Robert Service's desk

Three Takeaways from a Writer’s Cabin

by Sharleen Jonsson on September 10, 2014

I often daydream of retreating to a rustic cabin, far from the madding crowd. I also love the poetry of Robert Service, “Bard of the Yukon.” So, during a recent trip to Dawson City, how could I not visit his one-time home?

Born in England in 1874, Service immigrated to Canada at the age of 21, found employment as a bank clerk in Victoria, BC, then, about ten years after the height of the Klondike gold rush, transferred to the Yukon. In Dawson City, he quit his day job to become a full-time writer. I imagine him in his little cabin, at his desk with the woodstove crackling behind him and the wind howling outside, as he puts finishing touches on “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” If you ever pass through Dawson, do yourself a favour and visit this heritage site – it’s free and fascinating. Here are three things I took away from this writer’s retreat:

  • It’s okay to write on the walls. Service was in the habit of writing on his wallpaper. Who knows if that was to stoke his creativity or just a symptom of cabin fever? Either way, it seems to have worked. Apparently, he also scribbled aspirational messages. A framed specimen of his wall writing reads: “Rebuffs are only rungs in the ladder of success.” Robert-Service-wallpaper
  • You can compose on anything. I want a cabin retreat but don’t want to be without my printer — and, okay, the Internet. Have you ever felt you just couldn’t start your literary masterpiece without the right technology? Service had what looks like a pocket typewriter to me. (This one, in his cabin, is identical to the one he actually used, which now resides in the tourist information office in Dawson.) Robert-Service-typewriter
  • A love of verse can lead you to the most interesting people. We missed the scheduled live reading of his work, but the guide was kind enough to give DH and me a private reading. (Whoops, I forgot to write down her name.) She read beautifully, introduced us to a few Service poems I’d never heard of, and told us she’s been in Dawson for about 30 years. Why Dawson? “I wanted to get as far away from Ontario as I could.” But Ontario has followed her, in the form of a mother who drives out with a trailer every summer now. “She can’t go in reverse, though. She’s managed to get all the way to Alaska and back to Ontario without ever having to back up.” Service could’ve composed a great poem about that, I’m sure.      Robert-Service-guide

Dawson is a very literary small town, and just down the road from Service’s old place is Jack London’s cabin. But that’s for another post.





Mallory Wilkins, Tess Gerritsen, Denise Dietz, Caro Soles at Bloody Words 2011

What Do We Write About When We Write About Sex?

by Sharleen Jonsson on February 14, 2014

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s one of my most popular posts. Enjoy:

Your characters want to have sex and you’re quaking at the thought. But fear not: At a recent writers conference, I sat in on a panel discussing the scenes that can give anyone severe writers block, and I took notes for you. Bloody Words panelists Mallory Wilkins, Tess Gerritsen, Denise Dietz and Caro Soles came up with several tips, and here are some of them, rephrased as questions you might ask yourself:

  • Why are your characters having sex? Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen, who’s written romances as well as thrillers, points out that a sex scene can be an opportunity to show a character in a new way, revealing things that would be difficult to see in any other kind of scene; for example, in the case of a male character, how he treats a woman in bed can convey a lot.
  • What leads to sex? It’s not all about the act itself. What precedes the scene? How does the sexual tension build? If characters aren’t having sex for the first time, there may not be a lot of tension but you can show what they do to get in the mood. Do they feed each other raw oysters? Do they like Michael Buble crooning in the background? Do they make out to Fox News?
  • What happens after sex? A sex scene is a good way to introduce complications. When two characters who should not be having sex go ahead and do it anyway, it can create big problems for them and other characters. It can also have an impact on the main goal of the novel; if two characters are on opposing sides (for example, a cop and a criminal), sex between them will muddle things wonderfully.
  • When should two characters succumb to their attractions? The answer can depend on the genre. In general, sexual tension fades when characters have sex; this means that in a romance, you don’t want these two falling into each other’s arms too soon—in fact, maybe not until the final pages. If the novel is a thriller or mystery, the main tension in the book will not be sexual, so you can “spend” a little tension earlier on.


Books To Make You Happy, Happy, Happy! Or Not.

August 1, 2013
Thumbnail image for Books To Make You Happy, Happy, Happy! Or Not.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about optimism. Not because I’m seeking a recipe for happiness. I have some reservations about the whole goal-focused, quasi-evangelical positivity movement, so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading books by authors who take their optimism with a twist of lemon. Looking for a refreshing take on positivity? Consider the books that […]

Read the article…

Good House is Good Recovery Fiction

May 23, 2013

And speaking of drunkenness (see my last post, Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?), I just finished , by Ann Leary. Protagonist Hildy Good lives on prime property just outside a coastal town north of Boston. She is the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first women hanged for witchcraft in nearby Salem. Hildy […]

Read the article…

Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?

April 1, 2013
Thumbnail image for Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?

Thirty pages into a memoir of recovery from alcoholism, I suddenly stopped and flipped the book over to study the photo of the author: Had I read this book before? Then I realized that no, it just seemed that way because I’ve read several such memoirs and they all have the same basic structure. Chapter […]

Read the article…

Great Story Twirls Rather Than Spins

January 29, 2013
Thumbnail image for Great Story Twirls Rather Than Spins

 had me at the end of the opening chapter. There I was in New York City, on August 7, 1974, watching Philippe Petit dance along a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers. I was craning my neck, squinting against the bright sky, holding my breath even though I knew – thanks to history – that […]

Read the article…

Words to Ban in 2013

December 29, 2012
Thumbnail image for Words to Ban in 2013

Over this holiday season, my reading tastes changed—even my minimal shopping and baking left me wanting nothing more taxing than magazines with glossy photos and short articles. Women’s magazines are not noted for in-depth reporting or thoughtful, serious writing on any topic, and that’s okay; there’s a time and place for tips on how we […]

Read the article…

I.O.U. a Great Nonfiction Story

October 19, 2012
Thumbnail image for I.O.U. a Great Nonfiction Story

Good nonfiction can make a complicated, difficult topic comprehensible. One of the most confounding matters of modern times is how the global financial system went off the rails in 2008. How is one to understand Too Big To Fail banks gambling with other people’s money and then getting taxpayer-funded bailouts? I watched several documentaries and […]

Read the article…

Peyton Place: Author’s Story Better Than the Book?

July 23, 2012
Thumbnail image for Peyton Place: Author’s Story Better Than the Book?

After running across a reference to , I picked  this novel up out of curiosity, my commitment lukewarm. I ended up reading the entire book. Yes, some of the prose is purple and the sex that made it a “dirty book” in 1956 seems tame (not to mention sexist) today. But if you’re a writer […]

Read the article…

The Power of Story

June 14, 2012
Thumbnail image for The Power of Story

It’s obvious the ability to tell a great story will get you far in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. But literary devices—the use of scenes, specific detail and suspense and more—can turn informational nonfiction into a riveting read, too. By “informational,” I mean the sort of book you read mainly to find out about a […]

Read the article…