Growing the Writer Within Me

What does gardening have to do with my work? Nothing, because I am a writer. And yet, everything.

Always one to need a good bit of time alone, I’d hide out under the tangle of forsythia in the yard, just out of earshot of my mother hollering from the back porch for a chore-ready child. I’d prop myself up in the soft dirt, poke a hole in the leaf cover overhead for sunlight, and read.

The summer before I turned ten, I read The Secret Garden. I decided I needed a garden like Mary, Colin, and Dickon had. I tore all the leaves off the branches overhead, fluffed up the soil in my hideout and planted flowers.

All petals and no roots, they weren’t destined to do well. I’m not stupid. I learned from my mistakes. Start from good seeds. Pull weeds. Pat the soil. Sprinkle liberally with water. That was when the initial stories flowed within me. As I worked, I planted my stories, telling them to each flower, branch, and stone.

Now, at the beginning of my day, I weed. I pat the soil. I sprinkle the various plants with various amounts of water. And I remember those tales I told so long ago. Like good garden compost, the stories are richer for having been buried all this time.

I’m working on one of those now, a children’s story for all those kids who want a horse more than anything. My own dream come true.

Tea Sipping

Image from www.designedtoat.com

In Texas a Tea Sipper is a name given the University of Texas students by the Aggies, a rival state institution. I always laugh when I hear someone say this as if it’s a bad thing, because I’ve been a tea sipper from long before I moved to the great state of Texas and birthed a child who grew up to be a Longhorn.

I never did learn how to drink coffee. Despite my gardener’s love for the grounds, the brew itself is too bitter for my taste. My mother got me started on Constant Comment tea when I was in high school and I have since migrated to a variety of teas — I pick the flavor to suit the moment. My palate isn’t as sophisticated as S. J. Rozan’s Chinese-American detective, Lydia Chin, who often sits down to a fragrant cup (the better to get answers out of a recalcitrant witness) but I do have my personal preferences. English Breakfast in the morning. Earl Grey or Constant Comment in the early afternoon. Lemon Zinger in the late afternoon. I also drink most of my tea “white”. I started doing this the year I lived in Moscow and my fellow Nanny, Di Biggin, always put a dollop of cream in without asking. Pretty soon I couldn’t drink it black without feeling uncouth.

There are a number of good mysteries featuring tea. Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are the first that spring to mind.  Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detecting duo at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are tea-drinkers. My second book, Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew has tea in it, but the published version had much less about tea than the first draft did. I had to change just about everything in that book once I realized I’d hung the plot on a murder weapon it would be rude to use.

The Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by Bigelow Tea in 2003 from William Barclay Hall, a third generation tea-taster. (Yes, that’s a real job!) Hall developed the brand American Classic Tea, which is still marketed by Bigelow. As the only domestic American-grown tea, it truly is a treat to enjoy. I took the tour of this lovely plantation in the summer of 2000 with my Uncle Ed, a canny businessman who was very impressed with their business sense. They had a wonderful harvester that clipped the Camelia Sinensis hedges at just the proper level to get the leaves at their utmost freshness. The minute I saw it, the warped and highly imaginative writer in me wanted to use it as a murder weapon. (Fictional!!) I began the story and it sailed on until I got to the middle of the book. In an effort to get my creative efforts back on track, I called the Plantation to do some due diligence by getting permission from Mr. Hall and his business partner to use their location in my book. I had been so wrapped up in my need to write that I hadn’t truly considered how others might feel about this notion of clipping a victim with the tea harvester until I heard the shocked response to my horribly naive question. Out of respect for the gentlemen-owners and their efforts I pulled the location and the murder weapon from the story and started over.

What seemed like a writing (and personal) disaster became a gift. Without the gimmick of using a murder weapon that no one else had ever used, the story became much stronger. In short, I owe this business not only for many wonderful cups of tea, but also for a stronger sophomore effort.

Cheers!

Ground Down

I made a sweet deal with my friendly neighborhood coffee shop. I provide a 5 gallon bucket with a lid, and they will dump their used coffee grounds in for me to take home for free!

 

First load home is destined to go on the roses in the morning. I’ll swab out the bucket to make it nice and clean before returning to the shop for more grounds to add to the spring carrot bed.

 

Why coffee grounds? Well, for one thing, they are filled with coffee goodness and the plants need perking up. Wait, seriously? Coffee grounds are filled with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper. All things that plants need to grow up healthy and strong. In addition, it’s just plain old good for your dirt. They actually improve the soil’s texture…helping to improve the air and water movement through the dirt under your plants roots. They are acidic, so make sure your Ph is compatible with this before plunking them into your beds. You can neutralize the Ph to your garden’s needs by adding some agricultural lime to the beds at the same time as the grounds. Here on our farm, everything is pretty alkaline so the grounds actually help me keep the soil’s Ph where my plants like it.

 

I am truly excited about having a ready source of “green” matter for my compost heap. No matter now much I trim the shrubs or put kitchen scraps in the compost bucket, I cannot keep up with the horses’ “output”. (I spread the manure in the pastures out on the pastures and the manure from the stalls the area close to the house goes in the compost heap.) Coffee grounds count as Green for the compost. (According to the EPA, no more than 25% of your compost should be coffee grounds.)

 

Added benefit? Ants hate coffee. Good thing. I used the last of my agricultural molasses this week.

 

Happy Gardening!

Writing in the Open

I love doing character sketches. When the children were small, I’d take them on an outing and while they were playing in the sandbox, or the ball pit, or on the swing set, I would pull out a notebook and jot down a character sketch of the Nanny putting her children into the Cinderella Carriage at the Pumpkin Park, or the man reading his newspaper with the collar of his polo turned up against his neck against the morning sun, or the gentleman who drove by me in his truck, speeding up as he hit the puddle to splash muddy water up against the side of the curb with an evil glance sideways as if to say it might as easily been tobacco juice he spat out the window. Each and every person who came into view became a potential inspiration.

A particular way of walking, one shoulder dipping to indicate an old injury, leads to thoughts of how that injury occurred, which leads to thoughts about who else was involved in the accident, which leads to speculation about his motivation for being in that particular place at that particular time. All of these things go into making him who he is. Someone I do not know, but someone who, because I’ve lumped a bunch of motivations and incidents onto his one characteristic, becomes someone I want to know. Make no mistake, I do not consider this construct to be the human being right in front of me. If I’ve done my job correctly, a character sketch wanders pretty far from the truth. At least I hope I have created someone up out of whole cloth. I’ve never been brave enough to fact-check my character study with any real folks. Just doesn’t seem like a likely way to make too many friends.

I first learned about character sketches from a book on writing. Then learned a bit more from a class offering at a conference. Then even more from practice. While I do take notes on my characters while writing my stories (It sure helps to keep the person straight from one end of the book to the other!) I don’t use characters I concocted from my character sketching exercises. Those are more about stretching the imagination muscle and less about finding the perfect character for any particular story. Even more fun for me since I did this so often when the kids were small– my son, Edward, evidently does this when he’s riding the subway into Manhattan for work.

Here’s one way I flex my character sketching muscles :

Pick a likely looking person, one who has something about them that really stands out. For example, that gentleman who came into the park that day, limping on his left leg as if it hurt. It was a clear day, so I decided it wasn’t gout, but the poor dear had been in a terrible accident. I then start looking around and take one physical characteristic from each of the other people nearby. Sometimes this particular character would take hold of me and follow me into What-a-Burger for lunch.

Totally out of the blue: Name: Shorty Gibson

Age of man who just drove by: 57

Sex of first person to enter the door: Female

Height on next person in the door: 6′ even

Weight of woman sitting behind me: 190

Hair of man second in line for the checkout: Sandy, greying, thick, straight, cut like he might have served in the military and couldn’t shake it off. (Since Shorty is female, it will be a little longer than this guys is…)

Then I start making things up:

Favorites: Food, places to sit and relax, family member, pet, vacation,

Happiest childhood memory?

What does she want more than anything else in the whole wide world?

What is she most afraid of?

What is her weakness at work? In a relationship?

Is she in a relationship? If not, how did the last one end? If yes, how did the last one end?

Where was she born? Lived?

Where does she live? City, state, type of housing, own, rent…color of bedroom?

Does she live alone?

Pets?

Who is her best friend? Frienemy? Enemy?

Where does she work? How high up the food chain is she while at work?

How did she get that limp?

How does she get around? If car, what make, model, year, color? Bike? Same…

Does she have any special skills? Fly a plane, know how to wire a light socket, plumb a toilet, break down a shotgun in 1.2 seconds?

As you can see, you can go into incredible detail, or just hit the high points — it’s just a game really — you get to play it how you like. If you make up your own rules, it can be kind of fun, like eavesdropping on the next table during a meal at a busy restaurant. So go out there, write in the open, and have some fun.

Happy Writing!