Sock books and garden books

I’ve got gardening fever bad, this week. Too many old episodes of Gardener’s World, too many trips to the garden center, too many tantalizing green shoots coming out of the ground, giving me foolhardy ideas about starting my solanaceae seeds…which I did, by the way, and probably killed them all in the doing. Le sigh.

Some books are like socks and some books are like gardens. In the writing, I mean. Sock books you cast on and dutifully knit one stitch after another–maybe needing to rip back completely once or twice–until you come to the end, and then you have the sock/book. This feels like a blessed occurrence and if you’re a knitter it means you’re skillful, but if you’re a writer it probably means you don’t know what you’re doing.

That was a snarky thing to say. I won’t apologize.

Other books are like gardens. You know basically what you want. You lay plans. You order seeds and haul the supplies home; you have the tools hanging in the garage already.

And then you put it together, and it all goes to pot. Some things grow, some things don’t. Some things seem to be coming along nicely, then die. A lot of things have to be dug up and replanted due to circumstances your plans didn’t, well, plan for. There are freak storms that decimate swathes of the garden/book, blights, weeds, droughts, heat waves, frosts. A nursery sold you the wrong variety of bulbs and you don’t find out until they flower a year later. You sow your zinnia seeds in the wind and they’re all blown away…and you’re filled with a million restless questions like “what IS this ‘grit’ I keep hearing about? Is it vermiculite or is it fish gravel? Or maybe they just don’t make it in America…maybe you have to be English to get it”, and “I’m technically in zone 8 but I don’t think it’s the zone 8 anyone means when they say a plant is hardy in zone 8”.

So you move things. Replace them. Pull weeds. Learn to mulch and to set up irrigation systems. You–yes–lower your expectations about the exotic flourishes and settle for big swathes of monarda because dammit, it grows. You never have a moment’s peace in your garden. Even in a lawn chair at dusk, with a Strega and soda in hand, all you can think about are the changes that should be made.

And every spring you spend unreasonable amounts of money on plants you know won’t work. But they’re so charming in your mind.

There is no endpoint to the book/garden. It can, if you let it, be a perpetually evolving beast. Maybe a publisher buys it and you have to, half triumphantly, half regretfully, let it go. Your baby. Your project. You sweated blood for it, and now it belongs to someone else. So you start a new book/garden, regretful for the loss of the old one and no longer perfectly charmed by the idea of starting fresh…but armed with everything you learned in the last one, and still infected with springtime optimism.

And I guess that’s all right.

Pruning

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And somehow, I’m back there. Back to my historical novel that had been shelved for four months. And I know how to fix it and I’ve even found a way to fix it that doesn’t make me want to throw up. Am I writing new material? Yes. Am I taking a lot of material out? Also yes. Am I hurting my story? No.

Spring is around the corner, here. The weather report doesn’t look like it (overcast, high 43, low 34, chance of rain day…after day…after day…after day) but it must be, because the willows are budding and I’m on loratadine. For me, having spring come feels like being let out of a cage. For my husband, it feels like standing in front of a cage, waiting for a very large monster to be let out. Our acreage was neglected in the years before we acquired it. Some of the tangle we’re keeping–blackberries give fruit, hardhack is beautiful and native, and some of the willows mind their own business. Other things like crack willows and Scotch broom have to go, and better sooner than later.

So, afternoon after afternoon, if business isn’t too oppressive he’s out there with his chainsaw, cutting things down. The burn pile is ten feet tall, and doesn’t count the quarter-acre of felled broom waiting to be added.

This is pruning the bad stuff. The stuff that obviously shouldn’t be there.

In a historical novel, that stuff includes (1) the buds of storylines that never came to fruition, so why bother keeping them, and (2) scenes written to show off your research.

Yes, I had those. Lots of them. Especially at the beginning. GodDAMmit I was so sure I didn’t, but after four months lying fallow, there they are, peeking out of the book’s soil like green monsters. Cut ’em down. Cut ’em all down.

Then there’s the selective pruning for the health of what’s left. We’ve been watching episodes of Gardener’s World in the evenings, and as Monty Don says: for the health of a plant and the whole garden, it’s better to prune too much than too little. Don’t be afraid to cut back hard, as long as you know that what you’re cutting won’t kill the plant.

When I began to rework this novel, I was cutting things that killed the plant. The character-establishing scenes, the narrator’s voice, the budding romance between the leads. It made me feel sick. It just didn’t seem right, but didn’t Monty Don say to cut, cut, cut…?

Wrong kind of cutting, I decided. Rather, I am now carefully pruning those scenes. Can I remove a paragraph or two where my research is showing? Yes. Idle chatter that didn’t really develop the characters that much? Yes. Can I take the whole second half of this scene and move it later on in the book, where the total removal of a noxious-weed scene has left a bare patch? Most definitely yes. Let it grow there, where there’s space for it. Much better.

The burn pile is 15,000 words and counting. I think the book is better for it. Fingers crossed.

Eternal

As in “hope springs.” Except that for me, it doesn’t.

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While I believe there are studies showing that optimists are happier people than pessimists even though they’re so often disappointed, I prefer to be a pessimist. That means that no matter what happens I’m either (1) pleasantly surprised or (2) right. I like both those states. My pessimism is studied and bred in the bone; I come from a long line of quietly pessimistic people.

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This pessimism is a coping mechanism. For instance, when I was nine months pregnant. Oh my god, the worst month of my life. The only way to get through it was to stop hoping to go into labor. Like Eurasia at war, I would always be pregnant. This sounds cutesy, but I really believed it. So complete was my self-deception that I cleaned the shower tile’s grout with a toothbrush every day for six days in a row, but I was not nesting, because I was never going to give birth.

On the seventh day my daughter was born, and if that’s God’s idea of “rest,” he can get stuffed.

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February is an exercise in pessimism. In January you plan your gardens and order your seeds, but of course it’s still winter. Of course you aren’t gardening yet. February, though? There are smells of spring. Warm(er) days. Less snow. In February, you make the mistake of hoping. If you’re us, you put together your titchy plastic-covered greenhouse and buy cold-hardy bedding plants. You are perpetually on the verge of starting seeds because it’s almost spring!

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Except, of course, that it isn’t. Day after day goes by, and the last day of the ten-day forecast is not spring. The highs are still in the forties. The nights still frost. The ground is sodden and undiggable, and dear heavens, you want to dig. Every morning when you wake up to the frost and the forecast it’s all you can do not to scream into a pillow and give up.

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So you cultivate pessimism. Spring will never come. You will never garden. The world is a dreary succession of gray days, and it was irresponsible to try going outside without a coat. Just give in.

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This is also, coincidentally, what it feels like to have a novel on submission.

No fun at all

Dabbling in new genres, in both knitting and writing, surely makes one grow as an artist, but you’re always taking a risk that the result will be UGH WHY DID I DO THAT.

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I wrote a historical novel, for example. And not only did I spend a ton of time researching and not only did I feel constrained and flattened by “reality” while writing it, but in the end it turned out that it was entirely wrong from top to bottom. It had a historical setting but didn’t center around one particular historical event or figure, so it was NOT in fact a historical novel at all, but rather an uncategorizable chimera that no one wanted, not even me. And to top it off, when you’re writing a historical setting, there’s the real people angle to deal with. Real groups. Real ancestors. Watch what you say, keep an eye to documented sources, get sensitivity readers–and prepare to be excoriated anyway.

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Siiiighh. I will rewrite that book. It will be a thing. Just not any time soon.

But I digress: socks. I knit a pair out of 100% synthetic sock yarn, and lo, do I regret it. No fun to knit with, impossible to tension so the colorwork looks like crap, and they’re no fun to wear. I am getting rid of this garbage and going back to wool.

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Imbolc

Imbolc was earlier this week. It’s the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox–more often known as Groundhog’s Day, though it’s also called St. Brigid’s day. It’s supposed to mark the time the ewes begin to lactate before they lamb, and a general beginning of spring. St. Brigid–or the old goddess Brigid, if you prefer, which I do–is said to visit at this time, and if you leave a bed made up for her and something for her to eat, she’ll bless your house for the year to come.

We celebrated by making preparations for the growing season: clearing out lots of blackberry brambles, Scotch broom, crack willow, and hawthorn seedlings. When we first moved here we rolled our eyes a bit at the land’s apparent neglect by its previous owners…but after a year of watching things grow, we became more sympathetic. There is no dormant season here.

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Wordjoy: new in the notebook, January

Hello, all. My notebook has some new gems that make me weak in the knees every time I read over them, so I think it’s time for a Wordjoy. Here we go.

Bucking is a method of laundering clothes by layering them, covering them with a bucking-cloth to protect them from the layer of ashes you then shovel atop, and slowly pouring hot water over it all over a long period of time. The ashes turn the water into lye-water, which then bleaches and goes some way toward disinfecting the dirty laundry.

I had a lot of Thoughts about this because my first Thought was that that’s why linens were always undyed, before soap powder became easily available. Bucked linens were also washed with soap, or not, depending on what was available–but if only ashes were available, you can kiss your dye job goodbye.

My second thought was about a throwaway line I glanced at somewhere once. It said something about linen not taking natural dyes well. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It seems doubtful, but it would be an alternate explanation for why linens weren’t dyed.

I suspect people mostly didn’t want to go to the trouble. And I know linen will take oak-gall, because I’ve seen antique linens with the owner’s name signed in oak-gall ink.

Anyway…

A turve is a block of peat cut out of a peat-bog and burned for heat. I’ve been reading P.V. Glob’s book The Bog People, published in the 1960s, about bog bodies discovered in northern Europe. It inspired Seamus Heaney to write his bog poems, which are my absolute favorites.

When peat burns, it makes a strong smell called peat-reek, which permeates the homes, clothing, and food of people who burn it. Glob specifically says that the peaty flavor of Islay whiskey is peat-reek, so if you want to know what it’s like, grab a bottle of that.

(There are so many wonderful words associated with bogs and bog bodies and iron age peoples…torc, fen, cairn…)

A stickybeak is a busybody, always putting his or her nose in other people’s business.

To bruit is to spread rumors.

Mansuetude is gentleness of manner

Frondescence is a lovely word for leaves and foliage

To crepitate is to make crackling noises

A seiche is a phenomenon in which the level of a body of water fluctuates due to changing atmospheric pressure. This is not the same as a tide, which is caused by the position of the moon. Seiches can happen in lakes, bays, reservoirs, even swimming pools.

A tumpline is a padded band that is strapped to a heavy load and put over your forehead, so you can carry the load on your back and keep your hands free.

Lastly, kerf is the width of material a saw removes.

Wee green shoots of hope

Winter’s back breaks mid-January, here, and February 2 is a fair date for the beginning of spring. We’ve ordered seeds and mini-polytunnels, asparagus crowns and rhubarb plants. The ground is unfrozen, the rain is coming down, my iris are !still alive!, and perhaps most amazing of all, my hellebores are blooming. Hip hip for early flowers, hip hip indeed.

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Apple wassail

Our apple tree was good to us this year, so on January 17 we wassailed it, complete with wassail bowl (ale, spices, and sauce from the tree’s own apples) and traditional rhymes. I added the lanterns for flair–I knew I bought them for something.

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