Nurturing Young Writers

Nurturing Young Writers

Ruth E. Walker

As a former president of a writing organization and someone who is known for giving workshops and presentations about writing, I’m occasionally approached by a parent about their child who “wants to be a writer.”

Invariably, it’s Mom who calls or stops me to chat. They have a daughter or son who writes all the time, makes up great stories and even puts them together into homemade books.

The question always is: What programs are out there for my child? Where can my child go to take workshops and be encouraged about their writing? Is there any place my child can submit their stories to?

I’ve also been a guest in many classrooms. Eager students want to know where they can submit their writing to be published.

There are places for young writers to submit, but first let’s take a step back and focus on what we can do to keep that child’s enthusiasm fuelled.

Caring adults are key

As in any aspect of a child’s development, a caring adult can make all the difference. For young writers who are immersed in their imaginations, the way their fledgling stories are treated might make all the difference as they get older.

Parents, guardians — even next door neighbours — can keep young kids writing as long as they remember that correct spelling, grammar and logic isn’t the point at an early stage. What matters is that the child feels their words on the page have value. It might be tough not to point out that “witsh” should be “witch”, but it’s so much better to focus on how scary their Hallowe’en story is. And to ask them questions about the story, inspiring them to include a few more details the next time.

And teachers — with several educators in our family, I know the tightrope you walk balancing your teaching day with administrative demands, curriculum expectations, exemplars, resources, extracurricular duties, prep, supervision…and the expectation that you engage every single student you teach. The last 20 months, in particular, have been exhausting and full of uncertainties.

However, when you release students from the expectations of the aforementioned spelling, grammar and logic with their writing, marvelous things can happen. Make space for free writing. Later on, you can lead them gently to the editing process. If their confidence and connection to their stories remains strong, you can easily show them how revision is part of creativity.

Young writers taught me

I’ve been an artist in residence for our local board of education. I visited classes to share my journey to publication and give them a taste of a workshop.

I always told young students in my workshops: It isn’t about spelling or grammar or logic. It’s about your words, your way. Almost without exception, this was key to getting them to write.

I especially loved working with the alternative high school students. The ones who didn’t fit in the regular classroom. They had complex and difficult lives and often unhappy relationships with adults. Earning their trust was a major accomplishment and I treasured it. They taught me that all of us, given the chance to express ourselves in writing, can move others with our words on the page.

And finally, I learned that an aptitude for the written word may not be the primary gift of a talented young person. At the school board’s integrated arts camp every June, I ran a creative writing workshop. For just over a week, grades 7 to 12 students explored freefall writing, prompts and story ideas.

Back in 2017, I posted a story about a student in my arts camp workshop. In A Boy, His Words, His Way I shared how this brilliant writer showed me that excellence can move through more than one creative outlet. And equally important, how some young writers want to care about spelling, grammar and logic. They’ve already moved beyond free expression and are working on the next level.

It changed my approach, as follows: It isn’t about spelling or grammar or logic. It’s about your words, your way. But if spelling, grammar and logic matter to you, I’ll honour that. Because it’s still about your words, your way.

Resources for young writers

It’s a tough market for even experienced writers and young writers have fewer opportunities, but there are places that will accept submissions. And places where supports and resources help keep the fires of inspiration going.

If you’re a young writer or a caring adult with a young writer in your life, here’s some links of interest:

Award-winning Canadian children’s author, Karen Krossing, has an extensive list of writing opportunities and resources for young people on her website. She also has some great writing tips to help young writers deepen their craft.

In The Learning Network, an education resource of The New York Times, there’s an article with over 70 places young writers can submit work to. Updated in October 2020, the article notes that many of the sites listed accept international submissions.

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Guest blogger – Lori Twining

Some of my writing buddies have been struggling to find the words lately. I’m no different. There are days I sit at my desk and stare at a blank page and wonder why I am even bothering to get up. Seriously, I could be sleeping right now. I never get enough sleep.

The thing is, I have found a way to get my writing mojo back. I’ve been multi-tasking. While I paint or quilt or indulge in other other creative pursuits, I’ve been listening to podcasts specifically for writers. They are so engaging that it has turned me into a BINGER! I have become a person who exhibits excessive or uncontrolled indulgence in podcasts—a podcast binger who often listens to four podcasts in one single day.

But, why? How could they be that good?

All of the podcasts listed below inspire me. Authors explain how they balance their family life with their writing life, what time of day works better for them, or how they came up with such brilliant story ideas. I love hearing how my favourite authors churn out bestsellers one after another.

Whether these podcasts help you improve your craft or help you understand how other people are making a living doing the one thing you are passionate about, I should warn you that you have hours of binge-worthy episodes waiting for you.

Here are a few of my absolute favourite writing podcasts:

“The Shit No One Tells You About Writing” with Bianca Marais.

This podcast has a segment called “Books and Hooks” featuring two Literary Agents as cohosts: Carly Watters and Cecilia Lyra. Writers are encouraged to send in a query letter and the first five pages of their manuscript. They discuss what the writer did well, what the agents were confused about, and suggest what the writer could do to improve it. I have listed some examples of their podcasts to try, but you can find hundreds to choose from on their website. Following the Books and Hooks, Bianca interviews an author about a specific topic such as:

How Writers Write hosted by Brian Murphy

How Writers Write is a podcast for creative writers to learn how their favorite writers tell their stories. The podcast’s host, Brian Murphy, interviews world-class writers to decode their tips, routines, and motivations for producing bestsellers.

The Crew Reviews Podcast

Thriller Talk Podcast with K.J. Howe and Ryan Steck (YouTube Channel)

The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience with Kelton Reid

The Creative Penn Podcast: Writing, Publishing, Book Marketing, Making A Living With Your Writing with Joanna Penn

The Writer’s Digest Podcast with Gabriela Pereira:

If podcasts are not for you:

If you have tried listening to podcasts and they are not lighting a fire under your butt, then perhaps you should try listening to author interviews. Live events are happening across the globe almost every single night. Most of these events can be listened to while you lounge in the bathtub, eating cookies (meaning your face will not be on ZOOM camera). This is always a plus because no one needs to comb their hair during a pandemic if they don’t want to.

Live Events (Live Facebook or Instagram Events):

  • Murder By The Books ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Anderson’s Bookstore ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Genre Masters ~ Live Interview via ZOOM
  • Day Drinking with Authors with Molly Fader~ Live Interviews via Facebook
  • First Chapter Fun with Hannah Mary McKinnon and Hank Phillippi Ryan

*NOTE: Many live interviews are archived online after the event and are available to listen to at any time.

Last Words:

After binging on a few podcasts or author interviews, I am positive you will be inspired and motivated to write your own words down on the page. There is no stopping you now. Get to it. Just put your butt in the chair and write all the words. I can’t wait to read them.

Meet Lori Twining

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime, Toronto Romance Writers, and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. Find more info at ; Twitter: @Lori_Twining

Research Redux

Research Redux

Ruth E. Walker

History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.

As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.

Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.

Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.

Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.

The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.

When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author.  And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.

Revisit Research

Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.

Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:

Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.

Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.

I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.

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And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.

In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.

Access is key

A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.

We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.

Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?


Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.

Email us at for details.

Wait List:

We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.  

What’s in a Word?

What’s in a Word?

Ruth E. Walker 

A restaurant’s Help Wanted ad caught my attention the other day. It wasn’t the requirement “Must be 18 years of age or older” that piqued my interest. Under Ontario’s labour laws employers can’t schedule anyone ages 14 to 17 during school hours unless they’ve been excused from school. So, it’s okay to require an age minimum of 18 for daytime work.

But the restaurant was looking something else in their applicants. The job was for a waitress. A waitress? I haven’t seen that in a very long time.

What do you imagine with that word? Not a male applicant. Not a binary or transgender person. Nope, you conjure up a female.

Maybe your mindsight has that woman in an apron, hair tied back in a bun or net, order pad and pencil poised to take your order. Maybe she’s wearing sensible shoes as she balances a loaded tray in a crowded diner somewhere. No matter what you imagine, when you read waitress, you think female.

In Ontario it’s illegal under the Human Rights Code to reference and/or require directly or indirectly anything that is listed under the code as discriminatory, and that includes “sex” unless it’s a bona fide exception. A specific driver’s license, for example, to be a cab driver or transport truck operator.

So how come this clearly defined by gender job title sits there, bold as brass in the newspaper? Because words don’t matter to everyone — but they should. And most especially to writers (and newspaper editors, too.)

The times have already been a-changin’

Years ago – and I do mean years ago: over 40 to be precise – I worked in Human Resources in the health care field. It was a time when you had nurses aides and orderlies. Nurses aides were female and orderlies were male. It was just hospital staff titles. Our world back then had waiters and waitresses. We had firemen and policemen and chairmen and postmen.

There’s a long history of separation by gender. Our elementary school still had the boys entrance and the girls entrance carved over the doors, where, before my time, students lined up by gender. My gym classes were all female. Girls took Home Ec. Boys took Industrial Arts.

No wonder language and, specifically words and especially job titles, were framed within gender. The wake-up call arrived while I was working in HR during the 1980s. It was a revolutionary time when women (and some men) demanded gender-neutral job titles. Women didn’t want to be constrained by their gender. They wanted to be persons first. And there were males who wanted careers in “traditionally female” jobs.

Oh the outcry and resistance was massive. But eventually, common sense prevailed. Union contracts had to be revised. Policies and procedures updated and, in some cases, deleted. Nurses aides and orderlies became nursing assistants and, eventually, personal support workers. Firemen, policemen and postmen became firefighters, police officers and postal workers. The chairman of the board awkwardly tried on “chairman/chairwoman” for a while but eventually morphed into the much better Chair. No gender necessary.

Language reflects society

As language and its uses changed, opportunities developed for women in “non-traditional” jobs. Now, when a woman drops envelopes in my mailbox, it’s not unusual or remarkable or noteworthy. It’s my mail being delivered. And when a tragic fire happened in my city some months ago, the firefighter quoted in the paper was a woman. We mourned the losses. We didn’t stop to question why a female was working as a firefighter. As it should be.

Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing into this transition. There are still pockets of “waitress” out there. But the fact that it stands out as I skimmed the classified (often the source of story inspiration, by the way) – it’s a sign that my brain has accepted “server”, a non-gender job title, as normal.

Language is dynamic. It is always changing just as members of society change. Successful writers pay attention to the way language changes because it is more than just a word used to describe something. Language — the words we use and how we use them — reflects changes in social values, in institutional structures and how something that was remarkable or strange becomes ordinary.

And paying attention to those changes (and those diehard stubborn holdouts who think it’s all just being “politically correct”) can lead writers to stories, characters and diverging plot lines they’d hadn’t considered before.

Well worth looking more carefully, don’t you think?

Winners! Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Winners! Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Thanks to all the poets from all over Canada who entered our Summer 21 Poetry Contest. Today, the 21st we take great pleasure in announcing and congratulating the top three winners:

Drum roll please……

  • 1st Place: Marg Kropf – Coming of Age
  • 2nd Place: Les Robling – XXI
  • 3rd Place: Reva Nelson – Twenty-one and Done

Before you read the winning poems and why we chose them, here is what the contest asked for:

Compose a 21-line poem in any form, where the subject matter evokes some aspect of the number 21. Your poem does not have to actually contain the words “twenty-one”, although you are welcome to do so. The title is not considered one of the 21 lines.

Winner: Marg Kropf – “Coming of Age”


They reproach, these stops and starts
Of children’s feet
My measured tread
Along a dusty street,
Along the hopscotch lines
So crazily bent
Around the jagged cracks
In the cement.
Children dash against the sun
And I can see
That they are at some game
And unaware of me.
Their looks cry out,
“Too late. It is too late!
You are the traveller
Who can pass this gate
But once, then vanish
In an angry sun.”
I feel old, old,
Immeasurably old.
Tomorrow I will be twenty-one.

Judges’ Comments on “Coming of Age”

On the cusp of full adulthood, our narrator is acutely aware that a return to childhood is not an option. The imagined admonishments of the children symbolize the vanished years, and their imagined taunts sting. The children can brave dusty streets and jagged cracks in the cement; indeed, they can dash against the sun. Fearless. And, of course, there’s an underlying reminder to any reader beyond the age of 21, that this too is no longer attainable. We’re reminded how, at our own age of twenty-one, we felt about aging; how each year passes and leaves us feeling old, old, immeasurably old.

On first reading, the ending comes as a surprise, despite the title, because the poet so accurately captures the heavy feeling of being old that we can imagine a much older narrator. In the first lines, are images and connotations of heaviness and age, of a life measured: feet and treads, numbers and prescribed routes in hopscotch, lines and roads that point to journeys made and the nod to the children’s rhyme “Step on a crack/ Break your mother’s back,” as well as the sensory details that feed the emotion: dusty, crazily bent, jagged cracks.

At the first turn, the mood lightens as we witness the children and their imagination game. Here the movement is fast and sunny and loud. And then the final turn back to the narrator, I feel old… setting us up for the kicker last line.

The poem is further supported by an intriguing rhyme scheme and rhythm that hearkens to the unbalanced feeling of the narrator, especially with the extra penultimate line that throws the scheme off just before the final statement.

2nd Place: Les Robling – XXI


Just one topic comes to mind,
Bill Twenty One, cruel unkind.
A misaligned, nasty law,
No matter how it's written down
Causing many a facial frown,
An act around a social flaw.

Banning ethnic dress and symbol
Crosses, hijabs, turbans and all,
Casts a pall on a nation
Denied the right to free choice;
Discrimination all should voice
Not rejoice this indignation.

What a year, what a frightful age,
Covid pandemic, nature's rage,
A rampage across the land -
Fever, dry cough, tiredness,
Painful death from this virus
Undesirous deadly hand.

Yet, covid will be slayed, soon now;
But this Bill lives on, somehow,
Twenty one, merde, disallow

Judges’ Comments on “XXI”

Roman numerals in the title create curiosity about the poem to come. Rhyming couplets and metrical structure are tough to pull off in a poem without it reading like a greeting card. This poet wisely avoids a simple AABB scheme and opts to vary the rhythm and tone with an AABCCB for three full stanzas and then ties it nicely with a triplet stanza at the end.

A clever use of internal rhyme again keeps the greeting card element at bay: down, frown, around; choice, voice, rejoice; tiredness, virus, undesirous. And enjambment of some lines further helped to keep the rhyme from calling attention to itself because the content spans the lines and carries the reader with it: Banning ethnic dress and symbol / Crosses, hijabs, turbans and all, / Casts a pall on a nation

This poet is to be applauded for risking a topical and controversial subject, as good poets have done through the ages. In many ways this poet pulled it off. Reserving personal opinion, however, and merely presenting facts and images and possibilities so that the reader comes to that opinion on their own, would make this even stronger.

3rd Place – Reva Nelson – Twenty-one and Done


When my son was eleven
I was imparting some motherly wisdom
On choices and values
He questioned why
I was telling him this
Since his values were in place

“I’m done, Mom, you’ve told me
You don’t need to tell me again.”

“What do you mean you’re done
Are you a Christmas turkey?" I asked

By eighteen I thought now he’s done
Off to university and safe
But many new challenges emerged
And I wasn’t done either

At twenty-one I thought now he’s done
And I am finished parenting
Not so, not done

Now, years later, my grandson is turning one
I see that no one is done
Not even me

And parenting is infinite
roast turkey

Judges’ Comments on “Twenty-One and Done”

There is a solid progression here with touchstones of ages 11, 18, 21 and beyond and back to 1. The last full stanza brings us full circle to the wisdom our narrator gains. As much as she wanted to impart wisdom to her young son, she (and we readers) are reminded that gaining wisdom is not something that can be measured in years. Indeed, our grandmother narrator is still gaining wisdom.

Use of actual dialogue in this poem gives the reader insights into character without having to describe or filter the view. A touch of humour lightens what could have been a dry delivery, given the prosaic style. While this narrative structure offers a useful parable, and a recognizable theme to engage readers, a stronger sensory engagement through use of poetic devices or form or use of the senses would bring the reader closer to the poem on an emotional level.

Last Word

So there you have it. Congratulations to the winners and indeed, congratulations to everyone who entered. As all writers know, submitting is the hardest part.

A True Story

A True Story

Ruth E. Walker

Mark Twain said it well: Truth is stranger than fiction. Write on, Mr. Twain. The best fiction feels real, often because it is imparting some kind of truth on human behaviour. But writers have to watch that their desire to “tell the truth” doesn’t push their stories into a place readers can’t accept.

Many a writer has met with this kind of criticism, “That’s not believable. That would never happen in real life.” But, again and again, we writers cry out, “Real life is unbelievable.”

Well sure. Sometimes so unbelievable to some as to put them in harm’s way.

Many didn’t believe certain politicians could ever rise up to achieve power – Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. And many people still don’t believe that COVID-19 is anything more than a flu bug.

Readers are the arbiters of what is an acceptable “unbelievable” and writers must remember that. If you receive that “unbelievable” feedback from editors or beta readers, take a closer look at how you set up what readers can’t seem to swallow.

Consider Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. Many factors were in place to allow Hitler’s hateful spewing to strike a resonant chord with much of the population. Now, consider what is unrealistic in your work. Did you offer any subtle threads early on to support it? Are there scenes where some character or characters doubt the “unbelievable” and give an opportunity for another character to explain? Did you make the illogical logical – making it fit the situation?

Dealing in “the truth” is tricky business for writers. As Mark Twain suggests, it is stranger than fiction.

Fiction becomes truth

My childhood was full of science fiction imaginings: space travel, aliens, robots, other dimensions, time travel. But it was all fiction. Until, that is, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and space travel became believable.

But aliens? Other dimensions? Time travel? Impossible. Imagine the US military ever taking UFO sightings as real…oh wait.

They have? Cool!

Now coined UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon), the strange documented sightings are the subject of a 2021 Pentagon report and investigative interest. The jet pilots and sonar operators were not all nuts after all. The possibilities boggle the mind. Are these elusive sightings alien technology or have foreign governments got some super secret experiments going on? Or are we being visited by our own future via time travelling tourists? “Look Mira. That’s what they called ‘cars’ back then.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? Were your writing wheels turning?

Truth becomes fiction

Strange and unbelievable truths have been an interest of mine for as long as I can remember. Odd, out-of-the-way museums and tourist traps have always offered up great stuff. In St. Petersburg, Florida, a taxidermy display of a two-headed calf was eerily intriguing. In that same over-filled museum – a true labour of love with faded typewriter labels and signage announcing each item – I puzzled over the series of plaster death masks of Beethoven and other famous folk.

All of this clutter cheek to jowl with the “world’s largest collection of seashells in North America.” How could anyone deny it. It was there in black and yellowing white, typed with the energy of righteous truth, right down to the errant “e” that always arrived a pica or two above the other letters.

One day, I’m writing a story about Elmira Everley who sits in a cramped back room, hunched over her old Underwood typewriter, unsticking the “e” key every time she has to use it. And she uses it a lot. Elmira loves Sebastian Kohl who owns this museum and he happily accepts any and all donated items, no matter their supposed provenance or condition…including the Underwood that Hemingway wrote on. Hmmm.

I’m not the only one inspired by real life. There’s been many unbelievable real situations that have found their way into books and movies.

Unbelievable facts

True crime writer Ann Rule wrote “The Stranger Beside Me” after discovering that the serial killer she was tracking turned out to be her friend, Ted Bundy. Imagine her shock to learn the sadistic murderer of at least 30 young women was the “kind” psychology student she worked with at a crisis hotline in 1971.

Life is full of intriguing situations and people. In 1928, Christine Collins reported that her 9-year-old son Walter was missing. Five months later, the Los Angeles police arrived with Walter who they found in Illinois. But Collins said it wasn’t her son. The boy said he was Walter and the police were convinced that he was. The poor mother was considered “hysterical” and ended up in a psychiatric ward for questioning. Eventually evidence connected Walter’s disappearance to a serial killer. This story – or a version of it – became the Clint Eastwood film “The Changeling.”

So many other true-life situations have been recreated in books. Emma Donohue’s novel “Room” finds its real-life roots in the story of Josef Fritzl who chained his own teenaged daughter in his basement for 18 years.

The life of five-year-old Sheru Khan who fell asleep on a train and ended up 1,500 kilometers away. Adopted by an Australian family, the now-adult Saroo Brierley used Google Earth to pinpoint his original home and family from bits of landmark memories he still held. The book “A Long Way Home” became the inspiration for the film, “Lion.”

Some real-life inspiration for you

Imagine attending a funeral for a woman, mourned by her husband and her seven children. She was brutally murdered and her husband is devastated.

But wait.

Who is standing on the sidewalk outside the funeral home? His beloved wife? Unbelievable!

You can bet her husband was truly shocked, especially after she proved not to be a ghost. But his shock wasn’t related to her being alive as much as what happened to the money he’d paid a gang to murder her. They told him they disposed of her body. Yet here she was. Who was in that coffin? What kind of hitmen choose to not murder the wife? What would happen next?

This February 2016 article in The Washington Post caught my eye. You can read all the details if you want.


You can first wake up your muse and head to your creative space and see where this set up of a story takes you. What kind of hit men would take money to murder someone but then not do it? Did she persuade them to stop? Imagine what kinds of “moral codes” were motivating them. And why didn’t she just head straight to the police instead of letting the charade continue? And once again, who the heck was in that coffin?

There are so many threads to pick up without knowing the rest of story. Let’s see what you come up with. Then read the rest of the story. It’s unbelievable.

10 Ways To Use Personal Papers

10 Ways To Use Personal Papers

Paper is the writer’s friend, especially when you have a great idea in a restaurant and want to scribble down the main points but your cell phone is dead and your laptop is back at home and the idea is losing its thread and you’re desperate…ah-ha! The crumpled napkin from your lunch sits next to your pen and…you create a masterpiece outline. Too bad it fell out of your pocket as you left the restaurant. See #10 on what might become of your great idea.

There are all kinds of personal papers just waiting for writers to mine the gold found within. For July’s 10 on the 10th, here’s 10 takes on what you might discover.

1.   Excerpts from diaries and journals can fill in details in a story without being an “As You Know, Bob” moment. Be careful though — avoid info dumps or long boring passages — create excerpts that seem real while providing only the details the character (and readers) need to know.

Use this technique if it’s a logical addition and not “oh yeah, the reader needs to know there’s a secret rendezvous place so let’s have the character who can barely read suddenly have a journal with all the details conveniently hidden under her bed…”

2.   Actual diaries and journals can be a tremendous research rabbit hole for writers to fall into. Tantalizing pieces of history are on offer that often set up more questions than answers:

Today, we stopped at Aunt Mable’s farm. Cousin Dedalaus refused to come out and say hello. After we left, Papa said we weren’t to ever go back there. Mama just smiled and said We’ll see.

3.   Shopping lists can give insights to character personalities such as someone who claims to be on a diet yet has ice cream, sugary drinks, cookies and candies on their list.

Or how about a character who writes their shopping list in alphabetical order: apples, auger, bananas, bread, garden hoe, jam, measuring cup, milk, onions, plywood, yams, yellow spray paint.

Or a character who creates a shopping list by cutting out the pictures from grocery store flyers and pastes them onto a sheet of paper?

Why not just take the flyer along and circle the items to buy? Well, maybe she needs items that are not all shown on one store’s flyer. Or maybe he has a thing for certain coloured foods. See how you can play with it, writer?

4.   Shopping lists (or lists in general) can create questions when there’s something strange in the mix such as:

  • take the dog to the vets
  • pick up order from hardware store
  • call Calli’s dance teacher to rebook
  • rotate the body in the freezer

5.   Letters can deliver surprises – Twists and turns in your plot can arrive in the mail — and of course, that can be via email. But there’s something offered in an envelope that email can’t capture. Before pressing SEND, consider ideas around handwriting versus typed addresses, and scented paper, or fancy seals on the flap.

Email will deliver the news but anyone who mails a letter or card these days is offering a bit of insight into who they are and perhaps even their motivation:

  • Hello. You don’t know me but your father and my father were the same person. Call me if you want to know more. (what reader isn’t going to want the character to make that call?)
  • Dear Homeowner, did you know your house is built over the remains of a sacred Druid site? (again, the reader’s interest is piqued)

6.   Letters can add layers to relationships — Again, there are differences offered in snail mail vs email. But no matter which you opt for, the opportunity to enrich your story is there for the taking:

Dear Algernon, I haven’t been able to sleep more than an hour or two each night without knowing if you have any feelings for me. Last weekend at the dance, you spent almost the whole time with other women. But when you took me in your arms for the last dance, the warmth of your hand on the small of my back and the intensity of how you looked at me almost the whole time — Algernon, please tell me I’m not imagining things. In breathless hope, Hortense

7.   Letters can reveal character — So, about that layering of the relationship. What Hortense perceives can be made clear to the reader if her correspondence gets this kind of reply :

Dear Hortense. Thank you for your charming letter. I confess to being confused, however. As an instructor, I’m required to dance with all the women in class. As you must know, it would be difficult for us to waltz without placing my hand on the small of your back. As to intensity of expression, that might have been my effort to avoid your rather sharp heel landing on my feet. Again. And it might also explain my waiting until the last dance before escorting you to the dance floor. I wish you only the best in any future dance classes. Regrettably, my classes are all full for the foreseeable future. Sincerely, Algernon

8.   Classified ads can be a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas. Who hasn’t been moved by this famous six-word story, attributed to Ernest Hemingway and framed like a Buy & Sell advert: For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

But actual classified, “For Sale: Gently used prosthetic arm”, and especially the personals, can inspire or confuse – or both. Like this gem culled from New York magazine early-1990 archives:

Lovely, Lively, Literate — Lean, Lollobrigida-like NY lady — longs for love, laughter, languid lunches, lunar libations, with legally-free, long, lean, literate, loquacious non-lunatic, 40s–50s. recent photo, personal note.

Was she a writer with a penchant for alliteration? The possibilities loom large.

9.   Glossy ads and feature articles are full of interesting characters and scenarios that can inspire ideas, such as beautiful happy people driving shiny sports cars with the top down on treacherous mountain roads. What’s waiting beyond the next bend?

Some ads are deliberately provocative, such as Australia Ad Standards: If You Are A Woman Don’t Bother Reading This Ad, meant to highlight unacceptable issues in advertising like sexism, racism, and other social issues.

And some ads are simply head-scratchingly inspirational for backstory, as in who thought a sarcastic ad about zits and a teen’s lovelife was a good idea?

10.   Discarded scraps with phone numbers, cryptic notes, and even doodles can trigger ideas, questions and creative thinking. The Litter I See Project features poetry and prose based on found litter.

Since June 2015, Carin Makuz, has been sharing intriguing images of her trash-on-the-ground discoveries on her website and Facebook page, and more than 100 writers have answered her call. Visitors to the website can donate directly to Frontier College, a well-respected national literacy program for adults, youth and children.

Now that’s taking lost, forgotten or unloved items to a very good place. And the poems and stories are terrific examples of what you can do with scraps and scrawls.

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

Ruth E. Walker

Lately, I’ve been trying to change my sleeping habits to make room for reading at bedtime. Truth be told, it hasn’t gone as well as I hoped. I used to read before bed almost every night. But now? It’s a struggle.

Much of my working day involves reading as an editor. It’s a demanding task I enjoy and I’m pretty good at it. But it means that by the time I’m ready to hit the hay, my eyes are tired and my brain is fuddled.

Reading for pleasure at bedtime – reading to escape – I keep putting that off, reasoning “tomorrow night for sure.” I tried taking the task down to short fiction. I’ve tried reading on my Kobo. I’ve tried going to bed earlier. Sometimes, it works. But not consistently. And less and less often.

Why does my reading matter?

Reading was what brought me to language in the first place. And I feel a desperate need to find that excitement again. I can still clearly recall my mother’s finger tracking under the dark marks on the page. It was a flash of recognition, of connecting the sounds and words from her voice to those marks. “Look, Mommy. That’s the same one. A. And there’s another one. A. And that says and, right Mommy?” I was three years old.

In that instant, I recognized the power of the secret I uncovered. And soon after, I understood the power those words had to carry me away, open up new worlds and be something that belonged to me. Only to me.

As an adult, reading continued to feed my soul and when I read at bedtime, it seeded my brain with ideas and wild imaginings: the creative side of me.

Beyond the intrinsic value of me reading for my soul, my work as an editor benefits from reading polished, published work. But I must also read widely to be current on genre and discover new ways of putting sentences on the page. And it helps to keep my own voice separate when I edit other writers’ manuscripts. So, of course I read during the day.

Why does your reading matter?

Only you know your relationship with words and those first fledgling steps you took to books and reading. But I can be sure of one thing and if you can think back to those first books, so can you.

The more that you read and understood, the more your brain sparked with curiosity. Our developing brains needed that stimulation. Our imaginations needed to realize they were limitless. Our empathy and compassion needed books and stories to expand our humanity.

All of my 10 grandchildren have great relationships with books. From babies to toddlers to youngsters, books have formed a solid foundation. They pick the books. They enjoy the public libraries. And their parents read to them.

Books, storytelling and nightly bedtime stories are key to a child’s development. But it’s all part of the larger whole. The children’s publisher, Scholastic, shows how physical activities can support reading skills: patterns of clapping, foot stomping and movement help children recognize the rhythms and patterns in stories, for example.

But all that growth and development doesn’t stop with maturity. And I suspect my lack of bedtime reading has something to do with my so-so creativity. I can blame the editing workload, the garden makeover and the distraction of the pandemic all I want, but it’s time to get on with it. Time to get excited by the power of words — my words.

Time for a reading re-set

Last night, I took down from the shelf Frances Itani’s Tell. That novel has been on my shelf for three years, ever since I finished the last pages of her gorgeous novel Deafening. I kept the reading light on and read through the first couple of chapters — engaged and excited to rediscover the people of Deseronto post-WWI. And I put down the book, ready to sleep.

Tonight, I’m picking Tell up again at bedtime. I’m committed to gift myself with the time to read before going to sleep. May it be the first of many great books that will nudge my dreams and wild imaginings.

I’m making time to feed my slumbering soul.

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Ruth E. Walker

I don’t know about you, but I suspect most people want to see the back end of COVID as desperately as I do.

My writing has suffered these past few months and I’ve been grateful to this blog for forcing me to engage BIC (bum in chair) and regularly pen some creative words.

But now it seems there is light on the horizon. Cases are way down. Second vaccinations are happening with greater frequency. Restaurants, retail and rec centres are easing back to life. And yeah, the warmth of early summer and longer spans of daylight are tickling our imaginations. My creative self is getting excited – and not just about COVID taking a walk into the sunset.

Just the other day Gwynn and I confirmed that Writescape’s long-delayed 2020 spring retreat was going ahead. Of course, we can’t keep calling our annual retreat Spring Thaw because it’s happening in October. So, we’ve just stuck with Writescape’s Fall Retreat: Re-emerging.

We’re thrilled that almost all the retreat participants who signed up as far back as December 2019 are able to join us this fall.

Reasons to get excited

Fully equipped cottage kitchen at Elmhirts’s Resort

Elmhirst’s Resort confirmed our cottages will be ready, and that all cleaning and safety protocols are constantly updated to meet the local health unit standards and provincial regulations. Elmhirst’s has always gone above and beyond to make our retreats an amazing experience and we’re confident that tradition will continue. Frankly, we expect that by October 15, our annual retreat won’t look too different than our retreats have for more than 10 years previous.

Writing on the deck

We will both still read and review 10 ms pages submitted to us in advance. And we’ll sit down for a one-on-one feedback session with those writers. And we’ll be available for individual consults that can be deep discussions or just bouncing ideas around. We’ll ensure each cottage is stocked with breakfast items so writing in pajamas remains an option. Gwynn and I will deliver group creativity sessions and there’ll be plenty of time for private writing. And lunch and dinner are always prepared so no need to stop to cook when you’re on a roll.

Of course, how some of this happens may be a bit different to ensure a safe space but the vibe we create: escape to focus on your own writing – that won’t change.

Heather M. O’Connor with Betting Game through Orca Books

Our philosophy has always been to curate a space in which writers can escape daily life and immerse in their projects. Over the years, we’ve watched stories, novels, memoirs and non-fiction books take shape and several secured a publishing home.

Writers on retreat find space in which to imagine, start, revise and/or finish their stories. Connections with other writers are made. Characters and plots discovered. Ideas for marketing and publishing tips are shared.

Maighread MacKay’s mystery series

All of that is what excites Gwynn and me. To see it unfold and know that we’ve had an important part in a writer’s journey.

Are you ready to retreat?

We still have room for a few more writers to join us. A $250 deposit guarantees your space. Our brochure outlines our agenda and registration details are on our website.

Aerial view of Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake

Nestled on the shores of Rice Lake, Elmhirst’s Resort’s amenities offer guests many ways to reflect and rejuvenate. Given the past year, I can’t think of a better way to recharge my writing.

We’ve blogged in the past about the joys of writing retreats. One way or another, find a way to treat yourself and escape to write.

10 Signs You Need a Writing Retreat in case you didn’t know you actually needed a retreat. 😊

How to Pack for a Writing Retreat covers some of the things you might not think about bringing along. It’s more than stuff in your suitcase.

10 Peeks into a Writing Retreat shares prompts and tips gleaned from our decade-plus of companion workbooks provided at our retreats.

Of course, once you have gone on retreat Coming Home from Retreat: Reality offers practical and self-care tips when the heady joys of writing on retreat land back to face the daily grind of life.

And finally, Your Anytime Writing Retreat offers ideas and solutions for writers who can’t join us this fall for our Re-emerging retreat. There are ways to curate your own escape.

Last Word

Just a quick reminder that our Summer 21 Poetry Contest deadline draws nigh. Enter your 21-line poem — any form or style — for a chance to win full bragging rights and honours, publication on our blog and a copy of Gwynn’s newest chapbook, Ten of Diamonds.

Rules, regulations and details on our website.

Poetic Synchronicity

Poetic Synchronicity

Gwynn Scheltema

I never cease to be amazed at synchronicity in life.

In my county this week, The Art Gallery of Northumberland launched a collaborative project with three area libraries. They riffed off the idea of “little libraries” that has been around for some time—and which we covered in a previous post—only this time they are offering visual art rather than books on a take-one-leave-one basis. What fun!

And then what should I find, but a poem about this very same idea only with poetry. How’s that for synchronicity in action! It’s called “Poetry Caching in Spring” by Linda Varsell Smith and was posted on

Poetry Caching in Spring

A realtor box
with free poems staked in yard
awaits visitors

Some walkers pick up
poems, thinking house for sale
crumble, toss poems

Rain seeps in the box
dribbles down smudging pages
Sun will curdle them

Walkers sit on wall
resting, reading poems, put
in backpacks or hands

Yanked up by the stake
to mow lawn, rests on trash cans
near camellias

Hail pelts plastic
casing, white as snow, soft ping
droned out by traffic

Stick-on, raised letters
offer poetry to all
who come to pass by

And, here’s where synchronicity really goes into overdrive: “Poetry Caching in Spring” it is a 21-line poem written in a 21-line poetry form called an Ethnographic Haiku—a perfect form for our Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Ethnographic Haiku

An ethnographic haiku poem is made up of 7 haiku, in the usual 5-7-5 syllable line format, but the subject of the whole poem (in the case of “Poetry Caching in the Spring”, it is the box of poetry) should have a relationship with the environment.

Additionally, the poet is required to evoke at least three of the five senses and each haiku should represent one day in a full week in the life of the subject. The form is titled and punctuation is optional. That’s quite a tall order, but Linda Varsell Smith certainly pulls it off beautifully in her poem.

I cannot verify who came up with this form, but the details for writing one appear in Syllables of Velvet, a book of poetic forms collected by Linda Varsell Smith who writes in her intro:

“I found these forms in handbooks and on the Internet. I have worked on playing with forms in four previous books dealing with forms. Cinqueries: is a book filled with cinquos and lanternes. Fibs and Other Truths showed the many variations of fibs. Poems That Count is a collection of many syllabic, metric and word counting forms and examples. Poems That Count Too is a further collection of counting forms with examples. Syllables of Velvet incorporates all the forms in the previous books plus many discoveries beyond. I wrote at least one example for over 300 of them and directions how to do many other forms.”

Distorted Diablo

I was further surprised to find another 21-line poetic form, created by Pat Simpson, called a Distorted Diablo.

This form plays, as its name suggests, with the number 666, commonly known as the biblical devil’s number. The distortion comes from flipping the central 6 upside down into a 9 to get the new number 696. These numbers now become the line form of the poem: a stanza of 6 lines, followed by a stanza of 9 lines and finishing with a second 6-line stanza for a total of 21 lines.

In addition, the sixain segments are both written with 6 syllables per line and the middle 9-line stanza has 9 syllables in each line. Rhyming is optional. My instinct if I were writing a Distorted Diablo would be to make my content devilish or distorted, but apparently subject matter is not prescribed.

Here is an example of a Distorted Diablo called “Ode to Volunteers.”

Summer 21 Poetry Contest

So that brings me to a reminder about our Writescape Summer 21 Poetry Contest.  The two forms above may tickle your muse, but poems can be any form you like. Just remember that the poem must be 21 lines long and evoke some aspect of the number 21 such as age of majority, or blackjack or 21 ways to… etc. We gave you lots of examples in the contest announcement blog. The contest is free to enter. Deadline is June 30 and the winner will be announced on July 21.

Full submission details here. We look forward to seeing your poem.