There’s a reason it’s called a marathon.
Sharon Frayne spent 72 hours this summer feverishly writing more than 40,000 words in a competition that offered her a chance at being taken on by a literary agent and an inside track to a Canadian publishing house.
She knew it would require strength, both physical and mental, and a great deal of preparation, but she felt her time had come to take a stab at it.
And she was right. A published author and a member of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Writers Circle, Frayne came first in the category of fiction for young adults in the Muskoka Novel Marathon in Huntsville this July.
The competition was founded 18 years ago to support the Muskoka Literacy Council, and now also funds the area YMCA literary programs, a cause which is enticing to writers.
The prize is also a strong attraction — a win helps shortcut the traditional path to having a book published.
“It’s so difficult to even have your book looked at by a publishing company,” says Frayne.
The setting of her novel, A Chain of Broken Hearts, moves from Huntsville to Niagara-on-the-Lake and back to the Muskoka town, two communities that have much in common.
While Huntsville is situated in cottage country, it has also won awards for being friendly and welcoming, is a high-ranked tourist destination and a Communities in Bloom winner.
But for Frayne, the common denominator that made her want to incorporate both as the background for her story is her love of both areas, and the role they have played in her life.
She grew up in Niagara, but from her earliest years summered with her family in Muskoka.
Although she left for a career in education — she taught high school visual arts and English, and then became a principal at a Halton high school — when she retired, she came back to Niagara to rejoin her family, she said.
When Frayne was a baby, her parents bought a place just outside Bala, in Muskoka, which became her second home. “My heart has always been very close to that area,” she said.
She and her husband, Bill French now divide their time between NOTL and a cottage south of Rosseau, on Dyson Lake. “These are two of the most beautiful places in the world. How can you beat them as a setting for a novel?,” says Frayne.
Living on the edge of Rye Park also is an important influencing factor in her novel.
Her last book, Caught between the Walls, is a collection of short stories, mostly fiction but based on local historical events and characters. One of the stories is about Maria Rye and Our Western Home, the orphanage for young girls that was operated from a building of the former courthouse, where Rye Street Heritage Park is now.
Sept. 28 is now recognized as National British Home Child Day, and this year the 150th anniversary was commemorated. But although the story of British children coming to Canada is fairly well publicized, the history of the building where it all began is not generally known to the public, says Frayne,
It is also the setting for the famous story of Solomon Moseby, who played such a significant role in early local and national history — it was from that same building that he escaped in 1837, as a Kentucky slave owner was attempting to reclaim him, accusing him of being a horse thief.
Rye purchased the former courthouse building in 1868, and turned it into a facility for girls who were brought from England, either because they were orphans or their parents were unable to look after them. Some of the girls were adopted, but most were trained to work as household servants or clerks in stores. Almost 4,000 girls were relocated through the home, says Frayne, and some girls’ lives were dramatically improved, others suffered abuse.
Before writing that earlier short story, Frayne did a great deal of research on the subject of Maria Rye and the children she brought to Canada, which helped her to flesh out the tale she told in the novel she wrote during the marathon.
Without giving too much away, she describes a present-day school field trip for a group of Huntsville Grade 8 students, who travel to NOTL.
But because of a situation that befalls one of the girls, she ends up living in the past, in the group home that was established by Rye in 1869. Life for the main character becomes very different from anything she has experienced up to that point, until she is able to return to Huntsville in the present, says Frayne.
It is her background in education that made her choose to write both Caught between the Walls and A Chain of Broken Hearts as historical fiction for young adults, she says.
She wanted the books to teach students something about Canadian history that isn’t well-covered in the school curriculum, while at the same time giving young people something they could relate to.
“I wanted to show the kids of today what life was like for those girls who were sold as indentured students. When I wrote it, I was trying to picture what it would have been like for those young girls, compared to today.”
It was also an opportunity to show young adults that life for immigrants to Canada is nothing new, “that immigrants have been coming to Canada for a long time, and conditions have been hard for them for a long time. People have come here from different situations, but everyone has come from somewhere.”
A Chain of Broken Hearts is aimed at students in Grades 7, 8 and 9, but could lead to sequels about the same group of students as they go on to high school, to appeal to older kids and adults, says Frayne.
In the six months leading up to the writing marathon, she says she put other aspects of her life on hold while she concentrated on preparing for the words she would write during her 72 hours in the Muskoka contest.
In addition to the research she had already done for the historic context, she developed a plot — the most important part of the story — and the characters.
Since fundraising is an essential part of entering the contest, she asked her fellow members of the Writers’ Circle for donations, promising she would use their names in her book in return for $100 for Muskoka literacy projects.
She also asked each of the donors to describe their namesake’s characteristics. Some of those answers were surprising, such as the suggestion from one woman that she wanted her character to be pregnant.
Although Frayne’s first reaction was this was going to be a challenge in a story about young girls on a school field trip, “it gave me a real impetus to think about the plot.” Since some of the girls who came to Niagara in the 1800s were raped, the pregnancy became an important feature of the story.
“My years of working in schools helped a lot. I’ve been on 12 Grade 8 field trips, and travelled with a high school band. I do know how kids can act on these trips. Things don’t always go smoothly — something always happens.”
She also drew on what she remembered about some of the kids she taught, and knew well. “That made it really fun to write, and I think it helped to bring a richness to it, that I could picture these kids, as well as the quirky details some of the people in NOTL wanted me to write about.”
Armed with an interesting, thoroughly-developed story stored in her head, and the one page of notes each of the 40 writers were allowed to take with them into the writing room at the Active Living Centre in Huntsville — in the building that was the site of the G8 Summit in 2010 — Frayne felt confident she was as prepared as she could be.
Her notes contained enough details about the plot, characters and dates to keep her on track, she says.
“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was successful. I had the story in my head — I just had to get it out. Some people can sit down and write from scratch, but that’s not the way I work.”
She had contemplated entering the competition in past years, but never felt her writing was quite at the level she wanted it to be.
After retirement, with more time to give to her craft, she worked very hard on her writing. “It didn’t come as easily as I thought it would. I took all kinds of courses, entered a lot of writing competitions, and in the last six months, I started to do well. I felt I had hit my stride.”
So, with confidence, she prepared for the competition.
“Life is short. If you have some burning goal, you have to grab it by the horns and go with it, and I’m glad I did.”
She also knew she would have to be strong to combat the gruelling task of getting her words down quickly in an intense, sleep-deprived environment.
Despite being the oldest of the writers who surrounded her for 72 hours, she felt she handled the physical and mental strain well.
She had set up a cot in a hallway of the building, and while some fell asleep at their computers, when she thought she would pass out, she took short naps on the cot — catching about two to three hours “of very broken sleep” each of the two nights.
She took short breaks to get food she could eat while she worked, and outside of her two naps, she says, “when I really felt I was on the verge of collapse, I went outside and jumped in the Muskoka River to wake up.”
Emotionally, it was tough, she says. She broke down a few times on the last day — the subject matter of the story was difficult, and she was exhausted. It took her several days to recuperate. But she has no regrets. She is confident she told a good story, and the comments from the judges reinforced that.
“I hope you go forward and get this novel published,” said one judge. Her story was described as “powerful,” with “really sympathetic characters,” and a style that is “clean and crisp.”
She won the competition against some very accomplished, published writers, and now she has six weeks to polish what she wrote.
She is promised at least that a literary agent will put it before a Canadian publisher, although there is no guarantee it will be accepted for printing.
If it isn’t, she won’t give up. It’s a novel she hopes and expects will resonate with young teens who are feeling alone, and going through difficult times.
“Many children at that age have a lot of the same angst and concern as the main character. Like her, young people have a lot of mixed emotions, all kinds of issues to face, and are trying to fit in. I wanted young people to identity with what she is going through. I wanted her to have this incredible experience, and come out of it stronger at the other end,” says Frayne.
“It’s a novel I’d want my granddaughter to read.”