Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Connecting to Creativity in Muskoka

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By Lizann Flatt

I’ve been living in Muskoka for some 18 years now. I moved here as a result of my husband’s job and, while raising our three kids, I’ve spent my spare minutes writing and/or freelance editing. Is it hard to be a writer in a rural area outside of the cultural and cutting-edge vibe of a metropolitan city? No — not, as it turns out, if that rural area is Muskoka. The more Muskoka-based writers I’ve gotten to know over the years, the more I’ve seen the connection to being inspired by Muskoka’s natural beauty and the desire to help our peers, no matter what genres we write in.

Early in my life here, I met up with Caroline Rennie Pattison and Wendy Hogarth. We were all writing for children or teens so we got together to give each other feedback and encouragement. Caroline, now the author of the teen novel series The Sarah Martin Mysteries, says, “I've been fortunate to meet other writers in Muskoka who have inspired and supported my growth as a writer.” She adds, “Muskoka provides beautiful landscapes... and the setting for the Sarah books.”

You can’t be up here for any length of time and not be familiar with Andrew Wagner-Chazalon’s non-fiction writing. “As a newspaper and magazine writer/editor, I write primarily about the side of Muskoka known to cottagers — the lakes, the boats, the buildings, the artists (from visual to culinary to literary) and the environment,” says Wagner-Chazalon. Add to that three non-fiction books about Muskoka and a recently published novel for young readers. Although his novel Frontlines (Walden House) doesn’t have anything of Muskoka in it, he says, “it too is a result of a collaboration of sorts, as another Muskoka writer named Bryan Dearsley and I discovered we were both doing young [adult] books at the same time and encouraged each other to complete them.”

And Bryan Dearsley’s novel? Alex Mortimer and the Beast of Wildeor (Walden House) does have a strong Muskoka connection. Dearsley says, “The fictional Alex Mortimer hails from the very real Mortimers Point, and is a 14-year-old stoker aboard the RMS Segwun. And Wildeor, a kind of conservation area for mythical and fantastical creatures, is a little like Algonquin [Park], but instead of deer and moose, it's full of rather more interesting — and often more dangerous! — creatures, such as the “Beast” of the title.”

And there are other ways in which writers find Muskoka seeping into their writing. Cathy Olliffe-Webster says Muskoka claims the scenery in her manuscript, but adds: “It’s also the simpler country lifestyle, the warmth of nice people in January cold and the “knowing” of everybody in the local diner, from the two gossipy church biddies to the thin-elbowed waitress dishing up pie and good coffee.”

There’s much to be said for the connection between a simpler Muskoka lifestyle and the warmth of its people. Cindy Watson, author of Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story (Dundurn Press) moved to Muskoka and found “a rich artistic community that let me reconnect with my creative side. A step removed from the city-search for the almighty dollar, you can’t help but be touched by the abundance of natural beauty surrounding you and to be inspired to create something rich and meaningful in return.”

Many, like literary science fiction/fantasy author Karen Wehrstein, seek out Muskoka’s surroundings. “I actually moved from Toronto to Muskoka so as to have a better writing environment,” says Wehrstein. “Here when it’s dark at night, it’s truly dark, and when it’s quiet, it’s truly quiet — you don’t get that in the city, and the mind needs an internal blank canvas on which to create, or at least that’s how it is for me.”

There are many open writing groups that help writers create, from the virtual “Muskoka Ink” email list moderated by Wehrstein to those that meet in person. Author of erotic romance Jacqueline Stirrup (pen name Fyn Alexander) says, “What has surprised me about Muskoka is the number of writer's groups and writing events available. It seems every town has its own writers' group.” Jacqueline herself benefits from attending Gravenhurst’s Blank Page group founded by Carl Bedal. “The group has had its ups and downs but the kindness and patience of the other members in listening to and responding to other writers has helped me immensely.”

In talking to other writers about their literary lives, there’s one big writing event that many credit as having a huge impact on their careers: the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a weekend where writers gather in one space to write as much as they can while raising money for the YMCA Literacy Programs in Huntsville. Cheryl Cooper, author of the historical adventure romance novel Come Looking for Me (Dundurn Press), says, “My participation in the [marathon] changed my life. It was there that I began writing the manuscript that would become Come Looking for Me, and the injection of confidence I so badly needed at this point in my life came when all six of the marathon judges gave me top honours, and encouraged me to keep writing and finish my story.”

Similarly, Paula Boon says “Entering ... in 2005 was the best thing I could have done for myself as a writer.... My 2006 marathon manuscript was the one that got me an agent in New York and came THIS close to being published.” Sharon Ledwith, author of the middle-grade time-travel adventure The Lost Timekeepers and the Arch of Atlantis says: “I usually use this event to kick off a new book.”

For Dawn Huddlestone the marathon has given her writing connections she feels she might not otherwise have found, and for that she’s giving back: “I am excited to be one of the co-conveners for the 2013 marathon, particularly so that I make those types of connections happen for other writers.” As Karen Wehrstein, both a regular participant and one of the recent organizers, says, “The love, inspiration and energy that these people bring and share has to be experienced to be believed.” I have to agree. I participated for the first time this past summer, and it gave me the time, supportive peer pressure and encouragement to try writing in a new genre.

Why does Muskoka have so much to offer its writers? Andrew Wagner-Chazalon states, “The really cool thing about Muskoka is that it’s a creative crossroads, a place where those with an appetite for the arts (and the money to feed that appetite) meet the creators. That connection is essential for the artists who build remarkable homes and cottages, and the artists who craft wooden boats and the artists who paint and sculpt and throw and carve. It’s less so for we writers, but it is still very helpful.” And with such a diverse and strong creative community, Wagner-Chazalon says “it’s very easy to find support from other artists who will challenge you and force you to be good. Creative standards here are very high, but so is the level of support if you get stuck.”

So there may be some who think we’re stuck in the hinterlands up in Muskoka all year, but for those of us living literary lives here, the creative connections make it all worthwhile.

To find out more about Literary Life in Muskoka, read Lizann's Five Things Literary: Muskoka.

Lizann Flatt has written many books, short stories and poems for children. A former editor of chickaDEE magazine, she has won many honors, including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers. She lives in Muskoka, which regularly inspires her writing. She used the nature she sees regularly, from blackberries and bears to the beavers in her backyard, in her Math in Nature series: Counting on Fall is the first of four seasonally themed books published by OwlKids Books that invite children to think about how funny it would be if animals used math concepts the way people do.

Her regular trips from the village of Baysville to the bigger Muskoka towns got her thinking about how different life would be if we couldn’t get places quickly and easily, and that was the inspiration for Let’s Go! The Story of Getting from There to Here (OwlKids Books), a non-fiction picture book on the history or transportation. Find out more about Lizann at her website,

For more information about Counting on Fall please visit the OwlKids Books website.

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

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