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

Tuesday, January 27, 2004  
These are the tour notes that I kept especially for this weblog. It covers the first part of the tour, Jan 11-24. I still have several events to do, Thursday-Saturday of this week. This is what it was like.

Sunday Jan. 11, Austin. Barnes & Noble Westlake this afternoon, first for the OWL book, then for Dilly. My first run-through of the Dilly talk needs to be smoother. Too much about pickles, I think. Afterward, Peggy, Penny, and I went for Mexican fast food, and then to Penny's house, where Penny hosted a cover-girl party: 8 SCN gals, making covers for Discoveries. Fun, lively, and productive. I kept remembering that great line of Bette Davis's: "If you want a thing done well, get a couple of old broads to do it." Yeah. I'm staying all night at Penny's, for an early flight out tomorrow morning.

Tuesday afternoon, Grove City OH. Lunch at Gantz Farm was great fun, 120 brave folk who didn't even seem to mind the cold. Hey, the mayor was there, and the president of the City Council, so I felt like a big shot. The Gantz Farm bunch made centerpieces: flower pots decorated with the Dilly title and potted with scented geraniums! The media escort (someone who drives authors around--the publicist arranges for this) drove me to the lunch, then will take me to Springfield OH (half-way to Dayton), where Kathy Tirscheck will pick me up and take me to Dayton.

Tuesday night, Dayton. The people at Books & Co. always manage a good signing. They also had a huge poster that I got to autograph and leave behind for their literacy auction. Cold, but no snow, so we had a good crowd at the signing--40 people. Afterward, Kathy and I drove to Cincinnati. I'm staying at the Cincinnatian Hotel for two nights.

Wednesday, Cincinnati. Three media events this morning: a taped TV interview; a taped radio interview for "Cover to Cover" on WRRS-FM (thank you, Mark DeWitt, for a great interview); and a noon live feature on the ABC affiliate, WCPO-TV, which also ran the book cover in the morning news show. The first interview was one of those things that you wish wouldn't happen but occasionally does: the interviewer didn't show. The man who covered for her hadn't read the book, so he filled the air time with this and that while I tried to keep him on topic, like a border collie nipping at the heels of a sheep that had its own ideas about where to go. Not fun, and not funny. But the other two interviewers were certainly fine. And now I have the afternoon off. Reading, knitting (socks), some spindle-spinning. Pick-up at 6:40 for the Joseph-Beth signing.

Thursday morning, Cincinnati. The weather smacked us last night, with actual sleet and predicted snow, so the turnout at Joseph-Beth (where I always sign when I come to Cincinnati) was disappointingly light--only a dozen people. It was nice to see a woman I hadn't seen for 20 years (since we were both at SWT), and some fans with shopping bags of books. And a nice surprise just now: I opened USA Today a moment ago to find a terrific ad for Dilly, on the book page! What a lift on a cold morning, with a long day's work ahead: two libraries and a bookstore signing.

Thursday afternoon, Louisville. Two good library events, in Carrollton and Jeffersontown, with tasty sweets and snacks, too, and books for sale. It was fun to see the meeting rooms filled to capacity--35 people or so at each event--and to meet people who have read ALL the books. It's easy to give an interesting, lively talk to an interested and lively audience.

One of the interesting aspects of touring is that it gives you a glimpse behind the scenes in the book business. A touring author is usually accompanied by a media escort, whose job is to pick up the author and drive her to the scheduled events, as well as take her to various bookstores to sign copies of whatever books are on the shelf, which sometimes includes the new book, sometimes not. The escort is supposed to handle all the logistical stuff that makes it possible to manage 3-4 media and signing events in one day, including drop-in signings. So she's an integral part of the tour, and absolutely necessary. Today's escort, Marilyn, is a real pro, and I've enjoyed being with her. (Not only that, but she's a canoeist, a camper, an adventurer, AND a grandma! Terrific gal.)

Friday, Lexington. Debbie (today's escort) took me to a wonderful little new/used bookstore in Georgetown KY, called Bohannons' Books With a Past. We chatted while I signed books (they had a dozen Dillies, a stack of Indigo, Robin Paige, and both back lists). The owners are both retired teachers, and have owned the store for seven years. They're wonderful and funny and--best of all--they love books. If you're driving I-75 between Lexington and Cincinnati, take exit 25 to Georgetown, and drop in at the bookstore. After that little treat, we stopped at a shopping mall so I could buy some cereal (I am getting tired of calorie-rich hotel breakfasts) and a totally wonderful suede jacket leaped right off the rack and into my arms. Exactly what I was wanting, and on sale too. I should be so lucky.

Saturday morning, Lexington. Last night's signing at Joseph-Beth was well-attended, all the seats filled. But something happened at the end of the evening that made me both unhappy and angry. A woman brought a shopping bag of books. I asked her to wait until the end of the line, and when she began to unload the books for signing, it was clear that she was a dealer: she had several Mylar-covered books, several advance reading copies, and multiple copies of two titles. I asked her if she was a dealer and gave her my little speech about not signing books for dealers who bring them to a bookstore signing, because the bookstore has funded my appearance and it's an insult to the store to sign other sellers' products, etc etc. However, she insisted that she was a fan and a collector, and I couldn't do anything else but take her at her word--although I did insist that she buy at least one book from the store, which she did. Afterward, the escort told me that the woman really was a dealer. I guess I should have been tougher. Bet those books are going to end up on Ebay next week.

Later: Barb Ellis, the media escort who took me to Nashville, suggested a response to the dealer who brings a bag or two of books: tell her I'll sign her books gladly, once I get home, IF she'll pay the postage both ways AND include a check for $10 per book, made out to my favorite charity (which is SCN, of course). Sounds like a real sweet dill to me.

Monday night, Indianapolis. Nashville and Memphis (thank you, Davis-Kidd bookstores) were both great: good audiences (in spite of bad weather--rain, cold, general yuck all over the roads), plenty of interaction, and LOTS of books in the stores. Memphis is memorable because I left my black windbreaker in the airport. Happily, my driver's license and credit card, which I used to check in at the airport, were NOT in the pocket. And please notice that this was not my new suede jacket, which I was wearing at the time (but no doubt a punishment from the coat gods for buying that suede jacket). So the first task in Indianapolis was replacing the windbreaker--necessarily, since the temperature was 17 degrees. Ouch. Now I remember why I really like Texas in the winter. This afternoon was free, and I spent it with Bill's dear aunt and uncle and cousin, whom we always try to see when we're in Indy. Early bedtime tonight, with a 7 a.m. TV interview tomorrow. How do the politicians and journalists on the primary trail do this week in and week out?

Tuesday night, Indianapolis. What a great day! TV in the morning, then a brown-bag lunch for about 30 people at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church (thanks, Nancy, for setting that up!), with lots of good questions and good interaction. Carolee Schneider, of Carolee's Herb Farm, brought books and sold out of hardcovers. And my cousins Eleanor and Dick came, with their spouses. We enjoyed a too-short chat afterward about our family connections; Eleanor brought her amazing genealogical scrapbook. What a good job she is doing piecing together that side of the family. When I get more time, I'd really like to get into that. Tonight, we drove to Carmel to the Mystery Company, Jim Huang's new store. Standing room only! If you're in the Indianapolis area and want to browse mostly mysteries, check it out. And feel free to ask questions. Jim writes/edits the Drood Review, a respected mystery publication, and what he doesn't know about myteries is not worth knowing.

Wednesday afternoon, Dallas. The Adolphus Hotel is one of Texas's finest hotels. They always give me a nice room when I'm touring here, but this time, they outdid themselves. It's the penthouse, and not to be believed, honestly. Mirrored walls, marble floors in the bathrooms (yes, two), a dining room with a table for six, a separate office with high-speed Internet connection, 15-foot ceilings, a bed that's big enough to sleep four, comfortably. Not my style, definitely, and I really feel uncomfortable here. But the 23rd-floor view makes up for it, sort of. I can almost see Burnet County from here. Home is getting closer, only 200 miles to the south and two days away.

Thursday night, Dallas. The Plano Library did a wonderful job with promotion, so the room was full last night--about 70 people. Today, the Dallas County Master Gardeners had a brown-bag lunch for 140, and sold books as a fund-raiser. Tonight, a good turnout at the Fort Worth Borders, including Robert (a regular reader of this blog--thanks for coming, Robert!). And Kathleen (the escort) and I drove all over north Dallas, signing bookstore stock. I really enjoyed her--she's a friend of Liz Carpenter's and an old-time Texas liberal. So as we drove, we did some serious conservative-bashing.

Friday night, Houston. Charles Roberts (the Houston media escort) picked me up and we zipped to the hotel (the St. Regis, yay!) for lunch and an interview with a freelance food journalist. Well, we didn't exactly zip. The freeway was backed up for miles because a truck flipped over and spilled sand and cement all over the roadway, shutting down three lanes of southbound traffic. Ah, Houston, you're grand. But I love going to Murder by the Book, because Dean, Martha, and David are always so well organized and hospitable. We had a good crowd tonight, lots of people I know.

Saturday night, home! Today was my first cooking school, at Central Market in Houston. It was wonderful fun, mostly because I didn't have to cook, just talk about cooking while Kim and Sean (the two associate cooks at the school) did all the work. I didn't even have to wash any dishes. We raised $1000 for the Houston Literacy Program, and that was wonderful too. But oh, is it nice to be home. Bill was glad to see me, the dogs were ecstatic, and even the cat seemed pleased, although she seems to have gotten used to occupying my chair in the living room.

Move over, Cat. Mom's home.

1/27/2004 03:21:00 PM

Sunday, January 11, 2004  
On the road again. Today is the day when it all begins, and it's busy. Two book signings this afternoon, both at Barnes and Noble Austin Westlake. I should have mentioned that we're also having a reading and signing for Story Circle's OWL book, With Courage and Common Sense, same store, at 2 p.m. After that, we're having a "cover party" at my friend Penny's house, to work on the covers of Discoveries, the blank journal book that Story Circle is selling (with an introduction by moi). If you want a signed, personalized copy of that journal, I'd be glad to send you one, but it'll have to wait until I get back. Drop me an email at, and I'll reply after 1/25. We've already sold several hundred of these wonderful little books, as a fund-raiser for SCN. In the morning, an early plane.

Anyway, no postings here until the last week of January. If you don't have anything else to read, you can always read the archives. Or you can buy (gasp!) a copy of Dilly, and read that. Or you can read Ron Suskind's What Price Loyalty, which is definitely on my list. It's high time that somebody pointed out exactly what the emperor looks like under all those regal robes.

Thoughts on leaving the place. I'm always sad to leave MeadowKnoll, even if only for a few days. This time of year is especially beautiful. This morning, walking to the lake, our two black Labs--tails up, noses down to the ground, delightedly following the traces left by mysterious nocturnal creatures--were such a lovely, lively contrast to the pastel landscape: the golden beige of the frostbitten bluestem, the red-browns of the sedge grass and King Ranch bluestem, the rich maroon of the wild blackberry, the pale bones of cattails. In summer, there is too much lushness; it's difficult to appreciate the subtleties, the tiny everyday beauties. In winter, the color palette is subdued but more beautiful, especially under a pearly sky, when the light seems to come from everywhere and nowhere.

The grass you see here is mostly Miscanthus, with some Lindheimer's Muhly in the background, and the reddish King Ranch bluestem in the field beyond.

And speaking of place, we've finally gone unlisted in the phone book. The problem is not the phone calls (we've been on several do-not-call lists for quite a few years), but the Internet listings, complete with maps.

Times have changed. When we first moved out here, we didn't have a physical address, because we didn't (still don't) have mail delivery to the house. That changed when the county finally developed a 911 system, and we were given a physical address so that the fire trucks and ambulances could navigate here in case of emergency. Meanwhile, on the Internet, the ubiquitous maps were being created. You can now get a map to anywhere, and in some cases, even aerial photos. (Nice for legitimate research, not-so-nice if the mapee wants to be private.) And if you have one of those GPS gizmos, you can even locate your present place with minute precision, in terms of latitude and longitude

Yes, we can now locate ourselves (and others) as we never have before, in the long history of human placements. It's hard to get lost out there in the world. But in a different way, we have become placeless. We can go anywhere, everywhere, and always know where we are. We are casually mobile. Some of us (me, for instance, before I settled here at MeadowKnoll) live in 20-30 homes in the course of a lifetime.

But all these addresses, all this precision about place, cannot help us establish a true sense of place, which requires us to be in one place long enough to understand its times and seasons, its history of human occupation, its animals and plants and their stories. GPS is fine in its way, but we will never truly know where we are until we have rooted ourselves, until we have begun to feel part of the neighborhood--not the human neighborhood alone, but the natural neighborhood in which we reside.

Reading Notes. If we are to live responsibly on earth, we will have to recognize that our true address is not the one listed in the phone book, but the one defined by the movement of water, the lay of the land, the dirt and air, the animals and plants, as well as by the patterns of human occupation, the buildings and crops, the language and lore. . . . Knowledge in depth about one's home region will not strip away the gleaming surface that has been spread over the continent by mass culture and mass production, but such knowledge may reveal to us how thin that surface is, thin enough to see through, as thin as ice on a spring pond.--Writing from the Center, Scott Sanders.

1/11/2004 09:05:00 AM

Friday, January 09, 2004  
Hey, I need to do some shameless self-promotion here (brazen hussy that I am). Those of you who get impatient at this sort of thing, skip on down the page a bit.

Austin. If you live in the Austin area and want a signed Dilly, you can pick one up at a local Barnes and Noble--or you can come and visit at the Westlake B&N on Sunday, 4 p.m. If that doesn't work for you, stop in at Borders (on Research) on Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. I'll also be at the Austin Herb Society meeting on Feb. 3. All these events are listed on the website.

After Austin, it's Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Carrollton KY, Jeffersontown KY, Louisville, Lexington, Nashville, Memphis, Indy, Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, and (gasp) home. Lord willing and the blizzards don't blow--even if they do, actually. The schedule now includes some good media work: WKEF-TV in Dayton, "Cover to Cover" on WRRS-FM and a live noon interview on WCPO-TV (ABC) in Cincinnati, and WXIN-TV (Fox) in Indy. For booksigning and lunch details, see--yep--the website.

Okay, that's done. But it's a little hard to stop thinking about the book and how it's doing, out there in the world. There are all these little possible peeks--for instance, at the B&N sales page, where I can see how well the book is selling at any given moment. At this instant, for instance, it is ranked as #217--not bad for a cozy mystery. In two weeks, I'll be looking at the USA Today list. And (holding my breath against the disappointment) at the NY Times list. Ah, well. In a month, the fuss will be over, the numbers will be in, and I can get back to work.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the cedar is doing its annual procreative thing. Both Bill and I are coughing and sneezing, while all around us, the male cedar trees are shaking their sex organs in the breeze. (For a more detailed explanation of this phenomenon, see the entry for Saturday Jan. 3) And this year, they're loaded. Like this healthy guy:

See all those little orange-brown things? Sex organs. This is a very sexy cedar tree. A moment after I shot this, he gave himself a sharp shake and clouds of orange pollen scattered downwind. A-choo.

Which reminds me of ferns. I went to a lecture on ferns once, and the lecturer (a noted expert) told us about getting a phone call from an anxious lady who told him that she had just seen all these little brown buggy-looking things all over the underside of her fern leaves. She had scraped them off--but what else should she do? Spray? Pray? "Madam," he said sternly, "you have scraped off all the SEX ORGANS."

There seem to be lots of berries this year. Cedar berries, mistletoe berries, pyracanthus berries. One person who thinks a lot about this sort of thing says it's the drought--that stressed trees put out lots of fruit to ensure the survival of their sort. However, this theory does not hold up, because in Florida, where they have had a great deal more rain than anybody ever needs, my brother John also has lots of holly berries. Here's what he wrote to me yesterday:

We're enjoying the annual robins' gorgefest on our holly trees. We
noticed a solitary bird a couple of days ago. He must have been the
scout, because they're all here now. The tree out front is absolutely
loaded -- with berries and robins. It won't take them long to strip it --
no mockingbird to guard it this year.

I watched one bird while he gobbled 17 berries. Almost enough
weight to change his flight characteristics, don't you think?

Thanks, John. A gut-heavy robin, flaps down, tail up, coming in for a belly-flop landing. Now, that brings a smile.

Reading notes. The only durable community is the one that embraces the whole planet, wild and tame. We need to find ways of speaking about that great community without drawing lines between nature and society... At any rate, that is what I am trying to find, a way of writing and thinking about the whole of life, human as well as nonhuman, in all its dazzling array... Those are the moments worth telling.--Writing From the Center, Scott Russell Sanders

Archives. Thanks to those who have written to say they can't find them. Peggy (my web witch) looked into her crystal ball and discovered that Blogger had changed the way it handled the archives but hadn't told us. Peggy waved her magic wand, pushed a few buttons, and fixed it. Thank you, Peggy.

1/09/2004 07:26:00 PM

Tuesday, January 06, 2004  
Mistletoe is another one of the plants that give the Hill Country its character as a place. Of course, it grows in the trees all year round--primarily in the hackberries and mesquite--but it is most visible in the winter, when the trees have lost their leaves and you can easily see the large, green, parasitic clumps of mistletoe growing on the branches, like this:

It's also at this time of year that the white berries appear. Here's a photo of a fruiting mistletoe growing out of a hackberry trunk.

I learned a great deal about mistletoe when I was doing the research for Mistletoe Man, one of China's adventures. Here are some of the things I found out about this curious plant, which many cultures have considered magical:

--Norwegian peasants hung mistletoe from the rafters of their homes to protect against lightning.
--In Wales, mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve was placed under the pillow at Yule-tide to induce prophetic dreams.
--In northern Europe, mistletoe was thought to act as a master-key to open locks.
--Swedish farmers hung mistletoe in the horse's stall and the cow's crib, to protect against evil trolls. They also used the wood to make divining rods
--In the south of France, mistletoe was thought to be an antidote to all poisons.

All that business about kissing under the mistletoe originated in northern Europe, when it was used as a sign that feuding factions had kissed and made up--which somehow got translated into the romance of Christmas and people kissing under the mistletoe and all that. The Druids considered it sacred, and are said to have cut it down with a golden sickle. We don't cut it (with or without a golden sickle), although some people do, because it is parasitic; its roots grow under the tree bark, where it sucks up nutrients. However, it isn't as potentially damaging as ball moss, about which I will write another time.

Cooking school. This is really funny. This year's book tour (for A Dilly of a Death) includes a visit to the Central Market Cooking School in Houston, where I get to put on one of those nifty white coats and demonstrate four of China's favorite dishes to a cooking class. We're having herb quiche, from Indigo Dying; Prissy Taggert's Spicy Sauteed Veggies, from An Unthymely Death; Dilled Beer Bread, from A Dilly of a Death; and Ruby Wilcox's Hot Lips Cookie Crisps from Love Lies Bleeding. Actually, all I have to do is demo the dishes. Peg Lee, who is in charge of this circus, promises that they will already have cooked the dishes, and I'll have "two or three trained chefs" to assist me. The real question is: will one or two of those trained chefs come home with me? If you're thinking that this sounds like fun and you'd like to join the party (and get to chow down on quiche, veggies, beer bread, and hot-hot cookies), you can check it out here. For reservations, call Peg Lee at 713-993-9860 (soon, because she thinks this will sell out). All this foolishness is in aid of the Houston literacy programs.

A dilly of a box of books arrived today, and they are utterly BEAUTIFUL, so I am slightly giddy tonight, dancing around and feeling like a real author. However, all this silly stuff must come to an end, because it's time to cook supper. (Oh, where are those trained chefs when I need them?) We're having salmon cakes, I think. Maybe I'll put a little parsley into them, and some dill, and I'll make some tartar sauce with minced onions and some dill pickle relish, and . . . .

Reading notes. If you dip your hand into the pickle pot, let it be up to the elbow. --Malay proverb

1/06/2004 05:06:00 PM

Saturday, January 03, 2004  
When we think of a place, we usually think of the features that give it a special and recognizable character, that make it special, that make it unique. When people think of the Hill Country, they remember its wonderfully rugged limestone terrain, its lovely clear streams, its splendid cedar-clad hills.

Ah, yes. The cedar-clad hills. Cedars--no, Ashe juniper, to be specific, Juniperus ashei, not cedars at all. They blanket some 23 million acres of the Edwards Plateau, drought-tolerant habitat for birds, erosion control on the steep slopes, and wood for such down-to-earth necessities as fence posts. They're an essential part of the Hill Country, and here at MeadowKnoll, we have quite a few of them. And January is their mating season.

In December, you can see the trees, both male and female, gearing up for their Big Show. The female trees flaunt little blue-green cones that look like berries; the male trees flaunt tiny little pine-coney brown things. You can see some first-rate photos of both right here. In a good year, the male trees have so many of these little cones that they look as if they've been sprayed with orange paint. And when the wind blows--POOF! clouds of pollen, like smoke, drift through the air, until they impregnant the female cedar cone, or end up in your nose. Result: sneezing, runny nose, burning eyes, allergy headaches. Cedar fever. It's as much a part of the experience of living in the Hill Country as the rugged landscape, the crystal streams, the . . . yes, those cedar-clad hills.

But every place has its challenges. The people who love the mountains also have to live with fire, mudslide, earthquakes. To the north of us, it's Tornado Alley. To the east, West Nile mosquitoes. Learning to live in a place, growing a "sense of place," also means learning to understand and live with its challenges. Including cedar fever. Not much fun, but it goes with the territory.

Thanks to Robert from Fort Worth for pointing out the problem with my link to the Barnes & Noble "Meet the Writers" interview. I always enjoy Robert's blog, which is called "Life and Other Strange Habits." A recent entry includes a photo of a chilly blue iris, blooming in Fort Worth at Christmas time. There's also a pic of a fur-bearing trout. Maybe if we write ask him, he'll tell us the story that goes with it.

Reading Notes. Loyalty to place arises from . . . our need to be at home on the earth. We marry ourselves to the creation by knowing and cherishing a particular place, just as we join ourselves to the human family by marrying a particular man or woman. Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.

1/03/2004 06:47:00 PM

Friday, January 02, 2004  
Interviews. A couple of weeks ago, I did an email interview with They posted it yesterday, in their Meet the Writers section. I enjoyed re-reading it, and thought you might like it, as well. Included are several "good to know" facts about me, such as my first job, where I learned to garden, my favorite books, that sort of cozy detail. All true, although truly tongue-in-cheek, most of it. And to be absolutely truthful, I have to say that I was deeply complimented to be asked. The list is selective; the other 20 "A" names include such notables as Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Isaac Asimov, Jane Austen. Pretty heady company.

What happened to winter? It was sunny and 80 here today, and I finally broke down and put on my shorts and sandals. I got a call from my kids in Juneau, where it is 20 and cloudy. Another couple of days like today, and the roses are going to think it's time to do their thing. But it isn't, guys, so hold on, don't even think of budding! We're promised some cooler weather over the weekend--it might even get down to freezing again.

A Dilly of a Tchachke. When started writing adult mysteries and it dawned on me that I would actually have to promote them myself, I started watching other mystery authors to see how they did it. One of their tricks is to give away cute little "take-homes" that people might hang onto, and thereby remember the author's name--what I have since learned are called "tchachkes." Some people hand out little calendars with magnets on them that you can stick on your fridge; lots of people give bookmarks; one year, Jan Grape gave away rubber jar openers. (I still have mine, Jan, and I thank you for it every time I use it!)

Because the China Bayles books had herbs in them, I thought it would be interesting and fun to make and give herbal tchachkes, so every year I try to come up with something related to the book title. For Lavender Lies, it was little bags of lavender; for Chile Death, little ristras; for Rosemary Remembered, rosemary and instructions for making Ruby's Rosemary Biscuits.

This year, it is--ta da!--pickling spices. Yep. I ordered a gazillion pounds of pickling spices: yellow and brown mustard seeds, allspice, cinnamon, bay, dill, cloves, ginger, peppercorns, anise, coriander, juniper berries, mace, cardamom, red pepper. Smells absolutely terrific! I bagged it up in little baggies (what do you think I do every night besides knit and think up mystery plots?), and today I designed and printed up headers for the baggies, including a recipe for Pickled Eggs that comes from my mother's 1932 cookbook and a bit of promotion for the Robin Paige Victorian that will be out in March and the first Beatrix mystery, out in October. As soon as I get it all assembled, I'll be equipped for the book tour. So if you're come to any of the signings or other events on the tour, you can pick up your pickling spices.

Oh, the lengths to which some authors will go to sell their books! The only question is: what is Airport Security and their nosy dogs going to think when they get a good strong sniff of all those mustard seeds?

I'll bet Jane Austen never gave away a tchachke, though.

Reading Notes. One more matter needs to be discussed. . . It's a question that people ask in different ways--sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no. Don't now and never did. . . I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.--Steven King, On Writing

1/02/2004 07:22:00 PM

Thursday, January 01, 2004  
Another year. Speaking personally, 2003 was a very good year for Bill and me, here at MeadowKnoll. The writing went well, we added a new grandchild to a family that stayed healthy the whole year, and we stayed fit ourselves. Can't ask for more than that. Speaking politically and in terms of our nation's health. . . well, I won't. It was not a good year. But that's a subject I decided I wouldn't address in this weblog, so we won't go there.

New Year's Eve. Bill and I didn't plan much of a New Year's celebration. We did stay up until midnight, partly because we got hooked on old Twilight Zone reruns, but also because we wanted to keep an eye out for our neighbor's fireworks. We're not paranoid (no, of course we're not), but it would be pretty easy for sparks to ignite a grass fire, especially with the wind we had last night. The reruns were some of my favorites: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," where William Shatner sees a gremlin on the airplane wing; and "Nightcall," where an old lady is bedeviled by phone calls from the fiance she killed in an auto accident. Now that was good television, especially given the wasteland of commercial TV in those days. Perfect fare for a New Year's Eve.

It's a gray day today, very mild, already in the mid-60s. We're expecting a cold front to drop down later today, with a few showers. It won't be enough--we need rain rain rain. The cattail marsh is a thing of the past, the cattail stalks and leaves rattling like dry bones in the wind. Bill mowed a long loop around the east meadows, where we've always had some wet spots, but the ground there is rock-hard. When we bought those east meadows, they were seriously overgrazed; now, the prairie is restoring itself. I'm glad, because if we'd had this drought without the grass cover, the soil would turn to powder and blow away. Next year, I'm going to completely xeroscape the garden. If it won't grow without additional water, it will have to go.

The book tour plans are shaping up. The tour is always set up by Berkley's publicity department, which decides what cities I'll be going to. In 2003, with Indigo Dying, it was the West Coast; this year, with A Dilly of a Death, it is the Midwest: Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and back to Texas. The full tour schedule is here, if you're interested. Berkley's publicist set up all the evening bookstore signings; the lunches and other events are hosted by readers and friends and are always a lot more fun for me than the bookstores. I got a funny note from a reader the other day, who asked if the book tour was "a new way that publishers have come up with to off their writers." It's not really that bad, although even I cringe when I look at the detailed travel schedule they sent me. Still, it's fun, and I always come back full of new energy and a clearer sense of readers' expectations and interests. If you live within driving distance of one of the places I'll be, and if the weather is decent (no blizzards--I'd hate to lose a reader on an icy highway!), I'd love to see you.

Here is a winter picture, taken in the sheep pasture. Winter brings a bleak, subtle beauty: bleached grasses, bony mesquite, and the dark green Ashe junipers, which are locally called "cedar." Someday soon, I'll write something about them, since they are a major feature in many people's lives at this season--even people who think that the landscape around them has little effect on their lives.

Reading Notes. The second landscape I think of is an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.--Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground.

1/01/2004 11:17:00 AM


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