January Flowers

I used to garden in a place with real winters. The ground froze and the garden was sealed under a foot or more of snow for several months. It was closed for the season. There was no question of any garden work during those months. The only thing to do was look at seed and plant catalogues and dream.

Here, winter is just a pause, not a shutdown. Today it’s 10 C (50 F). The only snow is on distant mountain peaks and the grass is green and wet. Everything is wet, and in fact there’s about as much garden work to do as in the frozen, snow-covered situation. I can’t even mow the grass, never mind dig or edge. Pruning may be done, but that’s about all. And starting seeds in the house, of course, but that’s not really a garden job, since it’s done inside.

But things are blooming — in January, one of the longest, coldest, darkest months of the year. When I moved back to the coast more than twenty years ago I couldn’t wait to install shrubs and other plants that would bloom in January.

First among them was a Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis). Unfortunately, the plant I ended up with, and possibly its location (in dry sandy soil, shaded by maples and an ailanthus much of the summer when the buds would be forming) has resulted in almost no bloom. Very disappointing. There have been only three years out of those twenty when it has produced any flowers at all. This is one of those years, why I’m not sure, because the conditions under which the plant is growing haven’t changed. Maybe last summer was perfect in some way. In any case, the little tree is in full bloom right now — not spectacularly, compared to better plants in happier situations, but better than no bloom at all.

Chinese Witch Hazel

Chinese Witch Hazel

The individual flowers are just thready wisps of yellow; you have to see hundreds of them at once to get the full effect, and they don’t photograph well when there are relatively few, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. There is a nice fragrance too, when there are enough flowers.

The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is also blooming well. It’s a semi-evergreen shrub that shoots out new branches all summer long. They quite often die inexplicably, so a good deal of pruning is needed to keep the plant looking tidy. The flowers are by no means showy, but the fragrance, especially in the evening, is something special — a lemony sweetness.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Another January-blooming plant that sends out an alluring fragrance at night is really a weed — the spurge laurel, Daphne laureola. It’s a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that self-seeds generously, so has become an invasive pest in woodlands here. I have a few of them around the edges of the garden, and as long as I pull up the dozens of seedlings they produce, I can enjoy the haunting perfume on damp winter evenings.

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Then there’s the Algerian iris (I. unguicularis). The foliage is messy, but the flowers are improbably gorgeous in January.

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

The Corsican hellebores are among the winter-blooming stalwarts in this garden, totally reliable, as are snowdrops.

Corsican hellebore

Corsican hellebore

Hellebore and Snowdrops

Hellebore and Snowdrops

My scraggly rosemary plant, which has put up with shade for twenty years of summers, blooms defiantly in January. I guess the absence of leaves on the maples in autumn enables it to set buds. The flowers are little pale blue things that would go unnoticed in summer.

Rosemary in bloom

Rosemary in bloom

And finally, another weedy plant with fragrant flowers — the modest violet. The perfume sneaks up and delivers a pleasant surprise when I’m standing around contemplating the garden on a January day.

Sweet Violets

Sweet Violets





Witch hazel, Winter honeysuckle, Spurge laurel, Hellebore, Snowdrops, Rosemary, Violets, Yellow crocuses, Iris unguicularis.

The Irascible Indie. Part 2: Unclassifiable?

Until now, I’ve had trouble answering the question, “What kind of books do you write?” As soon as I said, “Well, they’re not really mysteries. Or science fiction. Or thrillers. They’re sort of … different,” I knew I was in trouble. Writers are supposed to be able to tell people about their books in 25 words or less. Waffling around about what they’re not is pretty lame.

The trouble is, my books are in an awkward category. Or rather, they don’t sit squarely in any category. Calling them “literary supernatural” feels right to me. My settings are 98 percent realistic, my characters are fully developed and the plots are built around their interactions and conflicts. There are elements of the magical and the unexplained, but not enough to qualify for the “fantasy” or “paranormal” labels.

And I recently found this in Wikipedia: “Supernatural fiction continues to be popular, but because it is not simple to define and is not popularly understood, it is not used as a marketing category by publishers, booksellers, libraries, etc. When marketed, supernatural fiction is often classed as mainstream fiction, or is subsumed by other subgenres.”


Calling your book mainstream fiction is the kiss of death, I’m told. The advice is to pick a category (on Amazon, this is) not shared by thousands or tens of thousands of other books. Get specific. The trouble is, as noted in the Wikipedia entry quoted above, there is no category called Literary Supernatural. And of course “literary” comes with its own burden of perceptions — elitist, complicated and (worst of all) boring.

In fact the topic of book categories, especially on Amazon, is a popular one in the blogosphere, as authors try to figure out the optimal categories to maximize sales. Advice abounds, but somehow I’ve never managed to find the magic bullet (assuming one exists). After going through the available categories I settled on Literature and Fiction > Action & Adventure and Literature and Fiction > Literary > Psychological. I have no idea if different choices would have better results in terms of sales.

Which, of course, is a problem in itself.

I also have a small swarm of tags buzzing around the books, which do approximate their content, Here they are, in alpahbetical order (the most important ones in bold and/or UPPER CASE:
Acadians, alchemy, Arkham, artists, boys, Cape Cod, corpses, doctors, first person narrator, first world war, gay men, Gulf Islands, HERBERT WEST, journalists, librarians, miracles, Miskatonic University, Providence Rhode Island, psychological novels, raising the dead, reanimator, secrets, supernatural novels, tramp steamers, widows

And at least I’ve come up with the requisite 25-word description of my books:  psychological fiction about a man who can raise the dead — after a fashion. Why does he do it and where does it get him?

Ha! Twenty-four words!



How to “Writer”

Audrey Driscoll:

Here’s a great post on the whole How To Write Issue. And look for Part 2 of my Irascible Indie series next week!

Originally posted on Coolerbs Reviews:

For everyone who wants to be a writer, I present the honest answers to all of your questions:

Happy Writer

What are writers?

People who write words, preferably ones that chain together to mean something.

Can I become a writer?


Who can be a writer?


Writing Cat

Is (blank) a writer?

Does that person write words? If so, then yes.

How do I become a writer? 


What do writers do?


How do I become a professional writer?

Write for free until someone offers to pay you for it. Then, write for them.

Does writing take practice?

Yes. Everything takes practice.

Do writers make a lot of money?


Empty Wallet

Will I become a professional writer?

Statistically? Probably not.

Do I need to write every day?

You don’t need to, but I recommend it.

Do writers need to read books?

Yes, constantly. How do you think we manage to get all…

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The Irascible Indie. Part 1: Writing By Feel, or Why I Hate Reading “How To Write” Books

As I read blog posts and discussions by writers, both indie and trad, I notice recurring topics: It’s not enough to write your book and put it out there. Your book will not sell itself. Writing is a business. You must know your market. You must position your book in the correct category. You must use social media. And so on.

While I recognize the value of this advice, inevitably, I consider, mull over and often question. I thought I would turn my musings into blog fodder. The result is a series of posts about “writing right.” Not so much the writing, but the presentation — of both the writer and the written works. I admit I often have a contrarian reaction to advice. Maybe it’s just a reflex reaction; maybe it’s because I’m sort of lazy (I considered calling this series The Indolent Indie). Does that mean I’m a (gulp) Bad Writer?

So here goes —

Part 1: Writing By Feel.

Confession: I have never taken any courses in “creative writing.” But I have written all my life — essays in school, term papers in university, memos, reports and documentation at work, a journal for many years, hundreds of blog posts and five (soon to be six, I hope) novels, four of which I have published.

I often end up arguing with the advice given by “how to write” books and falling into “angry child” mode (kicking and screaming — metaphorically, of course). It’s possible I secretly fear that my writing won’t be good enough, that I won’t be able to incorporate all the advice, and therefore FAIL.

Selling one’s writing may be a business, but creating it should not become an arena of failure. Writing should flow, not jerk along with the writer consulting a handbook between paragraphs and questioning the correctness of every sentence. (All right, it may help to bring the book out at the editing/rewriting stage, but first drafting goes best when it’s unfettered).

I also resist a formulaic approach to writing, given the huge element of subjectivity in how it’s judged by any individual reader. (Readers vary tremendously; consider the difference between a casual reader, a critique group member, an editor, reviewer or writing teacher. Each of them reads for a different reason, which colours their evaluation of a piece.)

Consider too that reading books about writing may be a great way to avoid doing any writing yourself. There are so many of these books you can’t hope to read them all, which means you may never set pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys).

But then there’s Stephen King’s On Writing. I did read that. Unlike many of King’s novels, it’s a slender little book. Far from provoking my usual cranky reaction, it inspired me to start writing. It was magical — suddenly this thing I thought was impossible was the only thing to do. But then, I’ve been a fan of King’s writing for decades. In fact, reading and re-reading his novels (and those of other authors) helped me learn how to write.

That’s the thing: I believe the best way to make yourself into a good writer is to read — read A LOT — feel intensely, fall in love with an idea, a plot, a character, and WRITE. Then find a group of people (maybe writers) you trust, who will read your work and tell you what they think. Then rewrite (or not!). Keep doing all this stuff long enough, and you will probably produce at least something worthwhile. But don’t rush to publish prematurely. It’s better to take longer and produce a really good piece of writing than to quickly crank out a bunch of mediocre efforts. Setting a manuscript aside for a few months is a good idea too; you will return to it with the sort of objectivity that leads to improvement.

Time for writing is so precious, I hate to waste any of it reading “how to write” books. Okay, maybe if I was between writing projects, with time to spare, a book about writing written in a style I find engaging might be worth reading. Not as a paint-by-numbers manual, but as something that could be stashed in the brain attic to mingle with all the other stuff up there, possibly to improve my next writing effort without my even realizing it.

The Perils of Plant Protection

Living on the climatically fortunate west coast of Canada, I haven’t paid much attention to winter protection for plants. OK, I’ve wrapped up a big pot containing a dahlia, and moved pelargoniums (“geraniums”) inside for the winter, but for the most part I haven’t worried about winter survival.

Until now. A couple of years ago, my pink gauras failed to sprout in spring after a colder than normal period in February. A year or so later, I lost even the white (presumably tougher) gauras and feared for the survival of a blue Convolvulus. Fortunately the Convolvulus survived, but took its time sprouting out, not emerging until June.

What was going on here? Gauras (also called Lindheimer’s beeblossom) are supposedly hardy to Zone 6, and my place is safely in Zone 8. It wasn’t “wet feet,” either; my soil is as close to sand as it can be this side of a beach, and the drainage is excellent. Not knowing the reason for these losses, I now fret about plant survival every time the temperature descends to -5 C (23 F). That’s happened twice already this winter, and both times saw me racing around with wads of hay to snuggle around any plant I thought might be vulnerable. That includes the aforementioned Convolvulus and a batch of new seed-grown gauras in little pots huddled next to the house wall.

The trouble is, here a cold snap is reliably followed by a rebound into wet and relatively warm — what we call a “pineapple express.” The temperature rises to 10 degrees (50 F) or more, and it rains and rains. The hay mulch gets wet and soggy and packs down over the plants it’s meant to protect. This may not be a problem when the plant is fully dormant, with no top growth, but the gauras and Convolvulus still had some green leaves when I covered them. Unless I rush out and remove the mulch when it warms up and starts to rain, suffocation and rot might kill the plants as surely as the cold would have.

I’m beginning to think the hands-off approach might be better. Once I’ve situated the plants in the right sort of place, they should be able to cope with conditions in the full range of “normal.” If they’re too fussy and delicate to do that, let ‘em die.

But those gauras are so elegant and graceful. They bloom for months and are drought-tolerant. I hope my little plants make it to spring, either because or in despite of my efforts.

Gaura lindheimeri (from Wikimedia Commons)

Gaura lindheimeri (from Wikimedia Commons)


9 Ways to Make Your Self-Published Book Look More Professional

Audrey Driscoll:

I went through this process recently with the first book in my series and can attest to all these points. My font of choice is Bookman Old Style; it’s eminently readable even at 10 pt or less. Something I didn’t do but should have was to request a proof copy and *read* it before finalizing the setup. Guaranteed you’ll catch a few tiny but oh-so-irritating errors that way. (Of course it makes the whole process take considerably longer, which is why I skipped it).

Originally posted on Michelle Proulx -- The Website:

In my continuing attempts to promote and improve the self-publishing scene, today I present a handful of helpful tips you can use to make your self-published print book look more professional. These tips have been compiled via examining multiple traditionally published books and comparing them to the collection of self-published books I’ve acquired over the years. Read and enjoy!

Note: I’ve used my own book for all the examples below, as copyright law is confusing and I don’t want anyone to sue me.

#1: Formatting your page numbers

Step 1: Page numbers should begin on the first page of your story. This means Chapter 1. If you have a prologue, use Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, etc.). Do not start page numbers on the very first page of the book (i.e. the title page).

page number 1Step 2: Page numbers should end once the story is over. You…

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A Strange Parallel

A weirdly entertaining notion occurred to me recently — Robinson Jeffers and H.P. Lovecraft, two of my favourite authors, have something (else) in common. Surprising, because in most ways they are very different. They were contemporaries, however: Jeffers was born in 1887, Lovecraft in 1890.

Robinson Jeffers was a poet, educated in the classical tradition. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of “pulp” fiction who did not graduate from high school. Until his reputation declined in the 1940s, Jeffers mixed with well-known literati and was one of the first poets to make the cover of Time Magazine; H.P.L. had a devoted circle of friends among aficionados of the weird, but was otherwise unknown until well after his death in 1937.

But did they share a philosophy?

“Inhumanism” is a term coined by Jeffers for his outlook on the relative unimportance of human beings compared to the natural world in which they are contained — the “divine beauty of things.” The characters of his long, novel-like poems play out their struggles against the magnificent background of the California coast. Jeffers contrasts the sordid or futile passions of his people with the serene indifference of their natural setting. These few lines from Cawdor, in which the life-force of an eagle rises from the place of its death to transcend space and time, show something of Jeffers’s attitude:

“It saw men learn to outfly the hawk’s brood and forget it again; it saw men cover the earth and again

Devour each other and hide in caverns, be scarce as wolves. It neither wondered nor cared, and it saw

Growth and decay alternate forever, and the tides returning.”

H. P. Lovecraft professed no religion and considered himself a scientifically-minded, rational materialist. In his fictional world, alien entities coexist with humanity in a state of perfect indifference. The city of R’lyeh rises from the deep ocean in response to cosmic forces to disclose the monstrous entity Cthulhu, who has lain “dead but dreaming,” for eons. The terror felt by human witnesses to this rising is incidental, a characteristic of being human, but of no significance whatsoever to the inhuman entity. In other stories, such as “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” Lovecraft posits million-year cycles of inhuman civilizations that preceded us and will follow us; in other words, human history and civilization are insignificant blips in the grand scheme of things.

The common theme, then, is one of puny human lives played out against the background of an indifferent cosmos. Both Jeffers and Lovecraft referred to astronomy in their works; indeed, Lovecraft as a boy was a keen amateur astronomer. Both were aware of scientific reasons for relegating humanity to a small, insignificant corner of a universe more mind-bogglingly vast than anyone had ever imagined. I have no doubt this formed the basis for their philosophies, but what is really interesting is the different ways these ideas manifested in the poems of Jeffers and the stories of H.P.L.

Contrast the lines from Jeffers I quoted above with the following from “The Call of Cthulhu,” probably the most representative of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” stories: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Jeffers, contemplating humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos, spins images that are often bleak but uplifting. Lovecraft, from the same starting point, creates visions of cosmic horror. Jeffers identifies with the greater world, viewing humanity from a distant perspective, while Lovecraft is on the ground, watching the monster loom over him even as he realizes this is the way things must be.

In any case, I have found both these authors eminently worth reading.


Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

First, a disclaimer: Not being a book blogger, I decided to confine my book “reviews,” such as they are, to Goodreads, and to focus on books by indie authors. Maplecroft is published by one of the Big 5 and is by a well-known author. But it does fall into the category of science fiction called “Lovecraftian.” Miskatonic University (a venue frequented by one Herbert West, who is near and dear to me) is mentioned. Lizzie Borden meets the Deep Ones! I couldn’t resist.

The plot in brief: after being acquitted of the charge of murdering her father and stepmother, Lizzie Borden is living in seclusion with her sister Emma in a mansion known as Maplecroft near the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Emma is a learned marine biologist dying of consumption (tuberculosis) and Lizzie has a laboratory in the cellar. The house is occasionally visited by creatures reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones” (from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) that Lizzie valiantly dispatches with her axe. This already sinister situation becomes potentially catastrophic when Emma sends a sample of a marine creature found on the seashore near Maplecroft to Professor Phillip Zollicoffer at Miskatonic University. The sample has unique qualities which transform the professor into something weird and dangerous. Meanwhile, residents of Fall River begin to show symptoms of a strange affliction which flummoxes the local doctor, Owen Seabury. The doctor and the Borden sisters end up joining forces (sort of) to figure out the nature of what they call the Problem — the mysterious disease and the threat posed by Zollicoffer. Much mayhem ensues.

My review: Priest’s vigorous prose carries the plot along, despite bogging down at intervals in patches of intense description of actions, emotions and thoughts. Dr. Owen Seabury and Emma Borden are the only well-rounded characters with any hope of being sympathetic. Lizzie (sometimes called Lizbeth) is curiously limited. I did not find myself caring much about her, possibly because when presented with any challenge at all, her first choice is to grab her axe and go after it at a full run. After two or three of these episodes, I got bored. Lengthy and detailed descriptions of physical actions, even those resulting in splattery destruction of eldritch entities, rapidly become a chore to read. But Lizzie is certainly different from the usual Lovecraft protagonist, who at the climactic scene tends to lose consciousness or flee.

The various theories to explain the weird phenomena, however — those are quite interesting, and I wish the author had spent more effort developing them. As does yet another character who appears at intervals — one Inspector Simon Wolf from Boston. The agency he represents is quite mysterious, and I suspect readers will see more of him as the series continues. The Lovecraftian elements, namely the bizarre creatures of marine origin and the professor from Miskatonic, are handled well by Priest. The unfortunate Doctor Phillip Zollicoffer (love that name!) has a deadly charm quite in keeping with his origins. The ultimate threat, apparently resident in the deep ocean, is appropriately huge, formless and terrifying (and probably acquainted with Cthulhu).

The narration is uniformly in the first person, but the characters take turns doing the narrating. The Borden sisters and Dr. Seabury are the primary voices, with telling contributions by Prof. Zollicoffer and cameo appearances several others. I have no trouble with this kind of thing and followed the storyline throughout, but some readers may find it annoying or confusing.

I have to mention a few things I found annoying or that simply didn’t work for me: first, the character Nance O’Neil (an actress who is based, like the Borden sisters, on an actual person). She is Lizzie’s lover, for whose sake Lizzie is prepared to do almost anything. The trouble is, the degree of that devotion comes as a surprise about halfway through the book; at the beginning there is no sense that Lizzie is pining for her company, and when Nance arrives uninvited for an extended visit, Lizzie’s main concern is to keep her out of the cellar which houses the laboratory and some other interesting things. Their relationship never feels real. Second — the laboratory. Emma is the scientist, but has never set foot in the place. Lizzie’s focus of interest is folklore and spells found in old books, so why does she need a laboratory? Third: lye plays an important role in a crucial scene near the end. Despite the lip-service paid to science throughout the book, the lye solution is at one point said to produce a “deadly acid spray.” Huh? Lye is a strong base, quite the opposite of acid. An important detail that should have been caught.

Altogether, this was a compelling read. It’s quite clear there will be more books in a series called the Borden dispatches, which may account for the absence of a real solution to the Problem in this one. I can definitely recommend it to readers with a taste for the weird and violent.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Garden in 2014: a backward look at year’s end

The year began with a seriously cold period in early February that caused great anxiety in the gardener, who hadn’t provided wraps and covers for the most tender plants. Fretting lasted well into spring. Did the last Gaura lindheimeri perish? Yes. What about Convolvulus sabatius, the charming blue relative of the hated bindweed? For a long time it seemed so, but on the first of June a sprout emerged.

Convolvulus sabatius in September 2013

Convolvulus sabatius in September 2013

After putting on a pleasing show in 2013 the blue poppies failed to bloom. Lots of leaves, no flower stalks. Was it because of the cold in February, which delayed sprouting out? Or the gardener’s failure to supply extra nutrients, especially considering that the plants grow on top of the roots of a large magnolia. These poppies refuse to compete with roots. They would rather die, and there’s every chance they will not appear next spring.

Not this year!

Not this year!

Then came a warm, dry summer. Not hot, but definitely warm. It was a great summer for tomatoes. By September the ten plants in large pots were producing well — nice ripe tomatoes.

Perfect Tomatoes!

Perfect Tomatoes!

Roses did well too — the anonymous pinky-white climber slung over one of the Norway maples, and even Fragrant Cloud, which got deer-chomped in 2013.

Climbing rose in maple

Climbing rose in maple

Rose "Fragrant Cloud"

Rose “Fragrant Cloud”

Deer were not much of a factor this year, after being a huge one in 2012 and 2013. The flimsy deer fence put up at their preferred entry point did the trick, but more fundamentally this area seems no longer to be on their route. Even so, a couple of hostas, formerly large and prosperous, were not helped by being chomped just as they were dealing with what must be a fresh invasion of maple roots into their bed.

Asters did especially well, especially the two large clumps of a purple variety (name unknown) in the front garden.

One of the better scenes in the front garden this year

One of the better scenes in the front garden this year

In late September was the Coming of the Dog — Nelly the Newfoundland puppy.

Nelly 2014

The back garden is now a maze of small fences intended to prevent casual incursions. They seem to be working, but give the place an odd look. It remains to be seen how garden work will go in the vicinity of these barriers.

December 26, 2014

December 26,2014

But the Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) has set more buds than it has ever managed to before. Some of them are preparing to open, unfurling threads of yellow.

Witch hazel buds

Witch hazel buds

…a Champion Simian among Simians… Written Acts of Kindness Award… the Storyreading Ape…

Audrey Driscoll:

2014 was a lucky year for me because I discovered the most deserving of Literary Apes. Congratulations, Chris! And good on you, Seumas, for bestowing the award.

Originally posted on Seumas Gallacher:


…many times growing up this ol’ Jurassic has been accused of indulging in ‘monkey business’… but, none of it was even within an orangutan’s reach of the type of constant positive activity indulged by today’s recipient of the Written Acts of Kindness Award

Written Acts of Kindness Award

…indeed, his outreach to others who practise our quill-scraping gig is right up there among the best supporters we Authors could ever wish for… the Storyreading Ape, whose ‘Clark-Kent-type-alter-ego’ disguises himself in human form as Chris Graham… the Ape reblogs… the Ape refers articles… the Ape prompts indies.. the Ape guides scribblers toward sensible sharing stuff from a huge range of other writers on the internet… in fact the Ape is the best kinda Guerrilla Gorilla on behalf of so many of us… yeez can follow the Ape here:

Blog              : thestoryreadingapeblog.com

Twitter        …

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