Nothing up my sleeve

Writers tend to hesitate or become vaguely mystical when asked where they get their ideas. Maybe, like magicians, we fear we’ll lose our special status if we let too many people see behind the illusion.

In honour of the literary magazine Prairie Fire publishing one of my latest stories in its spring Uncharted Territory-themed issue, I’ll try to show you how my story of a couple of bickering hikers in a storm-struck Central European mountain range came to be. (If you click on the Prairie Fire link, you’ll see a few previews of work in the magazine, including my story.)

In 2018, my wife Rosemary and I went for a four-day hike on the Tatranska Magistrala, a hiking trail that traverses Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains. Our plan was to stay three nights in mountain huts, crossing two high passes along the way, and end with a scramble to the top of the highest peak in the area.

As we made our way to our first night’s destination, early October drizzle turned to snow, which became heavier as we reached our hut. The next day, with the high trail impassable, we hiked back down, caught the narrow-gauge railway at the base of the mountains to the next valley along, and hiked up to that night’s destination. The next day, the sun came out and started melting the snow and we continued toward our third mountain hut. The snow was still deep in places and, after we met up with an Australian woman, my wife decided to hike down with her to the railway and repeat the previous day’s hike-train-hike itinerary in order to skip the high pass up ahead.

I ended up walking alone on an increasingly snow-covered trail, then stepping gingerly down a long series of heavily drifted switchbacks to reach the hut where I would later that day reunite with Rosemary.

The next day, the trail to the high mountains was covered with melting slush, so we gave up on reaching the Slovakia-Poland border. Instead, we visited a nearby collection of memorials to Slovakian mountaineers and others who had died in the Tatra Mountains. The Symbolic Cemetery was the kind of haunting place that, if you’re a writer, you just know will generate a story somehow. Between this and the Holocaust memorial we saw at the railway station in Poprad, the nearby town that provides access to the mountains, just before we started the hike, this trip was book-ended with haunted feelings. For three years, these memories ripened in my mind while producing only a half-page of a dreary piece that might have been about mourning if I hadn’t abandoned it.

Then in September 2021, while hiking the James Duncan Trail, at Big Trout Bay, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Rosemary and I again temporarily split up. On the James Duncan Trail, you can hike there-and-back to a high viewpoint 250 metres above Lake Superior, or you can do a 10-km point-to-point that bypasses the viewpoint in favour of a beautiful cobble beach, then finishes at a different trailhead. Since I wanted to reach the summit, we decided that I’d accompany Rosemary to the beach, then turn around, hit the heights, return to the car, and pick her up at the other end of the trail. As I walked alone along beautiful, but infamously moody, Lake Superior, I thought of the other time we’d parted ways on a hike and of the dangers attendant upon solo hiking in rapidly changeable autumn weather. In the space of the couple of hours it took to get back to the car, a story of a hiking couple in a haunted mountain range came to me, almost word for word. I wrote it up longhand that night and when our trip was over, expanded on my first scrawled draft to create the version I submitted a few weeks later to Prairie Fire.

They don’t all come to you in one piece like this, but sometimes it happens. Sometimes a specific action or image, a view from up high, feet stepping over rough rock, can  make the story spring to life. Sometimes a spark smoulders for years before bursting to life. Maybe it is a magic trick.

Reviews for Prodigies

I was travelling last fall when the first review came in for Prodigies and somehow I never got around to posting it here. Bad author! Go back to Self Promotion 101.

Anyway, here it is, from the Winnipeg Free Press: Teenage Trio Terrific in Wild Western Yarn. It’s paywalled, but here are some highlights:

“In the late 1870s, three formidably talented kids converge on Deadwood, S.D. in this exciting, episodic tale from Winnipeg writer, actor and park naturalist (and Winnipeg Free Press reviewer) Bob Armstrong.

“The prodigies at the heart of this story make their circuitous ways to the law-challenged setting of the novel’s last half in a series of vignettes that also work as shorter narratives, engaging the reader with vivid description, historical detail and American culture and folklore.”

Most recently, Prodigies picked up another review, this one in a journal aimed at the school and library market, called CM: Canadian Review of Materials.

The reviewer particularly appreciated the two strong female characters and the way the novel blends themes from late 19th century history with the action, so that a reader doesn’t need to know the history coming in but learns a lot after reading it. Here are some highlights.

“Armstrong blends together the three adolescents’ stories expertly and seamlessly. The book features spunky, determined teenagers who stand up for what is right, and they share many laughs along the way. Armstrong has created several strong, independent young female characters, including Lily, and Vera, the daughter of the editor-in-chief of the Black Hills newspaper, who defies her father, and, despite the danger this may pose to her, she embarks on her own to research and write stories about Daniel, the legendary sharpshooter known as the Bulldog Kid, someone whom everyone has been talking about. As a female reviewer, these aspects stood out to me, and I believe other readers will certainly observe and appreciate the inclusion of these feminist aspects. This is an especially appreciated detail as women’s suffrage was just in its infancy in the 1870’s, with women’s right to vote, for example, being still nearly 50 years in the future in both the United States and Canada. It was refreshing to see women framed in such a positive and empowering light and to read about characters who are fighting for their independence despite the upward battle at the time.

Prodigies is a unique text that expertly blends humour with serious topics and historical and social themes. The fact that each of the teen protagonists has an exceptional gift or skill adds a supernatural element to the text that is bound to make the reader root for each of them as they use these skills to fight against the antagonists they encounter. One of the best parts of the novel is that one can enter the text with minimal background knowledge of the Gold Rush-era, the American settings, or the social and historical elements present at the time, and become thoroughly engaged in the storyline, exiting the text having learned historical details along the way. This book would certainly be a text that is like no other on any library or classroom bookshelf.”



Getting weird in Canada’s prairie provinces

The good people at Enfield & Wizenty and Great Plains Publications published my short story Frank 2.0 last fall in the anthology  Alternate Plains: Stories of Prairie Speculative Fiction. It’s the follow-up to their 2018 anthology Parallel Prairies. Frank 2.0 is an alternative worlds story that also serves as a kind of autobiography of my fantasy life.

Frank 2.0 was actually my second story with a science fiction or speculative fiction angle to it to be published in 2021. Earlier in the year FreeFall Magazine ran my short story The Going and the Gone, which I’ve described as a kind of magical realism take on the pandemic.

I stayed on a bit of fantasy/speculative run in the fall with a new short story, titled The Symbolic Cemetery, which will be published in the spring of 2022 in the “Uncharted Territory” themed issue of Prairie Fire Magazine. While many of my stories come together slowly from an initial idea, I thought through The Symbolic Cemetery in two or three hours while hiking alone through the North Shore Mountains overlooking Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, Ontario. That night I wrote out the story longhand in a travel journal and when I got home I finished the story, gave it an edit and submitted it. Shortest path ever from idea to acceptance.

All three stories feature in the manuscript I’m sending around to publishers at the moment, a short story collection I’m currently calling A Time and A Place.

More advance praise for Prodigies

“It’s a Western with a twist. Set in the 1870’s, and eventually in the legendary town of Deadwood, the plot gallops along like a runaway horse. Part Oliver Twist, part Sisters Brothers, this one’s a great summer read.”

Glenn Dixon (Bootleg Stardust, Juliet’s Answer)

Available from Amazon (hardcover, US$25,95 CAN$32.95), bookstores and, if you live in Winnipeg, personal delivery. Contact me at booknewsbob, followed by the “at” sign and gmail dot com.

Advance praise for Prodigies

“This novel and its trio of teenagers surprised me over and over again. Prodigies is a rip-roaring, unexpected, funny, and utterly original escape.”

  • Angie Abdou (This One Wild Life, In Case I Go)

“Winnipeg based author Bob Armstrong has written an engaging Western novel with crossover appeal to young adult audiences. Set in 1870s New York and Midwest America, Prodigies grips readers tight and holds on right to the end. … The novel’s explosive conclusion could certainly launch a sequel as our prodigies (now friends) dust off and continue their journeys.”

  • Anita Daher (You Don’t Have to Die in the End)

Thoughts on the literary western in Canada

I began considering my forthcoming novel, Prodigies, after a trip to the old Arizona mining boomtown of Jerome in 2010. By 2015, I was well into a first draft of Prodigies, by this point set in Deadwood and various points east.

In the last decade, I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction set along the North American frontier between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Recently, I thought about some differences and similarities between Canadian and American literary treatments of frontier themes and settings. The result was this essay in the June 2021 issue of The Literary Review of Canada.

Next to pharmaceuticals, laughter’s the best medicine

Like many of you, I’ve been helped through the pandemic by regular walking. Hikes, walk-and-talks, neighbourhood strolls: anything that gets me out in the world and moving around has been helpful.

Another thing that’s helped me get through a time of fear, uncertainty and enforced idleness, which preceded the pandemic, has been comedy. Just before Christmas 2019 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and put on the list for surgery. Almost immediately, I began working on stand-up material, most of it mining my cancer experience. Before pandemic shutdowns began, I did one set in January 2020 before my surgery and another in early March once I’d recovered enough from surgery to go out in the evening.

Since December, I’ve been doing monthly comedy sets on Facebook Live, gradually moving beyond the cancer material. (Sure, I’ve played the cancer card. Look at me. It’s the only card I’ve got.)

This wasn’t a huge departure for me. All of my plays were comedies or hybrid comedies (thriller comedy, philosophical comedy, comedy drama). And in my upcoming novel, Prodigies, one of the characters is a wise-cracking gang member whose dream is to tell jokes for a living in saloons and dance halls. Coming up with intentionally anachronistic Borscht Belt-style jokes for this character was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing Prodigies.

I’ve recently had a creative non-fiction piece, entitled The Cancer Joke, about my cancer and comedy experience accepted for publication. I’ll follow with more details on this one shortly.

I’ve also pulled together my feelings about the pandemic year in a magical realist comedic short story called The Going and the Gone, which will be published shortly in FreeFall Magazine, an Alberta-based literary magazine. I’ll post the link as soon as it’s up.



Writing in a pandemic

My novel, Prodigies, was to have been launched this month, but like every other plan over the last year, that plan didn’t account for the arrival of the pandemic. A series of cascading delays swept through the publishing industry last year, as spring releases wee delayed until fall, fall until winter and so on.

Prodigies is now scheduled to hit the shelves this July. I’m pitching it to literary festivals now and hoping I’ll have the chance to promote it live, in person. If we’re all still in pandemic mode come autumn, maybe you’ll be able to catch me online.

Delays also struck a few of my short stories that were accepted for publication last year. I now have a story entitled Frank 2.0 appearing in an anthology of western Canadian SF, fantasy and horror. Watch for the anthology, entitled Alternate Plains, coming out this fall from Great Plains Publications. My creative non-fiction piece on cycling and stoicism, Pilgrim on a Freedom Machine, will come out this year in the anthology Write to Move.

Before those books are available, the winter 2021 issue of the Calgary literary magazine FreeFall will include my pandemic-inspired bit of magical realism, The Going and the Gone.

I’m slowly working on a sequel to Prodigies in hopes of having it available to offer to my publisher by summer.

Other than that, much of my creative writing energy in the last year has been directed to stand up comedy. I started performing at open mike events not long before the pandemic and have recently begun doing monthly stand-up on Facebook Live. Look me up at Club Zuckerberg and you might catch my latest act.

Just tip your server and drive home carefully.

Whattaya Gonna Do?

Recently published in Red Earth Review, Oklahoma City University:

(Follow the link. It’s the first short story in the summer 2020 issue)

Turning up the heat

Sometimes you’re hot. Sometimes you’re not.

Since signing my contract with Five Star Publishing for my novel Prodigies (see previous entry), the thermostat on my writing career has been turned up a notch.

On one day in February, two of my stories were accepted for publication in anthologies planned for this year. Pilgrim on a Freedom Machine, a memoir of a rambling, long-distance cycle trip through France and Spain, and the lessons I’ve drawn from it, will be published this spring or summer in Write to Move, an anthology of fiction, poetry and non-fiction dealing with movement, freedom, ability and disability and physical activity.

My story Frank 2.0, my take on an alternative-universes story, will be included in Alternate Plains: Stories of Prairie Speculative Fiction, which is planned for publication in the fall.

A few weeks later, I received word that Red Earth Review, the literary journal associated with the MFA program at Oklahoma City University, had accepted my short story Whattaya Gonna Do? Red Earth Review published my short story Testing two years ago. Now that I have evidence that Oklahomans get me, I’ll have to take a road trip straight south.

While buoyed by this positive news, I was working with my Five Star editor on revisions to Prodigies, which now is slated for publication in January 2021. No doubt, I’ll be updating the world on that in the months to come.