Walking in the footsteps of the Wizard of Oz

Walking in the footsteps of the Wizard of Oz

My wife and I are currently on vacation in California and ended up visiting Coronado Island yesterday, which is just off San Diego.

I have actually been to Coronado once before, but this time around I had a little more time to explore the city and, especially, snuffle up some of the haunts of one of my all-time favourite authors and inspirations: L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz series.

Books of WonderAbout the Oz series

Most people know Oz from the 1939 movie or the book—a lot less know that L. Frank Baum actually wrote fourteen Oz books in total. As much as I love the first book, with its establishment of the iconic world, characters, and elements (yellow brick road!), some of my favourite titles are the ones later in the series. It just so happens that some of those titles were written while Baum was staying ion Coronado Island.

Getting to Coronado Island

Once you’re in San Diego, it’s quite easy to get across to the island. You can drive or take the bus, but Marcie and I opted for the ferry. We caught it at Broadway Pier, which was only about a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel (incidentally, we’re staying in the historic Horton Grand Hotel—a beautiful building with very affordable rates).

The ferry is about $5 per person, each way. After a fifteen-minute ride, we arrived at the island, where we took the free summer shuttle across to the west side of the island, where most of the restaurants, hotels, and sites are located. Also, it’s where you can hear those gorgeous waves rumbling in from the Pacific.

Baum on Coronado Island

L. Frank Baum spent many winters in California. Not only did he stay at the Hotel Del Coronado, but he rented a nearby home and it’s here where he wrote part of his second Oz book, The Marvellous Land of Oz. Subsequently, he wrote three more of his books on the island: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (#4 in the series), The Road to Oz (#5), and The Emerald City of Oz (#6).

The house that Baum rented while writing the three books can still be found today. It’s on 1101 Star Park Circle (aptly named!) and is only a short walk from the hotel.

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You can’t go inside the house, but you can stand on the doorstep to see the plaque commemorating Baum. Also, there’s a few fun knick-knacks decorating the front.

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After visiting the house, we went to the Coronado Museum of History and Art (1100 Orange Avenue) where you can see first editions of the three books Baum wrote on the island.

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The Emerald City

As the story goes, Baum took inspiration for the conception and description of his own Emerald City from the Hotel del Coronado.

This fact is in some dispute, but it’s hard not to look at the spires of the historic building and ignore their “Oz-ness.” You will note the flag on one of the spires—it looks like an emerald crown. Coronado is known as the Crown City, but also has the nickname “Emerald City.”

Baum also designed the crown-shaped chandeliers in the Crown room at the hotel.

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I highly recommend visiting Coronado, especially if you’re already in the San Diego area. And, if you are an Oz nerd like me, then you’re in for an extra treat, discovering the historic connection between Baum and the island.

In Baum’s own words: “Those who do not find Coronado a paradise have doubtless brought with them the same conditions that would render heaven unpleasant to them did they chance to gain admittance.”

 

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How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

Author (and friend!) Kallie George recently wrote a guest post on my blog in which she described her world-building process for her brand new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. 

Since that post, Kallie officially launched the series with a fun and engaging event at Kidsbooks, our local bookstore that specializes in catering to young readers.

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The launch was a stupendous success. Families were lined up down to block as they waited for the doors to open, clamoring to hear Kallie share her new world. For Kallie, that mean not only mesmerizing the kids with a reading of the first book in the series, but also providing amazing and tangible pieces that were completely interactive.

I was reminded, once again, about the magic that can happen when you really put the “build” into world-building.

Mapping

In the earlier post on my blog, Kallie talked about using mapping as a way to construct a believable and interesting world. If you haven’t read that post yet, then I really encourage you to do so.

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Mapping has long been a key technique that I use in my own writing process, and, as Kallie describes in her post, I helped her map the Heartwood Hotel, too. Personally, I map all kinds of spaces in my books, everything from entire worlds to one-room settings. I find it’s a great way to “stage” a scene and to help make it logical.

These maps don’t need to be slick and professional for the purposes of the author’s writing, but, of course, they can end up becoming the basis for something your publisher can use for the final book.

Dioramas

The kids who turned up to meet Kallie at her book launch were in for a real treat. Kallie and her husband Luke put in many late nights working on a model of the Heartwood hotel–a sort of doll house complete with furniture and accessories.

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The only thing missing?  Well, that was the figures. But no worries! Kallie provided wooden peg figures so that the kids could make their own animal critters that were the perfect scale to roam around the Heartwood Hotel environment.

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Of course, the kids got to take their peg figures home with them, but I love the idea that they could imagine that they got to stay in the hotel first.

Props

Well, if you’re going on a vacation, you also need a suitcase. Kallie provided miniature suitcase templates that could be cut out and folded into shape.

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If you weren’t so lucky as to attend the launch, you can still make your own Heartwood Hotel suitcase. Just head over to the official website to download the template.

The final activity that I wanted to mention was that the kids attending Kallie’s book launch also had the opportunity to leave behind a record of their stay at the Heartwood Hotel by filling out an entry in one of the many pages in the beautiful guestbook created specifically for the book launch.

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I thought this was a fabulous idea . . . the kids could base the entry on the peg figure they created, or even put their own name (though, really, no humans are allowed at the Heartwood!). This guestbook really helped immerse the kids in Kallie’s world.

Why put the build into world-building?

If you’re a fantasy author—especially a fantasy author for kids—I think you have a really great opportunity to bring your world to life in every way you can. Maps, dioramas, really can make for a magical book launch or school visit.

Building for your readers

We live in an interactive but highly-digitized world. More than ever, there is something enchanting about kids being able to look at a tangible, three-dimensional prop and to hold it their hands. I can’t tell you the number of times a child has examined one of my dragon eggs or magical potions and asked, “Is it real?”

So, these add-ons can really help attract kids to the worlds you have created or deepen their affection for the love they already have for a story. If you ask me, they are a must for a book launch or school visit!

Building for you

So, making magical potions, building a diorama, sketching a map . . . they might be great for promotion, but what do they do for the book itself? Do they make the words better?

I think so. The writing process can be arduous and taking a break from the screen to build something connected to your world can really help you examine your story from a different angle. I like to think of it as getting to play in my world, but in a different way than using words.

I can recall so many times in which I’ve imagined a magical item, written about it, then built a prop of it, only to realize that the final prop is vastly different than the way I originally imagined it—in a much better way. So, in essence, prop building helps enrich the ideas in my story. When you’re a fantasy writer, that’s critical.

Building for teachers

Kallie and I have worked as creative writing teachers, often in tandem, for many years and we have always taken the philosophy of putting the “build” into world building seriously. We often encourage our students, young and old to draw maps of their worlds, build diorama of key settings, create costume designs for characters, and to find or fashion important props.

Of course, these techniques can also be used to help kids connect to books as readers. In my time as an author, I’ve seen pictures of kids connecting to my worlds through costume, dioramas, and figurines. Recently, one student even made her own history book or “EEN-cyclopedia” of my worlds!

What do you think? If you’re a teacher, do use these techniques? If you’re an author, do you use them? If so, which ones?

More Kendra Peg Figures

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Favorite doors of Shanghai

During my trip to Shanghai, I was able to find a lot of inspiration from the gardens, the architecture, and the overall sights and sounds of the city. Most of all, I found many wonderful doors!

Students, friends, and colleagues know I have a bit of a door obsession. I photograph them, write about them, and collect door knockers. I even have a trunk that is made out of an old door.

Here are some of my favorite doors and details that I was able to find during my recent trip to storied and exotic city of Shanghai. These come from Old Shanghai, Ancient Town in Qibao and the French Confession . . . or, otherwise, just here and there throughout the city.

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A Magical Morning in Old Shanghai

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After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_05_-_The_Blue_Lotus.jpgThis is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.

We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between.  We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!

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The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.

We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.

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oldshanghai-pondpavilion

We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.

In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.

It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .

First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.

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Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.

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Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.

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Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.

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Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.

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At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!

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I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.

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I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.

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Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.

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And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.

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Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!

 

A dwarf, a snow witch, and a white rabbit—Halloween is just another week in the studio

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It’s no secret that Halloween is one of my favorite times of year. It’s an excuse to spend my time doing the same thing I do throughout the rest of the year—but without explanation or justification. Which is to build costumes and props. (I’m highly conscious of those stares coming from the clerks at my local Dollar Store when I’m frequenting their shop in Mid-May and buying an armful of wigs. In my defense, they’re not all for me. Some are for my art therapy and creative writing students.)

This year was a double-dip for me. The Surrey International Writers’ Conference always takes place the week before Halloween and this year I was invited to present. The conference had a theme on the Friday Night: Once Upon a Time Machine.

“You don’t have to dress up,” board member kc dyer told me.

Yeah, right. I probed further to find out that the “Once Upon a Time Machine” theme was basically to do with fairy tales. Or steam punk. Or both.

I could have easily just used my costume that I was working on for Halloween, but I’ll take any excuse to build. So I decided to go as steampunk White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

The inspiration came when I found a hat in the local costume shop with a pair of rabbit ears and a clock on it. It didn’t quite make sense, since the designer seem to be conflating two characters: the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.

But it was enough to get me started. I bought the hat, removed the cheap plastic clock and put on my own steampunked version using the lid from a glass milk bottle and a plastic plumbing component. I still wanted a proper clock for the White Rabbit to carry, so I started building the clock at the same time. Here’s my work in progress:

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As you can see, the cat was wholly unimpressed. Here’s the completed clock and hat. For the hat, I also ended up goggles decorated with different steampunk components.

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I still needed some other pieces for the costume. I swooped into Carousel Theatre’s annual costume theatre in early October and scooped up some great pieces for my costume, including a colorful vest. Then it was just a matter of tracking down a few other pieces, such as white gloves and a fake nose. Luckily, I had kept an old pair of round spectacles. People think I bought Harry Potter glasses at a costume shop, but these used to be my real glasses that I wore long before Harry Potter existed. Back then, we called them John Lennon glasses.

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The final costume came together very well:

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The costume was a big hit at the conference. As kc dyer told me, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” (Well, I have written a book or two, as well. Which I thought was the reason I had been invited to speak at the conference—but, hey, I’ll take my invites any way I can get them.)

Speaking of kc, here is a photo of me and her at the conference. She went as steampunk fairy godmother. So, we pretty much rocked.

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After the conference, it was time to turn my attention in earnest to Halloween. My wife and I had decided way back in July that we would go for a Narnia theme. Marcie decided to be Jadis, the snow witch. I wasn’t entirely sure who I would go as. My initial thoughts were Digory from The Magician’s Nephew—I could wear an English boy’s suit and carry a silver apple.

But then I decided it would be more fun to go as the snow witch’s dwarf slave. He goes unnamed in the book, though in the Disney movie he is known as Ginarrbrik. I already own many bits and bobs that would go well with his outfit. The main things to figure out were the nose, the beard, and his hat.

As it turned out, my mom found a faux-fur coat at Value Village and was able to make me both a hood and a vest from it. I pinned my ears to the hood so that I wouldn’t have to contend them falling off all night (which they always do when I put them on my own ears.)

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As for the beard, I bought two of the exact kind from the costume shop then set out using pieces from the one to augment the other, distressing them with paint and braiding them with bits of twine. I didn’t want it to look too polished—after all, this was just a dirty minion of the snow witch!

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I was able to buy a fairly high-quality nose from the costume shop and just attached it with spirit gum. I also took snippets from the beard to attach to my eyebrows. Put it all together and the result turned out quite well:

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Here’s me with Marcie as Jadis:

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She ended up buying a wedding dress from Value Village then augmenting it was a white faux-fur throw rug. She made the staff with a Christmas ornament. As for the crown, she procured that from Etsy.

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A key part of the costume was all of her make-up:

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We attended our annual “Scooby-Gang” Halloween party. The costumes there can get quite intense. Here are some fun photos from the party . . .

First of all, here is the amazing cake made by my friend, Carrie. YES, that’s a cake. (And it tasted delicious. Though, admittedly, I ate a part that didn’t involve the eyeball.)

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Here’s this year’s host, Luke and Kallie, as a phoenix tamer and dragon tamer. The phoenix cried real tears and had flapping wings while the dragon could open it’s mouth. halloween2016_phoenixdragontamer

I guess Ginarrbrik can’t compete with Dilbert. He ended up getting a kiss from the snow witch. That’s my friend Jeff inside the costume. He built Dilbert from scratch.

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This is my friend Carrie (of cake fame) as a zombie hunter.

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My friend James also went as a zombie hunter.

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James has already stated in one of his blog posts that his costume has inspired his writing in all sorts of ways. That’s really cool—because it underscores something I’ve long believed: when you are a creative writer, you have to be creative in many areas of your life. And that’s why I spend so much studio time not staring at a computer screen, but building props and costumes. And that, takes us full circle.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Exploring Québec ~ Day 4

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Day 4 was actually the final day of my time in Québec City. Since it was a truncated day, with part of it spent getting to the airport and flying home (which actually also turned out to be a better part of the night—but such are the risks that go with trying to make flight connections across a giant country such as Canada), Marcie and I did not do a great deal, other than visit the Museum of Civilization, have a final lunch, and then wander the old streets one last time.

The Museum of Civilization is in the lower old town, but in a very modern building. The main exhibit chronicles the history of the province and is brimming with all sorts of interesting relics from the past. I highly recommend it.

Well, one thing we learned about this place is that people are extremely convivial, full of love, and very proud of their beautiful cities. And well they should be! Even wandering through the time-worn streets of Québec City one last time, Marcie and I discovered many lovely doors and details.

How did we miss these previously? I’m not sure! But here are some of the final things we noticed.

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Well, my next adventure, will be sticking my nose into my sketchbooks and laptop to work on the actual “writing” phase of my writing projects—and to teach some creative writing courses. One involves the theme of family history . . . but that’s a post for another time. In the meantime, I’m fuelled up with inspiration and ready to spring into a fall of creativity!

Exploring Québec City ~ Day 2

Our second day in Québec City was another busy one. We woke up a little bit later than usual and decided we would go visit the Plains of Abraham, the site of the famous battle between the British and the French in 1759—a deciding moment in Canada’s history.

We ambled along the wall again, past the provincial parliament, and arrived at the museum’s office. The clerk there told us that, if we hurried, we could make it to the nearby “Le Citadel” to see the changing of the guard. So we abandoned the Plains of Abraham for the moment and charged off to Le Citadel, along with hordes of other late-arriving tourists, hastily purchased our tickets, and squeezed through the gates to observe the ceremony.

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I’ve seen quite a few changing of the guard ceremonies (London, Prague, Seoul, and so forth), but this one was the first one to feature a goat. And this is no ordinary goat, but one with golden horns!

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The goat’s name is Batisse. He is the regiment’s mascot and is an integral part of the changing of the guard.  The origins of the goat goes back to Queen Victoria, who in 1883 was given a goat by the king of Iran. Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, and Queen Elizabeth II gave one of the descendants of this goat to the regiment at Le Citadel. Well, Queen Elisabeth II is still around, but the original Batisse is not. In fact, the regiment is now on the twelfth Batisse. According to our guide, the queen sent over a new goat each time one passed away . . . until number four. With that fourth goat, came a wife. So now the regiment is responsible for propagating its own line of mascots.

In any case, Batisse looked quite regal. I suppose horns painted gold will do that for you.

We really enjoyed the tour. Our guide was informative and humorous and we learned a lot about the history of the fortifications—namely, that it was built to protect the city from an attack by the Americans that never came. (They did attack Québec City, but only before the citadel was constructed.)

It was interesting to see the difference in construction between the original French buildings and the subsequent English fortifications.

French:

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English:

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The tour guide also introduced us to this twelve-tonne cannon:

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According to our guide, this beast once caused the destruction of a woman’s house on the other side of the Saint Lawrence River. They fired the cannon one winter, only to have its payload strike the frozen ice, ricochet off the hard surface and bounce forward to obliterate her home. Thankfully, she wasn’t inside at the time. Recently (and by recently, I mean within the last few weeks) many of the shells for this cannon were unearthed and were lying nearby for us to see:

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You can see my foot in the bottom of the photo, to show you how big the shells are. (Also, my foot is there because I didn’t know it was in the frame when I took the shot.)

Nearby was the building where they kept all the powder. There was a slot in the outside wall that most of us assumed was for use by soldiers inside to use for firing at enemies.

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Actually, it’s just a ventilation shaft. It zigzags into the building so that an enemy couldn’t simply stick his own gun through, fire, and easily explode the store of gunpowder. However, our tour guide told us that attacking soldiers sometimes used animals as incendiary devices. What they would do is take a rat, dip its tail in oil, light it, then send it scampering into the shaft to ignite the entire building.  Very cruel, but I suppose effective. This technique was never used at Le Citadel, but about a half hour later, I spotted a black squirrel scampering across the grounds and thought to myself that it best just keep moving in case anyone got any ideas . . .

Well, of course, they don’t store powder in that building anymore. It’s a museum where you can see plaques and relics from the Seven Years’ War, including a very cool original canon. (We weren’t permitted to take photos.)

Near the end of the tour, we got to stand on the battlements overlooking Old Québec City. The view was very impressive. Marcie and I had taken our tour of Château Frontenac the day before, but we looked upon it with fresh eyes from this vantage point—it truly is an impressive and magical building. I have to say, it’s just one of those buildings that no photo can really seem to do justice. It rises out of the cityscape like a castle.

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After leaving the citadel, we returned the Plains of Abraham, but thought we better get some lunch before we ran out of steam. We found a restaurant called “Cosmos” just past the statue of General Montcalm and enjoyed some crepes. You can see Marcie’s meal. It was like fruit exploded all over her plate.

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Our stomachs satiated, we returned to the Plains of Abraham and wandered across the grounds of the infamous battle. It was so verdant and peaceful that it was a bit difficult to imagine that this was once the sight of the grisly Battle of Québec, the deciding confrontation in the Seven Years’ War.

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Incidentally, this pivotal battle lasted all of fifteen minutes. It resulted in the deaths of the leaders on both sides, James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph Montcalm. Whenever I think of this moment in Canadian history, I am reminded of this pair of famous paintings:

The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West (1770)

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La Mort de Montcalm, by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1902)

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Just outside of the park, there is also a statue of Montcalm. I could not really get a good photo of it due to the position of the light at that time of day, but here it is anyway:

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The Plains of Abraham also features a famous statue of Joan of Arc. I guess she was kind of like a patron saint for New France.

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After exploring the park for a bit, we crossed down to the nature path and descended down a long staircase to the rue at the bottom. From there we gained a good vantage point of the cliff looking upwards:

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It was this type of cliff that a small contingent of British soldiers had to scale in order to surprise the French garrison at top. Once they seized the garrison, the rest of Wolfe’s 5,000-strong army was able to reach the plains via a road. (Let’s just say the walk down was onerous enough and we had the use of stairs; so I can only imagine how difficult it was for these men to climb up beneath the cover of night.)

We required refreshment after our long walk in the hot summer sun, so we decided to head back to Château Frontenac, where we had seen the lovely 1608 bar the day before on our tour of that hotel. We arrived just after the bar opened at 2pm, so were able to procure a table (the bar filled up very quickly afterwards). This is a beautiful, cozy location in the hotel, affording a great view of the Saint Lawrence, if you get the right seat. We sat next to the bookshelf, since we wanted to feel like we were in the old reading room—which is what this room used to be.

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Our next adventure for the day didn’t happened until later at night when we took the ghost tour through old Québec City. As I mentioned in my blog posts about Montréal, I really enjoy taking ghost tours, since it is a good way to hear about the history of a place.

This tour did a good job of trying to create atmosphere. Our guide was dressed in a cape and hat and led our way down cobblestone streets with a candle-fuelled lantern.

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Marcie and I appreciated the fact that the tour took us down several streets, back alleys, and courtyards that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored. In fact, there was a great deal of walking on this tour—it had some people puffing and panting, especially when we started climbing some of the steep hills. The grande finale of the tour was at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity near the Château Frontenac. Here is my picture of it in the night:

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The guide led us inside—it was pitch dark with only the lights from the streets beyond to provide us with any illumination. We then sat in the pews as she told us stories about the ghosts who apparently haunt the cathedral, her candle light flickering and adding a certain macabre ambiance. That was certainly a lot of fun!

After the tour, we headed back towards our hotel and came up through the gate on St. Jean where raucous music was playing on the festival stage. It’s the Pride Festival here this weekend, so each night they have been having celebrations. On this night, it was drag queens performing. We paused to watch a bit of it. Marcie said to me, “That looks like Marilyn Manson on stage.” It was just a look-alike of course. Afterwards, faux-Marilyn stalked through the crowd looking grim and somber and people delighted in taking pictures with him. Faux Gwen Stefani went next. Well, it was a fun way for the night to come to an end.

As usual, I’m finishing off this post with a series of photos chronicling the doors and details discovered throughout the day. Every time I turn a corner in this city, there is a new treasure to find . . .

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