25th Trillium Award

At the Desk: Jo Shawyer

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Jo Shawyer's workspace

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book?s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

As a writer of historical fiction, Jo Shawyer's "desk" takes many forms, especially when she is trying to get a sense of place and atmosphere. In today's At the Desk essay, she describes how daily walks, mid-morning coffee breaks and visits to former battlegrounds helped her compose her newest novel, Legend of the Paymaster's Gold (Dundurn), which unfolds on Commissioner's Road near London, Ontario.


I have many workspaces. Some are for thinking. Some are for writing. Some are indoors. Some are outdoors. They can be anywhere and anytime. They all contribute to my writing.

One workspace is my daily walk. I go by myself, for an hour, every day. This is thinkspace. This is when ideas swim to the surface of my mind. It may be a theme which could be the beginning of a new story. Or, I may suddenly think of a different way to give my character some quirky identifying feature. In Legend of the Paymaster's Gold, Dave, the librarian, appeared in my thoughts on such a walk: "Very tall. Very thin. Very tattooed. Very pierced."

Another outside workspace is field work. When I create a story, I like to know for myself, first hand, where my story takes place. To give an example, the Legend of the Paymaster's Gold is a story about an alleged military skirmish on a particular hill on a particular road near London, Ontario, during the War of 1812. I have walked along that road, and up and down that hill. I observed that the hill was so steep that the road wound up the hill in a hairpin bend. So tight a bend that I could not see around it. Because I had actually been there, on that hill, I could accurately describe it for my readers. They can fully understand the skirmish fought on that steep hill: that the British soldiers could not see the American soldiers chasing them because of the sharp bend in the road.

I have indoor workspaces too. I go to the library and I Google to learn more about the historical period which I am describing in my story. The more I know about the context for my story, the more secure I feel that the fictional story which I am writing is plausible. And that's important for historical fiction. For example, I read a number of documented incidents from the War of 1812 about Americans from Detroit coming into Canadian territory to harass the British settlers. They set fire to their grist mills. They stole their cattle. There were even reports of kidnapping. This knowledge of history gave me the understanding I needed to describe just such an incident which involved Annie Wareham and her family in Legend of the Paymaster's Gold.

Another indoor space is a cosy chair in my kitchen, with a view out a huge window to a line of hills beyond. In this space I relax with my coffee mid-morning. I unwind my mind, and let my thoughts wander. Then my brain often sends me messages: "Check this," "Google that," "Describe Old Mr. Tucker more fully."

Like my kitchen coffee break, I have other spaces where I relax my mind: my painting table where I practice botanical art; my two evenings a week when I enjoy Country dancing; a Reading Group where I widen my experience of modern novels. All these spaces stimulate my mind and feed into my writing process.

And of course I have a desk in my study, with writing space and a computer. My study is book-lined and paper-stuffed. I like to have many projects on the go at the same time: books, memoirs, articles, fiction and non-fiction. Each project generates its own pile of papers which is stored in its own box: research notes, field notes, thoughts from my walk. I work from each box in turn, shaping the writing, which for me is a continuous, cumulative process.

Jo Shawyer has been writing all her life as a university professor. Now retired, she has turned to writing fiction, creating exciting stories from her wealth of research material. She is the author of Twenty-Dollar Reward. Jo Shawyer lives in St. John?s, Newfoundland.

For more information about Legend of the Paymaster's Gold please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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