do a proper job.

We built the outhouse. It is not as good as the one in Alberta, but most of the joints are close, the wood is cut square, and there is a window high up. You can sit there and look around and not see too many mistakes. And there is a vent stack, leading those awful smells outside.   


Monday, February 13, 2017

Some Video Games to Avoid if you are a Normal Human Being

Hatred and suspicion are rising up in the USA and spilling over into Canada.  These unrealistic fears are increased as news of mass violence from distant parts of the world comes into our living rooms.
Despite the fact we are thousands of times more likely to suffer violence as the result of our car hitting another car (unintentionally) the fear of random violence perpetrated by strangers grows stronger all the time. So let me add another fear to your lives!

Last week I was given a book by my friend Henry Getkate and I gave it a read.  Wow!  There's some pretty disturbing stuff in there. I'm posting this book review here and I will put it elsewhere ( just because I think it's a good thing to stay informed.

Assassination Generation by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

When we read about mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub, massacres at Aurora Colorado, Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary school, Virginia Tech University and a raft of other places; we have to wonder if this is a new phenomenon in history.  What causes some quiet loner to pick up an automatic weapon and start shooting random people? Is our generation of mankind the first to have so many people, in peacetime, be slaughtered by strangers?
Author Lt. Col. Grossman has made a study of this. Apart from the title, which I think needlessly sensationalizes a well-researched book, Assassination Generation is an important read for parents, teachers, youth workers, lawyers and lawmakers.
            Grossman has a fascinating background. Serving many years as a career combat soldier in the U.S. infantry and in the Airborne Division as a paratrooper and officer, and later as a Professor of Psychology at West Point and Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University, Grossman brings unusual expertise to this nasty topic.  His psychological area of study is on how people kill each other.  That's right.
His previous books have dealt with the difficulty of training professional soldiers to actually shoot to kill an enemy.  His research indicates that people have a built in resistance to taking the life of another human. Statistics for kill rates for soldiers in riflemen companies in various wars shows that no matter how accurate a soldier may be at shooting at a paper target they must still be trained at length to overcome this resistance before they will shoot to kill another human being.  Assassination Generation makes a good case for showing that shoot-to-kill video games are as effective in overcoming a person’s reluctance to take a life as the best military training is. Our shoot-to-kill video-game players, in other words, learn to take the actual lives of humans just as soldiers do.
            Assassination Generation is a readable and well-researched statistical case for connecting the rise of mass shootings in the world with the rise in popularity and availability of highly graphic ‘first person’ killer video games.  In these restricted or adult-rated games, the player assumes the role of rogue cop, lone-wolf soldier, frustrated armed guard, or just about anyone with varied weaponry and unlimited ammunition and uses these to kill people. Sometimes the killed people are ‘bad guys’ and sometimes they are innocent bystanders. Kills are rewarded with points or advancement to a higher level in the game’s structure. These sick games show killing as graphically realistic and messy. Each shot is accompanied by details of corpses, blood spatter, chunks of flesh flying, people begging for mercy and all sorts of nasty stuff most of us will never see in a normal lifetime.

            Grossman does not argue for an absolute ban on these snuff games but makes the case that ratings for these games are not well regulated or consistent. Games identified as dangerous to young minds are still too easily purchased by youth. The harmful effects of these games on young minds is more long-lasting than the effects on adults. He shows how the billion dollar media industry lobbyists have caused confusion over the ratings issue, leaving some of the most destructive video games too easily available to children.

            Grossman shows that increased used of media leads not only to violent behaviours but to other aberrant behaviours in youth too.  Interestingly, children and teenagers now spend more time on video screens and interactive electronic media than any other activity besides sleeping.

            Grossman makes some basic suggestions as to how parents can prevent harm form overuse and addictions to video games.

            The only jarring note is that Grossman does not line himself up with the 85% of Americans, who want more restrictions on automatic weapons. He avoids the obvious connection between angry lunatics being able to own ever more sophisticated types of automatic weapons and the murderous head count of American folks shot dead by them. His case is that even in countries with strict gun controls, like Norway, automatic weapons and assault rifles can still be obtained by someone like Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 teenagers.
            But the mass killings in the USA, while its ‘good-ole-boy’ gun lobby continues to block any meaningful restrictive legislation, far outnumber the slaughter in other countries with limited public access to guns.

           But I digress. Assassination Generation is still an important book to read and consider.
Rene Schmidt

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Writing, then teaching & writing, then writing, then managing and now back to teaching...

Life is what happens when you are planning something different...
I have been getting The Beacon youth centre ready for someone younger and energetic to take over as Director and bring it to the next level...  sometime this spring I hope.
All the while looking wistfully at my filing cabinet and all those incomplete fiction stories whispering to me to come over and pay attention to them...
Meanwhile, just when I was ready to do some writing The Beacon entered a sudden crisis mode as some local bad press made us and our Christian walk look hateful and discriminatory, leading to meetings, composing careful responses, more meetings, and writing press releases intended to undo the damage.
Meanwhile my filing cabinet stories are clearing their throats and shuffling around trying to get my attention.  "Yes, I'm coming soon.  I'll be working on some of you soon.  Promise."

Then a month ago I got an urgent request from my friend Rikki-Anne at Quinte Youth Unlimited; "Rene, there is a job at Quinte Christian High School. They need someone to do a semester of teaching Drama. I can't take it on.  One period a day. A grade 11/12 split class. Can I submit your name as a possible candidate?"

Thirty-six years ago I graduated from York U. with an Honours B.A. a B.Ed. and attitude. I had aced all my classes.  Good published writers liked my work.  Clark Blaise wrote me a recommendation letter to the Iowa State Master's Program in Creative Writing.  I had written plays and sold two of them plus I was trying to sell a manuscript for my short novel. I was certain it would get published just like that... and my B.Ed.? Teaching school was just a back-up plan just in case writing didn't work out.

Still... back in 1981 teaching secondary Drama was one of those jobs that would have led me straight into teaching instead of writing.  It would have been ideal; well paying, giving me a chance to write scripts and plays, plus the pleasure of teaching one of the only subjects (besides woodworking) I had always enjoyed. But a quick look at job postings made me realize teaching drama was one of those plumb jobs teachers wait about twenty years for, succeeding someone only after retirement or a sudden heart attack.  In those years teaching jobs were so scarce you needed a letter from the Prime Minister just to get an interview. Teachers with seven years' seniority were being laid off in one of the Toronto school boards.

So I faithfully continued with Plan A; writing, submitting, revising, driving taxi, submitting, planning, phoning... "Uh, did you get my manuscript?" But the writing didn't sell as I'd hoped. The rent was due and cab-driving was barely paying my bills. My new letter-writing business had to be abandoned for personal reasons and the advertising agencies weren't looking for writers...

Plan B, teaching, threw me a lifeline. A temporary job teaching kids with behaviour problems led me to using writing in a way I never expected; writing for kids who hated reading and appealing to those who had never been read to. In a 'God thing' aside to this I got five books published because of my experience with elementary students.  I retired after 28 years of teaching without that Secondary dream job ever coming my way.  Sigh.

But now, seven years after my retirement I am offered that dream job. And not teaching secondary drama to reluctant kids who just need a credit... No! These are Grade 11 & 12 students, motivated and polite, at a private school!  Sounds like a bucket list item to me!
So I took it.

Meanwhile my filing cabinet full of short stories are groaning... "When am I going to see the light of day?  You promised to work on me!" "No me! I'm first!" "You said!"... 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Disaster Presentations in Brighton and Area

During May I twice had a chance to bring my show on the road and do presentations on The Franklin Expedition and finding of the HMS Erebus to classrooms in Brighton and Napanee.

On May 11th I attended the ENSS Aboriginal (Indigenous) Culture Awareness Event.  This was a fantastic display of art, music, dance and drama that celebrates Aboriginal culture in Canada.  Local artists and performers came together to demonstrate for a large assembly of ENSS and Grade 8 students from local elementary schools. After the assembly, students proceeded to various classrooms for more hands-on presentations.  The morning ended with an excellent aboriginal meal created by the culinary students served to those of us who presented. Yum!

So what was my part in all this?
I did a presentation showing how Inuit oral history has been much more accurate in providing clues as to the disappearance of good old Sir John Franklin and all his ships and men. The Netsilik Inuit of Nunavut have long claimed that one of Franklin's ships was trapped in ice and sank near a little-known island now known as O'Reilly Island. Their hunters approached the enormous vessel cautiously, found it empty, except for one large corpse reeking of death. The community of searchers for Franklin's lost ships had long dismissed the Inuit claim, because sheets of copper found on the island in recent years would have come from a smaller newer schooners, ships that used copper sheathing on their hulls. Locating HMS Erebus where it was found proved that Inuit hunters did indeed see Franklin's flagship just weeks before its ignominious end.

Just surviving an Arctic winter is a feat itself, and much of my talk was about the Inuit ability to
live and thrive in the coldest climate on Earth.

These are paintings by A.J. (Alvin) VanDrie, a friend of mine.
It is always a highlight for me when Alvin can come and do a painting exercise for students. Alvin's aboriginal artwork is just fantastic.
 Alvin was asked to explain certain symbols found in aboriginal artwork.  

In Napanee I visited Colleen Veryzer's very nice class and spoke about Franklin with the latest (shortened) version of the presentation, but also included a part of my talk about mining. Kids like playing dress-up, and at the request of friend and teacher Emily Miles I brought the mining gear for them to try on and pass around as I did last year.  They listened well as I read some sad mining disaster stories from Canadian Disasters.  Emily arranged the visit to J.J. O'Neill Catholic School. I have known Emily since she was a girl and she always loved reading and history, so it is no surprise to me she ended up as a Library Specialist at the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board.

The Pitch is in! Speaking of Canadian Disasters, I have sent a pitch letter to Scholastic Canada to see if they will agree to doing a fifth version of Canadian Disasters. Although the previous book is only 4 years old, and not all the copies have been sold yet, it is already out of date because new events have made it so.

1) Just ten months after Canadian Disasters was released HMS Erebus was found in the chilly waters off O'Reilly Island, making my first treatment of Canada's worst exploration disaster, the Franklin Expedition already out of date! Amazingly, the ship was discovered in water just deep enough so the ship was not destroyed by icebergs passing over it, and shallow enough to be dived on by those brave cool-blooded souls from Parks Canada.    

2)  Lac Megantic Quebec because a byword for poor train maintenance practices when a fully loaded train of crude oil cars rolled downhill and derailed its explosive cargo in the middle of this pretty little Quebec resort town.  Shirley and I visited it last summer and we were amazed to see the area of destruction.

 It gave us chills to see where the train had originally been parked, on higher ground at least 10 kilometres above the town with a definite gradual slope downhill. Instead of the slogan "it's hard to stop a train", I would argue that when that 100 car train got rolling it was nearly impossible to stop. The fate of those people was pretty much sealed when the first little cm of movement began.
It makes one wonder how many hundreds of Canadian towns, built on rivers and lake shores, have a similar downhill run leading into them... and we all see how many oil carrying freight cars are on the trains these days.

 Residents of Lac Megantic have decorated a fence, circling the destroyed part of downtown, with knit goods to commemorate fellow citizens who were caught and killed by the fire and explosion.

3) In the 2012 version of Canadian Disasters I wrote about the Slave Lake Fire that devastated Slave Lake Alberta.  That bad fire has now been hopelessly outdone by the recent destruction at Fort McMurray. Thank God the death toll from this event was as limited as it was. Still, this fire surpasses anything on record in Canada to date in sheer destruction and loss of property.
Again, the book is now out of date!

There are lots of other events we have never covered in this book, so hopefully Scholastic Canada will do the right thing and offer me another contract for a re-write...

Even if they don't I have so much to be grateful for.  My first pitch to Scholastic came at a time when they would not accept unsolicited manuscripts and certainly not from someone unknown like me.

But one of their salesmen, a frail elderly Englishman, brought a manuscript I had written to the editors and the rest was history. I am so grateful!
These days I miss Sandy Bogart-Johnston, my long-time friend and head editor at Scholastic who made sure the Canadian Disaster books never died out but went to four reprints (so far).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Authors for Indies

Saturday April 30th is Author's for Indies Day across Canada.

Professional book authors and members of the Writer's Union will visit Independent Canadian book stores all across Canada on Saturday April 30th.  From Beaver Creek, B.C. to Blackhead Newfoundland or from Windsor,Ontario to Yellowknife, N.W.T. independent bookstores will have authors helping sell books, chatting, perhaps sipping coffee and recommending their favourite reads to customers.

Here in Brighton we support

Kathryn and Dan Corbett are new owners of Lighthouse Books.  They are old (well, not old but long-time) friends of ours, and Kathryn is a fellow retired teacher.  Kathryn ensured I had my first-ever Book Launch in a school in 2010. This was at Stockdale school where she was teacher/librarian.  

For book-lovers in Brighton on April 30th, drop in and meet the following authors:

Elizabeth Abbott from 11:00 - 1:00 pm
Peggy Dymond Leavey from 12:00 to 2:00 pm
Rene Schmidt (moi) from 1:00 to 3:00 pm
Kurt Palka from 2:00 to 4:00 pm

Suppose you are a book-lover but will not be in Brighton on that day?  No problems.  Just attend any independent book store in Canada and chances are they will have a local author or three ready to chat.  They won't be flogging their own titles necessarily, but will also be recommending who they like to read.   

So Why Are They Doing This?  

Independent book stores across Canada have been struggling.  Big box stores like Chapters and Indigo (and Walmart) have taken over much of the book selling business by buying and selling at wholesale discounts titles the American based owners deem worthy. Local managers have little say in ordering and much quality literature, Canadian content and local talent is ignored.  
Several years ago a Giller Prize winning novel from a small publishing house was not even available at Chapters or Indigo! Not because it was sold out, but because the publisher was a little Canadian company that had been ignored by the big box stores.  

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reach me here

Check out my Writer's Union Website

sorry but the web page I created years ago got hacked and is no longer accessible by me (or anyone) 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Franklin Expedition and HMS Erebus

Three years ago I began researching the Franklin Expedition as one of 12 new stories for the new edition of Canadian Disasters. I'd read about Franklin over the years but never studied him in detail. It would qualify because it was a total and serious peacetime waste of human lives, it happened in Canada, and I had a other Arctic stories to tell in this edition.
Franklin was famous in 1840's Britain as "the man who ate his boots" on his first attempt to find the Northwest Passage.  This much I recall being told by my friend Cody Poulton, as we walked to elementary school some 50 years ago. Cody was a history buff in Grade 5, obsessed with things Arctic and Antarctic.
Much more recently I read about Owen Beatty and his team who dug up three of Franklin's sailor's bodies on Beechy Island, so well preserved after 138 years. The photos were suitably gross enough to cause a youthful eye to stop and read and learn something.  Hopefully the art director would agree.

Thinking I could read two or three big fat books on the subject Franklin, and throw in those gruesome photos, I'd be done.

Not so fast.

Sir John Franklin was a much more elusive study than I realized.  One book I read claimed he was a putz who had no business going near the Arctic on any of his three journeys. Another book declared he was a wise and fearless leader and that his heroism and wisdom prevented a much worse fate than what happened to his first and second attempts at finding the Northwest Passage. Franklin's own journal, given to me by my brother Erik, gave some different insights altogether. I had to keep reading, peeling back layers of opinion or fact, finding new books on Franklin, because each author had a different take on what happened to kill off 129 adventurous men over a few wretched months, or years, wandering the Arctic.

The recent discovery of HMS Erebus off O'Reilly Island has brought this story back to front page news and vindicated our Prime Minister's investment of time, money and policy objectives in finding this wreck.  It's a great story, made all the more poignant because of Inuit oral histories were found to be dead-on accurate. The Inuit said one of the two great ships had been trapped in ice off O'Reilly Island and then sank there, after a hole was chopped in its hull by a treasure-seeking Inuk. Some experts dismissed this oral history, claiming because of sheet copper being found nearby, this wreck was an entirely different ship, a schooner lost decades later. But the Inuit had it right. Also according to their recall, a very large man was found dead in a locked room on the ship, smelling badly.  Had Franklin's body been preserved there? Kept frozen in winter, or pickled, and made ready for burial in Westminster Abbey or some noble place?  Maybe. Franklin died a year before the two ships were abandoned in what seems to be a mad decision to journey south, more than 1000 miles, in an attempt to reach a lonely Hudson's Bay outpost. Led by Captain Crozier, himself an intrepid adventurer who spent three winters with the Inuit and learned their ways of hunting and travel, the expedition came apart, fatally. Scattered groups of bodies, clothing, weapons and possible trade items were found dispersed over a large area of King William Island and the mainland near Back's Fish River (now Back River).    

  Lead poisoning certainly played a part in the demise of many, but I cannot believe, as one author did, that the entire mass of men went consistently bonkers and collectively made the same stupid mistake. Bad food in poorly soldered tins, improperly cooked by a merchant who was weeks late for a Royal Navy deadline, must have been a factor.  Getting a meal which wouldn't make one puking sick may have driven these men to the logical madness of trying to find and hunt caribou on King William Island when these beasts were still months away, or trying to trade all sorts of brik-a-brak to the Inuit, who also were elsewhere and in such small numbers these hundred or so men would have been impossible to feed anyway.  The Inuit told Dr. John Rae that forty starving white men met them by the Back River and traded for one small seal, all the Inuit had. Months later, the Inuit found only bodies, alone or in groups, and evidence of cannibalism.

The image in my head is one of all the wheels coming off, slowly, slowly, and painfully, for all these 129 men. What an awful way to go!

In the end after reading eleven fat books on the subject, each with its own bias, I had to quit and write the story.   The first version I gave the editor was about six times longer than what she had in mind.  We began a tug-of-war which I lost, because I had to keep making the story shorter, and shorter, and eventually many of the good parts had to be left out.  (The alternative would have been leave the story long and interesting and omit some of my earlier stories from being reprinted in the new edition. The editors wouldn't go for it.)
Lately I have been doing school presentations using all the good details and parts that had to be left out of the version in the book. So all that reading and research came in handy.
And it's still a great story!