Q&A


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS



Q: What made you decide to become a writer?

A: A few things prompted my life as a writer. The first one happened when I was in Grade 4. My teacher, Miss Day, handed back a story I'd written and said, "You know Margaret, I think that some day you will become a writer." I'll always remember that encouragement. It stayed with me for many years.

The second reason is this: I love reading. And you'll find that many writers are avid readers who at some point say, "I think I could write a book, too." And then they do it!

The third reason I turned to writing began with a trip to an island near my cottage in NW Ontario. I went to the island to clear away an old garbage dump, so my daughter and her cousins could play on it in safety. While clearing away rusting tin cans and broken bottles, I found an old pair of spectacles. I thought to myself, "I wonder what would happen if I put these on and was suddenly able to "see" into the past?" If you've read Who Is Frances Rain, you'll know that this is exactly what happens to my main character. She finds a pair of spectacles on an island and is able to see into the past. So, you see, when I found those glasses, I also found a story in it - a story that came from them and from my own imagination.


Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an author?

A: I've always enjoyed writing, but I didn't think about being a published writer for the longest time. I went to art school at the University of Manitoba and was an artist for many years. It was only when my daughter was about 13 that I finally decided to try writing a book.


Q: When did you start writing ?

A: I started writing in about 1985. My first book was published in 1987. It took me over a year to write Who Is Frances Rain?


Q: Where did you get the idea of writing Francis Rain? Is it based on a True Story?

A: I got the idea from clearing away that old garbage dump on an island near our cottage and finding the pair of spectacles. It was those small wire glasses that made me decide to write the story about a girl who, when she puts on the glasses, goes into the past to help a ghost solve a problem and find some peace. It is not based on a real story, but on fragments of things I've read, dreams, bits of my own life, and, of course, mainly my imagination - which has always worked overtime!

Q: What do you think was your most successful book?

A: Who Is Frances Rain? is the book that started it all and it is still selling many copies every year. But all of my other books have become best sellers too, and have been published all over the world.


Q: Do you involve your friends or family in your writing?

A: My daughter always reads my books before I send them to my editor at Kids Can and she gives me lots of great advice about what is working in a manuscript and what isn't. I call her my own personal "in-house" editor! My younger sister, Erna, is also one of my readers and helped me a lot with my manuscripts.


Q: How do you organize your ideas?

A: I organize my ideas on paper in the form of an outline - an outline that will change and alter as I write the novel, of course. I find keeping notes in this way and even more notes to myself as I go along, really helps to keep me on track.


Q: Do you ever think about what it would be like if you were a certain character?

A: I think about what it is like to be a certain character the whole time I'm writing about him or her. I think most writers do. That way, a writer can understand the fears, worries and actions of a character much better and make them more realistic.


Q: Who is your favorite author? Why? Did he or she inspire you to write?

A: I have many authors that I enjoy reading. My tastes in books is as mixed as my taste in music and art. I like everything from classics to the latest works. I also enjoy biographies and non fiction books on history and writing. To tell you the truth, I couldn't pick just one favorite from all of the authors that write for children because so many of them are absolutely wonderful, especially Canadian writers. I think a number of writers inspired me for many different reasons. A few of my favorite writers of adult works are John Mortimer, Barbara Pym, Jane Austen and many different mystery writers like Reginald Hill and Ruth Rendell.


Q: Are all your books are about ghosts?

A: No. My fantasy series isn’t a "Buffie-style" ghost story. However, six of my books are. I suppose I could write a story about an every day kid, doing every day things, solving every day problems, like so many other writers do - and, in fact, if you read my books you'll see that I do exactly that, too. However, I always have an added element - spirits from the "other side", or I take that "ordinary" person and put them into a fantasy setting. Most of the spirits in my ghost stories are unhappy. They seem to be "earth-bound" because of an unhappy event that happened to them. When my character helps the ghost, she also learns how to solve her problems in the "real" world, too. So, in a way, you see, I use the ghosts as a means of helping the main characters understand the world around them better. I also use fantasy in the same way.


Q: Have you ever written a book on personal experience ?

A: Yes, I have. There are always bits and pieces of my own experience in every book, but Angels Turn Their Backs, which is about a girl suffering from the emotional illness agoraphobia, is based on my own experience of living with someone who was agoraphobic for many years - and who is now perfectly well and healthy. Hundreds of thousands of young people suffer from some form of anxiety/panic illness in North America. It can show up as the fear of going to school or the fear of being in a crowded mall or movie theatre, and even - at its most extreme - fear of leaving your own house. I wanted to show young readers that this type of anxiety/panic disorder is not something to be ashamed of and is very treatable once help is found. I get letters from young people who have had or still suffer from this type of illness.


Q: What do you do when you get writer's block?

A: Writer's block, for me, happens when I'm really tired, or when a story isn't going the way I want it to. Then I have to take time off, rest and rethink the plot or the character's motives. Once I figure out how to solve the problem I'm back at work. It takes me over a year to write a book because after I finish the first draft, I rewrite it a few times, and then I edit, edit, edit, and that can be very tiring, indeed. However, writer's block doesn't last more than a day or two for me.


Q: What's your favorite book and what inspired you to write it?

A: I don't have a favorite book of my own - because each one was inspired from something different - something that intrigued me. I've grown to love all of my characters - so I can't say I like one over the other, just in case I hurt one of the other character's feelings!


Q: If you weren't an author, what would you want to be?

A: I'm a painter as well as a writer, so I can't pick that, so ... let's see... I think I'd like to be a potter like Toothy Tim in Who Is Frances Rain? I'd like to have a potter's wheel and a kiln and make interesting things out of clay and sell them.


Q: What's your favorite book growing up?

A:  When I was very young, I especially liked Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and loved many of the old fairy tales too.

Q: Are any of your characters based on people you know?

A: I suppose the answer to that is, "in a way " I don't want to hurt anyone by portraying them completely in a story, but I must confess there are "bits and pieces" of people I've know or have met here and there in my books. You can't avoid it. Some people are just too interesting not to take a little part of them and use it!


Q: Did you write a lot when you were a teenager?

A: I wrote a few short stories in class and that's about it. There wasn't the same emphasis on creative writing when I was young – not like the terrific programs available today. And of course, there were very few Canadian writers for kids to identify with when I was younger. Canadian children's writing has only really blossomed in the past fifteen years or so.


Q: How do you think of a way to start your very first sentence in a book?

A: I try to start my book well into the action of the story and I always try to make the first sentence intriguing, so that the reader will want to read on. Oddly enough, the first sentence is often the hardest one to write!


Q: How do the ideas for your books come to you?

A: Sometimes an idea comes to me in a physical form, like the spectacles in Who Is Frances Rain? And sometimes it comes from experiences (I visited a haunted ranch in Alberta and that's where the idea for My Mother's Ghost came from), and sometimes it's from something I've read. Ideas can come from anywhere at all. A writer is always on the look-out for story ideas.


Q: Is being an author your only job, or do you work elsewhere?

A: Being a writer is my full time job. It's the best job in the world. I live in an imaginary world, making up people and stories. Storytelling is a lot of fun and a great way to make a living!


Q: Which character in all of your books describes you the best?

A: The character that describes me best is probably Gran in Who Is Frances Rain? and Mom in Angels Turn Their Backs , although I don't look anything like them.


Q: How do your stories build, and stay realistic?

A: I build my stories through a carefully planned outline and a series of questions and answers which I pose to myself. As the storyline grows in outline form, I try to determine which chapters would be best to have important dialogue or actions in, so that they will add to the growing tension or suspense in the story. If my characters are real to me, and the storyline is charged with emotions that make me feel things along with the characters, then I know that my story is as realistic as I can make it. But it's always a struggle.



Q: Here are a series of new questions I'm being asked by students, teachers and readers.

Why did you decide to write the trilogy of fantasy books called The Watcher's Quest Series?

Why did you set the stories in parallel worlds? Did your research include ancient legends?

Did you have a set goal in using the genre of "otherworld" or "classic" fantasy?

A: Get ready, because this is a really long answer! When I started the novel, THE WATCHER, I hadn't intended to write what some might call a "traditional" fantasy. In fact, I was SURE I couldn't write a so-called classical fantasy. Many of my readers certainly expect elements of the supernatural in my novels - elements that wind through the problems of the young protagonists, but those supernatural events are used as metaphors, as analogies, as a means of exploring the problems which face these young people. But Emma's story was different. Now I can't honestly say I've read much classical fantasy which usually takes place entirely in a fully created world other than Earth. And so, if I didn't read much classical fantasy, how could I dare try to write one? Maybe I could simply do my own form of fantasy using Earth as my base. Earth is where my main character, Emma, grew up. Then, despite trying to keep her story here on Earth, other worlds - parallel worlds - kept intruding into my and Emma's life. And so - an otherworldly fantasy was happening whether I liked it or not. And, best of all, it turned out to be great fun to write!

There's a serious underside to the story, too - dealing with issues like ... what makes a real family, indeed what makes us human, and how do we live in this human world of ours when so much of it seems to be just a big game of some kind. Why do we continue to struggle to figure out the rules and to decide whether the rules are fair or not - but mainly this book was written because I wanted to see what "other" magical worlds "could" be out there and how they might deal with similar issues. However, during the writing of The Watcher, Emma and I only got a tiny taste of the possible realms that existed. And there was so much unfinished business to deal with, that I knew I had to write another one - perhaps even TWO more books.
THE SEEKER is set mostly in that series of different parallel worlds I'd created. Emma has to explore them in her Seeker's Quest, in order to find her mother's real daughter, who was stolen at birth, and her father Dennis Sweeney, who was kept behind on Earth as a prisoner when the family was brought to Argadnel.
Some readers might think that when Emma is on Earth she's in the "real" world - and when she goes to these other places she moves into the realms of fantasy - and that the real world and those fantasy worlds are separate, incompatible places. However, after writing these stories, and working on the third which I called THE FINDER, I've discovered that fantasy and realism are not separate worlds, opposed and incompatible. Often they blend and blur. And the borders where this blending takes place is the territory I'm exploring in these three fantasies.

The ancient Celts of Earth … in fact, many ancient cultures, believed that realism and fantasy, indeed, were not separate entities or places, but two parts of the same world. The material and the spiritual were not separate places with borders that one could never cross. In the old legends, for example, a forest could be just a forest, or it could be the home of a strange otherworldy creature seen rarely by humans - or - even more interesting - it could be BOTH at the same time. That was the way the Celts looked at their universe. In seeing the world this way, it formed a respect and appreciation for all created things. Even inanimate objects such as rocks and mountains were given inner spirits and therefore had energy and force. Their beliefs created bridges, gateways, portals and doors from the so called "real world" to otherworldly places - usually found in hollow mounds or barrows, in caves, down rabbit holes, under the roots of trees, even at sea shores where standing in the waves symbolized how a person could be in two worlds at once. At land and at sea at the same time.

These ancients saw places where the Other Worlds poked through to our world, and whenever they discovered such portals or openings, they marked them; with symbols carved in wood and stone, with circles, cairns, stone henges, standing stones, mounds with giant figures marked out on them in chalk, and other enduring markers. Often these markers were there, as much to say, STAY OUT! DANGER! as anything else. The ancients wanted these places to be marked clearly because they believed that only an initiate with a true heart could pass between the worlds safely. Such is the basis of legends like King Arthur, who, it's said, is asleep in one of these hollow mounds with his men, waiting to be awakened by a true heart. Emma is a true heart. But mainly, she is a young girl trying to find her place in that difficult other borderland that follows her (like so many other human teenagers) wherever she goes - that borderland between adolescence and adulthood - trying to figure out her rightful place in this inner world as well as the outer worlds which she explores.

As young people grow, they face problems such as drugs, sex, family issues, different forms of violence, school problems and more, but I think that the greatest questions of all have to do with identity. The young person asks: Who Am I? What am I meant to do with my life? Where is my special place in this world? How will I know if my choices are the right ones for me to live a creative, purposeful, meaningful independent life? There are a lot of people who want to shape Emma in ways that she doesn't feel happy with, ways that go against these very questions involving independent thought.

Histal, the leader of the Watchers wants Emma to become an exceptional Watcher - he wants her to push herself, but only within the guidelines that he allows. There are many who simply want Emma to do as she's told and not to ask questions. Her mother, (Leto) loves Emma as if she is her real daughter, and she wants Emma not to be afraid to become what she is "meant" to become. But what is that, Emma wonders? Tom, the young man in her life, seems reluctant to get too close to Emma in THE WATCHER. But this uncertainty about Tom grows more intense in THE SEEKER At times, Emma wonders if she should trust him, for he is first and foremost, a dedicated Watcher. And when Tom, in THE SEEKER, starts acting furtive and uncommunicative, Emma begins to doubt his loyalty to her and to the others in her care. This second book allows us, as if we, too, are Watchers, to observe Emma sort through all of these issues, while strugging to become what she is meant to be - as well as taking on a dangerous Seeker Quest. As the Seeker game goes on, Emma never really knows who she can trust. Who ARE her real friends? Can she begin to trust her own inner voice and instincts? Is she smart enough, controlled enough, wise enough, or even brave enough to do what she has set out to do?

In THE FINDER Emma realizes she has a mysterious link to the "world" beyond the portal on Argadnel, but what can it be? When she stumbles into that world with her friend Pictree Bragg - once again against the orders of Histal, Master of the Watcher Campan - she finds not just ONE world, but many places of danger, intrigue and deadly Game Playing. Everything she values and everything she loves is suddenly at stake, for her entire family is missing and she has to find out what happened to them. Worst of all, Emma's not sure if she will ever be truly able to trust her secret love and fellow Watcher Tom - for she soon realizes he's keeping secrets from her again.

Emma's powers are constantly tested and threatened in the final book of the trilogy. Why does it seem that everyone is expecting so much of her? What is her final destiny to be? Can she solve the ominous puzzles set up in the vast and treacherous maze she and Pictree find? It won't be easy. But when Emma feels her weakest, she discovers an inner strength she did not realize she had ...



Take some time and look through my books section for more information, as well as some comments by other readers on each of the three books in the trilogy, THE WATCHER, THE SEEKER AND THE FINDER.

Q: In Out of Focus, what made you decide to write a book that wasn't a ghost book. I really loved it, though. It actually felt like there were spirits from long ago in it!

A: OUT OF FOCUS is about 16 year old Bernice Dodd. One third of it is set in Winnipeg and the rest at the lake district where my family has had cottages since 1918! Although not a ghost story or fantasy, it digs deep into an uneasy and secretive past, which I find is always of compelling interest to readers. Also, Bernice is trying to hold her family together, deal with her anger toward her mom, as well as trying to help her mother kick the bottle and her younger brother to control his OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).
A lot of reviewers have done a great job explaining the story so look at this title under "Books" and read the wonderful descriptions and comments the book has recieved from so many critics. I'm pleased to say it has made a number of top ten lists and been nominated for awards. I'm really proud of this book and I love Bernice Dodd! She has spunk!
Please note: There is also a novel study for OUT OF FOCUS available for teachers through one of my publisher's Kid Can Press's website at

Kids Can Press

Q: Would you call Winter Shadows a Christmas story or a ghost story?

A: Both! Winter Shadows is set in modern times and in the 1850's. What made you decided to set the historical part in the Red River Setllement area?

I have always loved Manitoba history, and particularly the history of a parish called St. Andrew's on the Red River about 17 miles form the main settlement.
The entire "story" is fictional, but it is based on my research of this parish. The existing parish of St. Andrews was a fascinating and historically rich place. It was originally used by native tribes, possibly for wintering over, then in the early 18th C. a farming community was subsidized by the Hudson's Bay Company and the Christian missionary society for a group of retiring Scottish Metis servants, factors, and officers of HBC; shortly after the HBC and the North West Fur company joined forces in 1829.
Although a number of the original officers of the HBC were of English/Scottish descent, many of their children were Metis (in this case, predominately of Orkney ancestry and aboriginal blood from mainly the Ojibwa and Cree tribes.) Many of the first "marriages" of the immigrant Scots who worked for the HBC were with native woman. These marriages, unsanctioned by the Christian Church, were referred to as Country marriages, the wives as "country wives", and the children of these families as "Hudson's Bay English", "Country-born", "mixed blood", or "half breed".
The families were also referred to as Rupertslanders. The term English Metis was not a form of address used in 1857, so in the novel, I use the words commonly used for the times -- mixed-blood, country born, and Rupertslander to refer to people of mixed English/Scottish and aboriginal blood - and only use the word "half-breed" (by a few characters) as it was used even then - as a derogatory term.
One of the most interesting things about this time in Manitoba is that many "English" Metis children were sent by their fathers to be educated in Scotland, or to schools in Eastern Canada, and many of these young people adopted the "English ways" almost exclusively, including the Anglican religion ("thanks" to the CMS), often seeing the full blood relatives of their ancestors as a group apart. A number of prominent English Metis became members of the budding political hierarchy in Manitoba and many of the upper class people in the settlement at the forks - that is, the "people of consequence" in society of the 1850's, 1860's and later, were, in fact, educated and often affluent Metis.
In my research, I also discovered that as time went by, the aboriginal heritage of many of these more educated Metis was carefully glossed over by future generations. As more well-off English, such as shopkeepers, lawyers, and trades people arrived to make their fortunes, the English Metis lost much of their prestige in the community and so they often denied any native blood at all in order to survive in the "new order".
Beatrice is the daughter of an Orkney Metis and his Scottish born wife. Her father's mother is Cree, his father a Scottish officer of the HBC born in the Orkney Islands. Beatrice's father, himself, retired from the HBC while still a relatively young man (many of the officers were "retired" when the two big fur trading companies joined, and as the fur trade slowed down.) He had been a respected designer and builder of houses, forts and churches for the HBC.
In the real parish of St. Andrew's the more substantial homes were often made of stone, as was the church and rectory (now altered in my manuscript from the famous St Andrews Church and rectory to the fictional church and rectory of St. Clement), as well as the private girls' school where Beatrice teaches (based on Miss Davis's School for Girls). These new and fictional buildings were all built by Beatrice's father.
Beatrice is unaware of the prejudices toward "half-breeds" until she is sent to a private school in Upper Canada, and there she becomes aware for the first time, that her family and other important families of the Red River settlement of the same background, are seen as "next to savages." She returns to St. Clements knowing that her view of her small world has changed despite her determination not to allow it to happen.
Before leaving her home for the east, Beatrice suffered from melancholia (depression), and her father hoped to help her find a happier life in the more cosmopolitan society of (Toronto), but after a devastating accident a year later, her father is seriously injured, and Beatrice is forced to return home to live with her Cree grandmother, Aggathas, her father and his new wife, The Widow Comper and her boorish son Duncan Kilgour.
The dark shadows that used to surround Beatrice descend once again upon her return - shadows which Beatrice isn't sure she has the strength to fight off. Every day feels as if she is fading further and further into the pale blue skies above the frozen Red river. When she begins to see a spirit girl close to her own age, she becomes convinced she is going mad.
Cass, in 2011, also has a stepmother to contend with. She hates being away from the comfort of her Winnipeg friends (and beloved Aunt); she isn't making friends with her stepsister, the dreaded Daisy, or with her new schoolmates. She hates the community of St. Clement's which has become a bedroom community with many new expensive homes built on the land that once held poor HBC farms. There are no malls, shops or movie theatres available.
The stone house where she lives is one of the few houses from the 19th C remaining in the community. Since the death of her mother, Cass has also struggled with depression - and when her father remarries, to the stiff-necked, humourless Jean, Cass becomes so unhappy that she can't find anything good in her life. Her battles with her stepsister and stepmother escalate, until Cass becomes ill. Cass is also seeing someone - a ghost?
an hallucination? perhaps she's dreaming it? Or perhaps she's just "losing it" because of the grief from so many losses in her life.
This is a look at two young women reaching adulthood - creative, intelligent young women who, through the loss of their mothers, through other uncontrollable circumstances in their lives, and through their own sensitive natures, must fight through depression, growing despair and the sense that they are "falling from view" - becoming shadows in their own lives.
Curiously, these two young women, so far apart in time, will help each other find solace and hope. I also want to show fully three-dimensional characters. It isn't all doom and gloom. Both young women have a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, a kind of wicked humour and irreverence that makes them kindred spirits, and carries each through the hard times. Like many of Jane Austen's characters, they are observers ... ("For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?") and both discover they are much stronger than they realize.

I used Christmas not only because I love that time of year, but because it is so often a very tense and over-excitable time for families. It also offered me a chance to show how people prepared for this festive holidy in the past and the present in most homes.






2 comments:

john said...

What advice you have for would-be writers?

Margaret Buffie said...

John:

Read, read, read. Especially the best writers of the kinds of books you would like to write. It's the first and best advice that I can give to new writers.

Then write the book that is in YOU to write.

Finish a project, no matter what. That alone is a big learning experience not only for your writing, but it also tests how much commitment you have towards becoming a writer. Then revise, edit, revise, edit.

Enjoy the process. Writing should be the most fun you've had in years. If it isn't, why do it? If you're looking for fame or fortune, it's highly unlikely you'll find it in writing. It's the love of it that keeps most writers writing.

I would never ask more than one trusted person to read your work at a time, once it is finished. Perhaps a local writer whose work you admire - who reads mansucripts for a fee. And listen to them carefully. However, if you disagree with them, then don't make huge changes - unless you feel they are right. I did not let anyone read my work first except my daughter, I have to admit. Then I sent it to two different publishers. But that was when publishers were still taking unsolicited manuscripts. I was lucky. I found a publisher right away.

Either way, start finding out what people in the business of publishing/writing think of the work, but only when it is the most polished work you can make it.

And remember: to quote William Zinsser, "Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading."