The clutter in my life, garden and writing… better known as reality

In the pre-dawn stillness yesterday morning I lay awake, contemplating the coming day. Its square on the calendar was empty. I love non-designated days with their freedom to pursue whatever tasks come to mind. One of retirement’s perks! I tugged the duvet close and snuggled down to think about what I might undertake once daylight broke.

My mind began lobbing ‘could’ and ‘should’ ideas at me like a tennis ball machine. Soon I was burrowing deeper and wishing I could go back to sleep, but it was too late. I was overwhelmed with mental clutter. If you could have seen into my head you would think it looked a lot like my gardens.

Back Garden Flowers

A landscape designer would be horrified by the gardens here. In each of the eighteen or so years we’ve lived on this rural property we’ve planted a few things — sometimes a half-dozen new perennials, sometimes a woody shrub or another tree. Goodness knows we don’t need any more of the latter! Our home is surrounded on four sides by towering trees…lots of cedar, hemlock and fir interspersed with a few poplar and alder. But one can’t really consider them ‘landscape’ trees, so I’ve added others like Japanese Maple and Dogwood.

Fall Backyard

Hubby and I have created assorted garden beds around part of the yard’s perimeter, prying out the boulders and filling the holes with whatever needed planting. There was never much planning done, except to choose things that could cope with the soil acidity and abundant shade. We have a well for water, and once things have been established we don’t waste any on them, so they also have to be hardy and drought tolerant.

The beds are a mishmash. That’s the nicest thing I can say about them. In one area Solomon’s Seal has all but choked out a clump of Siberian Iris and one white Astilbe. Wild ferns poke out from the middle of  sprawling Junipers, and everything leans in the direction of the sun, eventually overlaying whatever is in front.

It’s a muddle.

Except for a few tubs and baskets on the deck, we don’t plant annuals in the backyard. In fact, we don’t plant them in the front either, except for a small bed that edges the sidewalk at the front door. For the past several years I’ve bought one flat of colourful bedding plants, usually Begonias, and tucked them into unoccupied nooks and crannies. It’s my one concession to summer colour…a bright spot in the chaos of green. I try to remember to water them in May and June, but once summer comes, they’re on their own like everything else. I am always surprised that they survive and sometimes even flourish.

Fall Flower Garden

It’s all somewhat reminiscent of what comes out of my cluttered mind. Little ideas germinate and manage to develop into potential stories. I nurture them along for the first while and then, without plotting or planning, give them the freedom to grow or not. Most times they surprise me by producing an abundance of words. Occasionally, like one I’m considering now, they shrivel up and disappear from the page. The fact is, not all ideas are sturdy enough to last.

It can be discouraging in writing when enthusiasm for what seemed like a good idea fades; or in gardening, when a pot of cheery marguerites suddenly stops blooming and turns brown; or in life, when some days just seem like too much. But that’s my reality. Fortunately, there’s always another idea, a fresh blossom or new day coming.

Have you ever abandoned what at first seemed like a promising idea? Do you save it for reconsideration later, or toss it altogether?

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Facts or Fiction in Writing a Novel

One of our signs of autumn is the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, which is the larva form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella Tiger Moth. It waits out the cold winter, sometimes freezing solid, and thaws out in the spring to pupate and eventually become a moth. (Such interesting tidbits I provide for you on this blog!) The width of its coppery brown stripe is said to be an indication of the severity of the approaching winter  — the thicker it is, the milder the winter. That’s the myth, anyway. 

Furry Fellow

Wikipedia says, “Folklore of the eastern United States and Canada holds that the relative amounts of brown and black on the skin of a Woolly Bear caterpillar (commonly abundant in the fall) are an indication of the severity of the coming winter… In reality, hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs can display considerable variation in their color distribution, and the brown band tends to grow with age; if there is any truth to the tale, it is highly speculative.”

Separating truth from fiction can sometimes be a challenge. When we’re writing non-fiction or memoir, truth matters, but in a novel it’s not so important. At least, that’s what some writers seem to think.

There’s a difference between truth and accuracy. A novel may be fictitious but any details must be accurate for the story to remain credible. But, you say, it’s contemporary fiction. We write what we know. Why do we need to research anything?

Yesterday on the Seekerville blog, author Amanda Cabot‘s post, “So You Want to Write a Contemporary“, asked seven questions writers should consider when deciding whether to write contemporary or historical fiction. In her sixth question she debunks the idea that contemporary doesn’t require research. The reality is, all writing requires research.  It’s true that research for contemporaries is different from historicals, but it’s still essential that your details are correct.  If anything, readers are more critical of contemporary authors who get their facts wrong because it’s so easy to get them right.”

Hopefully our contemporary fiction isn’t devoid of an interesting setting or enriching details just because we’re writing only “what we know”. It’s good to stretch our horizons and venture into a bit of unfamiliar territory once in a while.

What kind of facts do you deal with in your writing? How did you research their accuracy?

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Writing in a fog?

Vivid blue skies accompanied us during the entire 800 kilometre drive on Saturday… at least, they did after the fog lifted. Until then, there wasn’t much of anything to see.

Morning Fog

As the early morning mist thinned, beautiful Moyie Lake was revealled.

Moyie Lake (East Kootenays), BC

Moyie Lake (East Kootenays), BC

After that, the rest of the trip was a joy… just one cloudless vista after another.

Kootenay Pass (Selkirk Mountains), BC

Christina Lake, BC

That resembles some of my writing days. I blunder along, searching for the direction a story should take, but it’s like being in a fog. Everything feels unfamiliar, although it shouldn’t. After all, the route, the basic storyline, is my own. Still, the way ahead is obscure and I can’t see where to go until a fresh breeze of inspiration finally opens up a glimmer of an idea. Once I can expand on it, my writing picks up speed.

That’s where I am right now. There’s a non-fiction article I want to write, but the idea remains murky. Unfortunately, I’m running out of time (it’s for a contest), but I’ll persevere… I’ll keep concocting one sentence at a time, waiting for the breakthrough to happen.

If only the fog would dissipate! Do you think it would help if I set up a couple fans in my office? :)

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Book Review — Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic, by K.M. Weiland

When I first read Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, I took it as a Victorian romance, later realizing it was also a vaguely autobiographical account of a girl’s complex and difficult life, and a critique of the social issues of the period. I never imagined I would encounter the story again decades later and reread it as a highly effective teaching tool for writing fiction.

19336035In Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic, K.M. Weiland examines Brontë’s story from the unique perspective of an author and writing instructor, and reveals the many techniques that helped make it one of the most successful novels of its era and an enduring classic. Weiland not only identifies the techniques as the story unfolds, she thoroughly explains them.

Let me offer two examples:

In discussing characterization, following a section of dialogue a sidebar notation says, “Successfully using dialogue for characterization requires several ingredients,” and Weiland goes on to identify four – “(1.) Character voice, (2.) Choice of subject, (3.) Treatment of others, and (4.) Speaker tags and action beats.” She doesn’t just label these, but also expounds on each with specific references to how Bronte has used them in the text.

After another section of dialogue, Weiland points to Brontë’s inclusion of backstory and explains how and why it works so well. “To begin with, this conversation serves to keep the backstory front and center in the readers’ minds. Even as the main part of the story progresses, Brontë will continue to make references to the mysterious backstory. She never lets readers forget about it. She is also careful to introduce at least one new fact into each reference. She doesn’t rehash the same old information over and over. … Finally, she keeps the backstory fresh by weaving it into the body of the main story. Here she uses it to cement the foundation of the relationship that will grow between Jane and Rochester.

“Info dumps or lengthy flashbacks would only serve to slow down the story and sap the tension. But carefully placed clues offer just enough new information to keep readers panting after the truth.”

km-weiland-avatarKatie Weiland’s own writing is well crafted and easy to read in a conversational style that still manages to be concise and instructive. Her intimate familiarity with Charlotte Brontë’s classic story along with her extensive knowledge of the writing craft, have combined to produce a book that other writers will find extremely useful. It is not just another companion to the story of Jane Eyre, but a comprehensive guide to good writing that I believe should be on every writer’s bookshelf.

Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic by K.M. Weiland will be available at all major outlets upon release August 1st. Check it out on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and visit Katie’s website, Helping Writers Become Authors, for lots more information.

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Writing Frustrations and Bird Poop

Bird poop is not pleasant. It’s messy, and one of the worst offenders around here right now are the robins.

Robin

Once winter is on the wane, I’m always delighted to welcome the earliest robins. They’re harbingers of spring, after all, and that makes me smile. By summertime, however, I’ve begun to tire of the white accumulations that adorn our deck railings and outdoor furniture, and I’m no longer smiling.

Robins are pretty, and they sing a sweet song, I’ll give them that. But they don’t eat birdseed. The lawn and garden are their kitchen source for earthworms and berries. The only appeal our deck apparently has for them is as a bathroom… a place to perch and deposit their doo-doo, which I don’t-don’t like! Someone had a warped sense of humour when they named the species ‘Turdus migratorius’.

We had 45 people coming here last night for a church barbecue. In preparation, we had pulled weeds and tidied the gardens. Hubby power-washed the deck, and I wiped down the lawn furniture. You get the picture. We wanted things to be neat and clean for our guests, and it was… until late-afternoon, just before the first guests arrived, when Mr. Robin Redbreast dropped in and dropped. Ackkk!!! It was too late to get out the hose, but there was no point in stressing over little blobby things, as maddening as they were. I found a rag, cleaned them away as best I could and carried on, soon forgetting all about the annoyance and enjoying a wonderful evening with friends.

The writing application that occurred to me later had to do with not overstressing about little things. No point in grinding to a halt  when the wrong words deposit themselves on the page during a first draft. Better to look at the overall picture, get on with the job and worry about cleaning up the messy bits during revision. There are bound to be more messy bits before it’s done and we’re ready to put the manuscript out on display anyway.

In future, when I’m getting really frustrated, maybe I’ll try and remember to mutter, “Oh, poop!!!” then have a laugh and get back to work.

What’s your method of banishing first draft frustrations?

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The Appeal of a Writer’s Garden

Did you ever read The Secret Garden — the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read it at a time when I was too young to care about its themes and symbols. The author’s interest in Christian Science and New Thought were beyond me, and by the time I later acquired the movie on DVD (the 1993 version), the childish appeal of the story and its magic was well embedded and I didn’t care what obscure meaning it might have. 


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I sometimes wonder if it contributed to my interest in gardening. I’m not a great gardener, but my homes from childhood until the present have always included patches of soil in which plants put forth blossoms and seeds year after year. Every spring I await the bursting of swollen buds, and often plant something new “just to see if it will grow”. Unfortunately I don’t nurture things very well, and sometimes they don’t grow!

It’s not the growing that fascinates me as much as the potential. Bare branches and seed pods that lie dormant and suddenly decide to produce green sprouts, leaves and flowers. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of the mystery invisible behind a locked garden gate, and secrets within.

Secret Garden

If you didn’t know my back yard, the cedar arch in the back corner covered by climbing hydrangea might seem like the gateway to a secret garden. It’s not. It simply marks the transition between our rather mossy back lawn and an unkempt bit of forest that leads to our marsh. Any mystery or magic exists only in one’s mind.

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DSC03302

I used to like sitting down there on the little bench my hubby made for me. It was a private sanctuary, perfect for thinking, plotting or just listening to the birds. Now that I know there’s a bear and her cub wandering nearby this spring, I’m less inclined to venture down there by myself, but I miss sitting quietly in those shadows.

Sunday afternoon I enjoyed wandering through a friend’s garden, seeing her lush plantings of flowers and shrubs. I came home thinking about what gardens mean to us as writers. The fact that my friend is also a writer reinforces my belief that whether we’re growing vegetables and fruits to nourish our bodies, or designing colourful flowerbeds to nourish our spirits, in some way the process parallels our desire to create via storytelling.

Planning the beds, preparing the ground, nestling each plant or seed in its appropriate spot, watering and fertilizing, watching it develop, and digging it out when it ends up not fitting that location — it strikes me there’s a writing analogy coming. It might take a stretch of imagination, but I’m sure there’s a semblance of one. Don’t dash my hope. I told you I’m not a great gardener! :)

If you’re a writer, do you like to garden… design special places or plant practical beds? Oh, and don’t forget my initial question: have you read (or watched) “The Secret Garden”? What did you think of it?

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Story lessons from an iceberg

Taking a break from blogging has pros and cons. I’ve returned feeling rested and refreshed, but my mind is still focused on the many sights and sounds that filled my week away. So I’ll apologize in advance. We’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.

Cruise 1

This past week provided opportunities for me to experience water in several of its forms. We didn’t get rain in any measurable amount, but there were a few sprinkles, and a morning of fog.

Cruise 6

Most days the ocean was remarkably calm, but there were occasional times of choppy waves and rolling swells.

Cruise 3

 

Cruise 2

The Pacific Ocean can be mighty chilly at times, but in the Gulf of Alaska there are places where it’s downright frigid.

Cruise 4

Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier is located in the northeastern section of Yakutak Bay, extending five miles across the end of Disenchantment Bay. Unlike most other glaciers that are receding, for the past century the face of the Hubbard Glacier has continued to advance. Chunks of ice regularly ‘calve’ from it, filling the water with mid-sized icebergs, along with smaller ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’.

Cruise 7

Apparently the density of ice is less than that of sea water, so only about one-tenth of the volume of an iceberg is visible above the water.

Cruise 8

The seen and the unseen… how could they not bring a writing application to mind??? ;)

So much of the research, background and subtext that go into novel writing will never actually be seen by readers — or shouldn’t be — but will provide the foundation for a good story and give it stability. Whenever we’re tempted to reveal too much ‘fascinating’ information, we need to remember what happens when an iceberg drifts away from its source and warmer waters begin undermining the ice below the surface. When too much of the iceberg’s volume is above the water line, it eventually gets top heavy and flips over!

All those mottled and melted bits from the underside don’t have a lot of interest or substance. Imagine similar ramifications for a story. If you need more of a visual, drop an ice cube into a glass of water and then consider the importance of a good solid base.

I know, I know… I sometimes give my imagination too much free rein, but it bugs me when a writer top-dresses a story with too many details that were obviously gleaned during the research stage. How would you suggest utilizing interesting tidbits you’ve discovered, if they’re not going to add significantly to your plot?

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