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Visiting Historic Sites: Nicole d’Entremont and 5 tips for writing a historical novel

If you plan to write a historical novel, then also plan on fueling your writer’s imagination with a number of historical sources. Following an interview with Nicole d’Entremont, Peaks Island Press decided to offer five tips to get you going on your historical novel. In case you missed it, Tip #1 was Listen to family stories.

Tip #2: Visit historic sites

In Nicole’s case, visiting a historic site relevant to her novel meant traveling to one of the most gruesome battlefields of the First World War, often known as Flanders Fields in Belgium. This was the blood-soaked Flemish countryside captured by the lines of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem,  “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row…” When Nicole and I sat down together, she shared the role that visiting this notorious site played in writing her WWI novel, A Generation of Leaves. She said, “In order to write the book I wanted to write, I had to go to Belgium and walk where my young uncle had walked.  I wanted to go deeper than just book research and that was the way to do it.” Let’s listen to why Nicole feels that way.

Visiting the trenches at Ypres

“Two years ago, I went and connected with a battlefield tour organization — Flanders Battlefield Tours — in Ypres, Belgium. My guide, Jacques Ryckebosch, took me to a section of trench in Sanctuary Wood where many Canadian soldiers had been killed.  What I didn’t know was that Jacques had told the museum staff there that I was a relative of a soldier who fell at Sanctuary Wood. I was standing in the trench and I suddenly heard the sound of bagpipes coming from the forest nearby. I asked him what that music was. He told me that they were playing for my Uncle Leo. I understood fully then that it’s not ‘the past’ for them. It’s ‘the present.’

One of the hardest things about this book project was reading about the staggering numbers and the conditions of the warfare. There were 20 million people killed in the First World War. How do you grasp that? But seeing one of the most notorious places on the Western Front helped put me in touch with my uncle [who is the basis for the character Léonce]. When I went to the Flemish countryside and saw the soil, I learned that it’s very distinctive; it turns into a viscous mud when it rains. I could then imagine crouching in the confined space of the trench wallowing, wallowing in the mud. Then I went to the Menin Gate in Ypres. My uncle’s name is among the 55,000 names on that gate. They are the names of the soldiers who fought nearby and whose bodies were never recovered.”

Menin Gate became the place where Nicole’s book ends. The character, Léonce, only survived the trenches a few months, so Nicole has other characters carry readers through the chaos to the end of the war.

View from within 80-foot high Menin Gate

Visiting the trenches and Menin Gate not only influenced her writing process, but they are shaping her book event plans, too. Through her research and travel, Nicole learned that every night at 8 PM for nearly 90 years, since 1927, Menin Gate shuts down to traffic; everything stops to allow for the playing of taps. It’s an extraordinary living tribute. Next year, in 2014, numerous events will commemorate the centennial of the start of WWI and Nicole plans to travel to Belgium to participate. Through her novel, Nicole will bear witness to “the war as not past, but present.”

Stay tuned for the next in the five tips for writing a historical novelTip #3: Archive Diving.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Nicole d’Entremont on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Nicole d'Entremont

Nicole d’Entremont

Stories. Family stories. The ones spoken across dinner tables and at bedsides. These have the power to send us on journeys of mind, body, and heart. While my father’s WWII stories of the Arctic, propelled me to write about Greenland, “one little scrap of a story” sent Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont on a five-year journey to write what is perhaps the first historical novel to portray the Acadian experience in the First World War. While sharing her writing process, five tips for writing a historical novel emerged.

Tip #1: Listen to family stories

Alongside her pot-bellied woodstove, Nicole and I took refuge from the Polar Vortex and talked about “A Generation of Leaves,” her newest novel that follows her Uncle Leo from the tiny Acadian fishing village of Pubnico, Nova Scotia into the trenches of World War I.

Nicole: “I never knew my Uncle Leo. He enlisted to fight in World War I when he was 21 years old. My father told me one little scrap of a story about Uncle Leo, and that story had been passed down to him by my grandmother. My grandmother, Monique Adèle, was a devout Catholic and a formidable woman. She sent my father down to the train station every week to pick up the paper from Halifax and bring it back to the village. It was Monique Adèle’s job to read the newspaper for the names of those who had fallen on the Front. One evening, Monique Adèle went out to the woodpile and she saw her son, Leo, dressed in his uniform, standing there looking at her. He was smiling. She blinked. He was gone. She knew then that she would never see him again. Months later, his name appeared in the newspaper on the list of those missing in action. Eventually, he was

IMG_5425

Author Nicole d’Entremont with parents, brother, and grandmother Monique Adele

listed as killed in action. His body was never found.

I have been returning to the little village of Pubnico every summer since 1964 and that story of Monique Adèle’s experience at the woodpile always stayed with me. I wanted to understand the Acadian experience of World War I. How did families feel fighting for a nation that had expelled them in the 1700s? There is not much written about that.

My grandmother was like the prow of a ship. I remember being afraid of her. She died at the age of 90 when I was 17. But stories about her remained.”

Listening to these family stories inspired Nicole to learn more. For years, she spoke with villagers in Pubnico, gathered more oral history, and defined the characters in her novel. Like her grandmother, the character, Adèle, has 11 kids and she’s “the boss of the village and the matriarch of the family.” She becomes a central figure in “A Generation of Leaves.” Nicole’s Uncle Leo becomes the Acadian soldier, Léonce, who survives but a few months in the trenches.

Family stories and village oral history helped Nicole portray both how the war tore many families apart and how it also pulled the village more tightly together. But those stories were just a beginning in her writing process. Keep an eye out for the second of the five tips for writing a historical novel: Tip #2: Visiting historic sites.

“Darkness First”: James Hayman takes us into the long nights with a good read

Author James Hayman

Author James Hayman

All across the island, residents are chopping and splitting wood or carrying it inside to stoke their stove again the November chill. And with crime fiction author James Hayman living among us, the chills are bound to keep coming. The last time I wrote about fellow island author, Jim, he had banded together with many others to raise funds to help Longfellow Books recover from storm damage of the blizzard, Nemo. Since that time, Hayman has been busy penning (or should I say keyboarding?), the third in his series of McCabe/Savage thrillers, “Darkness First.”

Islanders conduct a lot of business on our shared ferry ride, and that’s where I caught up with Jim to ask him about “Darkness First.” I was curious to know more about why Harper Collins has released it first as an e-book, rather than the traditional release as an expensive hardcover. The first “imprint” sells for the introductory price of only $2.99. Jim explained, “When Penguin U.K. offered an e-promotion on my second book, The Chill of Night, they sold some 10,000 downloads in a day. That helped me realize that e-books have more than 50% of the genre fiction market and that I should consider going that route.”

True confessions here. I don’t read e-books. You can call me a luddite, but it wouldn’t be true. I’m an aggressive and avid technology consumer, but that inclination has not invaded my nightly escape to bed where I like to hold a book and turn pages when I read voraciously. I’m sorry. I just haven’t gone there yet. I’m sure it will happen.

Newest thriller Darkness First

Newest thriller Darkness First

For those of you who do read novels digitally, you can download Darkness First to your Kindle, Nook, or iPad from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any other e-book source. You can even read the first chapter for free at Amazon or at Jim’s website. The reviewers are saying that this is his best one yet. For insight into Jim’s process of writing a thriller series, don’t miss Bob Keyes’ interview with Hayman, splashed across the front page of today’s Portland Press Herald Audience section.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two: Cat Valente

An illustration from The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland

An illustration from The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland

Peaks Island author Catherynne Valente has just published “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two,” her third in a five-part YA fantasy series that has placed her on the New York Times bestseller list.

A reviewer for Booklist said, “As usual, Valente enlightens readers with pearly gleams of wisdom about honesty, identity, free will, and growing up. September often worries who she should be and what path she should follow, but the lovely truth, tenderly told, is that it’s all up to her. Thanks to a dramatic cliff-hanger ending, there is sure to be more empowerment and whimsy to come. Grades 5-8. –Sarah Hunter” and Times Magazine called it, ““One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”—Time magazine, on the Fairyland series.”

Recently, Valente spoke at Portland’s beloved Longfellow Books in Portland and this spurred some television coverage. I thought you might like to watch the television interview with Cat here or below

Interview of Cat Valente

Interview of Cat Valente

or watch a trailer about the series

Scott Nash takes Blue Jay the Pirate to South China, Maine

Blue Jay the Pirate

Blue Jay the Pirate, Scott Nash

Scott Nash is preparing for the next book event with his usual genius. Nash’s rendition of a Blue Willow transferware plate – with his protagonist of The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate at the center – took my breath away. The daughter of an antiques fanatic, I grew up surrounded by things like Blue Willow plates, pewter tankards, and spinning wheels. The detailed setting and character of these plates, inspired by 18th century Chinese ceramics, is a perfect choice for getting us to think about ships, pirates, and South China, Maine, of course!

The South China Public Library, the oldest continuously operating library in Maine, is hosting this author-illustrator whose interactive talks are always a big hit. Here are the details:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

10:30-11:30 AM

South China Public Library, South China, Maine

According to the National Park Service, "The Blue Willow pattern was introduced in England by the Spode factory in the late 1790s. During the 18th century Europe was fascinated by all things Chinese and especially their beautifully hand-painted china with scenes of Chinese landscapes. The Blue Willow pattern is not an exact copy of a Chinese pattern but rather based on several traditional Chinese designs."

According to the National Park Service, “The Blue Willow pattern was introduced in England by the Spode factory in the late 1790s. During the 18th century Europe was fascinated by all things Chinese and especially their beautifully hand-painted china with scenes of Chinese landscapes. The Blue Willow pattern is not an exact copy of a Chinese pattern but rather based on several traditional Chinese designs.”

Walk with Laima Vince and discover the inspiration for “The Ghost in Hannah’s Parlor”

Come walk with Laima Vince

Are you a literary tourist? Let Laima Vince be your guide

Laima Vince’s passion for Peaks Island led her to write “The Ghost in Hannah’s Parlor.” This middle reader novel starts one night in November on Captain’s Island when a nine-year-old named Hannah goes downstairs for a glass of water. The adventure begins when Hannah meets the ghost of Hilda De Witt Rose, a turn-of-the-century opera star who lives in a rose in Hannah’s parlor wallpaper along with an entire ghost cast of the opera Carmen.

Now you can discover Vince’s inspiration for this children’s book by walking with her tomorrow — to Snake Alley and to where the famous Gem once stood — Friday, July 11th, starting from the Peaks Island branch of the Portland Public Library at 12:30 pm.

How do I get to Peaks Island?

What is Peaks Island Press?

On writing from a breathless moment: a response to reading “The Snow Child”

SnowChildpaperback-banner1Peaks Island Press doesn’t review books written by fellow islanders because the pretentiousness of that offends me. Instead, I like to feature the authors themselves and their writing process, sometimes even my own writer’s journey. What inspires us to write? How does writing fit into – or spill out of – our lives? So, although this entry may look like a book review, it’s not really. I have just finished reading a book, pressing it against my chest and holding it there as though its wisdom would slip between my ribs. It left me struggling to take my next breath and inspired me to pick up a pen.

You know those e-profiles on Facebook and Linked In, the ones that ask you to list your favorites of this, favorites of that – music, movies, and so on? My finger always taps at the blank prompt for “favorite books.” Favorite is a demanding adjective, one that I only deploy when that something makes me gush. The Help (Kathryn Stockett),  Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen) and Chocolat (Joanne Harris) have achieved favorite status for me because they transported me to extraordinary, authentic emotional landscapes.  Now that I’ve turned its last page and intend to read it again right away, I list The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey as one of my rare “favorites.”

Ivey is neither Mainer nor islander, but rather an Alaskan writer; however, the ragged, furred-and-clawed setting that she conjures should feel familiar to those of us who maneuver deep snows, burning cold, chronically-shrinking woodpiles, and the pursuit of wringing our blink-like summer of all that it promises. The Snow Child offers a brave, lancing portrait of love and pain and empathy. An aged couple homesteading in Alaska realize that their anguished loneliness may have breathed life into a simple snowman – a snowgirl, really; they then wrestle with fear, chase their hope, and tentatively learn to embrace a more expansive understanding of family and life itself.

fainaLike most people, I have lost loved ones – some unborn and unnamed, others present, yet bent and vacant with illness. Like the main characters of The Snow Child, Jack and Mabel, I dread the fierce love that can make the simple passage of a child out the door turn into an unexpected moment of raw and crippling fear too big to comprehend. But it isn’t the book, it’s Eowyn Ivey, who inspires me as a writer; she beckons her readers into the bitter, toothed Alaskan wilderness to witness the beauty in the sheen of a swan’s feathers and she holds our hand as she shows us the courage it takes to live a fairy tale life whose ending is already known. Reading The Snow Child made it difficult for me to pull in my next breath; it is that moment, that moment of breathless wonder and desperation in life that leaves me no choice but to write.

If you’re intrigued by this book, I point you to the video trailer and an interview with Eowyn Ivey below.

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