Another Foray into the Archives – A Fragment of a Story.

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In my archives I have a stack of files with fragments of stories, poems and songs. No-one else has had the chance of digging through those fragments, but I decided to share one with you today.

It’s the opening paragraphs of a fiction story. And, interestingly, it’s the only one that has a basic plot outline. I had the idea for this story back in June 2014 and wrote the opening paragraphs. Then I drew up a very basic outline for most of the story… except for the very end.

My question for you is this – what do you think is going to happen next, and what genre of book do you think this will land up being?

PS Please remember this is a first draft… and first drafts always need lots of work. At least, mine do.

****
“Hey, Laura! Aren’t you supposed to be meeting people for lunch?”

Laura Michaels looked up from her computer where she was frantically trying to get the month end figures to balance.

Most people, on meeting Laura for the first time, would dismiss her as being “average”. Laura was 28, though she looked younger than her age. Her youthful looks were accentuated by her diminutive size- at five foot, four inches she was the shortest of her female friends, a fact which she had never reconciled herself to. She had a serious face that was quietly attractive until she smiled, when people around her would be amazed that they had not seen her beauty before. Her short ash-blonde hair was at present tucked behind her ears, a habit which she had tried for years to break, but which she always resorted to when she was stressed.

The slight frown that was another mark of her current tension softened into a quick smile as Laura looked across the partition at her colleague.

“Sorry Kathrine, I didn’t quite get that. What did you say?”

“I was just reminding you about your lunch date today, Laura. You are going out to lunch today, aren’t you?”

“Yup, I’m meeting some old friends in town at 12:30. Why?”

“Because it’s getting pretty late. It’s almost quarter past already.”

Laura glanced up at the clock on the office wall, and her smile faded. Briefly her face reflected shock as she registered that it was already 12:15. The shock turned to dismay as she quickly calculated the logistics of time and travel.

“Shit!” she said with feeling, “I’m going to be late!”

It was almost one o’clock before Laura got to the neighbourhood of the restaurant where she was due to meet her friends. She turned off the main road into the sheltered street where the restaurant was, and started looking for parking. For once Laura’s luck seemed to be with her and she found a parking space almost immediately. Sighing with relief, Laura parked and climbed out of her Golf GTi. Locking the car, she slammed the door and set the alarm before tossing her keys into her oversized bag and setting off down the alley towards the restaurant.

Can You Think of Book Characters with a Disability?

Books

How many books can YOU think of with a disabled character? I’d love for you to drop me a message or a comment listing the characters and books you know of. I think it would be an interesting exercise for us all.

You see, if it’s true that art mirrors reality, then for every eight characters in the books we read, we should find one with a disability. Because that’s what the statistics from the World Health Organisation website tell us– 15% of the global population lives with a disability – https://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/report/en/#content

I understand some of the reason’s writers may not include us.

  1. They don’t see us out there in the world
  2. They don’t want to offend us
  3. They don’t want to misrepresent us.

Sure, I recognise that it doesn’t appear that every eighth person we pass in the street has a disability so writers may not be aware of how many of us there truly are. Also, many disabilities are invisible – psycho-social, cognitive, reading, some hearing impairments, to list but a few – so perhaps it appears we are a smaller group than we are. Then, because unemployment figures for persons with disabilities are so high, people don’t see us in the workplace. And sadly, sometimes when people do see us, they see the disability first and ignore the person as an individual. Finally, if you don’t have contact with a person with a specific disability, it may be hard to know what we can do.

I also understand the other concerns I listed. People have often told me they are nervous about approaching someone with a disability in case they cause offense by saying or doing the wrong thing. That’s due largely to a general lack of awareness of how we accomplish the tasks we do, the technology that enables us to live mostly “normal” lives, and the tools and techniques we have at our disposal. And yes, we are often scathing in our responses when we see a fictional character with a disability who is poorly represented. Or when disability is represented as being an unendurable catastrophe that cannot be overcome.

I want to challenge my fellow authors to be more inclusive when creating characters. Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Your lead protagonist doesn’t have to be the one with a disability; it could be a supporting character – but let us be included in the world you’re creating.
  2. Do your research – There is so much information out there about the way we live our lives as persons
    with disabilities, so research this as you would other aspects of your book. Or reach out to someone with the specific disability you’re trying to represent.
  3. Don’t be scared to ask for input – just as you have beta readers to give you feedback on your book, ask someone with a disability to do the same, preferably someone with the disability your character has; most of us are willing to help, I promise.

Books are by no means the only medium where we are under-represented. Movies and TV are much the same. I’m excited to notice an increase in the number of characters with disabilities over the past few years. But we’ve still a long way to go.

We’re by no means the only minority that face this situation – Recently I’ve seen articles from other minority groups and, in some cases, majority groups, who are not well represented in the publishing world and other media. It’s starting to shift, but I believe we need far greater diversity of voices amongst those writing books. Having said that, a note for other authors with a disability – don’t feel obliged to write only about disability issues – you should feel free to create whatever you want.

So, there it is: my challenge to authors writing fiction – help us feel more included and less invisible in the world you’re creating. Help us see the world we inhabit in the books we read. And help us feel that we’re part of society as we experience it in all ways.

Now, who’s going to start the list of books with characters with disabilities? I’d love to see how many I’ve already read and how many I still have to discover…

Are You Helping or Harming?

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Date: 24 March 2020
Category: Disability Awareness, Audio,
Title:
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**Craig, not sure if the podcast link will provide us with an image; please let me know
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You’re walking down a road and see a person with a guide dog or a white cane approaching you. Do you offer to assist them? And if so, how?

One day, an elderly woman grabbed my arm and propelled me across a busy road. Then she walked off, no doubt feeling good for assisting the poor blind lady. Here’s the thing – I didn’t need to cross that road. But she didn’t give me the chance to say so.

The topic of how to engage with a visually impaired person and offer help became a hot topic on social media recently, due primarily to Dr Amy Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign. The campaign aims to change the way sighted people offer assistance to those of us in the VVI (blind and visually impaired) community.

In many ways I agree with the aims of the campaign. If I’m standing at the top of a flight of stairs figuring out the safest way to navigate them, I might get startled if someone suddenly reaches out and grabs my arm. It puts me at risk of losing my balance and falling down those stairs. So, #JustAskDontGrab has its place.

But truthfully, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What if there isn’t time to connect verbally before I put myself into danger? What if it’s a noisy or busy environment where I might not realize you’re talking to me? You need to consider what’s happening there and then.

But here’s the thing, most blind and visually impaired people who are out in the world are very capable of navigating our way around it. Almost all of the time. Except for the very rare occasion when we’re not. And we’ll usually ask if we need help.

Am I saying you should never offer assistance to a member of the VBI community? By no means. Because maybe it’s the one time we actually do need assistance. Just please, , rather than reaching out and grabbing our arm, or our guide dog, rather verbally ask if we need help. And, if you think we might not hear you, lightly touch our arm and then ask.

It sounds so simple, right? Yet, there’s so much happening in that moment that you reach out – metaphorically, of course – to offer assistance. And that’s the subject of a conversation Jeff Thompson, of the Blind Abilities Podcast Network, and I had a few weeks ago.

I’d love for you to listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. Whether you’re sighted or a member of the VBI community, I’m interested to know your thoughts.

Besides, you never know – it may help next time you’re walking down the road and see a person with a guide dog or white cane and try to figure out whether or not to offer assistance.

Here’s the link.

And Then the Lights Went Out!

The image shows a blonde Labrador Retriever grinning at the camera

Last week I told you about the Love Your Guide Dog event that Fiji and I attended in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. I promised to tell you a little more about the fun evening we had.

I knew it was going to be a great evening when we arrived to be met by several other guide dogs, service dogs and pups-in-training. I mean, how could it be anything but brilliant with so many four-paws around! Fiji and I had a chance to catch up with some old doggy friends and their owners, and also to meet some wonderful teams we hadn’t met in person… umm… in dog? And all the furry friends were very well behaved – I don’t think I heard any growling or snapping from anyone. Though one or two of the pups did decide to add their voices during the guest speaker’s presentation.

Talking about the guest speaker, we heard from Zelda Mycroft, mother of inimitable ability activist Chaeli Mycroft, from the Chaeli Campaign. Zelda spoke about what it’s like being a mother to a highly independent and enterprising child with a disability – a refreshingly different perspective.

And then the lights went out…As did the sound…

And no, it wasn’t load shedding. It was actually a fault in one of the sub-stations and it left the whole of the Fish Hoek area without power for the rest of the evening.

From our perspective, I don’t think it placed much of a dampener on the evening. The organisers were well prepared for any eventuality – they had gas heaters to keep the food warm, and there were candles on the tables. Of course, for those of us without sight, it was pretty much business as usual. But we did see some creative problem solving going on, with people using the flashlights on their mobile phones to enable the sign language interpreters to communicate with the hearing impaired attendees, the servers being quick on their feet navigating their way round the many dogs stretched out on the floor, and speakers who suddenly had to contend with no amplification in a venue that seats 150 people… quite a remarkable feat all round!

Nor did the lack of illumination stop us from having a fantastic evening. Even if it wasn’t quite as we’d expected it to be.

If you’d like to find out more about the Love Your Guide Dog movement, here’s a link to their Facebook group.

Of course, you’ll probably fall in love with the many photos of beautiful pups-in-training. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Pride Comes Before a Fall

The image shows Lois and Fiji walking through a room of people

Pride comes before a fall. Or so the saying goes. And, of course, sometimes it’s all too true. Even when not taken literally – after all, I didn’t actually fall.

Let’s go back a bit and I’ll explain.

Fiji and I were attending the Love Your Guide Dog event in Fish Hoek. Love Your Guide Dog is an annual fundraiser for the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind organised by two wonderful ladies who are service dog owners – Janice Salthouse and Dawn Pilatowicz. It was our first time attending, and I’d been asked to propose the thanks at the end of the evening.

The event started with an introduction and walk-through of all the working dogs and puppies-in-training. And their respective humans, of course. And, with my typical stubbornness, I decided that Fiji and I would be introduced, and walk from the entrance to our table without sighted assistance. After all, Craig would be at the table and I was sure Fiji would walk straight to him without a problem. Which is where the term pride becomes relevant.

Because, you see, when we were about halfway to our table, my guide dog suddenly veered off towards another table to say hello to someone. And then proceeded to cause chaos by pulling me behind her through a forest of tables and chairs as she tried to reach Craig. All of which could have been avoided if I’d swallowed my pride and accepted sighted assistance.

What made it funny was that we’d been asked to provide a brief comment on something unique about our dogs for the introductions. And it was at the precise moment when Janice, who was reading the introductions, read that Fiji was easily distractable that Fiji veered so vastly off course… demonstrating exactly what I’d written.

When Fiji and I took part in a show at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year, our show’s producer told me I should consider trying stand-up comedy. Maybe Fiji was simply trying to show me how exquisite her sense of comedic timing is. Maybe she was just wanting to say hi to whomever was at that table. Or maybe she just got distracted. I’ll never know for sure.

Regardless of her rationale for doing what she did, Fiji landed up getting the first laugh of the evening.

And what a fun evening it turned out to be. But you’ll have to wait for next time to hear the details…

With thanks to Tania Robbertze Photography for the photo of Fiji and I at the event.

Normandy – It Just Felt Odd

Bayeux Market

I love visiting countries where English isn’t the primary language spoken – language is so much a part of a culture and a national identity. But, as someone who speaks only a smattering of other languages, communicating in these countries can sometimes pose a bit of a problem.

I usually find that people in the larger cities speak at least a little English. In smaller centres it may not be quite so simple. Interestingly, Bayeux was the exception to this rule.

At times I felt like I heard more English than French when we were there. I suppose this was mainly because of the close links between Normandy and the Allied landings in WWII – the town was full of tourists from UK, Canada and the USA exploring sites related to the June 1944 landings. So we heard a lot of English in restaurants, tourist sites, and wandering the streets of the town.

The high number of English-speaking tourists meant that most locals spoke good English. Which makes a certain amount of sense. But I found it somewhat unsettling after spending a week in Paris, where I was surrounded by the poetry of the French language.

In Bayeux, Craig and I were in the minority when we stumbled along in our broken French when speaking to locals, whether visiting sites or ordering food. In a few cases our attempts were met with polite acknowledgement and a response in English. But, far more often, the people we spoke to smiled warmly and answered in French.

The one area we encountered very little English was in the local produce market. And that was fine – we managed to communicate well enough to buy what we were looking for.

In some ways, the high level of English made our trip to Bayeux easier. We could always fall back on English if our limited French wasn’t enough to make our needs understood, whether trying to find out information we needed. But, like I said, it just felt a little odd to me to be in such a historic French town and yet hearing so much English being spoken. At least, that was my impression.

Apart from the language issue, which I never really adjusted to, I found my time in Bayeux and Normandy a real pleasure – Time seemed to flow just a little bit slower there. I found it both peaceful and restful – something I was in desperate need of after a busy few months in Cape Town and a chaotic week in Paris.

I’d definitely recommend Normandy if you’re planning time in France and looking for a quieter area to spend a few days. And Bayeux is a great base from which to explore the region.

Sadly, our trip – like all good things – had to come to an end and it’s now time for us to pack our bags and head back home to Cape Town. I hope you’ve enjoyed spending a little time with me in France, both in Paris and Normandy.

I’m sure it won’t be long before the travel bug bites again, and I’ll be sharing plans for our next trip…

Normandy: Feeding the Fussy Vegetarian

An artichoke

I’m probably your worst nightmare as a dinner guest – I’m vegetarian. And also don’t eat spinach, mushrooms, olives or blue cheese…. Which automatically seems to rule out most of the dishes most people serve vegetarian guests.

It’s also why I’m generally a little nervous when I travel. There’s always the risk that I’m going to struggle to find something I can, or rather will, eat. I’m usually fine in major cities, which tend to have a broad range of food options. But sometimes I struggle when visiting smaller towns.

So I was delighted to discover that Normandy had such a rich and varied selection of food for me to choose from. Sure, there were a few restaurants where my choices were limited, but I never went to a restaurant in Normandy where my only option was a plate of fries.

In various restaurants I was able to enjoy delicious omlettes, quiches, salads and gourmet sandwiches. I even found a few restaurants that served tasty vegetarian burgers. And, of course, there was always the option of pizza or pasta.

It was also a wonderful surprise to discover that one of my favourite cheeses – Camembert is a specialty of Normandy. So we kept a good stock of it in our fridge while we were in Bayeux.

Another seasonal favourite that I was delighted to find in France was artichoke. But not artichoke as we’d find them in Cape Town, which are usually the size of a large apple. Rather, these artichokes were the size of a football – a soccer ball for my American friends. And they were delicious. Which we discovered when we cooked some in our apartments, both in Paris and Bayeux.

If you, like me, are a fussy vegetarian, I can absolutely recommend Normandy as a place to visit. I can guarantee you won’t go hungry! And I’d be happy to join you if you decide to make that your next travel destination!

Women in Publishing: A Free Online Conference for Writers and Aspiring Writers

he image is a close-up of Lois’s face with a banner
I know I’m supposed to be sharing more of my writing with you today, but I’m hijacking my own post for an important announcement for any writers or aspiring writers – especially women writers and aspiring writers.

Tomorrow, the 2020 Women in Publishing Summit kicks off – and I’m excited to be one of the speakers on the first day.

The summit is an online conference where authors, editors, designers, and publishers share valuable information to help anyone who is already a writer or is dreaming of becoming so. I’ve listened to the last two summits and have learned so much from the speakers that had been immensely helpful for my writing.

Registration for the WIP Summit is free, but you’ll gain vast amounts of additional information and resources if you upgrade to the Full Conference Pass. The conference starts on 2 March and goes on for 5 days – the free registration gives you access to each day’s content for 24 hours – and the Full Conference Pass means you can access the videos, audio and transcriptions for each session whenever you like, not to mention the many additional resources presenters have made available to the Full Conference Pass holders. And a Facebook community with year-long workshops and supports for writers and aspiring writers. Totally worth the investment you’ll be making when you buy the Full Conference Pass!

Here’s the link to the free registration: https://loisstrachan–writepublishsell.thrivecart.com/2020-wip/

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned over the past two years from the Women in Publishing Summit. And I look forward to learning even more from this year’s speakers. Why not join me and also benefit? Register today…

Celebrating Four Years

A dark-haired woman sitting on the floor with a blond labrador

Today is a special day – Fiji and I met for the very first time exactly four years ago, on 28 February 2016. I can hardly believe my beautiful guide dog and I have been working for that long. In many ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we met. Yet I can’t deny that our bond has grown much stronger over that time.

I thought it might be fun for Fiji and I to reminisce on that meeting. Here’s a transcription of our conversation.

Lois: I wasn’t certain what to expect when we first met. And I was a little nervous because I could still remember how dismissive my previous guide dog, your sister, Eccles, had been when she and I met.

Fiji: Well, mom, I was also a bit nervous – at least you’d had a guide dog before so you kind of knew what to expect. For me it was all brand new. So, when Cheryl brought me into the room, I looked at you and didn’t know what to think. Especially when you sat on the floor and watched me sniff my way around the room. I really didn’t know what you expected of me. So I eventually wandered over, as if by accident, and sat down hear you. But not too near, just in case.

Lois: I remember that. I was curious to see what you’d do. And I was glad you decided to curl up close enough that I could reach out and pat you.

Fiji: Oh come on, did you really think I’d pass up the opportunity of getting patted? You know how much I love it!

Lois: Fair enough. But I didn’t know that back then. I also remember that the first time you made me laugh was later that night, when Cheryl and I came into the room and found you curled up on my bed, with your head on my pillow. It was just so cute! So completely naughty. But so cute!

Fiji: Would you believe me if I said I was actually just trying to warm the bed up for you, Mom? Besides, it’s not like you were using it right then.

Lois: True. I really shouldn’t have left you in the room when I went to chat to Cheryl. No wonder you decided to try your luck.

Fiji: Exactly (Fiji wags her tail)

Lois: After that we got on fairly well. And we seemed to work well together.

Fiji: Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that you were already quite well trained and that I’d just need to work on a few small things to get you back into top form. Even though you did seem a bit nervous at first. So I think I managed to train you quite fast, with the help of Cheryl and Joel.

Lois: Do you remember when I went home to visit your doggy sisters during training?

Fiji: Of course I remember. I was very cross with you… And very happy when you came back the next morning, though I didn’t want to let on. I leapt up and grabbed your arm to tell you I wasn’t going to let you get away with behaviour like that again – that you were my mom and that I was to be there to look after you. And then you hugged me and I forgave you.

Lois: I think we’ve had a pretty good last four years, don’t you?

Fiji: For the most part. We’ve had some fun adventures and have met some lovely dogs and people. We’ve gone to plenty interesting places. But I’ve also been worried about you a few times -like when you tripped over that step and hurt yourself. And when you went away for a week because you got sick. And when you left me with dad and went to do something in Ghana. I always miss you when you go away without me. Because I love working with you and want to be with you always.

Lois: I know sometimes I go places without you. I always want to take you, but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I always come home, don’t I?

Fiji: Yes, you do. And then I grab your arm again to remind you that your place is with me and my place is with you. And then you hug me and everything’s fine again.

Lois: So, Fiji, what’s going to happen in the next four years?

Fiji: I think you’re going to walk me three times a day every day. And you’re going to start feeding me lunch as well as breakfast and supper. And you’re going to actually let me chase the squirrels when we see them.

Lois: Umm, maybe not.

Fiji: Oh. Well, I had to ask…

Fiji and I also want to send out a huge thank you to those who have been part of her journey to this point – her puppy walkers, Jenny and Mike, Beata and Piotr, all the wonderful people at the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind, the hundreds of adults and children that Fiji and I have been privileged to talk to, and of course all our friends and family – human and canine!

Thinking about the first day I met Fiji makes me realize how much independence she’s given me and how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the time we’ve been working together. She is a generous-natured and loving dog with a number of unique quirks – some of them totally endearing… some not so much. As I write this, she’s lying curled up by my feet, enjoying the cool air from the ceiling fan. With one eye and ear open, just in case I need her to do something.

You’ll be able to read more about our adventures together when the updated version of A Different Way of Seeing 2.0 gets released shortly – as an ebook and as an audio book. There’s plenty of Fiji stories in the book, I promise!

Happy anniversary to us, Fiji – and many more wonderful years of working and playing together!

Normandy – Mont-Saint-Michel

Mont-Saint-Michel

I wasn’t certain what to expect as we boarded the bus for the short trip across the causeway to Mont-San-Michel. Yes, I knew it was an island with only one point of entry across the causeway. Yes, I knew there was an abandoned medieval monastery soaring above the tiny piece of land. But beyond that, I really had no idea what to expect when we clambered off the bus along with the rest of the tourists visiting the site.

Mont-Saint-Michel has been at various times a trading post, the site of a medieval monastery, a place of pilgrimage, and a prison. The first religious house was built during the 8th Century BCE, and the garrisoned island successfully fended off attacks from English forces during the 100 Years War between England and France in the 15th Century BCE. The prestige of the abbey had declined by the time of the French Revolution and it was converted into a prison. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and it was declared a historic monument in 1874. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site that is visited by almost 3 million tourists a year.

While it’s possible to cross from the mainland to the island at low tide, you may only do so with a guide due to the extensive quicksand that serves as a natural defence for the island. Generally visitors are carried across the causeway by bus or horse carriage. From the point where you disembark from the transport, you start to climb as you enter the cobbled streets of the village that supported the abbey, monastery and the garrison. Right from the start you’re aware of the way the abbey buildings tower high above the village, almost appearing to defy gravity as they cling to the summit of this tiny island. Nowadays the town has mostly been converted into shops and restaurants catering to the visitors, much as they would have done to those who came to the abbey on pilgrimage. I was amazed at how small and crowded the buildings in the village seem, but that may just have been due to the large numbers of tourist and school groups.

From the town you start climbing stone stairs up to the monastery and abbey. I suppose it’s not such a long climb but, as we climbed higher, I began to feel exposed and my vertigo began to set in in a bad way. It felt like an eternity before we finally arrived at the office where we could buy tickets to see the ruins of the monastery and abbey and by that time, I was a nervous wreck. I know it may seem strange that a person without sight can suffer from vertigo but, for me, it feels like I am constantly standing on a precipice and that I’m likely to overbalance at any moment. I decided to rather find a secure place to wait and let Craig carry on with the tour without either of us having to worry that I was going to have a panic attack. Or that I was about to fall off the side of the mountain.

I found a stone ledge where I could sit and spent the next half hour watching the people coming out of the site. I was frankly amazed at how nonchalantly the throngs of school children, both French and English, leapt down the uneven stone stairs that had caused me such stress. But I was probably filtering what I was hearing through my own anxiety. At least I was far from the only person who decided to wait there. Several others did so too. And they weren’t blind!

Was the trip to Mont-Saint-Michel a waste of my time? By no means – I may not have managed to experience the entire site, but the ambiance of the parts that I was able to experience made it worthwhile. Perhaps I would have felt more able to go further if the weather had been clear rather than the intermittent gentle rain that made the stones somewhat slippery and added to my anxiety. I enjoyed being able to visit various buildings in the town and imagining what they might have been like in medieval times. I also enjoyed the feeling of antiquity that seems to permeate every stone. And I found the story of the site interesting as I always do.

A note to travellers in wheelchairs: I’d suggest contacting the site ahead of time to see if your needs can be accommodated. I didn’t see an easy way to access the site, but there may have been options of which I wasn’t aware.

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