Writing Around A Concussion

From a writing perspective, I have been silent and unproductive over the past year, although it’s been particularly bad for the past 6 months. This is due to experiencing Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS) from a concussion I received FIVE years ago.

In 2012 I fell while skiing (and yes, I was wearing a helmet) giving myself a nasty bump on the head. For the next few weeks, I did the bare minimum — which, when you have three kids, is still significant. I off-loaded laundry to the kids (which they still do to this day) and made simple meals, and took a lot of naps, outsourced carpooling, etc.

I couldn’t work. I’m a writer and consultant during my day job but had to pretty much stop for six months. During the first three months I couldn’t look at a computer screen without feeling nauseous, but perhaps even scarier was that I couldn’t form sentences in my head. It’s a bit of a problem for a writer.

On top of all that, I began experiencing migraines. I’d had two in my life before the fall. As I started getting back into an exercise routine, I noticed that each time I exercised I got a migraine within 24 hours. Concussion protocol is to stop anything that gives you symptoms for at least a week, better two, and then try again at a lower level.

Over the next four years, although I slowly improved physically and was able to get back to a normal exercise routine, I still suffered from migraines. I figured it was just “that time in my life” as my mother told me that my grandmother had suffered from migraines during menopause.

I tried everything to get rid of them and lead a more normal life. I saw a neurologist who prescribed all kinds of medication to prevent them from coming on or make them less severe. Nothing worked except the medication to alleviate the pain once I had one. I saw a physiotherapist (several, actually), acupuncturist, cranial-sacral therapist, massage therapist, my family doctor, a nurse-practitioner who put me on hormone cream, my gynecologist, a naturopath and finally a sports psychologist. At least you can’t say I’m suffering without doing anything about it!

Each of these professionals, while good at what they do, felt that there was nothing more they could do and that my migraines were no longer concussion-related. It was discouraging because I knew they were a result of the concussion and that there was still something wrong with my brain.

The migraines are debilitating. When I get them and can’t stop them, they last at least 5 hours and then it takes me another day to recover from the episode.

By early 2016, I was having migraines that lasted for three weeks. A dull pain that rotated around my head, never staying in one place very long, just enough to make me lose my concentration and patience with anyone who crossed my path.

A friend of mine is a doctor and she told me that one of her patients who also had continuous migraines took gluten out of her diet and later turned out to be celiac. Maybe I should give it a go. As much as I love my sweets and bread, I was ready to try anything.

Lo and behold, for about three months I was headache-free! I felt amazing! I exercised, I was patient, happy, pain-free! I could write and concentrate!…..and then, they came back.

I had started tracking the migraines in a journal and noted that I seemed to get them after exercise – again! I felt like I was right back to the beginning of my concussion journey four years earlier. I stopped exercising. I cut out dairy. The headaches went away. But, it wasn’t really a way to live. Plus, I couldn’t understand the diet-concussion connection. It didn’t make any sense to me.

The worst was, when I told people that it all went back to the concussion, most people would look at me with disbelief or disdain like I didn’t know what I was talking about. It makes you feel stupid —  like you aren’t diagnosing your own symptoms properly.

I got progressively worse through the fall of 2016. I could eat very little without triggering a migraine, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t even drown my sorrows….and I couldn’t write. Producing articles was painful, there was something about the thought process that wasn’t working for me.

Finally, through friends and referrals, I found a health professional who actually looks at the brain damage as opposed to just the symptoms. I was encouraged when one of the referrers acknowledged that I wasn’t making it all up, but that my concussion hadn’t been treated properly at the time of the trauma and that’s why the symptoms had come back. The thing I’ve noticed about concussions is that all the health professionals treat what they are best at, but no one puts it all together and goes back to the original source of the symptoms. I was checked for a hematoma and nerve damage, the physiotherapists treated my skeletal and muscular issues, the neurologist just wants to give me meds to deal with the pain instead of addressing why I get the pain in the first place. No one seemed to think that brain damage was an issue, although by definition, that’s what a concussion is.

The health professional I’m currently seeing says there is absolutely a brain-gut link – what you eat will affect how you feel, and he’s given me the studies to back up the claims.

It’s a slow process and given my experience with professionals from both the alternative medical track and the traditional medical track, I’m not holding my breath, but I’ve started to notice very small improvements – for one thing, writing is becoming easier again.

 

What Are Cozy Mysteries?

By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA - i103005 254, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19945728

By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA – i103005 254, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19945728

I am new to the cozy mystery genre but have been reading many books in it since I started signing up for ebooks through various websites (For information on where to find free e-books, see this post).

I couldn’t figure out the phrase “cozy mystery” and wondered about the definition. What does someone do when they want to figure out the origin of something? She Googles it, of course!

I found this great article by Brian Klems over at Writers Digest, which explained the genre and history of the genre – and of course, the reason why I tend to gravitate to it. So, here are four things about cozy mysteries I didn’t know:

1. G-rating

Lack of violence or sex in a storyline. According to Klems, the first ones were written by Agatha Christie. While we see the dead body, we follow Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot around as they interview (never interrogate) their suspects.

2. Amateur Detective/Shop owner

These days, the sleuth tends to be amateur and owns his/her own business in a small town or community.

3. Fast-paced compared to the originals

The pace of the story is much faster today than in Agatha Christie times. In my opinion, this is probably due to our being accustomed to the fast pace of  TV programs and movies which translates into a page-turner in fiction.

4. Usually developed as a series

What hasn’t changed since Christie’s writing days is that most cozy mysteries are written as a series. They have become a popular sub-genre of crime fiction.

For more information on cozy mysteries, visit Brian Klems’ original article:

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/4-things-you-should-know-about-writing-a-cozy-mystery-novel

 

 

Is Pride and Prejudice Outdated?

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice http://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/adam-helliker/164240/Colin-Firth-to-reunite-with-Pride-and-Prejudice-star

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice http://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/adam-helliker/164240/Colin-Firth-to-reunite-with-Pride-and-Prejudice-star

I ‘ve probably read Pride and Prejudice a thousand times — yes, that is an exaggeration, but I have read it enough times to help my daughter get 100% on her English assignment (yay me!). When I am looking for story structure, vivid characters and a plot with various sub-plots that fit together seamlessly, it is my go-to novel for inspiration!While my daughter was studying the book, she offered me her opinion  which was fairly blunt and blasphemous to Austen fans the world over. “It’s so boring. All they worry about is who is going to marry who, and what kind of match it is. Who cares?”

To say that the premise of the book was lost on her would be an understatement. She is 15 and brought up in an age and country where girls are taught that with the right amount of work, skill and talent, you can achieve what you want without attention to class level or gender. So Austen’s focus on “marrying well” and “above your rank” was something she couldn’t understand.

In a way, this is a story that should be taught along side history  or women’s studies in order to better understand the context of the story. Yes, marrying well was important, really, right up until a few decades ago.  I suggested she just read it for the story itself, the plot line and how all the characters interacted, instead of trying to fit it into the modern world.

She begrudgingly accepted my advice (I think it’s a first!), and read the entire thing, although she said she liked Darcy before he confessed his actions in the letter to Elizabeth after his first proposal. My daughter thought he showed too many signs of weakness after the letter! Wow, not much of a romantic.

In an age when fewer couples are marrying and women earn their own incomes and can choose whether or not they even want to marry (or get out of a marriage that isn’t working), Austen’s focus on marriage and social status seems “silly” according to my daughter. Listening to her comments about the novel, I can understand her perspective. It also provides a good opportunity to demonstrate just how much women have progressed in terms of equal rights thanks to the trailblazing women before us.

We also discussed how doctors and lawyers and other professionals were looked down upon at that time by the upper class, which she also had trouble with. Austen, at least, portrayed Elizabeth’s uncle (a lawyer) and aunt as smart, level-headed people who could get the job done. These characters contrasted with the lazy, indulgent and superficial relatives of Mr. Bingley. So, Austen was ahead of her time in terms of respecting the professional class of people vs. the aristocracy.

Had Austen been writing today, I like to think she would have created an entertaining piece on the social ills of our times. All in all, the romance of the story Austen created is timeless, and my daughter notwithstanding, Mr. Darcy is still held up as the ideal mate for many women out there.

 

 

What is biodynamic farming anyway?

512px-Wineries_Hwy_99

By Flickr user eyeliam (http://www.flickr.com/photos/eyeliam/542571706/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In A Vintage Year, the main character, Harris Tucker, ends up working as a farmhand on a vineyard that happens to be bio-dynamic. I decided to make the farm bio-dynamic instead of organic for the interesting aspects of bio-dynamic farming. I did a lot of research and have found that a lot of bio-dynamic farms tend to be vineyards, especially those in North America.

Bio-dynamic farming was developed by a German scientist, Rudolf Steiner, in the 1920s. The idea behind it was all about helping the soil be the most fertile soil possible, and to work with the plants and animals raised on that soil. In the ’20s, a lot of farmers were becoming concerned with the quality of their crops based on the chemical fertilizers they were using. They had noticed that the quality of their crops was deteriorating.

Steiner went to work, believing that there were many factors involved in developing good soil that grows superior produce. He believed that soil fertility could be increased by using field preparations and compost preparations. The field preparations he developed are called 500 and 501 — these are the ones that involve stuffing a cow’s horn with manure and planting it in a field for the winter, then digging it in the spring in time for field preparation for planting. Compost preparations consist of herbs stuffed into the stomach of a red deer, or the lower intestine of a cow, and left in the sun for the summer, then buried in the winter and dug up for use in the spring. These preparations, six in total, are dubbed 502-508.

Planting your crops is based on the cycle of the moon and whether it is a root, leaf, flower or fruit type of crop.

Annual crops are rotated from year to year in order to stimulate the soil.

There is no scientific evidence that bio-dynamic farming produces any better results than organic farming, and it sure seems like it’s a lot more work than organic farming. However, I have spoken to bio-dynamic vineyard owners who swear by it and say that the flavour of the terroir so much more pronounced in bio-dynamic wines versus wines made from conventionally grown or even organic grapes.

For more information on bio-dynamic farming, check out some of these links.

Biodynamic v Organic Winemaking – Southbrook’s Ann Sperling Video

https://www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics

Here is a great website on the practicality and reality of biodynamic vineyard farming – love the website url: “http://biodynamicsisahoax.com” !

For the record, while my farm family are bio-dynamic farmers, I have to admit, that if I were a farmer, I would fall on the organic side of things. The extra work involved to make a farm bio-dynamic just doesn’t have me convinced that it’s necessary. Also, when you think about the tiny amounts of “preparations” that are mandated for field coverage (1 tsp. per hectare), you have to question how much work the preparation would really do. Sorry to those bio-dynamic farmers out there for being a skeptic.

 

 

Story Endings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I just finished watching Hitchcock on Netflix. It’s a great film if, like me, you love Hitchcock films. I should preface that by saying I like his suspense films, not the horror ones. I hope you won’t think any less of me if I confess that I’ve never seen Psycho. Even today I can’t watch horror films — I am a big scaredy cat.

Anyway, Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho, and all of the resistance that Hitchcock came up against during its making, including the friction in his marriage to Alma (Helen Mirren). Near the end of the film, Hitchcock was having trouble with the ending of Psycho, we don’t exactly know what the problem was, just that it wasn’t working. Alma comes in to save the day; Hitchcock and Alma reconcile and together they finish the movie and as everyone knows, the film was a huge success.

Endings can make or break stories, so setting them up to be satisfying, is critical. Satisfying doesn’t have to mean happy, it just has to mean that it makes sense given the set of circumstances and characters.

Good Endings

There are the classic, excellent, tragic endings, for instance, Casa Blanca orThelma and Louise. Your heart goes out to the characters, but you  understand that the conclusions were logical, if heart-breaking.

Les Edgerton writes in one of my favourite books on writing, Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go,

…all good story endings and resolutions should involve both an element of a win and an element of a loss. Tidy endings that represent a clear-cut vitory or loss just aren’t very good endings.  p. 14

If you think about all the movies or books you love, there are both elements of a win and loss.

One of my favourite endings to a movie is in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the 1988 remake with Steve Martin and Michael Caine). It worked so well and came out of left field all at the same time and it was absolutely consistent with the characters and the plot.

Another great ending was in Private Benjamin, (1980). The movie is about a woman discovering empowerment after being coddled most of her life, and in the end she learns the lesson well.

I will never forget the ending to Tin Cup where Kevin Costner screws up on the 18th hole the last day and loses the tournament. But as Molly (Renee Russo) points out when Roy (Costner) is wallowing in self-pity after shooting a 12:

It was the greatest 12 of all time. No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won…but they’ll remember your 12!” [source]

Costner may not have won the game, but he got his self-respect back and because of that, he got the girl.

Bad Endings

There are endings that are so awful, they can take away any goodwill you built up during the time you’ve invested in the story (book or film). In addition to endings that tie things up too neatly, endings that are so open-ended make it look like the writer isn’t even sure what will happen. I finish those stories feeling frustrated — wondering, guessing, trying to figure out what might or might not happen.

Another bad ending style is introducing a new plot point 90% of the way through the story. I read a distinguished, well-known author’s book after it launched to huge fan fare and accolades. It was based on a true historical incident that had never been resolved, so I was curious to see how the author would resolve it. At the last minute, there was a bizzare and unforeseen plot twist that came from nowhere introducing a supernatural element that had never even been foreshadowed. The story lost its credibility in my eyes after that.

Stories, for the most part, involve hope. You are introduced to a problem at the beginning, and the reader or viewer hopes, along with the protagonist, that the issue will be resolved in their favour, or, if not, that another just as satisfying solution, will occur. Stories that open with a dark, forboding end in sight (say, an innocent prisoner on death row), and end in that manner (the prisoner being hanged), after trying every way to conquer it, are nothing but depressing. They suggest that you can’t do anything, so don’t even try, that hope is futile. I find those kind of stories discouraging — particularly in fiction, because there are enough of those examples from real life.

Ugly Endings

Then there are endings where you realize you’ve just been manipulated throughout the story. I remember reading this one book where the ending made the entire story useless. I was so mad, I wanted my time back. I have never read another one of the author’s stories.

Writing a good ending is hard. You have to follow the boundaries of your story and your characters’ behaviour, and yet even if it is predictable, you want to make sure it’s still interesting and that your readers will stay with you to the end. You also really need to respect your readers’  time and intelligence and know that if you do it right, the ending will wrap up the story well. You want to make sure that your readers (or viewers), feel that the time they’ve invested in your work was worth it.

If you have some favourite stories with memorable (good or bad) endings, let me know in the comments section.