Notes about writing, landscape, and life in the Texas Hill Country


"We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this—and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need."
Barry Lopez

"As much as we live in a place, we live in place; we inhabit a condition of the soul. We live where we have made definitions, and in the process of making definitions, we create a place in which to live."
Sallie Tisdale

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."
Rachel Carson

"I can see myself beginning to fashion what I need: new pathways to solitude, new ways of looking at time and at time alone, new ways of conceiving a notion of place, and other ways, if not new ones, to create places apart."
Jacqueline Jones Royster

"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story."
Linda Hogan


Susan's Hill Country Journal
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Susan Wittig Albert
Ph.D. UC Berkley

author of
China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries
(as Robin Paige)
Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter
Writing From Life
Work of Her Own

Contributing editor:
Country Living Gardener Magazine
writing teacher
garden columnist
Founder: Story Circle Network

Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
All text/photos
©2003-2005 Susan Wittig Albert

The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas
The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas

Familiar Plants of the Edwards Plateau
History and Change on the Plateau
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
(10 miles south of MeadowKnoll)
habitat description, wildlife lists
The Edwards Aquifer
The Trinity Aquifer
Our Weather

Story Circle Network
The experience of Katrina is an experience of place, located at the intersections of the natural and human-made worlds. If you have a Katrina story to tell, the Story Circle Network invites you to record it here, and to read others' stories:

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place

Friday, October 31, 2003  
A nice email arrived this morning, from Anne in Ontario who had surfed into the web site. She's interested in writing a novel, and had a question: How long do you spend on characters, research, setting and plot before you actually start writing? I seem to take forever on that part, to the point I never get round to writing the story ha! I love to research.

Join the club, Anne. Bill and I sometimes joke that the Robin Paige novels are really an excuse to do the research. How else would we have gotten to know people like Beatrix Potter, Jennie Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Bertie and Alexandra--and many other people who lived a century ago?

But to answer your question, I'd have to say, seriously, that it's impossible to answer your question. We do an enormous amount of reading before we write and while we're writing. Bill works on the plots, and I work on the characters, who then get busy with their lives and entirely mess up Bill's neatly-plotted plots. Bill works on the forensic history and things like autos, guns, inventions, and the like. I work on costumes and food (you can't cook up an Edwardian novel without a copy of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management on the desk in front of you). And we both work, interminably, on settings.

But here's our basic rule, Anne: we always start writing BEFORE we feel we're ready to start writing, because if we waited until we'd done all the research we need, we'd never get started. (Sound familiar?) So we do just enough to feel comfortable with the characters and the basic plot. Then we do more as we go along, getting to know the characters, the setting, the events, the mystery. It's a kind of chicken-and-egg process. Or to use a different metaphor, we do enough research to prime the pump, and keep on doing whatever it takes to keep the ideas flowing.

An example. The current book (Death at Blenheim Palace) involves Ned Lawrence (who grows up to be the man you know as Lawrence of Arabia) and Winston Churchill. We didn't know until yesterday, when I happened to stumble on it in a biography of Lawrence, that the two of them actually worked together in the early 1920s. When we began to talk about it, we realized how alike these two men were: both visionaries, both believing that they were instruments of destiny, both driven by enormous energy and ambition. We read some more, talked some more, and that reading and talking gave us a whole new angle on the end of the book, where Winston will rescue Ned from a knife-wielding bad guy who's threatening to slit his throat. (And if he hadn't done that, you wouldn't have been able to enjoy Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence, now, would you?)

So for us, the research and the writing are just two aspects of an organic process that (we hope) takes us and our readers into a deeper understanding of the period and the people. If some readers complain that they'd like a little more mystery with their history, well, heck. We can't please everybody.

Lovely weather here. But would somebody please turn summer off? It was 88 today, with a low of 76 last night, and the air was humid enough to wring out a dense fog on the lake this morning. 76, for pity's sake! How are we supposed to burn up any of the wood we cut and split for the fireplace if it doesn't get COLD?

Reading Notes. The biggest aid to regular (Trollopian?) production is working in a serene atmosphere. It's difficult for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where alarms and excursions are the rule rather than the exception. When I'm asked for "the secret of my success" (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy . . . and I stayed married . . . . The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.--Stephen King, On Writing.

10/31/2003 06:57:00 PM

Wednesday, October 29, 2003  
The garden is especially pretty just now, with some of the shrub roses still in bloom, and glorious butterflies, monarchs, queens, swallowtails, sulphurs, others I don't recognize. We ought to call October "Butterfly Month." The Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) is gorgeous, such lovely strong shades of blue and purple. It does much better if I remember to cut it back in August, which I almost never do. And one year--the year I cleared out the old chicken coop and put all the manure on the garden--it grew nearly five feet high. The bees thought they'd died and gone to glory.

There's a great closeup picture here
which will give you an idea of some of the color.

Reading galleys of Death in Hyde Park, 50 pages an evening. That's about 75 minutes work, so it still leaves me time for an hour's knitting. Don't know what makes the difference in galleys. Some are full of mistakes--genuine mistakes, wrong words, garbles, words left out. Others, like this book, are extraordinarily clean. I return only the pages that have to be corrected; with this book, there will be so few I can fax them. Anyway, I'm enjoying the book. It isn't a chore to read it. (I'm not one of those people who like to read their work after it's written. I'd rather get on to the next project than linger on something that's finished.)

Mostly writing, that's what's going on here. Bill and I worked on a scene together today, first going through it on paper, figuring out what had to happen to get us from the scene before to the one that comes after. Then to the computer, where he dictated and I got it all down in a draft, and we went over it together, layering stuff in. Then he went out to do some mowing and I redrafted and fixed, threw some stuff out, put some new stuff in, and when he came back in, we read it again--more changes, more fixing, taking more stuff out, putting more stuff in. But through it all, still managed to get 1800 words for the day. We're at the point in the book (50,000 words) where there's a great deal going on, lots of stuff that needs to get tied up and only about 30,000 words to do it in. So every sentence, every paragraph has to count for something. It's a challenge. Sure would like to have this book finished before I go to Reno to be with my son's family for Thanksgiving, but I don't think there's a chance of that.

Did I ever mention that I keep a writing log? It's in one of those 3x5" notebooks. I number down the left side of the page, consecutively--Day #1 is the first day of the writing project. Today was day #39. Then I write the date beside the day--today was 10/29. Then I write the total number of words in the project: today, it's 50,100. Average to date: 1300 words a day, more or less. 23 days to go, more or less, if I can keep up the same pace through the rest of the project. (Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.) Maybe you think this is too mechanical. I don't. It helps me see where I am, gives me a pat on the back for getting this far, and reminds me that there's still a distance to go. The IRS has never asked to see it, but if they did, it would probably go far to proving that I'm actually a writer.

Reading Notes. It is the act of writing that produces ideas, not the other way around...Therefore you write every day, whether you have anything to say or not, and you must be prepared to throw it all away. Not everything is worth keeping.--Sophy Burnham, For Writers Only

10/29/2003 06:44:00 PM

Monday, October 27, 2003  
Sandhill crane flyover day. We're celebrating sandhills today! This afternoon, Bill heard them calling--that wild, wonderful warble, unmistakably the call of the sandhills. We went out to look and finally spotted a thin skein, a wavering V of birds, maybe 150 of them. A few years ago, some Texas A&M researchers traced the sandhill migration to Siberia. Not sure whether "our" cranes fly that far, but who knows? Watching them fly, seeing those huge wings beating the air, yes, I can imagine them flying to Siberia and back. I can't believe that they're not protected--but they're not, at least not in this state. For $450 a day, you, too, can go to South Texas and shoot sandhills along with a bunch of other big, brave yahoos in camouflage suits. (Forgive me. We're facing deer season here, and I'm already angry. I'll be this way until it's all over, the second week of January.) Click here for more details about sandhill cranes, and a stunning photo.

This isn't a sandhill, obviously--it's our black cat, Shadow, who climbed up one of the porch supports and couldn't figure out how to get back down. Zach (our black Lab) noticed the problem and pointed it out to Bill, who fetched her down. Not a happy pussycat.

Tied up a rambling rose today, cut the last of the faded goldenrod out of the garden, pulled some weeds, put in two new honeysuckle plants, and installed some blooming chrysanthemums in a window box. As China Bayles says, one can never have too many chrysanthemums.

The Blenheim book is really coming along now. Bill and I had a story conference yesterday, and came up with ideas for the seven or eight longish scenes that will fill the middle of the book. We're halfway through, or thereabouts. Tonight, though, I have to start reading the page proofs for Death in Hyde Park, the Jack London book that's due out in March. Bill has already gone through them and found a few things, but I have to do the close reading. They're not due back until 11/10, though, so I have a couple of weeks. This isn't my favorite chore, because I always find far too many things I want to change--which, of course, SHOULD have been changed earlier in the process. Trouble is, these are things (repetitions, awkward sentence constructions) that are easier to spot in print. They look more like somebody else's work, once they're set on the book page. Oh, well...

Reading notes. I work seven days a week. Sundays included. And I don't think it is a violation of the Sabbath. My only exception is Easter Sunday. It's a habit, an unbreakable habit. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't write. I'd probably go mad.--Tennessee Williams

10/27/2003 06:47:00 PM

Saturday, October 25, 2003  
My copy of the Herb Quarterly magazine came today, with Joan Leotta's article, "Herb Garden Mysteries" (Winter, 2003, pp. 31-35) I've been in the business long enough not to get excited when I see an article about my work, but this one is really special. It has a center-spread map-drawing of MeadowKnoll, done by Peggy Turchette, a very talented artist. The drawing is idealized, of course, but beautifully so. If you get a chance to look at the magazine, I think you'll enjoy it. There are some photos, too, and a couple of recipes. And of course, there's plenty more to enjoy in the magazine. An article called "The Meaning of Mistletoe," for example.

The first Beatrix book, fixed up, cleaned up, and polished, flew off to New York this morning via FedEx. And speaking of Beatrix, I got a nice phone call from the program chair for the Herb Society of America conference next June. My proposal for a conference presentation--"The Magical Herbs of Beatrix Potter"--was accepted. Yay! So I'll be going to Cleveland for the conference June 17-19. The book--The Tale of Hill Top Farm--isn't due to be published until the first week of July, but I'm hoping to be able to get copies to sell at the conference. I don't usually worry about cover art, since like most other writers, I leave it to Marketing to handle book covers. But for this series, I'm hoping to see something that's evocative of Potter's work, and I've been nagging my editor to let me have a peek before the cover art is finalized.

The first major cold front of the year should show up any minute now. The wind has shifted around to the north and the temperature's started to drop. Afternoon temps have been near 90 this week, so we're ready. The dogs are, too. Enough of summer, they say. Here's a photo of them watching with interest the the fish in the creek, below the bridge. They're intrigued by the motion, the flipping of silvery fins, the darting shapes, the mystery. The grass in the foreground, on the right side of the photo, is Lindheimer's muhly, one of our best native landscaping grasses. It grows wild along the creek.

Reading notes. Understanding the geography of a place, the relations of its rivers and the forces of its geology, is a kind of transformative act. At a certain point, literal information can change to spirit and essence. Our well-being has always depended on the mystery and complexity of the wilderness, and exploration of new places is almost a genetic trait. Now that new lands are completely gone and wilderness is nearly gone, we must turn the telescope of exploration around, to find mystery and complexity in the fine details of what is left.--Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

10/25/2003 02:44:00 PM

Wednesday, October 22, 2003  
Another Tagetes in bloom just now, Tagetes lucida,, Mexican mint marigold. Some people substitute this for tarragon, which doesn't do well in our hot, dry summers, but its anise-like, licorice scent is too strong for my taste. (You might try it in a chicken marinade, though, or in a pesto.) But the leaves have a lovely scent, and the plant is gorgeous in the fall, when it's covered with yellow blossoms. The plant pictured here is the mother plant--I'll dig and divide it next spring. She's already given me a half-dozen daughter plants, scattered around the garden, and all just as pretty as their mom.

Really beautiful weather, although a bit on the warm side. 90 today, a record. A cold front due on Saturday--I'm ready. Ready for frost, too. I've moved most of my plants to my improvised greenhouse, where they'll spend the winter. Trying to get it done a little early this year, so there's not so much panic the day before the first freeze hits.

Beatrix again today. Started early this morning, as soon as we got back from our walk, and kept working away all day, with a short break for lunch. Whew. I keep telling myself that there isn't REALLY that much to DO, but in the next sentence, I find something I want to fix. Looks like it'll take all day tomorrow, and about half of Friday. Ultra cozy, fairly slow, lots of period detail, and some Big Words. I hope the series will find an audience. It's something you just don't know until the book is out there, and people either want to read it or they don't. And if they don't, we'll know it by the time the contract runs out (there are three books on this one).

Also today: got a big box of pages that were specially printed to be bound into the first 500 copies of A Dilly of a Death. The page has the title, then a space for a number (which will be added by the printer), then space for me to sign. I'm told they'll be bound into copies of the new book. Not sure what they're going to do with these signed books, but I'll bet they show up on Amazon used books before long. (Yeah, I'm a cynic.) So for the next few nights, I'll be signing these pages. It's nice to get this kind of support from the publisher, and I can only suppose that Marketing knows what they're doing when they do things like this. They're also doing a nice job putting the January book tour together--the earliest that the schedule has ever been completed. But I look at the calendar and see the last two weeks of January crossed off, and wonder when I'm going to WRITE. Ack.

Did you watch Einstein's Wife last night on PBS? Good. It depressed me, made me sad, made me angry. But it was good.

No reading notes today. I am going to sit at the table and sign blank pages.

10/22/2003 06:42:00 PM

Tuesday, October 21, 2003  
The Story Circle board had a party last night--great potluck (ALL the desserts were CHOCOLATE, including Peggy's fabulous mint brownies!), wonderful writing and sharing, and delightful conversation. Our special guests included Betty Sue Flowers (Director of the LBJ Library), Theresa May (Editor in Chief of the UT Press), and Helen Ginger (the new Executive Director of the Writers League of Texas)--all of them members of Story Circle! (Yeah, I'm a name-dropper, when it comes to SC.) Carolyn Blankenship led the writing part of the evening; she's a great facilitator, full of creative ideas for things to write about. When I'm in a group like this, I'm always amazed at the kind of energy that flows through us, and the stories that emerge. I don't write a great deal of poetry, but I wrote this, in response to a writing prompt that asked us to imagine the voices and images of our "native soil"--the place where our heart lives.

Tomatoes, red as fire, round and warm
as my mother's plump breast,
growing in my grandmother's
garden, with beans, string beans, straight
and tender green pods, like pencils,
and corn, sweet, sweet corn, tall
as soldiers in my grandmother's
rows, golden silk spilling
out of tight green ears, swaying
in the grasshopper-rich noon.
Oh, voices of my grandmother's
garden: cicadas bright with the heat
of a summer's day, and a raincrow
promising an afternoon of showers,
and from the barn the pigeons,
their voices gently sweet,
like my grandmother's
voice singing Amazing Grace
as she sits on the porch with her Dazy churn,
turning butter out of the milk that my grandfather
pulled out of the cow that morning,
in the cool chill
of the dark dawn.

Beatrix today. Got an email from my editor, saying that we're ready to go to copy-edit with the first Beatrix book, and would I please please please rework that manuscript and get it to her tomorrow. A quick phone call to New York clarified: not tomorrow. A week from tomorrow, maybe? Soonest, anyway. So I dropped (with a thud) the work I had planned for today, and dug into the Beatrix manuscript. There's not really much to do: renaming a couple of animal characters, moving some material from the text to the historical note at the end, and cleaning up some setting problems--things I got wrong, and realized that they were wrong when we visited the village last month. (Only last month? Feels like a decade ago.) And of course there is the usual last-minute spit-and-polish drill, checking for repetitions and other boo-boos. Two more full days' work, and I should have the manuscript wrapped up. Looks like we're sticking to the schedule, with publication planned for July. It will be a relief to get this project out of here and back to New York, before anything ELSE happens to delay it! This has definitely been one of those bird-by-bird books. (See below)

Blooming in my garden now: Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemonii)

Reading Notes. Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we're going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

10/21/2003 06:54:00 PM

Saturday, October 18, 2003  
Texas at its finest. The weather for the last few days has been splendid--cool nights and mornings (46 degrees when we walked to the lake this morning), warm, sunny days (maybe it will get to 80 today). The cedar elms are going gold, the cypress trees are turning red, and the grasses are muted browns and orange and tan. The sunflowers are fading, but the goldenrod is still lighting up the meadows with its lovely golden glow. I think I've posted this photo before, but it's one of my favorites, so here it is again.

Mission. We've been watching Mission for the last few nights, on DVD--first the movie, then director Roland Joffe's commentary, and now we're watching the Omnibus, about the making of the film. Neither of us are film buffs, but this is one of our favorite movies, and all this extra material opens up a wonderful new way of seeing it--especially the settings (oh, those incredible waterfalls!), and the Indians. We were both interested in Joffe's comments about his storyboard, and about the way the actors' interactions with each other shaped the characters they were playing--to some extent, beyond the limits imposed by the screenplay. Watching this, we feel that we're learning about our own craft, as novelists. It's all about telling stories, although our business doesn't have the complications of making a film. The idea of bussing hundreds of cast members to remote jungle locations, along with props, cameras, food and accomodations--whew. I'm glad that all I have to do is manage the keyboard and move words around on the page. And enjoy the film.

Reading Notes. My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they've outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well, I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

10/18/2003 11:47:00 AM

Thursday, October 16, 2003  
We may be a little nuts here. "Which one of you shells the pecans for the pies???" asks Cindy Deatsman, of Lexington, OH.

Ah, yes, well may you ask, Cindy. At our house, we have elevated pecan-shelling to the realm of high art. For the past four years, Bill has been collecting cast-iron mechanical nutcrackers (mechanical, that is, as opposed to decorative, such as nutcrackers made to look like squirrels and dogs and so forth). Like these:

All the crackers in this photo were patented between 1910 and 1920--the heyday of mechanical cast-iron crackers. Most of the patents were issued to inventors from Texas--not a surprise, exactly, since pecans have been a commercial venture in Texas from the time the first Indian shook that first tree, then traded his nuts for a newly-struck flint arrowhead. Bill has collected about 40 of these mechanical crackers, so when it's time for nut-cracking, he has exactly the right tool to use.

However, to give you a truthful answer to Cindy's question, I'd have to say that Bill shells enough for the first two or three pies, then gets bored with the process and takes his harvest to the nearby village of Bertram (pop. 1150), where some guy has a mechanical pecan-sheller and shells pecans for people for a fee--not a bad little business to be in, here in pecan country. Usually, Bill takes four or five pounds at a time. In the meantime, the unshelled nuts hang out in the freezer.

The story of pecan-shelling in Texas is not a happy one. For decades, pecan-shellers (mostly Hispanic women and children) were the lowest-paid workers in the US, working for an average of five cents an hour. For the details of this little-known and truly ugly chapter of Texas history, go here. Sometimes there are things you just don't want to know about the place where you live, and this is one of them.

Another story conference with Bill on Blenheim today, straightening out yet more plot kinks. This book has about six plot lines, and neither Bill nor I are entirely clear just yet on how these will be ultimately resolved. That's one of the pleasures of writing these books. We know whodunnit but getting there can be a big mystery.

Spent a satisfying hour cleaning my office, uncovering several books I had lost, a ream of paper I didn't know I had, and some letters I should have answered months ago. Now I know just how far behind I am in my correspondence--but at least the office is clean. Well, not quite. I didn't get around to running the vacuum. Tomorrow, I promise.

Reading notes. Although as a rule I hate housework, here I take erratic fits of domesticity, born of a compulsion to feel this house under my palms, to scour and polish and perfect it somehow: the only way to communicate love to a house.--Nancy Mairs, Remembering the Bone House

10/16/2003 06:47:00 PM

Wednesday, October 15, 2003  
There's more to this than nuts. I got a note from my friend Theresa Lowe, who wrote, "When I read that 'Bill's harvested about 25 pounds of pecans, which he figures will produce about 50 pecan pies,' I thought to myself...'And exactly WHO does he think is going to 'produce' those 50 pies?' Hope he plans on helping out with production as well as consumption!"

Thanks for the moral support, Theresa, but maybe I'd better crunch some numbers here, in Bill's defense. Let's see. It takes me about 20 minutes to whip up a pecan pie, so 50 pies is an investment of, oh, say, 17 hours of my time, more or less, which is whistle-while-you-work labor, since I enjoy baking pies almost as much as I enjoy eating them.

Bill, on the other hand, invests about six hours per tree per year in watering, spraying, fertilizing, cutting the grass, pampering, pruning, and admiring--and that's before harvest, when he has to defend the nuts from those dastardly squirrels, crows, and jays. There are 30 (count 'em) trees, 10-15 years old. And these are grafted trees, you understand, so Bill's annual investment of time has to be added to his initial investment in grafting, an art that, like writing, is learned through trial and error--mostly error. The trees started bearing in 1998--the first year we got a half-way decent crop. We will not calculate the per-nut cost, although we have been known to occasionally make some rather ironic comments about the real price of each piece of pecan pie. It would be much cheaper to buy it at the local pie emporium--but we're talkin' taste here. Right?

If you're skeptical about the value of all this pecan pampering, please observe the photo. The large nut on the left is a Choctaw, the other large nut is a Desirable--two of the best papershell pecan cultivars. The itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny nuts are the natives from a tree we call Persephone. We keep her because she is large and cool and wonderful, but her nuts are for the squirrels.

Reading notes. Locally popular bumper sticker. Eat pecans--millions of satisfied squirrels do.

10/15/2003 07:02:00 PM

Tuesday, October 14, 2003  
On guard. It's pecan-harvest time, which means that Bill will go to any length to protect the nuts on those pecan trees. Here is this year's scarecrow, standing guard. If you look just to his right, you'll see another protective device: a live trap designed to get those squirrels before they get those nuts.

So far this year, Bill's harvested about 25 pounds, which he figures will produce about 50 pecan pies. Alternatively, there is pecan fudge, pecan pralines, and pecan pudding. Meanwhile, the squirrels and crows can have all they want from the wild pecan trees that grow along Cypress Branch. Not a problem, guys. Help yourselves.

Good news. Remember my whining a couple of weeks ago? I've stopped whining and started smiling. For the past few weeks, we've been engaged in what you might call intense discussions with our editor over the Potter project. As you probably know, Beatrix's animals are copyrighted, and the copyrights have been continually renewed over the years. When I came up with the idea for the series, our publisher negotiated a licensing agreement with the copyright holder--although we didn't think it was absolutely necessary, since it's B's real animals that are in the book, not the story-book animals. To make a long story short, everybody involved has finally signed off on the project, and we got a "good to go" email this morning. Hefty sigh of relief here. I'm not sure whether we're still on the original schedule, which had the book coming out in July, 2004. It may be delayed a bit. But the important thing is that I can start thinking about the second book. I was living with the possibility, at least for a while, that the project would fold, so I postponed book thoughts. Now I can turn on the idea-generator again. Meanwhile, 2000 words on Blenheim today. Obviously, a good day all around.

Reading Notes. "I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this."--Cormac McCarthy

10/14/2003 07:08:00 PM

Sunday, October 12, 2003  
Great glorious grasses! People who live in apartments don't have them. People who live in neighborhoods have to mow them. People who drive through the countryside don't notice them. But we live with them year-round: spring grasses, summer grasses, autumn and winter grasses--all of our native grasses have their seasons. My favorite grass season is autumn and winter, for that's when the "big" grasses are in bloom. Big bluestem, bushy bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass--they can grow to as much as five feet high. They're beautiful, swaying, slender dancers with the wind in their hair.

But my favorite of all the grasses is our Muhlenbergia lindheimeri, Lindheimer's Muhly. It's native only to Texas, although it's such a pretty grass that it's been making its way into the nursery trade over the past few years. It grows around streams on the Edwards Plateau, where there's plenty of limestone soil and enough moisture to help it get started. Once the roots are down deep, it doesn't mind dry weather and can make it through several years of drought.

The place where we live used to be a huge ranch, grazed by large numbers of longhorns. Cows love muhly too, and when we moved here, there was just one clump of it, on our creek, right next to Turtle Pool. The cows have been gone for nearly 20 years, and the muhly is thriving. I've even transplanted some of it into a landscaped "grass garden" beside our road. It doesn't transplant very easily, and may require some coddling, but once it's got its roots down, it's there to stay. (Unless a longhorn comes along.)

--For more about Texas grasses, look here
--For more about Lindheimer, a well-known naturalist who made it his business to learn as much as he could about plants in this area, go here
--For a picture of Lindheimer's house, which is now a museum in New Braunfels, about 90 miles south of where we live, go here

Knowing our place. I read somewhere recently that in order to know our places, we ought to be able to recognize at least 20 plants that grow around where we live, and 10 birds and animals. I thought about that as the dogs and I walked up to the lake this morning. Knowing the names of the plants doesn't mean that I know everything about them--but it does make me feel as if I'm at least on speaking terms with them. And that's a wonderful feeling.

Reading notes . "The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home. . . . So that's the final meaning of 'wild' . . . Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated."--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

10/12/2003 04:52:00 PM

Thursday, October 09, 2003  
Aargh. A whole, entire, FULL quart jar of herbal salad dressing, all over the kitchen floor, the inside of the refrigerator, me, and the cat. The lid came off. What I said when this happened would blister your ears, so I'll keep it to myself. When we were quietly eating dinner afterward, Bill (in his mildly philosophical way) remarked, "Don't sweat the small stuff." I retorted that I did not consider a quart jar of salad dressing to be "small stuff," and we dropped the subject.

More rain today, nearly an inch of it, which gives us nearly two inches for this multi-day "rain event." Tomorrow, I'll get out with the camera and take some pics of the lovely grasses in bloom. (October is Great Grass Month at MeadowKnoll.) Meanwhile, here is some echinacea, which is bravely coming back into bloom after its September vacation. Isn't it pretty? What you can't see, right behind it, is a clump of purple gayfeather. Together, the two plants are almost neon purple, so bright and heart-stirring on a gray day.

Very good progress on the book today, extending a couple of scenes with an idea that came to me when I was reading The Shooting Party last night. Also got an email today from somebody who took Robin Paige (that's the pseudonym Bill and I use for our Victorian novels) to task for spelling the word "honor" two ways: honor (American spelling) and honour (Brit spelling). I had to smile at that. For one thing, it's nice to have somebody pick such a small nit with a book (Death at Dartmoor) that has such a lot of research behind it. For another, it reminded me of a spelling bee when I was in the sixth grade. I spelled the word h-o-n-o-u-r and was astonished when I was told it was wrong. I went home and found the word in one of Charles Dickens's books, and took it back to school. The teacher was puzzled. She didn't understand why Dickens would misspell a simple word like that--and lots of other words, too, as she found out when she began to scan the page. Guess nobody had ever taught her that American English and British English are two different languages. Come to think of it, I was probably in college before I figured it out, and took refuge in a feeling of superiority over that six-grade teacher.

Reading notes. "This morning I took the hyphen out of Hell-hound and this afternoon I put it back."--Edwin Arlington Robinson. (Yes, I know. Oscar Wilde said something very like this, but I can't put my hand on it right this minute.)

10/09/2003 06:45:00 PM

Wednesday, October 08, 2003  
Rain today, which is very nice for me--I love cool, gray days just as much as the garden does!--but not so nice for Bill, who had planned to paint one of his workshops. He'd already done quite a bit of work getting the surface ready, so he's understandably frustrated. According to the radar, there's more on the way this evening, heading north out of Mexico, and the forecasters give us a 70% chance of rain tomorrow. A couple of tropical storms in the Pacific are pumping moisture into the jet stream, and here it is, raining down into our back yard. It's a small planet, and our share of it is getting damper by the minute.

With the cooler weather, some of our spring favorites are blooming jubilantly again. Here's a purple clematis, showing off against the back porch trellis.

We often have a prettier garden in October than we do in April and May--except for the bluebonnets, of course. And speaking of bluebonnets, the rain is bringing them up in large green patches. The seeds sprout in October, the plants lie dormant during the winter, and bloom happily in April. If we get decent rains this winter, next year's bluebonnets promise to be spectacular.

One of the things I love about writing historical mysteries is the chance it gives me to read really interesting stuff. I just discovered a new writer, Isabel Colegate. Well, new to me. She's been around since the fifties, it seems. I'm currently reading The Shooting Party, set in 1913, and have Statues in a Garden (set in 1914) waiting on my to-be-read stack. These are slow novels, saturated with period details and rich in characterization and a very delicately barbed irony. Not for everybody, but definitely my kind of book.

Reading notes. "It is not a bad idea to get in the habit of writing down one's thoughts. It saves one having to bother anyone else with them."--Isabel Colegate. Apparently, blogs had not yet been invented when she wrote this.

10/08/2003 06:51:00 PM

Tuesday, October 07, 2003  
The fog was drifting over the lake and the meadows when we went for our walk this morning. Such a lovely mist, trailing through the trees and settling on the dogs' fur like tiny diamonds. And the dogs! oh, my, just crazy with the scents of animals passing through on their nighttime business, leaving a trail that's invisible to me but clearly apparent to the dogs' noses. The sheep are frisky on these cool mornings, too, leaping and running to the gate to meet us, Mutton (now quite a pet) pushing his head playfully against my thigh, nudging me to hurry up and bring his corn. Here's Mutton, looking over his shoulder at Zach, our black Lab, who is out of the picture, barking at a squirrel in the oak tree.

I talked to our friend Dolly this morning--our sheep adviser. We're planning to get four more Barbados in another week or so. Dolly, who has lived on a ranch her whole life, knows everything there is to know about Barbados. When I told her about the ewe that kept getting through the fence, until one day she got out and never came back, Dolly snorted: "Should've butchered her right off." Dolly's right, too--although I've always found it a little difficult to butcher something that will eat out of your hand.

Book report. Blenheim (the current Robin Paige mystery) is getting pushed into shape. 25,000 words, 125 pages, just about a third of the way through the book. What I like to think of as the "set-up" is all in place (although it needs a bit of polishing): the characters are introduced, the mystery plot has been set in motion, the body has just been discovered. When we first began to work on this book, I thought it was going to be mostly about Consuelo Vanderbilt, the 12th Duchess of Marlborough. Now, though, I'm finding that it's actually more about Gladys Deacon, who married the Duke after Consuelo and he were divorced, and became the 13th Duchess. What complicated lives those people lived--and I don't mean our fictional characters, either!

Our royalty statements came today, and gave us something to smile about. The nice thing about writing mysteries is that as long as there are new books coming out in a series and sales remain respectable, the publisher will keep the back list (the earlier books) in print. Of course, the used-book market is beginning to hurt every writer, but there's nothing to be done about that, so there's no point in whining about it.

Another nice thing in the mail today: a big box of books we bought in England and shipped home, rather than trying to stuff them into our luggage. I was excited about the books when we bought them. Now more excitement, opening the box, remembering each title, even sitting down for a few minute with the most interesting.

Did you watch Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip on PBS last night? A wonderful film by Ken Burns (written by Dayton Duncan) that had me smiling all the way through. Such a delight to see somebody beat the odds, and long odds, at that. I'm crazy about Bud the bulldog, and I was absolutely seduced by the light-hearted, brash, by-gum-we'll-get-there adventure, by the whole doggone film. Don't miss it.

Book notes. "The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."--John Steinbeck.

10/07/2003 06:40:00 PM

Monday, October 06, 2003  
The weekend workshop was, as it always is, a delight for me, and enormously rewarding. I loved working with the five other women who led program segments, each one with her own personal commitment to life-writing: Donna, our dreamer; Catherine, our healer; Carolyn, always journeying; Pat, putting us in touch with our ancestors; Jane, requiring us to write with precision. For my segment ("Living in Place") I put together nine different writing topics. We chose two to write about during the 75 minutes we had together.

1) A place in the heart. what place do you call home? Describe it in as much detail as you can, focusing on sensory experience (smell, sight, sound, taste, feel). What makes this place unique? What is the spirit of the place? What is there about this place that makes you feel at home? What is its special meaning in your life? Has it shaped you in any significant way?
2) Place and person. Sometimes our experience of a place is inextricably mixed with our experience of the people who were there with us. What place in your life is most connected with a person in your life? Describe both the place and the person. Why does this person seem to belong to this place? What makes this person and the place so meaningful to you?

And there's one other writing topic we didn't have time for, but is always at the top of my mind:
Place and past. You have a history--your favorite place has a history, too: a geological history, a social history, a political history. Write about your place in terms of what it has been. Was it an ocean before it became a prairie? A marsh before it became a desert? Who lived here ten thousand years ago, a thousand years ago, a hundred, fifty, ten? How do these various pasts influence your sense of presence in this place?

The participants did some fine writing--that spontaneous, honest, authentic writing that happens when the writer is pushed to put pen to paper and let the words come for five minutes or so without stopping, without editing or polishing or fixing. After we've written, we read aloud and everyone responds, not in critique-mode, but rather saying how the reading has touched and moved us. I love seeing the look of surprise on the reader's face as she hears herself giving voice to the words she wrote with such urgency, the thoughts and feelings driven by the memories, pulled out of her by the weight of the story she has to tell. It's a wonderful experience for me as a teacher and writer to hear these voices and to be reminded, once again, that we are all full of stories waiting (perhaps even longing) to be voiced. But sometimes I think that our stories can't be voiced until we have listeners, and at these workshops, I often have the feeling that it is the listening that calls forth the stories.

Book notes. "I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas begin to grow within us and come to life . . . and it is this creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom . . . "--Brenda Ueland

And while I'm thinking about place, here's a reminder: Story Circle is collecting women's writing about place, for a new book to be published by the University of Texas Press. If you'd like to contribute, check it out.

10/06/2003 06:12:00 PM

Friday, October 03, 2003  
Ancestral place. The "place bloggers" at Ecotone are writing about ancestral place this month, so I've been thinking about it. The question comes down, doesn't it? to whether you know your ancestors, and whether they had a place, and whether you know or care what that place was.

I trace my lineage back through my mother-line, and Mother had a place--or rather, she had a place when she was young, a small farm in Sullivan County, Missouri, where her mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had all lived. She left that place behind, but she left her heart there, and she taught me to love it--not the place itself, maybe, but the land, and the open prairie and the rolling, wooded hills, and the sky that stretched from one horizon to the other. That's my ancestral place because it was hers, and I see the place where I live now as like that place in many ways.

I have other ancestors and I know who they are, and those ancestors had places and I know some of those. But I'm connected to my mother (who is now dead) and to her place, which became mine, although I never had the good fortune to live there, only visited, and the visits were always too short. And in my imagination, my grandmother is still there, and my mother, and I can smell the smells and see the summer sky. Not a place where there was much money, but lots of love and strong connections among people (especially the women) and the land itself.

Other people's ancestral places. One of the things I noticed in a couple of the villages we visited in England was the sense of long-term residence there. Many of the people we talked to lived in the same place their parents, grandparents, and so on had lived. When they identified with their "place," it was through the ancestral connections and the long, long memory of family. For most Americans--we of the Great Melting Pot--that's not possible. And not even for me, really, although I feel I have an ancestral place. Most of us have lost the connection between land and ancestors. We're mobile, we're disconnected--for the better, in some ways, since our mobility has given us a wider view of people and ideas. For the worse, in other ways, since some of us no longer have any connection at all, except to--what? to work? to our immediate family? to ideas?

Story Circle's Writing from Life workshop is happening this weekend, so I won't be posting. Instead, I'll be leading a group of women writers on the topic of "Living in Place." Yeah. So place is an urgent idea with me just now.

Book notes. "It is not down in any map. True places never are." -- Herman Melville

10/03/2003 04:29:00 PM

Wednesday, October 01, 2003  
Our native eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) is blooming just now, covering the meadow to the south in swatches of brilliant purple. This annual is a thistle look-alike, with its spiny bracts and head-like cluster. There are some two dozen members of the Eryngium clan; some of them have been said to have medicinal properties. Sea holly, Eryngium campestre , has been used medicinally for a couple of millenia, mostly for . . . well, gas. In fact, the family's Latin name is thought to come from the Greek word "eruggarein," meaning to belch. One of the silver varieties, Eryngium giganticum, is known as "Miss Willmott's Ghost." For the interesting story behind this name, check out Killer Plants. Our eryngo is a bit more modest than "Miss Willmott's Ghost," but beautiful in its own way, particularly on a summer evening when the purple shadows are beginning to drift across the purple meadow. It really does look like a thistle, doesn't it?

Commercial announcement. One of our recent Story Circle projects was the publication of Discoveries, a blank journal book with women's quotes--wise words from real women. I wrote an introduction, several SCN members chose the quotations, and a team of Cover Girls got together to hand-craft the cover. The book is a bargain at $15, and makes a lovely gift. Order one for yourself, and another one for a friend. Heck, order six or seven. You'll be helping the nonprofit Story Circle Network do its work in the world: encouraging women to write the stories of their lives. (And while you're at it, join the Network. You'll get our quarterly Journal, which is very, very good. I know, because I edit it. How's that for modest?

Creeping along with the book, Death at Blenheim. Bill pasted a couple of thousand words into my file today, and we had a good talk this morning, straightening out more kinks. I often think that the hardest part of writing together is making sure that we're writing the same book. When we're not, we're usually in for some fairly strenuous arguments and general head-bashings. But it appears that in this case, we know where we're going and we're getting there. Just not very fast. I like to be able to put in an average of 1500 words a day, and I haven't been there very often lately. If I hadn't done this umpty-ump times before, I'd be a little nervous. Writing historical mysteries is a great deal more work than writing contemporary mysteries, believe me. But I still think two heads are better than one, especially where mysteries are concerned.

Book notes. "La Genie, c'est travailler tous les jours."--Gustave Flaubert. Sigh.....

10/01/2003 07:07:00 PM


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