the-herbert-west-series2

The Supplements Are Live!

The first three Supplements to the Herbert West Series are now available on Amazon.

These short pieces explore side-paths not pursued in the novels, or fill in chronological gaps.

 

Supplement 1. The Nexus

Supplement 1. The Nexus

Nearing the end of his long life, Miskatonic University professor Augustus Quarrington retraces the path to his entanglement with one of his most interesting – and dangerous – students: Herbert West.

 

Herbert West Series supplement 2

Herbert West Series supplement 2

Miskatonic University librarian Charles Milburn was Herbert West’s assistant and closest friend. He has already revealed much about their association in The Friendship of Mortals. But not everything. This is the part he left out.

 

Herbert West Series supplement 3

Herbert West Series supplement 3

Reformed necromancer Francis Dexter (formerly known as Herbert West) and his servant Andre Boudreau visit Luxor, Egypt in the year 1935. A climb up el-Qurn, the sacred mountain behind the Valley of the Kings, leads to an encounter with bandits, and with one who “was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh.”

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The Fall of the Year

This is my favourite time of year — the months of September, October and even November. And yes, I usually call it Fall, not Autumn. Apparently this is a bit of a dilemma for us Canadians. As the article says, “autumn,” in conversation anyway, sounds a bit pretentious to my ear. Like so many English words, these came to the language from two sources — “autumn” apparently from Etruscan via Latin, and “fall” from a Germanic source (although in German, the season is “Herbst,” from words relating to “harvest”).

OK, “fall” sounds a bit blunt. “The fall of the year,” however, sounds poetic, elegiac and exactly right for this season of downgoing.

Anyway, now that the days are warm instead of hot, and we’ve had a little rain, and the late-blooming flowers are out in force, I’ve been running around the garden, snapping pictures. They’re the same scenes I’ve delighted in photographing for years, but when I see the witch hazel turning rusty gold, and a haze of purple asters with contrasting pink nerines, I can’t resist doing it again.

Pond area, late afternoon.

Pond area, late afternoon.

 

Purple aster, nerines and senecio.

Purple aster, nerines and senecio.

 

"Pink Cloud" aster and fading peony foliage.

“Pink Cloud” aster and fading peony foliage.

 

Nerines, plumbago and senecio foliage.

Nerines, plumbago and senecio foliage.

 

Plumbago and santolina.

Plumbago and santolina.

 

"Monch" aster, blue fescue and "Jack Frost" brunnera.

“Monch” aster, blue fescue and “Jack Frost” brunnera.

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Vampires, Heavy Metal and — Marionettes? : C Harrison’s We Are Toten Herzen and The One Rule of Magic

The explosion of books by indie authors has created an embarrassment of riches for readers. There’s no reason not to venture out of one’s comfort genre and read something unfamiliar. I’m not a fan of rock music, and haven’t been too taken by vampires in fiction either, but Chris Harrison’s blog, The Opening Sentence, opened the way to an interesting reading experience. His Smashwords interview is also worth reading.

we-are-toten-herzen

Harrison has written several books about the mysterious heavy metal band called Toten Herzen. The first in the series is We Are Toten Herzen. Here is the plot summary:

In 1977 all four members of the rock band Toten Herzen were murdered. Thirty five years later an investigation by British music journalist Rob Wallet led him to discover the band still alive in a remote village in southern Germany. He persuaded them to make a comeback. Hoax or strange reality? Find out in the only official account of Toten Herzen’s long awaited reappearance.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Well, it isn’t. The narrative swirls from place to place and decade to decade. A scene in which the reader is closeted with the band members (three formidable women and one understated guy), is followed by a flurry of tweets and news reports. Twenty-first century music biz honchos have to work out a modus operandi with folks from the 1970s who are pretty touchy about criticism and have their own ways of getting things done — ways that aren’t always pretty. Then there are flashbacks to the band members’ origins and the forces that created Toten Herzen. Rumors abound and tension builds as the first concert of the comeback tour approaches.

Harrison creates memorable scenes with masterly prose and what seems to be a thorough knowledge of the music business. I have to say, I didn’t find the characters terribly likable (they’re definitely not “sparkly” vampires), but they are certainly not cardboard cutouts. Rob Wallet, sometime journalist and general hanger-on, is an odd duck. He has clearly thrown in his lot with the band, but isn’t really “of” them. For the reader, he serves as a point of view character, furnishing “insider” views of the secretive, night-loving band. At times I found myself thinking he was a fictional version of the author, making an appearance in his own book the way Alfred Hitchcock used to show up in his movies. (But I may be wrong).

the-one-rule-of-magic

Curiouser and (to me) more entertaining, is The One Rule of Magic, a book whose main character has something in common with the members of Toten Herzen, and inhabits the same world (she’s a friend of Rob Wallet’s), but is engaged in a different sort of comeback.

Here is the plot summary:

Frieda Schoenhofer is dead, murdered in Rotterdam. For her grief-stricken parents the true story of their daughter’s life is about to begin.

Her father, slowly demolishing the world around him, tries to eradicate painful memories by throwing out his lifelong collection of film memorabilia. Her mother is convinced Frieda has been reincarnated as a new born foal.

But Frieda isn’t dead. She is travelling Europe hoping to rescue her father’s discarded collection. A journey of redemption that takes her to Nice, Prague, Turin and Vienna, where she meets a crooked dealer in antique silverware, joins a funeral party full of mourners who can’t stop laughing, falls in love with a beautiful marionette, and discovers a plan to destroy the legacy of Mozart.

The One Rule of Magic explores Frieda’s attempts to make amends for the crimes of her old life, come to terms with what she has become, and prepare her parents for the bizarre truth surrounding their daughter’s disappearance.

The book is charming as well as bizarre. Frieda’s quest for her father’s film memorabilia takes her to a variety of places and situations, some of them dire and others just weird. I found it a bit odd that anyone should pursue relentlessly things like hats, overalls and model skeletons, but of course it’s obsession that drives the serious collector, or, in this case, the collector-by-proxy. The items had all appeared in well-known movies, and were unique. Frieda’s odyssey started to intrigue me; by the time she hit Prague I had warmed up to her and sympathized with her mission. A surprise twist near the end provided extra payoff for reading this book.

 

 

Covers Revealed!

Here are cover images for three short fiction pieces related to the Herbert West Series. I designed these images myself, using Canva, which has been dubbed “The easiest to use design program in the world.” Not having used any other such programs (unless you count Microsoft Paint), I can’t verify that, but I was able to produce what I consider usable images with Canva, after a short and not too steep learning curve.

Each image is followed by its book description, and then my comments on how I put it together, for what they’re worth. Keep in mind that these are simple images to accompany brief, simple stories, and I’m a total amateur when it comes to design.

 

Herbert West Series supplement 1

Supplement 1. The Nexus

Nearing the end of his long life, Miskatonic University professor Augustus Quarrington retraces the path to his entanglement with one of his most interesting – and dangerous – students: Herbert West.

The narrator is an alchemist as well as a professor, and Miskatonic U is famous for weird goings-on, so the alchemical symbol for sulfur is a good motif for this image. The moody blue background and twisty shape in purple say “supernatural,” and the intricate gold frame hints at complications. The line of green diamonds complements the other colours and finishes the image. The gold line with circle ends is an ornament I find visually pleasing. Rotating line elements to a vertical position makes them usable in ways other than the obvious.

 

Herbert West Series supplement 2

Herbert West Series supplement 2

Supplement 2. From the Annexe

Miskatonic University librarian Charles Milburn was Herbert West’s assistant and closest friend. He has already revealed much about their association in The Friendship of Mortals. But not everything. This is the part he left out.

This is an addendum to The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel of the Herbert West Series. It explores an aspect of the relationship between the two main characters that was hinted at but not developed in that book. The relationship is, of course, a romantic one. Romantic but not terribly happy. Thus the same moody blue background and purple twisty shape, overlaid with a caduceus (to represent Herbert West as a physician) and a misty pink transparency of a rose (a photo of a rose in my garden). I added the drops of blood (free from Canva) to counteract the pink sweetness and hint at troubles. Another line, this time of pink triangles, provides the finishing touch.

 

Herbert West Series supplement 3

Herbert West Series supplement 3

Supplement 3. A Visit to Luxor

Reformed necromancer Francis Dexter (formerly known as Herbert West) and his servant Andre Boudreau visit Luxor, Egypt in the year 1935. A climb up el-Qurn, the sacred mountain behind the Valley of the Kings, leads to an encounter with bandits, and with one who “was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh.”

In this case, the background is weathered stone (rather than blue-tinted concrete) to represent Egyptian antiquities, with an excerpt from the Papyrus of Ani (from Wikimedia Commons) and a cobra shape (from Pixabay), because the story contains references to cobras. The lines of blue squares and the gold and blue twisty shapes say “ancient Egypt.” The line of green triangles (pyramids) at the bottom is another gesture to “Egypt” (although there are no pyramids at Luxor). The reversed green triangles at the top fill up some empty space and enclose the whole thing.

This was the first story for which I did a Canva design, so I ended up with multiple versions as I learned how to put elements together, move them around, etc. Once I worked up images for the other two stories, I decided I wanted the three to have a “family resemblance,” created by the twisty background shapes, the fonts for title, author and subtitle/series and the use of horizontal lines of geometric shapes. Here are two of the early versions of the image for this story.

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OK, the snake is a rattler, not a cobra, and the columns (hinting at Karnak) are actually a bar graph dressed up with different lines and fragments from the Papyrus of Ani. I added the pyramid shape as a unifying element that says “Egypt” if not “Luxor.”

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This one features a photo (from Wikimedia Commons) of el-Qurn, the pyramid-shaped peak behind the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, with an image of a carved pharaoh (from Canva’s image database) embedded. Then there’s a transparent overlay of another photo, actually of a railway station interior (free from Canva), to add texture and that radiating effect, and a transparent pyramid shape as well. The “rising sun” thing at the bottom fills up space and adds yellow to balance the title colour. I was quite pleased with this assemblage, but abandoned it in favour of the one with the “series look.”

Fonts

I regularly peruse the Monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards at the Book Designer website. From the comments on submitted cover images, I gather that fonts are a weak spot in DIY cover designs. So I’m a bit uneasy about my font choices for these images. I selected from the ones available on Canva, rather than looking more widely. I settled on a font called “Sunday” for the titles, “Sacramento” for the subtitles and series statements, and something called “IM Fell English Small Caps” for the author name. There are probably better choices (“Sacramento” isn’t the most legible, especially in smaller and thumbnail-sized images), but I found these visually pleasing.

Oh yes…

In case you’re wondering, all three stories are available as pre-orders on Amazon, for an October 1st release date.

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Finding Your Inner Designer With Canva

Cover images are one of the weak spots of self-published ebooks. Indie authors are encouraged to obtain professionally designed covers to make their books look professionally published. The trouble is, good designs aren’t cheap. You can settle for cheaper images that may look cheap. Or you can buy graphic design software and learn how to use it. Or you can experiment with Canva.

I tried Canva when I decided to publish three short fiction pieces related to my main book series. I did not think they warranted the cost of professionally designed covers. Basic Canva is free, so I decided to see what I could do with it. Good, fast, cheap — pick two.

The basic tools are quite easy to use. There is a database of photos, images, shapes, lines and text aids, as well as a catalogue of pre-configured layouts you can modify. I didn’t bother with those; I had my own ideas about what elements I wanted in my images, so I stuck with assembling them myself.

So, keeping in mind that I am the rankest of amateurs, here is how you can design an ebook cover image with Canva.

  1. Think simple and abstract. Don’t try to reproduce a scene or paste together a whole lot of images representing your characters or plot elements. Boil it down to a single image, colour palette and layout.
  2. Select a background. Backgrounds provide colour and texture. Texture is a subtle but crucial element that makes the difference between amateurish and polished effects. Canva has a huge repertoire of background images, ranging from stormy skies to lemon slices or coffee beans to grungy paper, rusty metal or concrete wall closeups. The neat thing is you can change your background at any time, but the other elements and colours you use have to play well with the background, so it’s best to settle on one early in the process.
  3. Practice working with layered images. Learn which ones allow changes to colours and degree of transparency and apply them before or after the ones you can’t modify that way, depending on the effects you want to achieve. Using transparency and layering is another key factor in designing effective images. Be aware that the more interrelated layers you pile up, the messier things get if you want to make changes. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as messy as working with real paint, glue, etc.
  4. Don’t underestimate the Lines and Shapes (in the Elements section). They can be used to create quite complex, textured effects by rotating, layering and using transparency. And most of them are free.
  5. Text is best added after the pictorial elements are complete. It’s not usually a good idea to apply layers over text (unless you’re doing it to create an effect). If you decide to remove a layer or two from under text and replace them with something new, the something new will overlay your title.
  6. There is a wealth of free images (especially the Lines and Shapes), but the better backgrounds cost $1 for each use. Note: you pay for the non-free elements only when you are finished with an image and want to download it. The Canva watermark is removed at that point. You have 24 hours to make any changes to that image; if you make a change after that, you have to pay for the non-free elements again when you download the altered image.
  7. You can find images and effects by plugging words into a search box. Each element is tagged, some with dozens of terms, so you never know what a search will retrieve. Example: search on “blob” to find amorphous shapes that can be used for texturing and splatter/scribble effects. Each element has a little “i” you can click on to find out what it is and what keywords have been applied to it.
  8. You can upload your own photos or images you obtain elsewhere and use them in your designs. The usual copyright considerations apply, of course. The image elements you pay for are licensed to you by Canva.
  9. The Help function is pretty helpful.
  10. You can take mini-courses focussing on different aspects of designing with Canva. Have I done that? Only the first couple, but it’s good to know they’re there.

I designed the featured image for this post in a couple of hours, using a $1 background, a “line” which is actually a very useful twisty shape, a “blob,” a fancy circular shape, and two text fonts. Total cost: $1. (The Mercury symbol in the middle is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons that I added to my uploads on Canva).

In the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a “cover reveal” of the images I designed for the three stories I plan to publish in October.

A final word of warning — learning how to use Canva and fiddling around with it can eat up hours. And not because it’s hard or frustrating, but just because there are so many things to fiddle with, and it’s fun.

Aster frikartii "Monch"

Plants on the Move

Fall is a time for migrations. OK, plants don’t usually pull up their roots and go south for the winter, but this is an excellent time for gardeners to shift or divide the plants in their gardens. A week and a half ago, just before some scheduled minor surgery, I carried out a couple of projects.

Project #1. Quite a few of my plants have moved at least once since they came to this garden — usually in search of sunnier spots with fewer tree roots competing for water and nutrients. Earlier this year I made a list of Plants That Need To Be Moved. The demise of an old lavender shrub in the sunniest perennial bed was a blessing. I have a replacement, grown from a cutting, but I’ll have to find a different spot for it, because its former location — a space about the size of a bath mat — presented an opportunity to re-home almost the entire list.

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

 

Another view of the possibilities.

Another view of the possibilities.

The spot now accommodates two nameless yellow and white late-blooming iris, two purple Siberian iris, one Geranium “Johnson’s Blue,” one blue veronica, one Astrantia major, one Potentilla tonguei, and one small stem of Sedum “Bertram Anderson.”

Transplants settling in to their new space.

Transplants settling in to their new space.

OK, I know I’ve jammed too many plants into this spot. But consider: the irises are skinny and are cuddled up against a tall aster (whose bare legs are visible in the photo) that has attained its full growth for the year. And the other plants are undersized due to having endured poor conditions in their old spots, and will take a while to plump up. At that point, some adjustments will be needed. Those adjustments are an important part of gardening, so I’m just ensuring I’ll have something to do in a year or two. A thought occurred to me the other day: There is no point in having a garden, except to have an arena in which to do the activities that constitute gardening. (I’m speaking here of ornamental gardening, of course; growing food is another matter altogether).

Project #2. Several years ago, I prepared a small bed under a magnolia for a planting of Meconopsis X “Lingholm” (or, at any event, plants grown from seed collected from a known specimen of “Lingholm”).

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

The blue poppies bloomed well that spring, but since then have done poorly. I decided to dig up the plants, improve the soil and replant.

My estimation of the survival abilities of my Meconopsis plants has greatly increased, after removing 2 cubic feet of loofah-like magnolia feeding roots from the bed and the root balls of every one of the seven surviving blue poppies. I replaced the removed roots with an equal amount of nicely rotted compost. Most of the Meconopsis look better already, and I hope all seven will sprout out and bloom next spring. Transplanting in fall usually means you have to wait until the following spring to see real results.

 

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In the meantime, I’m forbidden to do any real digging, root ball wrestling or lugging buckets full of compost for the next few weeks, so the only thing to do is admire the new plantings, make more lists, and hope.

 

Fruits with stickers

Fruit Stickers are Forever

I hate those little plastic stickers applied to individual fruits for inventory and retail purposes.

Why? Because they last forever, like all plastics. Even after years of being moved from the compost heap to the garden, being raked up with fallen leaves or other debris, put back in the compost, redistributed to the garden, there they are, good as new, winking up at me from the soil. I found one today while in the throes of digging up the Meconopsis bed (more about that in a future post). It had to be several years old, but if I had rinsed off the dirt, it would have been pristine.

Old sticker found while digging.

Old sticker found while digging.

Continuing to put them in the heap would lead to an ever-increasing accumulation. Once I realized this, I banned stickers from the compost pail in the kitchen. Of course, it’s only the fruits whose peels are removed before eating that contribute to this problem — bananas, oranges, melons and avocados. Peeling stickers off apples, oranges and bananas is easy, even when there are multiple stickers on one wretched banana — even organic ones, which is especially offensive. Tomatoes, nectarines and other fruits with delicate skins are not so easy to de-sticker, although the fuzz on peaches seems to prevent them from sticking as well, which means they’re easier to peel. (Another point in favour of eating peaches in season).

Peach with sticker

Once peeled, the stickers present another problem — how to dispose of them? I used to put them in the garbage, but reasoned that since I lug my soft plastics to a recycling depot (and pay a small fee to deposit them), it made sense to include the pesky stickers. So now I stick them together in clumps and put them in the soft plastics bag. Or stick them to other things in said bag. Given the small size of these little nuisances, they may very well end up in a waterway or the ocean, contributing to the problems created by micro-plastics. Melting them down and turning them into something else is the only sensible solution.

There are ways to avoid the damn things. Grow your own fruit, or buy exclusively from farmers’ markets. Trouble is, there aren’t too many banana and orange farmers in Canada. I understand there are people who collect fruit stickers, sort of like stamp collectors collect stamps. Or others who use them as little blobs of colour to create art. If you can believe this. But even those folks must have hit the “No more stickers, please!” point by now.

I’m not the only gardener/consumer to be annoyed by fruit stickers. A thorough discussion may be found here. I’m just surprised a biodegradable alternative hasn’t been found yet. Even fast food chains have almost eliminated plastic from their products. Fruit is supposed to be healthier than hamburgers and french fries, so why can’t fruit producers get their act together?