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Archivists Who Write (Part II)

7 Feb 2023 2:14 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Denise Dale, Emily Lonie, Sonia Nicholson, and Sylvia Stopforth 

In last week’s blog post, we introduced our writing group, Archivists Who Write. Today we want to share a little more about each member of the group and about the why, how, what, and where we write.  


Why do I write? Simply put, I have to. Not because anyone tells me I have to, but because I just have to. I have to chase the feeling. When I put pen to paper (or more accurately fingers to keyboard), there is a feeling of excitement, satisfaction, and purpose that seems to exist only in the formulation of story. When I write, I am seeking a hidden well of ever-shifting creativity, desperately hoping that it hasn’t run dry. When I find it, it is pure joy and excruciating frustration in equal measure – and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.  

Writing is bringing life to the characters in your imagination. It is the attempt to convey the disordered chaos in your mind, in some sort of discernible (and enjoyable) order. And what are archivists if not controllers of chaos, order-makers, organizers? But I found, in that ordering of documentary chaos, in the rigid application of theory and practice, there were few moments of pure creativity. For many years, I felt satisfied by those precious few moments. But eventually, the dam burst and a story spilled out. I didn’t know where it came from, but it demanded to exist. I listened and I wrote. And I kept listening. It was short stories at first. One even made it into print. But it wasn’t until my love of film led me to screenwriting that I found my form of choice. I wrote my first feature film in three weeks. I couldn’t stop. There was an urgency to it that was thrilling. And I have been chasing that feeling ever since.  

It was during this time that I was welcomed into this incredible writing group, affectionately known as Archivists Who Write. Despite how lonely, how solitary the act can feel, writing is the hope of connection. As much as the characters live in my mind, as much as I feel that I have seen the film I’ve written on the page, there is always a second life to be found in the sharing. Allowing a person to read your words is an act of faith. But, my goodness, it can be rewarding, nourishing, inspiring. When you allow others to embrace your characters, love them as you do, they become truly alive. Being part of this group has given me confidence that when I seek the well once again, it will be full.  

– Emily's fiction can be found in the literary magazines Pulp Literature (Issue 21) and Door = Jar (Issue 7), and her thoughts on archives can be found at As for her screenplays, Hollywood hasn't come knocking ... yet. 


“Shut up and write!”  

Not my words, of course! But thinking about the “how” of writing, that workshop title seems on point. Because beyond that directive, to stifle your inner critic and just get on with it, “how” is personal. How it starts, how it unfolds, how it evolves. It’s a process that matures with practice and time. One that incorporates genre “rules,” how-to books, podcasts, writing festivals, support groups like “Archivists Who Write,” one-on-one help (dramaturg, anyone?), or discovering how others hone their craft. And if it helps, here is my “how”—at least as far as playwriting goes. 

The shift from non-fiction writer to “junior” playwright began after attending a series of important but difficult productions. It started something like this: 

DON and DENISE enter the lobby from the theatre. 

DON: I mean… what sort of play has counsellors standing by? 

DENISE: That one girl was crying. 

DON: Did you know it was going to be about … that?  

DENISE: (hesitantly) Well, you know, it’s Studio B, not the Mainstage, so … 

DON: For once, I’d just like to go to the theatre— 

DENISE: (cuts off) and not be traumatized? 

DON: —and laugh. 

DENISE: Tell you what: I’ll write you a play. Make you laugh. How does that sound? 

DON: Traumatic. 

DON and DENISE exit. 

DENISE figures out how to write a play. 

“How” is fuelled by ideas, sparked perhaps by overheard conversations, a nugget in the news, or work in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector.  My first play Weed’em and Leap (professional reading, Sept. 2021) combined the antics of a library book cart drill team with a collection de-selection project gone awry (spoiler alert: Shakespeare’s First Folio accidentally gets thrown out!). 

Before an idea turns into dialogue, it turns into a one sentence premise. Here’s an example from my current play-in-progress: The Trouble with Henry is a comedy about a librarian who champions freedom to read after a banned book, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, is discovered languishing on the library shelves. 

Sounds ho-hum? Maybe. But now, premise done, the real fun begins because as Canadian playwright/dramaturg Caroline Russell-King told me during one of our Zoom sessions, “Nobody goes to the theatre to see ordinary.” Let’s get into the fun that didn’t make into that premise ... It’s 1961, librarian Rae is on probation, Henry Miller shows up (in a bathrobe), and so does Rae’s tipsy mom, the RCMP, and Canada Customs. And then there’s Mrs. Marshall who manages to sign out Tropic of Cancer, only to return it at the worst possible moment. All that comes out in the plot details. 

For some, plotting involves post-it notes or chapter summaries. For me, a plot chart appeals to my sense of order by funnelling the creative chaos in my head into neat columns and rows, detailing each scene. Charting makes it easy to spot and rectify plot snags. And snags not caught likely won’t get past Archivists Who Write as they diligently follow the plot and can be relied upon to nurture and gently nudge (aka “shut up and write!”) as needed. 

Finally, the “actual writing” begins, effortlessly, because most of the hard work has been done. Dialogue flows as characters come to life. Written directives stage a world filling with laughter and fun. As the action ramps up from the inciting incident, pausing briefly for intermission, fingers fly across the keyboard full tilt towards the climax before the curtain falls.  

All part of how. 

– Denise is co-author of two books on information management with numerous articles published in magazines like MoneySense and Reader’s Digest

Weed’em and Leap by Denise Dale, professional reading, produced by Dramaturgy On Demand, Sept. 2021.


Like an alchemist, I am preoccupied with the idea of transmutation. But it’s not the glitter of gold that draws me. Rather, it’s the way that stories take true things—things like lived experiences, indefinable yearnings, emotional landscapes—and turn them into a kind of lie in order to tell a deeper truth.  

And it doesn’t stop there, because the right story, told in the right way, can root itself in our hearts and forever transform the way we see the world, ourselves, and those around us. 

Change upon change. 

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first understood that real, flesh-and-blood people created these magical things called “stories.” But that dream felt far too grand for the likes of me.  

Determined to work in a writing-adjacent field, I took myself off to school to get the necessary degrees (a BA in English Literature followed by a Master’s in Library and Information Studies) and worked as a research librarian and archivist for more than twenty years. On the whole it was a good fit, this business of preserving and ordering at least a few of the tributaries belonging to the great river of human stories rushing over and around us. 

But that wild old wish refused to be channelled. In 2019 I finally gave myself permission to own the dream.  

If you’ve made the attempt yourself to capture some quicksilver vision in a net of words, you know how frustrating it can be. There’s always that blasted gap between how you imagined it and what it looks like, lying there on the page, unmoving. But those occasions when you nearly get it right make it all worthwhile. And I’m thankful beyond words (ironically) for the privilege of trying. 

To date I’ve written everything from essays and articles to literary shorts and even microfiction, but my heart belongs to novel-length stories—particularly those works of speculative fiction that wade into the realms of fairy tales, fantasy, and science fiction. I find that sometimes the greater the distance between reality and the story-world, the sharper the light the writer is able to shine back onto that reality.  

As the inimitable Isabel Allende observed, “You can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction.” 

– Sylvia has had several short pieces published and is currently seeking representation for a young adult trilogy that blends elements of science fiction with the dark, alchemical glitter of fairy tales. Visit her at


Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.  

Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun 

Confession time: I hated history—aka social studies—in school. It was too vague. Distant. Impersonal. I maintain to this day that if the curriculum had focused on local history, I would have found my career much sooner. 

As a community archivist, the work I do is directly related to the places where I work, live, and play every day. For example, the house that used to be behind mine was the home of a Saanich resident killed in the First World War. The same house where his widow spent the rest of her many years, never remarrying. Our lot was empty until the late 1950s or early 1960s; I picture her husband cutting across it before he enlisted, on his way to his job as a plasterer. Maybe he brought back flowers for her using the same shortcut.  

There’s no way to know all of that for sure. But archives capture more than facts. They hold stories. The rest is left to our imaginations. 

My writing regularly explores themes of identity, family, and place; of these three, the latter in particular. It makes sense, really. These are the same themes that cross the desks of archivists daily.  

And it’s this intersection of place and people that draws me in. Relationships. Home. How they’re all connected. Every record in our care represents a small piece of someone’s story. Someone who walked the same streets I do. Who loved. Lost. Deserves to be remembered. Becoming obsessed with finding them can be an occupational hazard. 

This is the premise—with an added twist—of my debut novel. Aptly titled Provenance Unknown, its two locations (my Saanich, Vancouver Island, neighbourhood and Paris, France) have personal meaning. My experiences influence every page as the main character, an Archives Assistant named Michele, travels these places I know so well. Saanich’s Rutledge Park and Cloverdale corridor. The Pereire neighbourhood of Paris, where my husband and I enjoyed our own adventures in the City of Light. She’s there. 

Past and present. In person. On paper. These places move inside me. Define me. At times, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.  

I wouldn’t want to.  

– Sonia 

If you happen to be in the Victoria, BC, area, join us for the Spring launch of Sonia’s novel! Details forthcoming at


We are Archivists Who Write. Four writers, each on a unique literary journey. But it all boils down to an irresistible pull to the work and a desire to let the words out into the world, all with the comfort of knowing that a supportive suggestion, a potential plot point, or a carefully considered comma is but a Zoom call away. 

Because, as L.M. Montgomery’s Anne put it, “Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.” Our little writing group encourages the trying and consoles over the (real or perceived) failing, but most importantly, our group inspires the doing! 

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