Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mental Illness Awareness Week

Canada observed Mental Illness Awareness Week during October 6--12 of 2019. Established in 1992, it is coordinated by an alliance of national organizations called the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH.)

Mental Illness, historically treated as a matter of shame and denial, is starting to be discussed openly. Much of that credit belongs not only to organizations like CAMIMH, but also to cultural leaders and political parties taking the lead in exposing Canadians to the causes and cures of these debilitating conditions.

The treatment of the mentally ill in the past is a tale of horrors. For long, the mentally ill were considered to be demon-possessed and “cures” centered on driving out evil spirits by painful means.

We now know that mental illnesses are a function of an imbalance of certain brain chemicals. A healthy brain has proper amounts of the following four main chemicals: Dopamine, Glutamate, Norepinephrine and Serotonin. Dopamine controls behavior, emotion and cognition. Glutamate affects early brain development, cognition, learning and memory. Norepinephrine regulates stress levels and is vital in the “Fight vs. Flight” response and, finally, Serotonin plays a vital role in sleep, depression, appetite and mood.

Genetics plays an important role in the manifestation of mental illnesses, as does the environment. In many cases, the underlying genetic condition needs a “trigger,” such as deep stress, a life-changing event or drug use, to manifest. In some cases, mental illnesses are triggered by purely environmental or behavioral factors.

Mental illnesses are a ‘spectrum’ of disorders, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. For example, while the general public associates schizophrenia with its worst symptoms, such as visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions or even split-personality disorder, the fact is, a large majority of patients are able to recover and lead productive lives. Long term studies show that 25% of all schizophrenic patients fully recover, 35% become much improved and are able to live independently, 15% improve but need an extensive support network, while only 15% need additional intervention or do not recover.

However, the stigma associated with mental illnesses remains its greatest challenge. It prevents the mentally ill from seeking early detection and devastates family members, who may even deny that the condition exists with their loved ones. By education and advocacy, Canadian society is slowly removing this stigma.

One in three Canadians will suffer from some sort of mental illness during their lives; about 8% will suffer from major depression. The number of serious mental sufferers is about equal to those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Thus, mental illness is closer to many Canadians than they may realize. A change in attitude and education is of great value to all Canadians.

Mohan Ashtakala is the author of "Karma Nation," a literary romance and "The Yoga Zapper," a fantasy novel. (www.mohanashtakala.com) Published by Books We Love (www.bookswelove.com.)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Is this the future? by Sheila Claydon

Climate change is happening. We all know that because the climate has been changing from hot to cold to wet to dry and back again for millennium. It’s what it does. The argument which is waxing ever louder is whether humankind is making the process worse. According to some we only have a few years left to save ourselves, while others, usually from the scientific community, are working to a more optimistic timeframe, even though they too say we must do something to slow things down or even (is it possible) stop it altogether. This is not the place to have those arguments, however. Instead it’s about remembering how we once lived and how, if we want to do our bit for climate change, we might have to live in the future.

We don't have to go back thousands of years to do this. We only have to be old enough to remember the 1940s and 50s in the UK and many other Western countries to get a glimpse of what such a future might be like. No central heating, air conditioning, double and triple glazing, memory foam mattresses, food mixers, TVs, mobile phones, The Internet, supermarkets, out of town shopping malls, nylon tights, minimum iron clothing, steam irons, frozen ready meals, exotic foods from across the world, disposable nappies, babygros, 24 hour shopping...the list is endless. 

While none of these things were available in those far off days just after WW2, most homes burned coal or wood for heating, and as we all know, coal is responsible for some of the most noxious gases that are threatening the planet. We paid for it  in the winter, however, when our towns and cities were lost in a greyish yellowish smog and pale bricks became coated in a sooty, tar-like substance until everyone forgot how they had looked in the first place. We coughed a lot too, and more people got bronchitis or died from pneumonia.

The coal fires kept us warm in the winter though, sort of! Of course legs were scorched if we sat too close, and we got chilblains if we warmed icy feet too quickly, and there was always the danger of clothes and rugs catching fire from spitting sparks. But if we sat further away from the fire the room was often still cold, as were all the other rooms in the house, so that going to bed was only bearable if the sheets were first warmed by a hot water bottle, and vests and bed-socks were worn under thick fleecy pyjamas while furry slippers and dressing gowns were a must in any transit through the house. 

Clothes were different too, especially for children. Then it was a woollen vest and knickers with a thick cotton liberty bodice buttoned over the top. Home knitted woollen jumpers, cardigans, long woollen socks, home knitted leggings, a thick winter coat (woollen again) and home knitted hats, gloves and scarves were the order of the day, and woe-betide the child who removed a single item of clothing. There were no padded, waterproof all-in-one suits. No easy-wash, easy-iron fabrics. Nor were there washing machines or tumble dryers, except for the very wealthy few. Instead clothes were washed by hand or, in the case of white items, in a boiler. before being hand wrung or passed through a hand cranked wringer, and then hung out to dry if the weather was fine, or draped around the house if it was raining. Depending on where people lived this could result in crisp white sheets smelling of sunshine, or soot flecked bedding courtesy of coal fires and steam trains.

Shopping had to be done almost daily, although milk and bread were delivered to most people, and some had groceries delivered too. The majority did their own shopping, however, carrying it in string bags or in paper carrier bags, often for long distances while the string handles cut into fingers and palms, leaving red weals and temporarily cutting off the blood supply.

Of course it wasn't all bad...in fact none of the above was bad because it was what people were used to. Cooking was always from scratch with most of the ingredients grown or sourced locally, and it was all seasonal. Sprouts, cabbage and root vegetables in the winter, peas, beans, salads and tomatoes in the summer. Nothing was frozen. If peas were needed then they had to be podded by hand (usually a child's job) and it was the same with fruit. Gooseberries, apples, pears, plums, rhubarb, black and redcurrants, cherries, strawberries and raspberries were all plentiful in season but there were few bananas or oranges, and nothing exotic at all. Pies and puddings were made by hand, and cakes were mixed the hard way with a bowl and wooden spoon.

Few people owned cars. Instead they used buses and trams or cycled or walked. Hardly anyone travelled by plane. Instead long journeys were by sea, taking the length of time only the rich could afford, or the very poor who were sailing away in search of a better life in.

Entertainment consisted of card and board games, word games, charades and guessing games, reading, jigsaw puzzles and the radio. A lucky few had what was then called a gramophone where they could play scratchy sounding records, and in houses with a piano there would be musical evenings where everyone sang. Screen time was visiting the cinema to see whatever film was playing that week. There was no choice. It was also the only time anyone saw a curated newsreel of happenings around the world. Consequently daily newspapers were the lifeline of almost every house. They were eagerly read from cover to cover and then used to light the fire before the coal was added, or to wrap rubbish before it went into the trashcan. 

I could go on about compost heaps, collecting horse droppings from the street to feed the roses, growing more vegetables than flowers, making jam from surplus fruit, buying everything loose from potatoes to biscuits because there was no plastic packaging. Instead it was cellophane, waxed paper or cardboard. String instead of cellotape. 

Very few people had telephones and as there were no mobile phones,  messages were either written and sent by post or, if they were urgent, by telegram, both of which entailed a visit to a post office and quite possibly a long wait in a queue.

Of course, in memory, the summers were glorious with day after day of sunshine, and children had the sort of freedom few can imagine now. Days spent collecting frog spawn from muddy ponds, picking huge bunches of wild flowers, climbing trees, building dens in the woods, chasing butterflies, lunch often no more than bread and butter and an apple.

Living this way took a lot of effort and energy and most women toiled from morning to night shopping, cleaning, washing, ironing and cooking. There were very few households with children where both parents worked, and even fewer households with paid help. Instead men (and it was nearly always men) mowed the grass, dug the garden, grew vegetables, filled the coal buckets, collected and chopped wood, and mended things. Nothing was thrown out. Not a screw or a nail or a piece of string. They were kept in jars and tins until they were needed to patch up a fence or fix a loose broom head or mend or make a toy. Clothes too were never wasted. Worn out underwear was torn into rags for dusters and wash cloths, knitwear was unraveled and the wool rolled into balls and used again, frayed shirt collars were turned, and worn sheets cut down the middle so the strong sides could be sewn together again.

A lucky few had sewing machines but much was done by hand, including making clothes, especially baby clothes. And looking after babies was a whole new ball game because every single cotton nappy had to be washed and dried whatever the weather, so 24 nappies flapping on a clothes line was a common sight winter and summer. The clothes too were all either wool or cotton, nothing was easy wash and dry, and almost everything from bonnets to sheets had to be ironed. And in a time when few people owned steam irons this sometimes meant sprinkling water over over-dry sheets or shirts, rolling them up and waiting until they were damp again. Using a wet cloth over the top of a very dry item was another trick but even this was difficult in the houses that still didn't have electricity. Houses where a heavy iron had to be heated over a fire before it could be used. Houses that still relied on candles and gas lights. Houses where the radio would only work if the battery was replaced every week, which entailed a long walk to the nearest shop that would recharge it.

Until I started writing this I had forgotten quite how much things have changed in the past 70 or so years. I had forgotten, too, what it would be like to live without foreign holidays, exotic food, and instant access to family living halfway across the world thanks to the Internet, computers and mobile phones.  Are future generations going to be content with buying less, travelling less, no exotic holidays, giving up the convenience of cars and the comfort of central heating, air conditioning, man-made comfortable easy-wash clothing, out of season food, convenience meals...as I said before, the list is endless. Or are we all going to hope that the scientists have got it right and that there are technological ways out of our growing dilemma of climate change?

Part of my book Remembering Rose is set in an even earlier time when life was harder still but when the fields were still full of a multitude of wild flowers, when songbirds and wildlife were much more plentiful than they are nowadays, and when horses were a common form of transport. How times have changed...and will keep on changing...

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Taking a cue from the season of All Hallow's Eve, and my fellow author Eileen O'Finlan's great post about visiting the graveyards of her mom's youth, here's a ghost story from where I was raised...

Deep in the Northern Catskills in New York State is a tiny chapel and graveyard dating from the 1830s.... Regular services are no longer available in the chapel, however the door is left unlocked for visitors.  

 My dad and I used to visit there and it's from him I learned the story of the Irish Colleens.  It seems 13 nameless and faceless immigrant Irish women who worked the local cotton mills as weavers died in a fire and were buried in the church graveyard...

...but without markers or remembrance for generations, until their story reached the ears of Robert W. Boughter (1896-1983) who was so bothered by the ghosts of these women that he left this granite marker...

and this poem...

The Irish Colleens

In the lovely Catskill Mountains
And high upon a hill
There stands a little church-yard
Lies a story now quite old
For it tells of Irish Colleens
And their story should be told
They came from far old Ireland
And with them brought their skills
They worked as expert weavers
In the local cotton mills
But the bitter winters took their toll
And long before their time
They died penniless and friendless
In that land of mountain pine
Within that little church-yard
Stands granite great and tall
To plainly mark the resting place
Of those who had it all
And nearby those who had no wealth
And for which they must atone
For their lack of worldly treasure
With a chip of native stone
But when they stand there proudly
Up high before the throne
I am sure they will be welcomed
And no longer be alone
I think that in that church-yard
A marker should be placed
To honor those courageous girls
In their final resting place
We have statues by the millions
And they need not atone
I think we can do better
Than a chip of native stone

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Setting a Novel in Canada -- or Not?

Does setting a novel in Canada limit your readership to Canadians? Over the years, I've heard this question at Canadian writing conferences and other places where aspiring writers gather. Invariably, someone comments that he sent a query to an agent or publisher in the USA and was told Canadian stories don't sell. The implication is that Canada holds little interest for readers outside our country. 

Even Canadians might prefer reading about far away locations. I've been guilty of this, especially when I travel and want to learn about the country I'm visiting. A novel set in my destination gives me a flavour for the place and its history better than a guidebook.

I also recall hearing that a common feature of blockbuster novels is a variety of international settings. Author Dan Brown nailed that formula.  

But others argue that Canada might be exotic to those who live far from here. They cite writers who have found great success with their stories set in Canada. Louise Penny has a US publisher and an international audience for her mysteries that take place in a Quebec village. L.M. Montgomery's classic Anne of Green Gables is beloved across the world. Japanese tourists trek to modest Prince Edward Island to visit Anne sites. 

Readers of Britain's Rough Guide travel guidebooks and tours voted Canada the second most beautiful country in the world for 2019. Wouldn't that mean they'd want to read about people in this beautiful land? If Anne and PEI can charm the world, why not my home province of Alberta?  
Japanese movie poster
I went ahead and set my first novel, Deadly Fall, in Calgary, where I live. This made setting research easy.  My mystery sleuth Paula's drives the route pictured below in the book's opening chapter. I've driven and walked across this bridge numerous times. 

Paula works out in a former church converted to a gym in Calgary's inner city suburb Kensington. In the real world it's a sporting goods store. 

Book #2 of my Paula series, Ten Days in Summer, continued with my Calgary setting. This time Paula investigates a murder against a backdrop of The Calgary Stampede. My research included attending our annual Stampede parade. 

I was really sneaking peeks at the police offers present, since Paula's homicide contact, Mike Vincelli, is on crowd control duty during the parade scene in the book. 

My third novel, To Catch a Fox, is a departure from my mystery series and single Canadian setting. Julie Fox, a Calgary engineer, must travel to a new location, to search for her mother who took off when Julie was a child and hasn't been heard from since. I settled on southern California for the novel's alternate location because it was far enough from Calgary for Julie's mother to get lost in, yet convenient as well as enjoyable for me to visit twice to research. 

Santa Monica beach - Julie jogs along this boardwalk
In some ways, I find it easier to write about less familiar settings since I'm seeing the place with new eyes and am more likely to come up with fresh descriptions. 

At the San Diego zoo, bird of paradise plants are on the lookout, like Julie the pursuing and pursued fox
While I like writing about different places, I'm back to Calgary for my current novel-in-progress, the third book in my Paula series. I love travel, but lean toward writing about places I know well and deeply.   

And for those curious about the other countries that made the Rough Guide readers' list of the world's most beautiful countries for 2019, here they are:

  1. Scotland
  2. Canada
  3. New Zealand
  4. Italy
  5. South Africa
  6. Indonesia
  7. England (UK regions were judged as countries) 
  8. Iceland
  9. United States
  10. Wales (Do the British love their country's beauty best, or have not many travelled elsewhere?)
Calgary in winter - beautiful, eh?

Friday, October 11, 2019

When Memories Come Back to Haunt You by Karla Stover

A Line To Murder (A Puget Sound Mystery Book 1)
Murder in Tacoma, Wa.

Wynters Way
Historical/Gothic Mystery

Murder, When One Isn't Enough
Murder on Hood Canal

When a product probably not known to many Americans was mentioned in a novel I just finished reading, memories of forty-odd years ago sprouted up like mushrooms after a September rain. The product was Bird's Custard, a necessary ingredient in Nanaimo Bars. And so, I take a historical walk.

According to "foodnetwork.ca," the first recipe for the pastry appeared in the 1952 edition of the Women’s Auxiliary, of the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook. Some fifteen or so years later, they made an appearance in Tacoma, where I live. The problem was, the recipe going around called for Bird's Custard, not something available here. 

British chemist Alfred Bird created the egg less product in his laboratory because custard calls for eggs to which his wife was allergic. His custard powder became so popular, Bird and his sons went into business, eventually producing blancmange powder, jelly powder, and egg substitute. British soldiers took the custard with them during World War I.

Back to my conundrum; in order to make the trendy new cookie, Mom and I had to find someone going to Canada who would bring a box of Bird's Custard back.

When I saw the custard mentioned in a British novel, it brought back so many memories of Mom and me sharing the recipe and struggling to make our cookies as pretty as the pictures we'd seen.

I'm not sure if women cook much anymore or, if they do, if they have recipe files. When Mom died, I kept hers. Someday, an executor will have to get rid of them, and mine, as well.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

When the Writing Gets Tough, Go Shopping.

Find all my books at Books We Love

When the writing gets tough, go shopping!
What better place to search for characters than a mall, where people of all shapes, sizes, colors and styles happily gather. Without interfering in their enjoyment, I can study and choose from thousands of character traits, personality flaws and secrets – free to the discriminating shopper.
            I’ve tried shopping at home with catalogs. It sometimes works for a minor character, but it’s hard to tell if I have a good fit without seeing the actual character in motion. All those idiosyncrasies that make my characters special come out in public – their walk, laugh, voice. Perhaps what I’m looking for is the way they hold their head, cling to a boy friend, or talk with their hands. Too much personality remains unnoticed on a still life, one-dimensional photograph in a catalog.
            So I settle down to window shop.
My first “purchase” is not your stereotypical hero. His belly’s a bit too large; his face beginning to show the first stages of age. Gray threads his hair and his laugh is a bit too loud. But he also has the nicest smile I can ever recall and the kindest blue eyes. His gentle gaze speaks of trust and honesty and I immediately realize I want him in my book. He will make the best “best friend” anyone can have.
I turn my head at the sound of male laughter. Cowboys. Are they real or wannabes? They lean against the railing and I study them as they study girls. I have my pick of sizes, the tallest being well over six foot. If I take a composite of the group, I just might have my hero. Let’s see – a mustache from the third guy; the blonde’s hair; and the tall one’s smile, his lips lifting a little higher on the right than the left.
I like the tall one’s attitude. As I watch, his face never changes expressions. He’s aloof, trying to look disinterested. His thumbs are hooked in the belt loops of his jeans; one boot crossed in front of the other. While his body language might indicate he’s bored with this activity and wants something more exciting, his eyes tell another story. Twinkling green, slight crinkles at the corners, they laugh and mock and never miss a thing.
As though one entity, they turn to follow a group of girls when they pass. Red-blooded, American boys to the core, but I’m still not sure I can use them, so I study their walks. Only one has the rolling gait of a cowboy—someone who actually spends time on a horse. It’s the tall one; the guy with laughter in his eyes and the crooked smile.
I watch them walk away, and he turns and touches his forehead as though tipping his hat. And then he winks at me.
Oh, yes, I definitely need a cowboy in this book.

Developing characters is such a fun part of writing a story. They soon take on a life of their own and often go in a direction I couldn’t have imagined. I found my cowboy in Tenderhearted Cowboy. Joe is on a quest that I never thought he could complete, but with Sky’s help and love, anything is possible. You can read more about them on my website and I hope you grab a copy of this historical romance and get lost in Joe and Sky’s story.

Barbara Baldwin