Five Long Years

Image of clock face
Time

It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com (Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.

I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.

The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.

After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.

Sketch of two children flanking a horse bursting out of a burning barn/
Fire!

I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.

Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.

Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.

As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.

Young riders reading BURNED.At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.

Julie Herman
MysteryGarden.com

This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.

Sprouting Dirt

Large Roma Tomato

I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.

This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.

I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.

Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in.   What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden.   But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.

Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.

Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?

 

Sorry — gotta go watch my dirt grow.

Almost planting time!

 

Julie

Rolling in the Beets

 

I planted the oddest little seeds I’ve ever seen last fall. They looked like tiny little asteroids. When dropped from my hand into the dirt, they disappeared as if into thin air (or outer space.)

Lo and behold, bright green tips arose where the asteroids had collided with my planting beds and voila! instant root vegetables.

Well, not instant. It took another couple of months, during which time I enjoyed baby beet greens – but then I had them. Creamy sweetness coming out of my oven.

 

My favorite new start this year was Chioggia Beets.They come out of the ground looking quite normal and then, once you cut them open, you get a beet that has white and red rings like it ran away to the circus and came home as the tent. Of course once they are truly cooked the difference between the rings is not as noticeable, but boy are they tasty.

 

 

 

Beet Salad

I first had this salad at a trendy little place in New York. (Okay, so I define trendy as on the nearest corner, but still…)

Ingredients:

Beets, both root and greens
Garlic, 2 – 3 cloves
Olive oil
S&P to taste (I use sea salt because it’s just better.)
Blue Cheese
Lightly roasted Walnuts

Clean your beets, reserving the beet greens.

Put the beets in a 325 degree oven to roast

  • drizzle with olive oil, salt lightly
  • wrap in foil
  • bake 30 minutes for a beet fist size or smaller, longer for those larger.
  • Don’t eat them if they’re old. Tough. Tough. Tough. MUCH better when you get them from your farmer’s market.

T-Minus 15 minutes ’til the beets are done: Roast walnuts in your skillet by turning up the flame and pushing them around, or, if you prefer, use your toaster oven.

When the beets have about ten minutes left to cook, chop your garlic to the desired choppiness and put in a skillet with some olive oil. Turn up the heat and sauté.

Once they’re tender (=not totally brown) dump your cleaned beet greens in and sauté until tender. Don’t overcook them, a little crunch is good. Remove from stovetop.

Pull beets out of the oven. Pull the skins off. (I tend to just cut in as if quartering. The skin peels easily.) Cut into smallish pieces.

Arrange greens on the plate. 
Sprinkle with walnuts.
Arrange cut beets on top.
Add about a Tablespoon or two of blue cheese.

Enjoy!

 

 

Holy Snow

red oak from scifun/chem/wisc/edu
red oak from http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu

I was recently back in Kentucky for a Pony Club Board meeting, and enjoyed something we don’t often see in Houston — frost.

Color is one of the beautiful effects that fall brings to the landscape. Kentucky trees have turned brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, something we don’t get to enjoy along the Gulf Coast. All this is thanks to a substance called Carotenoids and Anthocyanins.

All tree have them, even those on the Gulf Coast. We just don’t get to enjoy them the way New Englanders and Kentuckians (and everyone in between) do. In Houston all I get to see is the fading of leaves from green to brown — and then all the leaves fall off. My childhood memories had me associating the brilliance of the fall color with the lowering temperatures. (Gulf Coast weather is still warm long into November.)

Turns out that the frost I was thinking necessary for fall color isn’t wholly responsible — it’s also the light.

 

According to http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/chemweek/fallcolr/fallcolr.html

“The range and intensity of autumn colors is greatly influenced by the weather. Low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, and if they stay above freezing, promote the formation of anthocyanins. Bright sunshine also destroys chlorophyll and enhances anthocyanin production. Dry weather, by increasing sugar concentration in sap, also increases the amount of anthocyanin. So the brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.”

Who knew?

Does this mean if I take dry ice out and plunk it down in my woods I’ll get better fall color?

Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Happy gardening!

Why Garden?

Photo of Wind Chimes
Gaga Kate's Wind Chimes

Gardening appeals to every sense. It invigorates you mentally and physically. Gardens provide soothing vistas to look at, yummy food to eat, and habitat for animals, birds and insects. Why on earth wouldn’t you garden?

Just the sensory stimulations is worth spending time outside — or at the very least, inside with a potted plant. Touch any plant and it provides you with an instant and visceral response. I love to run my fingers over the velvety petals of the Belinda’s Dream rose in my back yard, even though I have to squeeze past the Red Yucca to do it. (Warning, Red Yucca is sharp and pointy when it pokes you in the calf!)

Visual texture is akin to touch. The adorable fuzziness of the Lamb’s Ear invites you to stoop and rub a leaf between your fingers. My neighbor’s cat finds it a comfortable bed on which to curl up for a mid-afternoon nap.

Color abounds in the garden, even when it’s limited to shades of green. Celendon…Chartreuse… Forest… Fern… Emerald… Grass… Pea… Pine…Sea Green… Shamrock… Kelly…Mint…Teal…Grey-Green…Olive. Notice how many shades of green are named for plants? Yep, many of them are — with good reason. Plants, landscaping, vegetables all touch us in more than one way — and thus stick with us.

I love to watch the ripple of tall grass under the wind’s caress. It’s almost as if you can see the old man with his lips pursed as he blows the waves along the ground. Tulips bob their heads, trees whisper, and the birds and insects swoop and dive in the currents. The wind chimes Paul’s grandmother used to ring to call her grandsons to dinner tinkle happily on the edge of the porch. Plants may not have voices to sing with, but there is plenty of sound to inspire.

Nothing smells quite like Night Blooming Cerius, which I may have just misspelled in the worst possible way, but that’s what happens after an evening on the porch next to this plant. It gets you drunker than champagne in nothing flat. Intensely sweet, I’ve had guests actually close the windows in the Casita Sin Gatos because it was keeping them awake at night. Paul and I were clearing out the onion bed this morning and I brushed up against the fennel in the next row. Heaven on earth, so I picked some to have with my lunch. The sharp licorice taste of Fennel brings out the sweet flavor of the tomato in salad.

I did something that may have been brilliant or it may have been the silliest thought I’ve had all year. I planted asparagus in the side garden, along the path from the garage to the back gate. It is taking over, so I feel justified when I bend down, brush aside some of the mature fronds and find a spear just ripe for the picking. Crunchy nutty-tasting snack!

Sorry, have to go now. I’ve inspired myself into a walk in the woods, where I am planning a shade garden.

Happy Gardening!

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.

Here is the clip from the story:

The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.

“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.

Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.

One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!

Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?

(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.

Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives

Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.

Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.

  • Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
  • Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
  • Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
  • Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
  • Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
  • Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
  • Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
  • What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
  • Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)

This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.

Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.

Happy Writing!

What the heck? — BioChar

I guess I watch too much CSI: Anytown. When I first saw the term biochar pop up in my garden-related reading, my first thought was an appalled, “Ew!” Don’t  know exactly what I thought they were charring, but plain old wood scraps wasn’t my first guess.

Bio Char is a concept that’s been around for a while, but recent articles are touting a region down in South America (mid-Amazon region) where the soil is so rich, you only have to think about putting seeds in to get a terrific yield. This region’s soil is known as Terra Preta. One lovely fact about the soil there, immensely rich in biochar and other compost, is that it is able to hold onto nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. As you can imagine, plants adore this. What does this have to do with you, the home gardener? It means you have a choice. You can continue to buy chemicals to coax growth out of your plants or you can feed your soil and entice them to grow instead. Terra Preta is soil that was fed a lot of biochar a L O N G time ago, and which is now pretty much self-sustaining topsoil. It may look black, but it’s really pure gold.

It’s a funny thought, feeding the soil. Even though I earned my Master Gardener certificate over ten years ago, and one of our excellent sessions dealt with soil health, up until I interned at Home Sweet Farm with Farmer Brad and Farmer Jenny, I did not fully understand the concept. Feeding the soil, be it molasses to help the beneficial microbes multiply (and the fire ants explode) or biochar to help the soil hold on to those precious nutrients so that they stay where the plants can get them rather than leaching down out of the reach of many root systems, is not just a good idea, it is necessary for healthy plant growth with most soils. Along with making for healthy soil, BioChar is shaping up to be a new tool that can assist in mitigating greenhouse gasses. (That is one cool thought!)

 

Now that you know all about biochar and you’re rarin’ to make your own, go for it — let us know how your experience is both with creating  biochar and what the results are of incorporating biochar in your garden.

 

Happy Gardening!

 

 

Purple Power

from purplebearspurpleflowersandplants.com

I belong to an internet-based group of friends who regularly share Purple Power with one another for emergency boosts of virtual support. If you have had an emergency recently that turned out for the best, then I firmly believe it was stray Purple Power that settled around you and made things all right.

To promote all things purple this Spring, I am going on a hunt to find the best purple flowers for the garden.

 

 

 

 

Lobelia: this dainty purple blossom enhances my winter garden here in zone 9, but it’s hardy all summer in most zones to the north. according to the USDA plant pagesLobelia erinus L. or “edging lobeli”, is native to California, Oregon, Utah, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It doesn’t go into why it skipped the states in between, like Colorado, where I’ve so often seen it included in the summer plantings, but there it is. Lobelia is wonderful in hanging baskets, edging a bed, or in pots of all kinds.

 

 

Aster: Similar in appearance to a purple daisy, asters grow about 18 inches  to three feet tall and have a light feel to their foliage in the garden.  Technically, they belong in zone 3 – 8, so they are not ones that grow particularly well for me when I put them in the flower border, but pop up naturally in my pasture. Go figure. They show up in time for the fall garden, so perhaps I ought to wait until then to mention them, but they fit the purple theme.

 

Clemetis: Love, love, love this climbing vine. My Aunt Myrtle had a beautiful one on the post outside her kitchen window and the house sparrows loved to hide in the shadows of the leaves, peaking out to see if she had refilled their feeder perched at the top of the post on which they grew. Zone 4 – 9. Protect the roots against the sun which is necessary for good bloom growth. I dump a heap of compost on the base, which serves to both protect the roots and encourage lots of beautiful flowers.

 

Crocus: Spring would not happen without the happy opening of the deep purple buds of the crocus bulbs. Must have plant for any garden. It’s tougher to establish in my far-south location. the trick is to put the bulbs in pots — worth every bit of effort that goes in for those wonderfully fragrant spring blooms.

 

Passionflower: This is native in my area, so I catch them springing into life back in the woods behind our house. The fact that eventually they produce fruit which feed the wild birds is a happy plus. I know some make jelly out of the fruit, but my sild-feathered friends get them all way before I get to them. Zones 4 – 10. Vines can be up to 15 feet long. Work well in soil if heavily mulched, or in lightly mulched pots.

 

And last, but never least, Lavender:

I have had the worst, absolutely the worst, luck in growing this lovely herb. My cousin, Annie, whose farm Sunshine Lavender Farm in North Caroline has wonderful luck — or just works harder at it. I adore it for oh-so-many reasons. The scent, soothing, calming and lovely in any form. The sight of the grey-green foliage waving in the breeze, the deep purple blossoms standing proud above the leaves, waiting for us to pluck them and make them into sachets, teas, or bake them into delicious breads and cookies.

 

Happy gardening!

 

courtesy SunshineLavenderFarm.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring is Sprung

I’m about to make Deb jealous again. I started my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and am about to stick the fledgling plants in the ground. Uh-huh. You heard me right. Second week in March. Tomatoes in the ground!

You see I garden on the Gulf Coast where the sea breezes coming from 100 miles away still reach my front pasture. (Where the kitchen garden resides.) Typical last frost used to be counted as Valentine’s Day hereabouts, but now it’s the first of March. I can tell it’s Spring by the blooms on the mulberry tree.

At least I thought I could. And then the temps went back down to the 40s. So much for my poor tomatoes in the ground. Thank goodness for freeze cloth!

Varieties planted in Spring 2011:  Vorlon, Carbon, Roma, Better Boy, Yellow Pear, Cour de Blue, Amish Paste.

Happy gardening!