Recently, I hosted a group of the women for two sun filled days of painting.

I used to paint, a lot – right up until I walked out of my studio seven years ago and started writing travel articles and later, novels. The why of that would take too long to document here, but before that I’d painted outdoors for years, then started taking classes at the university an hour and a half away, one course at a time. This went on for fifteen years while my children were growing up, first one course then two for a number of years, then finally full time for the last year, graduating after fifteen long years with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at University of Victoria in 2000, as a very mature student.

That was where I met these women, all mature students, majoring in painting, printmaking, sculpture and art history, and in the years since, we have continued to get together for lunch or dinner, usually in Victoria. A well-travelled group, there are two Brits, one Swiss (who sounds British to me), one woman from New York, one Norwegian and me, the lone Canadian born.

For the past few years I have been luring them up to the Cowichan Valley, over the dreaded Malahat Mountain (which to me, after driving it to school for so many years, is a piece of cake), for a weekend of painting and laughing and wine.

I have three empty beds, but one of the women chooses to sleep on my screened in porch instead, bringing her own blow up bed, loving the air and the birdsong that wakes her in the morning. I have been warned there might be a battle for that spot next year.

Everyone brings food and drink and pitches in in the kitchen, but the best part is that it gets me out into my studio again. A large out-building with heat, electricity, and a hose just outside the door, it is woefully under-utilised these days.

I realized this time that one thing I really miss about painting is listening to music. I can’t listen to music while I write, but I automatically pop in a CD when I paint. When my daughter was a baby I would play the same CD every time for years. Bob Marley. It would immediately put me in the zone and I could pick up where I left off, because I might only have half an hour before the baby woke up again.

I had so much fun, I have promised myself to keep it up, even if only for an hour a week. For me it’s a meditative act that is good for the soul, and probably good for my writing. People tell me my writing is very visual, that they could walk right in. Funny thing is, that’s what they said about my paintings.

Do you have a previous hobby or occupation that has worked its way into your writing? I’d love to hear about it.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing more paintings, check out my painting website.

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One of my favourite blogs is Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. Featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine and Time Magazine, this daily post is followed by 100,000 people, and me, who get the weekly update that recommends the most popular post of the week, and often click in. It’s big on lists, like How To Make Your Life Simpler By Sending Five Simple Emails, or, one of my favourites, Which Professions have the Most Psychopaths?

What I found out about myself in this week’s post, 6 Things The Most Organized People Do Every Day, based on the book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, by NYT bestselling author and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, is that I am on the right track in some ways, and fooling myself in others.

This first point rings particularly true to me:

1/ An Empty Brain is a Good Thing.
NO wait! Levitin says:
“Shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world… Writing them down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of the clutter that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on.”

This is verbatim how I describe it – although sometimes I call the clutter “riff raff” – because you go over it and over it trying not to forget it, and, as he says, this produces anxiety. And who needs that.

My day isn’t structured enough for his next point on setting alarms, although a daily alarm might help me with deadlines, but I do like the next one:

2/ Set Up Filters. Particularly on email.
I have my email program set with many sub-folders to my inbox so that regular mail from webpages and groups get sent to a myriad of sub-folders, so I can safely check my inbox and not get bogged down by a pile of blog posts and group loop notices. Yes, I often get behind on those, but my writing benefits by getting done in my prime time.
He calls it “hide for part of the day”. I love it.

The other tip that really hit home was:

3/ Have A “War Room
Now at first I wondered how this could apply to me, not a CEO but just a lowly writer, then I read,
“Ever seen a picture of the President’s desk? Does it have piles of papers and 1000 random post-its? No.
Research shows a desk that looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster saps your ability to concentrate.”

That describes my desk to a tee. I tell myself (and others) that it doesn’t distract me, that I can sit down and be right in the zone, but how many times do I leave my very messy desk and desktop computer and take my laptop to the tranquility of my back porch to work?
Answer? As often as possible. He says that’s okay, you need different workstations for different tasks. So, something to think about there too.

Consider checking out the post, 6 Things The Most Organized People Do Every Day
the website, Barking Up the wrong Tree, and maybe even the book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload .
Like me, you might pick up some tips for adding more focus to your day.

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We went back to Ontario for a short summer visit. I say back, because I grew up in Ontario, Toronto mostly but the rural landscape of the province always brings out the child in me.
Lately we have been going to Collingwood, a lush, rural greenbelt at the base of Georgian Bay (off Lake Huron) full of market farms and apple orchards. The Niagara escarpment, a dolomite ridge that runs from Lake Michigan, through Lake Huron and southern Ontario to become Niagara Falls, is nearby and lined with ski runs, the most famous club being Blue Mountain. With skiing in the winter and the bay in summer, it’s a nearly perfect location. The town itself is a lovely collection of old Ontario brick at its finest, yellow brick mixing with red in intricate patterns, even on modest homes.
But it’s northern Ontario (a distinction made when the rocks of the Canadian Shield start popping out of the ground near Parry Sound, on the north-east side of Georgian Bay) that really takes me back. We drove that road, Highway 400 then #69, to the family cottage at Sudbury every summer when I was a child, and when the rock face starts to emerge where the engineers have blasted straight through the granite outcrops, it still gives me a thrill. Then it’s lakes, rocks and trees all the way.
This time we went to a cottage on a private island (30,000 islands in Georgian Bay, as well as 40 – 60 miles of open water). A small rocky island, it was covered in trees, mostly the twisted pine of the Group of Seven paintings, wrought such by the fierce winter winds.
One sniff and I knew – blueberries. Sure enough, the ground was covered in knee height bushes covered in berries. Also full of mosquitoes, but we won’t go into that because other than when I was picking, the mosquitoes were nowhere to be seen. The berry bushes at the cottage of my childhood in Sudbury were lower, only 12 inches off the ground, growing in every triangle of soil between the rocks. But the smell was the same. We would sit on the warm rocks with our coffee cans and pick for hours, until we had enough for blueberry pie. Tiny berries, not the big berries we grow on the coast, but so tangy and sweet. They are worth their weight in gold at the roadside stands.
So I picked a few to have with breakfast.
Somehow summer is the most evocative time for me.
Maybe because as children we were free to explore in the summer holidays. Is there somewhere that takes you back to your childhood?
Enjoy what’s left of summer. Every moment is precious.

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Sharing old favourite recipes is, I think, one of the best things about blogging.
Let’s celebrate summer, the veggies are ripe on the vine and this is one of my favourite summertime recipes.

At this time of year I often have all of the ingredients at hand, either fresh from our small salad garden and coldframe, or from the farmer’s market.

bell pepper
sticky new garlic
tiny onions
cucumbers (which are starting to get out of hand)
and tomatoes.

Chop it all up (add a hot red pepper if you dare) and cook it gently together for an hour with veggie broth and tomato sauce, then chill and top with a good vinaigrette.

I use Anna Thomas’ recipe from her cookbook The Vegetarian Epicure. It’s a book I have obviously had forever, now held together with elastics. I have to thank her for many of my favourite tried-and-true recipes.

This is a recipe that even people (men) who would otherwise not eat zucchini will love. Try it!

What are you cooking tonight?


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I’m just back from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference in Seattle last weekend, and I had a wonderful, if exhausting, time. It is one of the oldest and most established writer’s conferences in North America, 59 years old this year. And while this year’s event was big enough for me with more than 600 participants, they assured me that next year’s conference will be even bigger to celebrate the 60th anniversary.

I felt that this year’s workshops were even better than last year’s. Two workshops in particular will have me plunging back into my mystery as soon as I finish this post to see if I can’t add tension to each scene:
* That Arc of a Scene: A Beat by Beat Analysis of How Scenes work, presented by Scott Driscoll.
* Creating and Maintaining Tension and Suspense, presented by Robert Dugoni

Sabrina York’s workshop called Takin It To The Street…Team was also very useful. Her tips on making the best use of social media was great – even if you don’t plan on starting your own street team.

Another wonderful opportunity last weekend was meeting my roommate Melissa Denny who writes middle-grade and picture books and who had finalled with her picture book in the PNWA contest. A gentle story about the night a foal is born, the emotion she put into that 300 words was amazing.

All of the evening speakers were extremely entertaining: James Rollins Thursday night and a panel of luminaries hosted by Robert Dugoni Friday night. One theme that emerged both nights was the need for persistence. Regardless of how long a list of published books and other credits these people had, they all stressed that getting there was a struggle that took years in every case, and advised looking for opportunities where you least expect them.

That said, one of the best opportunities at this conference is the 90 minute speed-dating-style pitch session with a busload of agents and editors. There is a limited number of people signed up for each one, and this year each person could go to two 90 minute sessions.

First there is a morning of agent and editor forums where they each talk about what they are looking for now. Then at the pitch sessions you go from one person to the next, giving as many 4 minute pitches as you can fit in as the hour and a half races by. Yes, sometimes you must line up in between, but a short line gives you a few minutes to compose yourself for the next pitch. In the end I had 8 requests split between my romance and mystery manuscripts.

After that I emailed my son and said, “Marketing for Introverts is on now, but I feel too peopled out to go to it.”

But on the last morning Bob Dugoni had us all on our feet repeating the Writers of Rohan pledge. You had to be there.

Good to go, but good to be home. I hope next year some of my fellow Vancouver Island writers can join me.

And now I’d better get busy and send out those chapters I promised.

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