Just as tradesmen took leave of their jobs, doctors took leave of their patients, and the world at large took leave of its senses in 1849 to scramble to California in pursuit of glittering treasure, a similar stampede for riches got underway 47 years later—this time, toward Northwestern Canada’s rugged Yukon. It’s against this rugged backdrop that a young woman named Pearl Owens goes in search of adventure while her cousin, Sam, is equally fervent about staking his own claim for gold. Such is the premise of author Joan Donaldson-Yarmey’s latest novel, Romancing the Klondike.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When did you first realize you had been bitten by the writing bug and wanted to pursue this as a possible career?
A: I had thought about trying to be a writer for a few years while my children were young. I wrote a few stories but just put them away. When my children were teenagers I took a writing course and wrote a short story about the injured hawk my son and I found on the side of the road. We took it home and kept it a couple of days until it was better, then let it go. The story was accepted by a small magazine and I was paid $100.00 for it. When I saw the published story and people told me they had read it and liked it, I was hooked.
Q: Who are some of the writers (living or dead) whose work you especially admire?
A: Since I write mysteries, of course Agatha Christie is one of the writers I admire, especially for her innovated plots. I can say the same for Mary Higgins Clark. Their endings were surprises and I like that. I wasn’t a fan of most of Mordecai Richler’s books. However, I really enjoyed his novel, Barney’s Version, for the unique way it was written and, again, for the surprise ending.
Q: If you could invite three of them to a private dinner at your home, what questions would you most like to ask each one before the evening is over?
A: How do they come up with their ideas? How many rejection slips did they receive before their first book was published? How long did it take for them to get their first novel published? Did the same publisher publish their second book? If they switched publishing houses during their career, why? I would ask each of them these questions because I’m sure their answers would be different.
Q: You’ve held no shortage of diverse jobs throughout your life – printing press operator, bank teller, house renovator, bookkeeper. How did each of these prepare you for both the work ethic discipline and the solitary aspects of spending time in fictional worlds of your own creation?
A: I think I am naturally a disciplined person. When I decide I want to do something, I do it no matter what I have to go through to accomplish it. I like immersing myself in my story and characters. Sometimes, when I am living my normal life, I miss the people and life happening in my book. Having a variety of jobs did provide me with a lot of occupations to give the main characters in my books. Although technology has changed since I worked at some of them, I might be behind the times on how things are done. But I am free to set my books during any decade I want.
Q: You’ve also moved more than 30 times. That’s a lot of packing and unpacking! What would you say accounts for this sense of wanderlust…and are there any upcoming moves on the horizon?
A: I like new places, new experiences, meeting new people. I never really have been attached to a house to the point that I have said, I don’t want to move. Sometimes, once I’ve left a place I look back at the fun I had and the friends I met, but I never really say “Oh, I never should have moved from there.” Instead I think, if I had stayed there, I wouldn’t be here. Right now I live on an acreage with fruit and berry trees. Being raised on the prairies where we had to purchase all our fruit like cherries, peaches, pears, apples, it is nice to go out into my yard and pull them from the tree and eat them fresh. Every once in a while I think it’s time to move on, but so far I haven’t found the next place where I want to live.
Q: When and where do you feel you are able to be your most creative self?
A: Right now, I have an office with my desktop computer, plus I have a chair in the living room with a table beside it for my laptop. I seem to be able to watch television and follow the show while writing at the same time. I get most of my work done there.
Q: After successfully penning a number of historical articles and travel books, you made the switch to fiction. What was it that influenced this decision?
A: I like reading mysteries and I found that there were so many with inferior plots or predictable endings. I figured I could write a book at least as bad as some of them and tried. It took a couple of years but I found a publishing house that accepted my first mystery, Illegally Dead. Since then I have published three more mystery novels, three historical novels, two sci/fi, one contemporary young adult and one Christmas romance (with my sister).
Q: As someone who is skilled at writing in different genres, how do you go about deciding which genre will ultimately be the smartest fit for a new story?
A: Most times I set out to write a mystery. The main character of my first three novels, Illegally Dead, The Only Shadow in the House, and Whistler’s Murder, which I call The Travelling Detective Series, is a travel writer. She somehow manages to get involved in a murder while researching places for articles for travel magazines. So the books include information about the places she visits as well as the mystery. In The Only Shadow in the House, she also has a boyfriend, so there is a romance. But since they are mainly mysteries, I put them under the mystery genre. My stand alone novel, Gold Fever, there is a mystery and romance so I call it both. My historical novels and my young adult contemporary young adult were easy to define. It was my novels, The Criminal Streak and Betrayed that I wrote first and then decided that they belonged in the science fiction genre.
Q: What comes first for you – the plot or the characters?
A: Usually it is an idea that I get from reading a news story, overhearing a conversation, or seeing something on television. Then from there I decide on the plot and then bring in the characters.
Q: Do you develop your stories from an outline or develop the actions and interactions as you go along?
A: I have never worked with a solid outline because I find that my characters seldom end up the way I first pictured them and plot never takes the route I thought it would. I do start the story with the main character in his/her everyday life so the reader can get to know them then I put in the trigger that starts the mystery. This puts the main character on his/her quest for a solution.
I do have scenes pictured ahead of time where characters are going to have a certain conversation or be at a certain place but unexpected conversations or character twists surface as I am writing the story. Some of these are surprises or mishaps or problems that get in the way of my character’s quest. I strive not to make these predictable nor so far out that they don’t make sense to the story. I try to leave the reader with the thought that (s)he should have figured that would happen. I find that it is no fun to read a book where you can foresee where the story line is headed and what is going to happen before it does.
Q: For your latest novel, Romancing the Klondike, you chose the backdrop of the Yukon, specifically 1896, the year before the great Klondike Gold Rush began. How did you go about doing the research for this era in order to ensure the storyline’s authenticity?
A: I have been to the Yukon twice. On the second visit, in 1997, I was working on my non-fiction travel book, The Backroads of the Yukon and Alaska. I decided that I wanted to hike the Chilkoot Trail, since it was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush. To write Romancing the Klondike I used my knowledge of the territory plus read books about its history to make sure I had that right. I also read books about the late 1800s to describe hair dos and clothing and equipment.
Q: Romancing the Klondike isn’t your first novel about gold. Your mystery/romance Gold Fever is set in the mountains of southern British Columbia. Do you have a fascination with gold?
A: I guess I do. My father panned for gold with two of his brothers in the Salmo area of southern British Columbia in the late 1930s. When WWII broke out, he and one brother joined the army. At the end of the war, Dad ended up in Vancouver where he met my mother and they married. In 1980, my husband, kids, and I accompanied my parents to the gold claim that Dad once owned. He showed us how to pan and we all ended up with a little bit of flour gold.
In 1992, my husband and I decided to drop out of society for a while. We sold our house, quit our jobs and headed to the Salmo area to get a gold claim. We found a small section of the Salmo River that was not part of any claim and we staked it. When we registered it, we found out that it was part of the claim that my dad had had in the 1930’s.
Q: You have written two other Canadian historical novels, West to the Bay and West to Grande Portage. What do you think makes Canada’s history such compelling fodder for novelists and authors of nonfiction?
A: When I attended school in the 1960s I was told that Canada was too young a country to have much of a history and what it did have was boring. I was taught the history of the United States, France, England, and ancient Greece and Rome. I decided that I was going to prove my teachers wrong and began reading about Canada, and yes, sometimes the books were boring, but when I looked at what the people who lived in that time did to survive and thrive, it was amazing. In 2014 I wrote West to the Bay, the first in my Canadian historical series for teens, young adults, and adults. The story takes place 1750 and is about four boys who join the Hudson’s Bay Company and sail from Scotland to Rupert’s Land to work in an isolated fort. It is also the story on a young native girl and her family who wait expectantly for the yearly visit from her grandfather on the supply ship.
In 2015, my second book in the series, West to Grande Portage, was published. It takes place in Montreal in 1766 and shows the life of two young adults, a boy and his female cousin as they each strive to make a life for themselves, he as a voyageur with his uncle and she as a volunteer at the hospital and prospective bride.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670 and set up a few forts on Hudson’s Bay in Rupert’s Land, as Canada was known at the time. The Company began as a purchaser of beaver pelts but over the centuries also became a retailer, opening stores across the country. It is the oldest continuously operating company in the world.
The birch bark canoe was invented by the natives and used by them and non-natives to navigate the lakes and rivers for centuries.
Q: Since you write in so many different genres, what’s your favorite genre to read?
A: Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries. I like to be drawn into a detective novel, taken through all the clues and red herrings and then be shocked at the ending.
Q: Do any aspects of your own personality find their way into the characters you’re writing about?
A: Yes. The main character of The Travelling Detective Series is an aspiring travel writer who works as a nursing attendant in a long term care facility. I am a travel writer who has worked in a long term care facility. My family and friends who have read the novels say that they can picture me saying or doing things that she says and does.
Q: Have your characters ever surprised you?
A: Oh, yes. In The Only Shadow in the House, I was waffling between two characters as the killer. Suddenly, a different character stepped up and said they had done it and gave the reason why. The funny thing is that readers have told me that they had thought the killer was one of the two people I had been waffling about.
Q: Which of these characters would you most like to spend a day with and where would you go?
A: Since my main character is most like me, only younger, I would like to spend a day with her. I could give her pointers on travel writing and we could discuss delving into a murder mystery and how to interpret clues while we drink Pepsi and eat chocolate.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I am working on a mystery/romance and also on a saga about four generations of a family.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: No. These questions cover everything.