Archive for April, 2010

Nothing Venture 2

April 25, 2010

In the early 1970s the tensions between Alberta under Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s federal Liberals had barely started. They both attended a Western Canada Economic Diversification Conference at Mount Royal College in Calgary, and I was one of a small number of Imperial Oil employees who picketed the conference to protest the refinery’s  closure. (By the way – you would have to be a lot luckier than I was if you manage to find a reference to this conference online – seems no one has an interest in keeping its memory alive.)

My wife joined me at the main entrance where we must have looked inoffensive holding our signs and standing near the RCMP officer guarding the door when Trudeau arrived. The constable had the unfortunate experience of opening the wrong door on the limousine, which resulted in the Prime Minister letting himself out of the car and gracing the poor policeman with a withering scowl as he ascended the steps to the door. Our PM studiously avoided looking at my wife and myself – or our signs – but we both had a good look at him. He was much uglier and shorter in person than on TV, where he must have worn thick makeup to mask his facial pockmarks. Not that this detracts in any way from the man – a strong-willed, principled, and clever man of action whose like the country could benefit from today.

Peter Lougheed was then Premier of Alberta. We were standing a bit further away from the doors when he arrived, but he did peer out the rear window of his limousine to laugh at our signs. We had a similar reaction from most of the dignitaries attending, which I experienced while I switched places with one of our other pickets to stand at the delegates entrance at the rear of the building. I particularly remember the honcho from Imperial Oil – our boss, whose name may be ever forgotten – the Manager of all Western Canada operations – who stared down his nose at me and told me in no uncertain terms that, “the company would do all that was necessary for the closure of the old refineries and opening of the new one, and that we mere minions should hold our tongues while our betters determined what to do with us.” Of course I don’t remember the actual words, but this is the gist of them.

I’m sure anyone who has had the temerity to attempt to stand up for their rights as citizens of our supposed democratic countries has had similar sentiments directed at them. Corporations do not invite democratic representation – in fact they all actively work to stifle democracy within their organisations. Governments are similarly repressive and only wish to hear from the masses at election time. While I find the current Tea Party movements to be tragically misinformed and mis-directed – a product of the incessant propaganda and false information dished up for decades by media owned by rich corporations – I sympathise with the intent of their protests. If only a wise and steady voice could come out of the cacophony of their protests, the polity could receive a very welcome kick in the pants.

Anyway, to get back to my small engagement with participatory democracy. The one person at the conference who did deign to speak civilly with us was the Rt Honourable Fred Peacock, Alberta’s minister of Industry and Commerce. His words boiled down to the simple dictum, “if we were to influence the fate of the Calgary Refinery we must show energy and resolve to work within the parameters of the business climate of the times.” He brooked no union protests or calls for government studies of the refinery, which we were doing at the conference, but advised a practical and economic action to buy and operate the facility. He treated me to a lengthy harangue by phone subsequent to the conference and I’ll tell you what grew out of that next time.


Nothing Venture 1

April 21, 2010

One problem I’ve run across in my writing career is picking a compelling enough topic that readers are drawn to it. The other requirement is that the topic should be compelling to the writer, so that all the writing and rewriting is done. It’s not as easy a conjunction as one might think, and  seems to be more important when writing on a topic that is close to a  contemporary issue. The issue needs to be big enough to attract readers, or if considered minor, the treatment has to be compelling enough that readers are brought to regard the work itself highly.

I might call this the Anna Karenina syndrome. The issue of infidelity in aristocratic society was the 19th century’s equivalent of soap opera, and not in itself sufficient to raise a novel above the commonplace. Even the suicide by throwing ones self in front of a train was nothing extraordinary in those times (1877). Tolstoy’s novel excelled because of the genius of the writing.

We are not all given to be Tolstoys, and sometimes it can take awhile before we act accordingly.
I fondly hoped that when I came to write the contemporary novel that fictionalized an actual endeavour I participated in, my writing and the topic would work together to produce something  significant. At least, I should have hoped for this, because nothing less would make the project worthwhile. As I look back, however, I don’t see myself understanding this, and consequently set myself up for failure. But I had better tell you about the action that produced the idea of the book.

In 1972, Imperial Oil, a division of Exxon (then called Esso), announced the closure of four oil refineries across Western Canada and the consolidation of production at a new refinery to be built in Edmonton. To keep the older refineries running while they took away the people they wanted to operate the new one, they hired what they called ‘term employees’ who would take their places until closure day. These people would not enjoy the same benefits as the regular workers in Imperial Oil’s operations, but would have an accelerated career in refinery operations for almost three years.

As a condition of employment it could be considered justifiable, and I was one of the people who applied. I mention that at the time I had been married only two years and had been working almost exclusively in the Arctic Islands on a schedule that saw me away much more than at home. The home front demanded I exchange the Arctic for something close to home. Refinery work is shift work, but at least I’d sleep in my own bed for three nights out of every four.

The term employees were all younger men who had a technical background and all were able after a month or so training to fill in a shift slot as a junior operator – able to run out of the control room at the request of a unit operator to check on or rectify a problem that showed up on the control panel. We also had to fit into the work patterns long established before us, and turn a deaf ear to all the older men – too close to retirement for transfer to the new refinery – who had taken years to advance to the positions we were hired to fill. This was also the first employment I’d had that was unionized and I decided that I should join to see how things worked out in practice.

Quite soon, I joined those who had a concern that not all the longer term employees were getting the early retirement benefits they were entitled to. There were a number of other issues about the company letting some things slide because the place was supposed to close down in a couple of years. But the topic that I felt most concerned about was the refinery itself. The Calgary Refinery was not the old, decrepit piece of junk that the company’s propaganda would have the public believe. The bulk of the units at the time were, at 20 years vintage, the newest in operation in Canada. It seemed such a waste that the plant should be scrapped while other companies existed that could find business reasons to keep it running. Our first plan was to picket an upcoming Western Canada development conference soon to be held in Calgary – and next time I’ll tell you what transpired.

History as she is not so Wrote.

April 14, 2010

Having started at the beginning of my less than illustrious writing career with the post entitled Fits and Starts, I thought I might continue in that vein. Writers, especially beginning writers, have to be prepared to experience disappointments – not to discourage them but to steel them for what’s ahead. Readers too may wonder why the authors they read begin to sound somewhat the same when publishers prefer to bet on safe submissions instead of nurturing new talent – as was the case in far off days when money didn’t rule the world.

I recall mentioning my first ventures into writing, but didn’t go as far as issuing a post mortem of “Wyrd’s Harvest”, so here it is. While I wrote a few articles for the Tripoli “Sunday Ghibli” I was even then focussed on writing a historical novel. I think some non-fiction books I bought on time off started the plot idea – Leonard Cottrell’s “Seeing Roman Britain” and “The Great Invasion” pointed me into the fascination of the beginning and the end of Roman Britain.

When it came to plotting fiction I decided the end of the Roman province offered the most questions to worry at, and characters to discover. The last two entries in Cottrell’s chronology of Roman Britain were –
410 – Honorius tells the civitates of Britain to arrange for their own safety.
446 – Last appeal of the British civitates to Aetius. (Then Roman general/dictator)
What could offer more grist for the historical fictional mill than the breakup of empire and the plight of those who had lived so long under its protection?

The writings of the period are almost non-existent, and myth in the form of the tales of King Arthur, purport to flesh out the thin commentary in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles – the history of the victors. And the Chronicles are also largely myth, set down in writing at Alfred the Great’s order almost 500 years later and marked by repetitions of hostile landings that offer the same events with different leaders. I decided to write something that could keep a close companionship with the known facts but enlarge it into a story around characters who did live at the time, or could have.

To work out the framework of the novel I consulted a number of books, both authoritative and less so, bought quite a few, and visited a number of places when next in England (I had started the process while living in the heart of the Libyan Desert). Actually, being in Libya wasn’t too far removed from Roman Britain, because as it turns out two of the most complete Roman cities, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, are in Libya and I visited them first. Oea, the third city that gave rise to the name for the region, tripolis – three cities, is buried under the modern city of Tripoli and hard to imagine intact – the fate of all the Roman cities on the northern side of the Mediterranean, except Pompeii.

I visited places that today are not open to authors doing research – the old round Reading Room of the British Museum ( where Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Lenin, and Mark Twain all researched and where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital) was one. It’s now an information centre. I went in search of a book called “De Exidio et Conquestu Britannae” written by a monk called Gildas in the early 6th century and my request turned up a copy (in olde English) printed in Shakespeare’s time.

My research was ongoing and when I actually began to start on the novel I was living and travelling in a truck camper in Utah and Arizona – and surprised to find in the library of the University of Northern Arizona at Flagstaff a reference to a contemporary source of early English history called the Exeter Book. Embarrassing because I had been raised within ten miles of Exeter and had never heard of it. Anyway, to cut a long story short – I didn’t use any of the Arthurian myth because it was all fantasy, and I found the theories that King Arthur was a composite drawn from lost tales of a number of late British and early Saxon heroes to be more credible.

But I suppose you’re waiting for a synopsis of Wyrd’s Harvest. The title, by the way speaks of the triumph of fate, a strong belief of the Saxon invaders, as typified by the very personification of fate – the god Wyrd.

Sometime in the early 400s when the Roman garrison was withdrawn and the patrol galleys of the Saxon Shore no longer kept the coastal regions safe, a raid by Saxon pirates looted and burned a villa where a young lad called Marcellus lived. His mother and father were killed, his sister carried off into slavery and he himself struck down and left for dead by the red haired, red bearded leader of the raiders.

Fast forward some twenty years and Marcellus, now grown to be a British general of the armies of Vortigern, a (historical figure in Gildas) king of the British civitates is sent to meet new allies, Saxon mercenaries hired to strengthen the forces marching north to repel an invasion of the hostile Picts, attacking from the Highlands of Scotland. He does not associate the identity of Octa, the red haired, red bearded leader of the war band with the raider of long ago, although his memories cause him to treat his new allies with suspicion. The alliance however, holds together and between them, Marcellus with the land army and Octa with the seaborne force surround and defeat the Picts.

Then there is a romantic interlude when Galaes, the daughter of Vortigern who had been promised to Marcellus, is married off to Ambrosius Aurelianus, another historical figure (in Gildas) who ruled much of western Britain – the bailiwick assigned in later stories to Arthur. Marcellus appeals to Octa, who is settled in Kent with his war bands and families, to lend him a ship to go and abduct Galaes and the two carry out this successful bit of civil war between the Britons.

But Wyrd has yet to intervene. When they return to the Saxon camps, Marcellus meets Octa’s family and finds his wife is the long lost sister carried off by the war band so many years before. Forgiveness is impossible, even reconciliation between brother and – traitorous – sister is not possible. The angry general is persuaded to let the matter rest and return to Londinium where a fragile peace holds between the Briton’s kingdom and the ever growing settlement of Saxon warriors. Eventually the inevitable friction between the imperiled kingdom and the land-hungry Saxons erupts in war. Marcellus leads Vortigern’s army while Octa leads a part of the Saxon host. They meet in battle and the ensuing duel results in the death of both – Wyrd has reaped the harvest planted by the pirate raid many years before.
You know, that doesn’t sound half bad – if I do say so myself. But the novel made the rounds of far more approachable publishers in Canada and Britain in the 70s and got as far as receiving pleasant rejection slips saying things like, “All of our readers liked it, but …” I think it would take a lot more work than a new synopsis to make it publishable today. If you’re interested in learning what my writing is like now, you might scroll down to the posts about my latest release, “The Wildcat’s Burden”, or take a look at my author page on my publisher’s site –

Experience is Bliss

April 5, 2010

Today’s topic recommended on Christina Katz’s “Prosperous Writer” is experience so I thought if I followed up on my mentions of the topic in two previous two blog posts here I should be offering something others can use.

I mentioned my thought to have some adventures I could use in a writer’s life when I left my engineering studies. I also felt that my lack of success as a freelance journalist stemmed from never having learned enough about the world to be able to offer readers anything substantial. It’s true that a few young people can turn early life experience into sparkling and rivetting prose, but usually what they offer is mundane platitude or complaint. It’s not easy.

But neither is it easy to turn actual experience into good fiction. I exchanged notes with another writer just the other day about the difficulty of turning what we really know into something that can compete with the exaggerated tales on TV that people imagine to be true. He had been in a real CSI police unit and said that 98% of the work is dull routine. I replied that oil exploration is always portrayed as ‘roughneck thrills’, when the reality is entirely opposite. We both agreed that we couldn’t create fiction around our own lives without being too embarrassed to show our faces outside afterwards.

What is a legitimate use of experience? What can be used to craft stories that are both exciting and realistic?

As with the lessons one can gain from travel, experience gives one a deeper perspective. I remember taking a mine clearance expert to some anti-personnel mines I had found in Libya – called thermos mines because of their shape and size. They were employed by being dropped from aircraft, where their first impact with the ground would set the fuses. Thereafter the tumbler switch waited for the slightest disturbance to close a circuit and make them explode.

I say I found them, but that was only because I was the dummy who walked between three of them laying on the surface without noticing them. Old Man Salah, my head Libyan labourer, actually noticed them and alerted me by walking about anxiously waving his arms. Oops, we need to get those cleared before the crew gets here.

The mine expert was German; most were because they ran most of the mine clearance crews in the oilfields. Poetic justice, because their country had sown most of them in the early 1940s. I drove ‘Hans’ to the site in the Land Rover and we chatted enthusiastically about a dozen topics as we went. When we arrived the conversations weren’t over but just toned down an octave or two while Hans took stock.

I was standing about a metre from him talking when he kneeled down, peered at one mine – and gently reached out to pick it up. My conversation faltered as he stood and raised the mine to look underneath. What to do? Should I run screaming away across the desert to, hopefully, put a safe distance between me and the expected shrapnel? Not possible – if it blows we’re both toast.

So after a few seconds of reflection I continued talking as if carrying deadly unexploded mines around at head level was an everyday occurrence. Hans seemed satisfied with what he’d seen and gently set the mine back where it had come from. After that, the rest of the inspection was a breeze. As we were driving back to camp, discussing mine clearance, Hans mentioned that “he didn’t believe in taking chances in this business”. Right – I’d hate to be around him when he was taking chances.

Now, what do I use of that in my writing? I’ve never needed a mine clearance scene in any of my adventure fiction where I could use it. I have a strong suspicion that readers of fiction would think I had gone beyond acceptable credibility – even my Gisel Matah isn’t as foolhardy as that. But it does give me a grounding in facing danger that I can use when crafting my characters’ actions. I know how one’s mind weighs the dangers and options quite cooly at the crisis. I know how pride can prevent one from acting in fear even among strangers. I was going to be the last person to run from anything. What else is there in that scene? Perhaps you, dear reader, who wasn’t there, can see other aspects that are too obvious for me to notice. Men acting as men, perhaps.

I feel confident enough from that experience – and others like it – that I can write battle scenes even though the artillery regiment I served in was never in a war while I was with it. I have never seen instant death, but feel I’ve come close to it. The experience I can use from my working life in the desert, the Arctic, and hopping out of helicopters on mountaintops is not necessarily something to adapt for fiction – it is the grounding that guides my approach to the events.

If you want to see some of this experience in my fiction, you might want to see Gisel Matah setting the demolition fuses on the bridge in “The Wildcat’s Victory”; creeping into an enemy palace in “Masquerade” (not yet released); defying the musket shots to encourage her troops in “Arrival”; or cooly judging how to defeat her armoured opponent in the duel scene in “Deadly Enterprise”. All the books can be found at