Monday, May 31, 2010

Canadian Prairies Missed the Old West

by Anita Mae Draper

I'm thrilled to be here, today. However, when Narelle first invited me to write a post, I went from elation to anxiety within hours. That plummet can only be contributed to one thing... I’m a traitor.

You see, I’ve lived my whole life in Canada. Born and raised in Ontario and Manitoba, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) when I was 17 and married another CAF member at age 19. Our career moves took us to Alberta and then Saskatchewan where we’ve settled down.

So, why am I a traitor? Because although I live on the Canadian prairies, I write inspirational romances about the American Old West set in Wyoming and Montana.

Remember all those old TV Westerns from the ‘60s and ‘70s? My favorites were Wagon Train, Bonanza (or Ponderosa in syndication), Gun Smoke, High Chapparral, and The Virginian. It might have been my parents’ choice to tune in to those shows, but you couldn’t have pulled me away from the TV set when they were on unless you bribed me with a ride on a real horse.

Once the shows were over, I’d scurry to my room, make sure I was sitting on my half of the bed I shared with my sister, and with my scribbler on a pillow across by knees, I’d write my own stories based on the settings I’d ogled from the TV shows. I lived in Northern Ontario at the time, amid rocks, lakes and trees. Lots of trees. Maybe the American West appealed to me because of the physical wonders my eyes had never seen. I was 11 yrs old when we moved to the province of Manitoba. I still remember looking out the car window and watching the trees fade away. The open prairie welcomed me.

Or maybe it was the thrill of the lawlessness which excited me. You know, good versus evil played out in the lives of ordinary people. Whatever the reasons, those shows sparked my imagination and spurred my writing.

As a child, one of the things I missed out on was going to the local movie house because it was considered a sin. Yet, there was one long summer when my brother and I were sent to live with my dad’s mother and brothers. You want to talk about rules? There were none. All we had to do was smile and they’d give us a quarter. A chorus of Jingle Bells was good for a dollar. For the first time in our lives, we had our own bikes—and the whole town to explore. Grandma fed us whenever we got home and washed our clothes when they were dirty. Our only curfew was the town siren which went off at 9 o’clock every evening. Anyone under the age of 18 caught outside after that siren went off was promptly escorted home. I think I only missed the curfew a few times and while running down back alleys and keeping to the shadows charged my adrenaline, the threat of capture kept me inside more times than not.

And do you know what was so special about that summer? Not the money. Not the freedom. And not the thrills… It was the Saturday matinee at the local movie theatre.

To a girl born in Logging Camp #5 and used to a small TV with rabbit ears, the theatre experience almost overwhelmed me. The larger than life characters. Noises so loud I felt like I was in a vacuum for hours afterward. Feeling the room shake from the reverberations of the on-screen trains or explosions. Everything about the theatre was big. Oh, how I struggled to capture those sounds on paper.

I was introduced to movies like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and although I didn’t have a name for it at the time, I’d stumbled upon one facet missing in my writing…tension. No matter what anyone says about those old ‘spaghetti westerns’, the time spent building an atmosphere of anticipation is a worthwhile study for any fiction writer.

With those basics, I wrote my stories. Some were set on a wagon train and some were set on the open prairie or on the rocky hills nearby, but they were all Old West locations.

Yes, I read the antics of Anne Shirley in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, but they didn’t inspire me to write books like the ones about young girls and the hardships they faced on their journeys to the American West. Always The West.

So, why do I write about the American prairies and not the Canadian ones? Probably because Canada seems to have skipped the whole ‘Old West’ phase. It’s like we went from the Hudson Bay Company’s fur trapping era right to the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) and their Mountie ‘always gets his man’. Precursors to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the NWMP was established in 1873. Since the setting of my current book/work in progress is 1879, I’m writing in the same time frame. So why didn’t Canada have an Old West? I really don’t know. Maybe the Mounties spoiled all the fun.

But I do have some story ideas using the Canadian West in the late 19th century. Since I’ve lived in all 3 of the Prairie provinces, I can draw on my personal wealth of information. And there’s one thing which will speed my will to write them… the knowledge that readers want to read them.

What was your favourite movie genre when you were a youngster? Is it the same now that you’re all grown up?


Anita Mae Draper lives with her husband of 33 yrs and their 2 youngest of 4 children on a farm outside Montmartre, Saskatchewan. After a 20 yr military career, Anita Mae delights in the solitude and openness of the Canadian prairie although she and the kids often work as extras on TV and Film sets in the city of Regina, an hour away. She attends a small country church 40 km away where her husband and children are on the worship team. Non-musical (although she tries), Anita Mae’s ministry is webmistress for the church at Anita Mae invites you to visit – and befriend her – at these web sites:


  1. I was a big fan of Bonanza, too. America had cattle, cattle drives and cowboys. Did Canada's climate allow for them? I doubt it was quite on the same scale. I always romanticized the French fur trappers! There is a restored trading post near us, and I have thought a trip up the Saint Lawrence from Montreal would make great material. And what about growing up in Logging Camp Number 5? Even the lack of a real name sounds key to a character.

    Thanks for posting, Anita.

  2. Hey, LeAnne. As the fur trappers moved out of western Canada (known as Rupert's Land at the time), the cattle moved in, with largest concentrations of cattle in Alberta.

    I wasn't able to label the map but here's what the 3 green parts would show:

    Left side: Alberta - famous for The Calgary Stampede which stems from the province's huge cattle and cowboy industry. Terrain is rolling plains and with the Rocky Mountains on the west side.

    Right side: Manitoba - Mixed agriculture. Equally divided between trees, hills and prairie with rocky Ontario to the east.

    Middle: Saskatchewan - Flat. Our history books name it the Breadbasket of the World. Did I mention it was flat? You can see a gopher from 2 miles away. (Not really but it seems like it, LOL.) Sask has more grain farms than anything else, although cattle are raised on land not suited to wheat and other grain farming.

    If you're going to write a story about heading up the St. Lawrence, let me know and I'll be an influencer for you. :)

    I still have a small pillow case my mom made from an old flour sack. It has a black #5 near the top and it's how I always remembered where I was born.

    Thanks for the visit, LeAnne.


  3. Actually, Canada's history is exciting. We just didn't have a tv crew handy to tell the story. The NWMP were formed in 1874 in response to the lawlessness of American whiskey traders at Fort Whoop-up, near present day Lethbridge, which culminated in the massacre of many Assiniboine. While American thinking at the time lauded the destruction of the native Indians, Canadian (British) policy held that native peoples deserved protection. Hence the Mounties were formed and began their long march west. And that's another story.

  4. Hey Alice, nice to meet you. I absolutely love Victoria and the islands. Wish I could visit more.

    Yes, I agree that Canada's history is exciting. Sask actually has 2 claims to fame...

    First - Butch Cassidy, his gang and even his horses hid out in a big cave near Willow Bunch which is open to the public for tours.

    Second - The city of Moose Jaw has a system of tunnels where it's rumored Al Capone and his gang hid during prohibition days. I've taken the tour and it's so authentic. The tunnels run beneath the streets from one side to the other and connect whole blocks together. It's a mini-community down there. Not for claustrophobics, though.

    Love your patriotism, Alice. :)


  5. Thanks for the glimpses of history, Anita! I wasn't allowed movies as a child, either--or TV for that matter. I don't think there was a theater in the northern Manitoba town where I was raised.

    Manitoba only has decent farmland in the south, because the rocky Canadian Shield covers vast swaths of the province. Farmers eked a very poor living out of the soil and rocks farther north.

    My husband's great (double great?) grandfather came from Britain to work for the Hudson's Bay Company. If only I were into writing historicals, there are some fun stories back in there!

  6. Anita, I've heard of those tunnels in Moose Jaw. Will Ferguson wrote about them and, with him, I'm never sure how much is fact and how much is fiction :) Never heard the Butch Cassidy connection before. Sounds like you could build a story there too. Don't 'ya just love history? :)

  7. Hey, Val! I didn't know your history was Manitoba. I used to live in Winnipeg and still have relatives in the Swan River area north of Duck Mountain Park.

    I was going to mention the Canadian Shield but wasn't sure how far west it extended.

    And if you come across any history books, etc in your family let me know, okay? I'd love to glean what I can from them. Especially the HBC.

    Will I see you in Indy this year?


  8. Actually, Alice. I do love history. When I was in grade 10 English class, we had to write a short story. The school had recently obtained the services of an official 'marker' so all our homework went to him.

    Well, I wrote a scene from the book I was writing at the time. LOL my first book - which was about a couple of teenagers named Mary-Anne and Bruce. In this scene, Bruce is in the back of a conestoga wagon when the train is attacked by Indians and one of them climbs in. So the scene was basically about their fight.

    When the teacher received the stories back from the marker, she said I would never have received the highest mark in class (17/20) if she'd been marking them because a young lady should be writing romance (like all the other girls in my all-girl class) instead of a fight scene.

    My story did have romance but at 15, it wasn't as exciting as the historical aspect. Now what does that tell you about me. LOL

    I suppose I could have written the same story from a Cdn perspective but I would have had to use the Red River Cart and oxen instead of the connestoga wagon and that didn't appeal to me at all. Horses have always been more romantic to me. :)

  9. I understand that anyone who came west on a Red River Cart with its distinctive squeak, hoped never to hear that sound again.
    I'm a great admirer of the pioneers, but I'm too soft to want to emulate their exploits. I read once about a woman in a sod shanty who had snakes hatch in the ceiling and drop down into her kitchen. If loneliness hadn't driven me mad by then, the snakes would have done it.

  10. Anita, great post! Thanks for visiting with us today :-) And I've enjoyed reading all the comments and learning more about Canadian history. Are there many CBA novels set in the prairie provinces of Canada? Historical or contemporary?

  11. hi Anita
    I learn something new with every post you write. I certainly loved the TV shows you mentioned, and growing up in Colorado - I could imagine a lot of the stories actually happening there. My grandparents had a mountain home (Bergheim) for the longest time. It was situatrd on about 4 acres of land and we three kids could build forts from fallen trees and such and do all sorts of cool things.

    One of my nephews just turned six and has been a huge fan of Bonanza and the Lone Ranger since he was four. He's even learned how to handle the DVD remote so he can back up the DVD to replay the shoot-out scenes so he can shoot his imaginary gun and "help" the sheriff get the bad guys.

    His favorite Bonanza character is Adam - he says Adam is the smartest. When Aunt Debbie visits, she must choose between being Pa or Hoss, while he (of course) is Adam. There's nothing like seeing the Wild West through a chld's eyes and imagination.

    Thanks for educating us neighbors down South with Canadian geography and notable history. I appreciate it and am proud you like to write about stuff that happened in the territory in which I grew up.

  12. Narelle, I'm sure to miss someone but the ones I'm familiar with are:

    - Linda Ford (Alberta) Her Love Inspired Historicals are set in the dust bowl (Dirty 30's) of the American Prairies. However, she does have at least one anthology out with Barbour Books called Alberta Brides.

    - Lois Richer (Saskatchewan) Writes contemporaries for Love Inspired which are set all over Canada and the US.

    - Carolyne Aarsen (Alberta) Writes contemporary westerns for Love Inspired with an Alberta setting.

    I think I'm forgetting someone. Oh no. If anyone thinks of someone else, please remind me.

  13. Deb, reading about your nephew reminded me about the loss of the Lone Star channel. It's where I used to get my daily 'fix' of western shows but we cancelled it when they switched over to more contemporary action shows.

    I wonder... does anyone know if there's a western satellite channel out there? I'd love to get those shows back. Wait! On second thought... I wouldn't get as much writing done if I'm watching TV all the time. Well, unless I put it under 'research'. LOL

    My mom used to call Adam 'Blackie' because he had the black hair, eyes and always wore that colour. Meanwhile, I had a crush on Little Joe because of his smile and laugh. No one ever laughed like Little Joe. :D

    And I really like Hop Sing, too.

    Deb, maybe one of these years we'll get to meet and then you can give me a first-hand tour. It's something special to look forward to, God willing. :)

    Thanks for sharing, Deb.

  14. Janette Okes Canadian west series made me fall in love with Canada and mounties. I have since been to BC and fell in love with the areas I have been to.
    As a kid I loved the Cisco Kid, Also Bonanza, the oregon trail, Little house on the prairie. I loved the westerns but also enjoyed the musicals. Its funny Australia seemed to have cop shows and skippy but I dont remember alot of other shows but we got alot of the American shows. With the exception of childrens shows where we got to see lots of Canadian series like The Beachcombers (I was excited when I saw the ship and diner from the series in BC)and quite a few other shows from there.

  15. I've enjoyed learning more about Canada and by the way I live close to Montmartre - that is Montmartre, Paris, France ...


  16. Hey Ausjenny, so nice to see you here.

    I remember the first time we drove to Gibson's Landing, British Columbia and there - right in front of us - was Molly's Reach. I shrieked and told hubby to pull the motorhome over but it's so congested near the pier. We parked about a block away and I ran back to The Reach. So exciting. We walked to the docks until we found Relic's speedboat and The Persephone - can't remember Bruno Gerussi's character at the moment, just that he was a Greek. That was my first film set location.

    Thank you for reminding me of Janette Oke. Wonderful books. I'm slowly collecting them and the movies based on them.

    And I loved watching Skippy! Every Sat at 4pm.

    Nice memories.

  17. Montmartre, France? ooh, la la. That's a very ... ah ... unique area, isn't it? Our research for our 100 yr celebrations said that's a 'red light district'. LOL

    I'm your sister, then. :) The 2 Montmartres have twinned together and although you won't find a grain elevator in France (?), you will find an Eiffel Tower in Sask.

    The funny thing about Montmartre is that it is pronounced Moe-Mart instead of Mo-mar-tre and many of the older population have French names and accents. But, they don't speak French and they anglicize their names. Because I used to live in Ontario near the Quebec border, when I see Maurice, I say, Maur-isse. And everyone here says, 'Oh, you mean Morris'. Weird, eh.

    It's very nice to meet you Ann from Montmartre, Paris, FR. Wait til I tell hubby and the kids. :)

  18. Anita, thanks for the list of authors with books set on the Canadian prairies. DebH, I remember watching Bonanza when I was younger. And Ausjenny, I'll have to look up the Janette Oke series :-)

    Anita, thanks again for guest blogging with us and I look forward to you coming back and visiting with us again :-)

  19. Anita, his name was nick. My friend lives in Gibsons and I was so excited then found out the producer I think it was of stargate owns a place at the marina.
    I even got a tshirt from Mollys Reach.
    Its a beautiful place.
    I dont think the Canadian West series has been made into a series yet but It would be a good series.

  20. Yes, Ausjenny - Nick Adonidas. How could I forget that... my son is a Nick. LOL Thank you for coming back.

    Actually, the more I think about this post and all the comments, the more I'm getting excited to write one set here. I'll have to spend some time in prayer and see what the Lord has in mind and who He wants the book to reach. :)

    Thanks again.


  21. that would be so cool to see some books set in Canada.
    Speaking of the guy who played Nick my friend actually meet him in a restaurant and was so excited till she actually meet him she said he was so rude and found out he had a reputation for being rude to people.
    Canada has a different history to America being it stayed part of the commonwealth and has different laws. Its good reading stories about other countries and the history of the place.

  22. Thank you, Narelle, ICFW, and all those who took time out of their busy days to make me feel welcome here.

    You've inspired and challenged me. What a great blog!