August 9 is a bit of a sentimental date that plays a somewhat significant part in my writing journey. August 9 is my Aunt’s birthday, and it is also the date I launched my first novel, Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf. The two are related in a roundabout way that I alwasy think of on this day.
The Cool Auntie
My Aunt Annie’s birthday is August 9. I should say, was, August 9. More on that in a bit. She was my model for being the “Cool Auntie” that I aspire to be with my nieces and nephew. Aunt Annie was single, worked as a nurse, travelled the world, and loved to have us nieces and nephews over, no matter what age.
When we were kids, she had a box of Smarties (for my American readers, Smarties in Canada are more of an equivalent to M & Ms). We would eat them and ask for more. She thought she was fooling us by re-filling the box from a bulk supply and pretending it was a brand new box. We knew, we didn’t care. Just give us the chocolate!
She used to call me Sush, which is German for Suzie. I don’t know why. She knew very well what my name was. It became my nickname. To me it became a term of endearment. It was our thing.
In 2004, she became very sick. The doctors had no idea what was wrong. She wasn’t in pain, she was just very weak, her heart rate was up at about 150 or 160 beats a minute, resting. Turns out, she had Angioimmunoblastic t-cell Lymphoma. This was just over 2 months in to her illness. She started chemo right away, but had a terrible reaction to it so they had to stop, wait a week, then try again. They didn’t get a chance to try again. Aunt Annie passed away in May, 2004.
I miss her, of course, but that is not why I am telling you about Aunt Annie.
As I mentioned earlier, she was single, and the “Cool Auntie”, because she could be. She didn’t have kids of her own to look after, so she spoiled us, then could send us home.
All of us nieces and nephews loved her (10 of us, not including spouses and great-nieces and nephews). In her will, she left her estate to the 10 of us. This was shocking, though maybe it shouldn’t have been given how she had lived her life. And it turned out to be life-changing.
I don’t know what my cousins, or even my brother, did with their share. I think some of them were going to do some home renovations, but I don’t know. We never talked about it.
Declaring Myself a Writer
I applied to the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and when I was accepted, I used my inheritance to pay for it, and for a brand new laptop. My inheritance and the sale of my condo also allowed me to live and work for a year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but that is a story for another day.
Odyssey was, well, and Odyssey of its own. I was fairly new to writing Fantasy, and while I’d been writing for quite a while, this was a major step for me. A declaration. Putting my stake in the ground. Me saying, “I’m a writer. I’m going to pursue this professionally. I need to learn. I need to get real feedback. I write Fantasy (and maybe Science Fiction)!”
This was the summer of 2005. Survivor had been around for a few years, and getting “Voted off the Island” was a popular phrase. Don’t like someone? They got “Voted off the island”, or kicked out of the group. At our first-night-dinner, we all introduced oursleves. Every one of us thought there must be some mistake, that we hadn’t really qualified for acceptance. We all thought this was going to be like Survivor and each week of the six-week program, a few of us were going to get “Votted off the island.”
Once we were all reassured we had, indeed, been accepted into Odyssey, and that we would not be kicked out of the program, we got down to work. We had class in the morning for a couple of hours, followed by the critique circle where we usually critiqued 2 stories a day. After lunch, was writing time. Each week we had a short story critiqued, so that’s a new short story every week for 6 weeks. Plus we were critiquing 2 stories from our classmates each day. It was a lot of work. I learned so much!
Here’s the story I tell all the time
Jeanne Cavelos, the Director of Odyssey, and our main instructor, mentioned more than a few times, that there weren’t any stories featuring female dwarves.
During one of the critique sessions of a classmate’s story that involved a beautiful she-elf that all the men were in love with, Jeanne asked, “Why is it always the beautiful she-elf? Why is it never a male elf that everone is in love with?”
When talking about genre tropes and making a story unique, Jeanne suggested combining genres.
Now here’s where these three things come together. We had to do a writing exercise on Point of View. I decided to have some fun, I love Fantasy, but I also love chick-lit. I decided to combine the two and wrote about this female dwarf, Mabel, who desperately flirted with this oh-so-beautiful male elf, Aramis, thanks to the guidance of self-help relationship-advice books.
In one of the appendices for The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien talks about a third of the dwarf population being female. My experiment got me thinking: What would life be like for a female dwarf if her gender made up only one third of the population? What would dwarves in that society consider attractive? You’d think that if only one third of the population was female, they’d have their choice of men to date, so what if my female dwarf had difficulty in the romance department? What if that difficulty was compounded by the facts that not only was she oblivious to the guys flirting with her, she was in love with an elf? And everyone knows, because it is probably the oldest trope in Fantasy, that elves and dwarves hate each other.
I couldn’t let it go.
Mabel Goldenaxe is Born
I decided to write a short story about Mabel and her self-help books, going after Aramis the elf. Again, it was fun, and I got some decent feedback on it. Mabel became my thing. I thought I would write some Mabel short stories, make a collection of them and it would be a book.
Then I got into Seton Hill University’s grad program in Writing Popular Fiction. It became clear that a collection of Mabel short stories was not going to work. I turned them into a novel.
After years of submitting to agents and having an agent who decided it was best I move on to something else, I still couldn’t let Mabel go.
August 9, 2014, I released Mabel into the world at When Words Collide, in Calgary. While When Words Collide and the time slot I was given in the program just happened to fall on August 9, it didn’t escape me that I was launching my book on Aunt Annie’s birthday, and if it hadn’t been for Aunt Annie, I would not have gone to Odyssey, and I would likely have never encountered Mabel.
I think of Aunt Annie often, especially on her birthday. Her kindess, her generosity, the meals at the Dairy Queen, and her fun-loving spirit, will always live on in my memory. They are also forever tied to my journey as a writer.
That’s my story. I’d love to hear yours. Is there anyone special in your life who has helped you pursue your writing in unexpected ways, whether they knew it or not?