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Monday, September 6, 2021


I can travel the world without leaving my chair, but nothing beats actually being there—especially if one is a writer. With armchair travel you use two senses, ears and eyes, but when you are physically there, you employ all five senses (and maybe even a little bit of ESP). That can make a huge difference in your perception and description of a setting in your writing.

The azure sea and pristine white beach can dazzle my eyes, but my toes will miss the silky feel of the warm water tickling my feet or the powdery hot sand that makes me quicken my step to a shady spot under a palm tree. In a video or movie I see leaves fluttering or a field of wheat dancing with the wind, but I don’t feel that seductive breeze combing through my hair. Dust boils under the pounding hooves of a horse racing across the stretch of prairie in Monument Valley. The bandana over my mouth and nose helps, but I cannot taste the grit in my mouth or scrub it from my skin and burning eyes. One of the sweetest sounds in nature is water rushing and furling over rocks studding a stream, or the roar of a waterfall with its spray misting my face, the melodic trill of a robin or the screech of a hawk soaring on an air current.

Being there makes such a difference and can add a richness and realism to one’s writing. This is why I am so grateful that I have been able to visit all the locales except one in which I have set my books. Actually being there has helped me feel what it would be like to be cooped up in a hollowed out wolf cave and breathe in that dirt for hours on end, like my heroine, Molly.

(Picture courtesy of Charlie Steel)

In one of my earlier blogs, I wrote about Sam Kelly’s Cave in the Big Muddy area of southern Saskatchewan. Two enlarged wolf caves situated a few yards from the International Boundary were used by cattle rustlers over a hundred years ago. One cave sheltered a couple of outlaws and the second cave hid their horses from view of the N.W.M.P. or marshals from across the border. I read about these wolf caves in a book written by a lady whose family had lived over a century on the same ranch in the Big Muddy. The cave I visited is situated on private land, but it can be accessed through a guided tour.  I was able to stand inside the cave, breathe in the cloying dirt, and used that experience in the third book of my trilogy, Beneath A Desperado Moon. Touring the underground Chinese tunnels in Moose Jaw gave me an even deeper appreciation of the horror of living in those underground tunnels with no whiff of fresh air or blue sky.

However, I took a bit of poetic license and had my caves in the Bearpaw Mountains of Montana, a little more to the west and south of the Cypress Hills, the main setting in my trilogy. I regret I was unable to visit this low range of mountains, a few miles south of Havre, Montana, but I have visited the town and have a “feel” of the area which is initially prairie and similar to the terrain surrounding the Cypress Hills. Further into the Bears Paw backcountry (also spelled as one word), the terrain becomes very rough and hilly, with lots of trees and hiding places for outlaws in the late 1900s.

My very first historical romance was inspired by a holiday in New Brunswick. While there, we visited a 19th century working pioneer village called Kings Landing, about 20 miles west of Fredericton. I fell in love with the place and used it for the setting of By Love Betrayed. I have so many memories of that “village”, it being my first experience of how cooking meals from hooks suspended over burnings logs in a fireplace can fill a room with the scent of wood smoke that probably lingers, and how bread was baked in a Dutch oven nestled in the ashes and embers. If one happened to visit a certain cabin at mealtime, you were invited to partake with the costumed re-enactors. I had the same pioneer experience at Black Creek Pioneer Village deep in the heart of Toronto.

Visiting the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick is an experience I’ll never forget. I sat on the boulders and rocks that lined the shore, steno-book in hand, and willed my Muse to provide me with inspiration. As I waited in the chilly wind off the Bay, I watched how quickly the tide moved in. By my feet was a dry, elongated rock that reminded me of the hull of a mast-less ship. Then one drop of water landed on it. And then another, and in an amazing short time, the rock was wet, then submerged. The water kept creeping higher. Being a land-locked prairie gal, I watched in fascination. And then I saw it. A young woman with long, wavy tendrils of blonde hair, bobbing like seaweed in the water. She wasn’t moving and in danger of drowning. Then off in the distance I heard a whistle and the scrape of claws as a dog bounded over the rocks. The jogger whistled again, but the dog kept whining and would not heed his master. Thus, the man had to get him, saw what had captured the dog’s attention, lifted the young woman into his arms and strode off into the sunset. End of vision. No matter how hard I tried, my imagination had strode off with that handsome, dark-haired stranger.

In the middle of the night I had such a vivid dream that I woke up, excited. I had my story, no doubt triggered by senses-overload from all the sights we had explored that day. I shook my husband’s shoulder, eager to tell him, but he told me to go back to sleep. I couldn’t because I knew I’d forget the dream. I had to stay awake—but my notebook was out in the car. I didn’t want to go downstairs and risk waking anyone up, so I lay awake for hours, running the dream over and over in my head until everyone was finally up, and I could get my notebook. I wrote down everything I could remember of the dream. But it had nothing to do with the unconscious lady in the bay!

(Picture from Wikipedia)
Another plus to visiting the Bay of Fundy was not only the amazing “flower pots” at opewHopeHi       Hopewell Cape where opewell Caitethe powerful 5-storey high incoming tides have carved out chunks of the rock. At low tide, one can see how the cliffs have been eroded over the centuries, leaving the beach dotted with vulnerable chiseled rocks, with pines growing at the top, ready to be knocked over by the next surge of the tide. Best get off the beach when the tide starts rushing in. My husband’s brother was stranded overnight on one of the “flower pots” until the tide went out again.

Near the Bay of Fundy is another bay which has a distinct “fishy” smell to the air, so unlike Fundy Bay and the water has a reddish cast to it, probably because of the high iron content. I would never have known that if I hadn’t personally experienced it by being there. We walked along the beach at low tide and saw saltwater draining from tiny shells and various seaweeds, some pod-like clusters like a bunch of grapes, all over the beach. Cape Enrage is well known for the tides flinging huge waves against the cliffs, but the night we went to see it, the bay was calm as a sleeping baby.

After our return home, I related all this to my friend over the telephone. Judith said, “I hope this is an historical!” It wasn’t, but I knew instantly I could convert it to an historical, instead of the contemporary romances I had been writing. Rachel could ride the train instead of driving a white sports car. And several weeks later, to my forehead-slap amazement, I realized that my lady in the bay was the beginning of the story after all. I finished writing the book, but, alas, I no longer have the word processor on which I wrote it. However, I do have the hard copy— but it’s a long, daunting job I’ve avoided in retyping from scratch. That is my some day project because I still love that story and would like to see it published.

In the meantime, I’ll share an excerpt from my latest published book, Josh and Molly’s story, in which I hope I’ve employed all five senses.


Excerpt: Beneath A Desperado Moon: 


            Riding further south into the wooded foothills of a low mountain range, Josh searched the distant rocky bluffs for a familiar landmark. He finally spotted the lone pine in a shadowed fold of the cliffs and aimed his horse in that direction. He let his horse pick his way over the rocks, climbing higher, and wasn’t surprised when a man stepped out from a screen of bushes and aimed his rifle at Josh’s chest.

            “That’s far enough.”

            “You know me, Charlie. I have been here before.”

            “Don’t mean nuthin’. You could be bringin’ the law with ya.”

            “Do you see anyone behind me?” Josh snapped, knowing full well Chase was a long way back, observing through his spy glass. They’d agreed it was safer that way for Josh not to be followed.

            “That don’t mean nuthin’.”

            “Bloody hell, you fool, I am not the only one wanted by the law. He killed three men on the stage this morning and kidnapped a woman. The law will be crawling all over the prairie like ants on an anthill.”

            “She’s sure a spitfire,” Charlie said, smirking.

            Josh’s stomach clenched. Charlie’s words confirmed Josh’s worst fears. At least she was alive. He nudged his horse past the outlook.

            “Hold your horses. I didn’t say you could pass.”

            “Take it up with Rocky. And don’t even think to use that rifle on me. The shot will be heard for miles.” Josh urged the horse around the overlapping jut of rock that shadowed the opening, making the entrance invisible to the casual observer.

            A few more feet brought him around another boulder and into a small sunlit valley lush with grass. A stream meandered through, providing water for animals and humans alike. Several horses and two cows gathered in the shade of huge cottonwoods that had roots nourished by the stream.

            Most of the outlaws preferred living in tents scattered near the entrance or out in the open while some had claimed the few caves that pockmarked the hills.

            Ignoring the curious looks of the men and women in the camp, Josh rode directly to Rocky’s tent, which had one side nearly touching the cliff wall. He didn’t have a full plan of action, just hoped the element of surprise and sheer guts would work in his favor.

            He needn’t have worried. The argument going on inside the tent could drown out a stampede of horses.



  1. A wonderful blog. Writer's tend to be visual creatures, and we must use all of our senses to paint pictures for readers. You can see place through pictures or video, but you won't feel the rush of the breeze on your skin, or what scent is carried in that wind. You won't know what birds are singing their special songs. You won't feel the temperature difference from the few steps outside to the cool inside of a cave on a hot summer afternoon. Somethings have to be experienced to get it right.

    1. Thank you, Deborah, I so agree that it's important for the writer as well as the reader to use all five senses and how our words can ignite the reader's imagination to "be there", too. I love how you can draw the reader into your 13th century setting with your language of the times as well as your descriptions. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. A wonderful post, full of beautiful writing and descriptions which snatch the reader's attention and takes them right to the heart of the action. I very much hope you get that book transcribed onto a word processor.

    1. Thank you, Christine for your kind words. I'm hoping I still have those big f-inch floppy disks for that story. Trouble is, I couldn't find any techs to convert them, so typing it is. I'm thinking of having the book scanned because even if that method is full of errors, one has to edit and will catch them. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Vivid writing that evokes the spirit of place. As I read, I felt to be there at the cave.
    Good luck with the book transcribing

    1. Thank you for your compliment, Lindsay. I deliberated with two scenes, the one I used and Molly's first reaction to the cave but may use it another time. Had so much fun writing this book. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay.

  4. I agree, Elizabeth, it is such an advantage to have visited or lived in a place that you later use as a setting in a story. Your memories of that place make it vivid for readers. I have never written a story that takes place in an area where I have never been (unless you count a fantasy world like Winatook).
    I was in Bear Creek, Nova Scotia by the Bay of Fundi at a quaint and unique place named The Stilts Café. It was on stilts because of the rapid tide that I watched, as you did, as the water rose and covered the rocky landscape. I haven't written a story using this place, but I DID write about it in my journal...just in case.
    Loved the picture of our friend Charlie Steele in front of the Wolf Cave.
    I have all the books in this series. I enjoy your writing so much.
    All the best to your corner of the universe...

    1. You always leave such lovely comments, Sarah. I have never journaled, and should have, but some places have had such a deep impact on me that my Bay of Fundy experience is still fresh in my mind and that was 34 years ago <grin< Some days I can't remember why I went into a room and have to retrace my steps to job my memory, but the Bay of Fundy keeps lapping at my memory and urges me to finish that project. I think I put it aside because the book was considered too long to be published so I just put it away in a box and began another book. And yet, there's one time traveler author whose first book was 1200 pages and that was just her first with more to come in the series. As for Charlie, yes he was perfect for giving a visual on the size of some wolf caves. I took lots of pics of Sam Kelly's caves but those pictures are in a box somewhere, waiting to be organized....sigh. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah, and have a lovely day in your corner of the world, too.

  5. Such an interesting post and your descriptions are so vivid. You are so right about visiting places giving you a total experience of a place. A sense of place is so important in novels so the reader can 'lose' herself/himself in the story.
    Good luck with the transcribing.

    1. Thank you, Ann. I guess you can tell that experience still resonates in me even all these years later. I definitely have to make retyping and editing that book my winter project. Oh, I just shivered, typing that word. Thanks for stopping by, Ann.