Remembering When Ontario Was an Oil Power

oil-pump-jack-sunset-clouds-silhouette-162568.jpgHere's a column from a couple of weeks ago that I wrote for the Kitchener Post. Did you know that we're coming up on the 160th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Oil Springs, Ontario?

Forgetting our fossil fuel past

Did you know that next year is the 160th anniversary of the day Ontario became an oil power?

In August 1858, an asphalt producer named James Miller Williams tried to dig a water well in a southwestern Ontario community called Black Creek.

Instead, what he got was crude oil.

His discovery launched North America's first ever oil rush. The community of Black Creek soon renamed itself Oil Springs.

You can learn about this and more at the Oil Museum of Canada, currently located in Oil Springs, within Lambton County.

Ontario tends to forget its history in oil and natural gas. Our diverse economy softened the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuels as our commodities were taken out of the ground and oil wells ran dry over the next century.

Soon, we were eclipsed by Texas and Alberta.

When I researched Ontario's oil industry's 150th anniversary 10 years ago, I was struck by several things. I was surprised to learn that Ontario was still producing over a thousand barrels of oil a day. True, that was dwarfed by the millions Alberta was producing at the same time, but it was still not a small number.

And, at the time, as oil prices were shooting through the roof, energy companies were still exploring in Ontario. Most of our oil wells might be dry, but there were still untapped gas reserves in Lake Erie.

Despite all this, I was struck by how the anniversary had passed almost unheralded. We make such of a kerfuffle over a sesquicentennial and yet, I saw no advertisements promoting the anniversary or the Oil Museum of Canada. My profile of Ontario's industry was one of the few things written on the matter.

Today, now that fossil fuel prices have tumbled and are only slowly recovering, I wonder at the state of oil and gas exploration here in Ontario.

People couldn't make the connection between Ontario and oil 10 years ago when oil prices were high. Today, many could be forgiven for thinking that the province has moved on from the industry.

Recent advances in solar power have made this energy source as inexpensive as fossil fuels. More and more houses, mine included, now have solar panels on their roofs. While it is true that solar power provides just two per cent of our energy production, solar power capacity has been doubling every two years since the beginning of this decade.

Electric cars were unfeasible, or playthings for the rich. Now, they can handle the drive between Kitchener and Toronto, and their price and quality is comparable to good conventional cars. Charging stations in Ontario are becoming easier to find.

Earlier this week, 25 years after the Toronto Transit Commission abandoned its electric trolley buses, the TTC announced plans to purchase 30 battery-electric buses which could be plying the streets by 2020. These buses are not much more expensive than their diesel counterparts. The commission plans to go emission free by 2040.

It's hard to imagine the world of the future when you are living in the present. However, it's worth remembering that, for a long time, Ontario was the centre of Canada's oil industry.

Thanks to a diversified economy, new technologies, and the limited nature of non-renewable resources, we now live in a time where our oil heritage has been largely forgotten.

So, while it may be hard to imagine a solar-powered, electric vehicle future, a time will come very soon where we can hardly imagine a fossil fueled past.


Dealing with the Night
(A Lost Night Girl Scene)


It might not look it, but the version of The Night Girl that REUTS Publications will be publishing in Winter 2018-19 is actually the second major rewrite of the story. Don't get me wrong: the book was probably rewritten dozens of times, but those were minor and major revisions that built on the underlying structure of the book. The bulk of The Night Girl was written and honed between 2003 and 2009 and shopped around for a couple of years before I gave up and wondered if the book was a failure. In 2013, at the behest of my agent who had finished helping me rework Icarus Down for publication, I embarked on a bottom-up rethink and rewrite of the story, adding a major antagonist and expanding the word count from 69,000 to over 90,000.

In between was a two year period where J.M. Frey got ahold of a copy of the story and gave it a serious editorial going over. Her advice was very good, and it led to its own rewrite of the story. She focused on the relationship between the characters Perpetua and Fergus, targetting the earlier critique that their romance seemed forced. She agreed, but disagreed with the earlier editor's suggestion that the romance be dropped altogether. Instead, it needed to be developed. In her words:

I feel like we're missing half the story. We see a lot of Perpetua at work, which is the central theme of the book, but equally important to the outcome of the plot is her relationship with Fergus. And that isn't given equal screen time.

So, when she yells that he's her boyfriend, my thought was, "Is he? You've only kissed him once." I would like to see them exhausted, sacked on her sofa after both their shifts. I want to see them on Saturdays when she is bored and playing with Pixel and he has to study. I want to go with them to the Ex, where they get those photo booth pictures taken. I want to see them have a spat and make up on the streetcar. And I want to see the goblins watching them as they do it. It is Perpetua's relationship with Fergus is the driving force for the goblins coming out, and as such I need to be as invested in it as the reader as I am in Perpetua's job. (And I feel like your word count is low enough that you can wiggle a few more chapters in there without having to worry that the book is too long for the age range).

This directly led to the scene quoted below and more like it, as we got to see more of Perpetua and Fergus at play. They did actually go to the Ex, and have a spat and make up. The advice helped a lot, I think, but I don't think I took the story far enough, which is why I ended up embarking on a second bottom-up rewrite just two years later. While I was fixing the (real? Perhaps maybe 'other'?) main problem of the story -- which involved dropping one antagonist (human) and replacing him with another (faerie), and restructuring the hidden society accordingly -- I wrote with an eye to Perpetua and Fergus' relationship, trying to develop it within the framework of the plot rather than with scenes that were a bit on the outside of the plot. And I hope I've succeeded. But as a result, a few scenes that I liked in the second major draft did not make it to the third, and I've included one below.

Here, we see Perpetua dealing with the harsh realities of the night shift, and Fergus helping her along. As you can well imagine, Perpetua is not a person who likes waking up early...

In her bedroom, Perpetua laid face first on her bed, her snores muffled by her pillow. Pixel curled up beside her. The sunlight against the window set the curtains aglow. Outside, the city growled. Beneath her, the ground rumbled with a passing subway, sending the water in her bedside glass rippling and the glasses tinkling in her kitchen cabinets.

The phone rang. The machine clicked to answer it, but the line went dead. A moment later, the phone rang again. Again, the machine clicked to answer it, but the line went dead. The phone rang a third time.

Perpetua reached from her bed and patted at her bedside table, knocking over a book and a glass before finding the phone and pulling the receiver to her ear. Her voice croaked. "Okay, whoever this is, you are about to incur my wrath."

The voice at the other end was infuriatingly chipper. "Hey, Tua? You up yet?"

"Fergus? Why are you incurring my wrath?"

"It's two in the afternoon," he said. "This is your wake-up call."

"Fergus! It's Saturday! I don't have to go to work on Saturday!"

"Trust me," he said. He could hear her grinning. It grated on her ears. "It's important that you wake up, right now."

"You are so dead! You and all chipper people like you!"

"You'd have to wake up in order to find me first."

"Fergus, I've been graded for papers I don't remember turning in. There's no telling what I can do with any handy sharp object, and did you know that sleepwalking is a valid defence in court?"

"Seriously, though," he said, and he sounded it. "When did you fall into bed? Six a.m.? Six-thirty?"


"And when did you actually get to sleep?"

Perpetua kept a mutinous silence.


She said nothing.


"Fergus, what do you want with me?" she howled.

"To help you wake up. Look, I'm coming over."

"If you come here, you'll only make it easier for me to kill you."

"And I'm bringing coffee."

She paused. "Okay. You get to live. Provisionally."

"Be right there."

"Fine," she mumbled. And she let the phone drop onto the floor.

She blinked, and fifteen minutes passed. Someone was knocking on the door.

The New Look

pexels-photo-211122.jpgMy regular readers to this blog (I do still have regular readers, don't I?) may have noticed a new look to the place. A change was overdue.

At CANSCAIP's Packaging Your Imagination conference, I was given reason to have a good hard think about my whole online presence. It's been literally years since there's been a blogosphere. The action that used to happen among Canadian bloggers moved over to Twitter and Facebook by 2012. The number of comments i receive here has diminished. And I couldn't help but notice that writers like Arthur Slade were making their online presence felt far better than I was without a blog. Of course, the caveat there is that Mr. Slade is far more prominent an author than I am, and so can import a lot of his fan base into a mailing list that he can build and build. However, you have to start somewhere, so I gave some serious thought about ending this blog and moving over to a mailing list.

But I got further advice from two people I met at the Packaging Your Imagination conference during an audit of my online presence. Websites, they said, still matter. Because kids these days are turning away from Facebook and Twitter. They've moved onto platforms that I have no experience with whatsoever, but rather than chase them, this site is still an opportunity for them to come to me, eventually.

However, I needed a new look that wasn't rooted in 2005. I needed to put my books front and centre (or, at least, in the top right corner (see above). I needed to declutter and make it easier for prospective readers to see who I am and what I am selling. And I needed my front page to be more dynamic -- no more hiding my blog behind an initial splash page.

They also recommended that I switch over from Movable Type to WordPress, and while that advice is good in theory, I did find the prospect of transferring over and learning a new platform just too daunting. So, Movable Type this site remains. This slightly modified Movable Type theme (called Rainier) also offers a big advantage in being mobile-friendly -- something I wasn't able to achieve with my previous design.

My blogging output has suffered in the past couple of years, especially this past year, as I dealt with deadlines, and also a pure lack of energy brought on by life events. However, I still find the blog useful, even if the audiences aren't what they were in blogging's glory days. It has helped me remember past events that I would have forgotten -- like the online diary that this blog was started as back in 2002, written primarily for my own benefit, and the interest of whoever might be passing. So, I guess I'm still into blogging. It remains an outlet for my writing that I'm not interested in giving up.

There will be further changes to this site in the coming days as I complete the renovations. I may still set up a mailing list. Either way, stay tuned, as I continue to send out words into the ether, regardless of who's around to hear them.

If you're here to hear them, thank you. It's good to talk to you.

Books #43, 44, 45, 46, 47 and 48

books-43-48.jpgIn the past fourteen months or so since I last reported, I've had a good haul of books come my way. Well, technically, Icarus Down was earlier than October, but it's book #43. Since then, I took part in three Crabtree series, one on medieval life (trade and warfare), one on Mapping the Modern World, and one on new technology, bringing the number of books with my name on the cover to 48. What book will be number 50?

With luck, it should arrive next year. Throughout 2017, even though my fiction output lagged, I was lucky to receive commissions for a number of projects for a number of different publishers. In fact, I worked on no less than ten books ranging in topic and audience from a high school book about hydro and wave power (I loved doing that one; the subject matter was quite meaty, and the audience meant that I could devote 14,000 words on it. It also paid a decent rate), to a series of books for grade 1-3 students about vehicles "on the job" (which are short, to the point, and actually quite a lot of fun).

I don't know when these books are going to be published. I assume they'll be for next year, but some may not appear until 2019. These ten will take me up to book number 58, making me wonder what will be book number 60?

In terms of my fiction, The Night Girl is still sitting pretty as a Winter 2018-19 release, and I expect to get started on edits this coming spring. Maybe that will be book 60.

When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I was thinking in terms of fiction books. I never expect to have so many books written. I count myself lucky to be able to do this, and hope to push on to book #100. Fingers crossed...

The Places Where We Remember

ttc-4449-york-20171123.jpgA year and a week ago, I learned that my mother had stage four pancreatic cancer. And the way I heard about it sticks in my mind.

I had no idea that my mother was so sick. She was having trouble with blood clots in her legs, and she had been prescribed anti-clotting medication to deal with them, but other than that there were only small hints that we came to realize were symptoms, after the fact. Then, one day, she accidentally took two doses at once and, fearing an overdose, checked herself into hospital, just in case. The nurses laughed a little at her worry and calmed her down. It was unlikely she overdosed. However, she did complain about a pain in her back, and thinking this was odd, one of the nurses checked it out. Suddenly, it wasn't a laughing matter anymore.

Of course, we didn't think so at the time, but in a way, I think that this accidental diagnosis was lucky. No, it wasn't early enough to stave off the inevitable, but it did alert us to what would happen over the next seven weeks before my mother died. We still weren't prepared, but we did get some time together to say goodbye.

But what I remember most about that day, however, was going into Toronto. It was later than I usually do, but I was planning to take the ferry to Ward's Island and take some time lapse footage for the Night Girl book trailer. I would attend the launch party of JM Frey's Forgotten Tale. I boarded the subway at Yorkdale station, and dove underground where the cellphone signals couldn't reach me, and when I emerged at the streetcar stop at Queen's Quay and York Street, I began taking pictures, before I noticed that there were messages on my phone.

It was my father, calling from the hospital, crying. He was calling from the hospital's payphone, so I couldn't call back. I could only listen in stunned silence to the news and the prognosis. I crossed the streetcar tracks, probably not looking where I was going, and found a place to sit down, just absorbing and dealing with what I'd been told. I cried. Quietly. Then I called Erin, as I strode back towards Union Station looking to catch the express train home.

I did manage to get home in time to head to the hospital and have a relatively normal conversation with my mother, but of course everything had changed in that moment. And that moment has a very specific place.

A few times, now, I find myself coming back to that streetcar stop on Queen's Quay and just standing there, watching the cars go by and the people, and I remember. It's not quiet. It's not restful. Today, it was bitterly cold. But, strangely enough, being there is helpful. It's like a grave site to me. I think I'm going to be going back there again and again.

Last year, I missed the TD Book Awards Gala because of my mother's diagnosis. To put it mildly, I wasn't in a celebratory mood. However, earlier this week, Erin, Vivian and I went into Toronto (with thanks to Eric for picking up Vivian from school and watching Nora for the evening) to attend this year's gala. It was time to sparkle.

This year, a lot of time was spent remembering Sheila Barry, a renown editor most recently with Groundwood Books, who passed away unexpectedly due to complications from cancer earlier this month. A eulogy to her life and contributions received a standing ovation from the crowd. That was right and appropriate. I was, however, surprised and appreciative to hear other names read out afterward in memorandum, and to hear my mother's name listed among them. It was a bit of a shock, for myself and Vivian -- we were not expecting it -- but it was right and appropriate, and I am grateful that she was remembered.

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