Month: March 2013

The Garden in March: Wild Times

Considering that this garden is situated in an old, established suburb only a few kilometers from downtown, there is a surprisingly large population of wildlife.

The Buck is back.

The Buck is back.

Yes, it’s the same buck as last March, with an injured foreleg. It seems the injury is permanent, but it doesn’t stop him from jumping fences and finding plants to eat, leading to desperate measures.

Hyacinths blooming under chicken wire

Hyacinths blooming under chicken wire

Bergenia bloom stalk with onion bag

Bergenia bloom stalk with onion bag

Otherwise, there are the usual wonderful things.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Clematis armandii in a holly bush

Clematis armandii in a holly bush

Violets and Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)

Violets and Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)

This is an odd combination, but quite colourful. The violets have spread throughout the garden and the scent can be overwhelming on a warm spring day. The buck likes them too, but they are tough and don’t seem to mind being nibbled.

Standardized Privets repotted

Standardized Privets repotted

I replaced the terra cotta pots with plastic ones that should hold up better when the plants get knocked over by strong winds.

Blue Poppy growing nicely

Blue Poppy growing nicely

Note the deer-nipped crocus foliage. Fortunately, they have no taste for Meconopsis.

And finally…

Raccoons on shed roof

Raccoons on shed roof

These guys aren’t just cuddling, which means there will be more of them rampaging around the garden, dumping rocks into the pond, digging holes and peeling shingles off the shed roof (which is what they were doing before this).

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Flashing Back (Again)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about flashbacks in fiction, opining that they are useful but best used sparingly and with specific purposes in mind. Then I began reading a book with helpful chronological flags at the start of some chapters. “The Previous Winter.”  “The Present.” “Three Years Earlier.” That got me back to the topic of time shifts.

(Just here I’ll note that I hate labelling chapters to indicate where they are in time. Ideally, time jumps should be signalled clearly within the narrative itself, without the need for little signs saying “You are now in March 2013.” However, I understand that some readers are more easily confused than others and a writer can’t be faulted for helping them out, even at the expense of chronological elegance).

Reading the book with those labels, I was reminded of another reason for flashbacks:  a novel opens with the main characters doing something compelling — the proverbial “hook” that draws the reader in. If the book is character- as well as plot-driven, the reader needs to know about the characters’ backgrounds and how they got into the compelling situation in the first place. Obviously it’s not possible to start the book with this stuff, because that will move the “hook” scene beyond the first few pages. Moreover, “backstory” is a dirty word to some. Hence the flashback, to flesh out the characters and give them context once the reader is snared by the drama of the first few pages.

This technique can be formalized if both the narrative present and past feature compelling events. The two story lines can intertwine and reinforce one another, creating a narrative rope to keep the reader firmly tied to the book. Or even if they don’t constitute a storyline of their own, the backstory flashbacks can be used as shots of contrasting mood between chunks of the main story.

I enjoy setting these kinds of parameters and patterns for a work of fiction. Several years ago I wrote a novel in which the chapters alternated between third-person narrator in present tense and first-person past tense. Right now I am trying to get launched on a project alternating chapters featuring the main point-of-view characters (written in third person) with ones in which supporting characters present the fictional world in which the story is set by describing their occupations and professions (in first person). Sadly, I haven’t written enough of this tale as yet to see whether it will work.

Plants Are Not Furniture

Plants are not furniture, but some people try to use them as if they were. Books on landscaping and garden design often advise turning one’s plot of land into a set of “garden rooms” separated by hedges, trellises, shrubs or changes in elevation. That analogy is useful, but some take it further, instructing the homeowner to furnish the garden rooms with suitable plant material as well as actual furniture such as benches.

In selecting plants for a particular space, the architectural approach is useful. It makes sense to think of shapes and proportions before going to a nursery or plant catalogue. This approach, however, cannot ignore the fact that plants are living things that grow and change.

I began thinking about this topic upon seeing brand new gardens laid out and existing plantings undergoing maintenance. The new gardens look so promising — young, healthy, compact plants spaced out in plots of freshly turned and enriched soil, oriental hellebores alternating with ornamental grasses, and a few shrubs to add height. Very nice.

The established planting was one near a large new commercial/residential development intended to have a “village” atmosphere. More than a year ago, legions of blue fescue and lavender plants were installed in a long strip along a major road. At the time I wondered how they would fare, while acknowledging that they looked pretty good, lush yet neat. Recently, an army of landscaping company personnel trimmed, raked and mulched the planting, refreshing it and restoring tidiness.

Looking out at my as yet un-edged and mostly untrimmed beds, I felt more than a twinge of envy at the thought of these orderly plantings, but I have been a gardener long enough to know that application of considerable resources is needed to maintain this state. Plants, as I’ve already said, grow and change. The sofa and coffee table in one’s living room don’t double in bulk over the years or die out in the middle. Rugs may get grubby but they don’t start expanding into adjoining rooms. Perennials, shrubs and groundcovers do all these things, some very quickly. The only way to keep them within the bounds intended for them is to prune, shape, divide and sometimes replace. Even so, some plants die and others fill the spaces left vacant by their deaths. Unintended plants, weeds and others, creep in. The owner of the property may grow tired of the struggle and give up. A few years later there is little or no bare soil to be seen and the proportions and colour schemes so carefully worked out at the planning stage are gone.

If the neat, newly-planted or strictly maintained look is wanted, there are only a few solutions — rip everything out and replace it all at regular intervals, say annually or every two or three years, or choose a few plant varieties that lend themselves to regular trimming, plant them in masses and hire an outfit to keep them in shape.

But is that gardening?

Gardening is more than just keeping things orderly in the “outdoor living space.” Gardening is entering into a relationship with the plants and other living things in the garden, and negotiating with them to achieve a result that is visually and spiritually rewarding. The gardener learns what a plant does through the course of its life, rather than ripping it out when it loses its juvenile charm. Years of successes and failures, experiments and happy surprises, all of that gives a garden a history and makes the person who acquires plants and works with them into a gardener.

Flashbacks and Other Chronological Complications

Is it confusing to mix up chronology in a work of fiction? Is it best to stick to strict chronological order when following a story’s arc?

The matter of narrative chronology in a work of fiction stirs up a variety of clashing opinions, at least in the novelists’ critique group I frequent. Some say that any deviations from the linear are frivolous and confusing. Others (and I am one of them) think that judicious use of chronological irregularity adds depth and texture to a novel.

It depends on how the narrative is presented. First person confessional is very different from third person omniscient. A disembodied narrator relating an event or sequence of events is quite different from a character remembering events of personal significance. In the latter case, flashbacks allow the writer to imbue events in a character’s past with thoughts and feelings from the narrative present.

(If you found the last sentence confusing, you may wish to stop reading right here).

Case in point: Islands of the Gulf, the middle book of my Herbert West Trilogy. Its principal character, Herbert West a.k.a. Francis Dexter, reminisces about his childhood and young manhood while convalescing from illness on Bellefleur Island in 1933. To remind the reader of that narrative present, I begin most chapters with a few observations about that situation — things that are happening around him as he relaxes on the sofa or deck chair or whatever. One of those observations segues into the past and the narrative resumes where it left off at the end of the previous chapter.

These time-shifts provoked some quibbling, but real dissent arose when I introduced further time-hops within the main narrative, as when my narrator leaves the 1890s of his childhood to relate a small incident from London when he was there during the Great War.

Thinking about this subject brought to mind one of my favourite Stephen King books, Gerald’s Game. Like my novel, it consists in large part of the main character’s memories, relived while she is in a very difficult situation. Her efforts to extricate herself from that situation are interwoven with the memories, and chronological shifts occur frequently. Unlike mine, this book is narrated in third person (but an extremely “close” third person).

For what it’s worth, here are my ideas on flashbacks and chronological mix-ups. First, use them sparingly. I admit to a fondness for this device and have to make myself use it wisely. My fellow novelists are not always wrong when they pounce on it. Flashbacks and memories must be used with a clear purpose in mind, not tossed in frivolously. Second, test rigorously for the confusion factor by asking someone objective and trustworthy to read the entire section in which time shifts occur. It’s important that this reading be as similar as possible to recreational, rather than critical, reading. I’ve noticed that confusion sometimes results when meetings of critique groups are separated by several weeks and members forget important details from material read weeks or months before.

Finally, if in doubt, delete and simplify. Time-hopping in fiction is like a spice or garnish in cooking. Too little is better than too much.

Edible Books: a literary feast

Quinoa has become so popular in North America, I hear, that people in South America who have been eating it for millennia can no longer afford it. Would this have happened if some nutritional expert hadn’t dubbed it a “superfood?” Unlikely.

It’s the same with books — left to themselves, readers happily consume book after book of genre fiction, whether romance or fantasy or mystery, just as most folks are content with fast food or KD. After all, genre fiction and mass-produced foods are familiar and predictable. Only when an “expert” says that quinoa or chia or something is the key to weight loss and immortality do people rush to try it. Only when Oprah or some award-bestowing committee brands a different type of book as a “must-read” do they rush to buy (and maybe even read) something they would normally never touch.

Buying books (print or electronic) is as easy as buying groceries — easier, in fact, because most people don’t buy groceries online. That’s what the purveyors of these products, whether foodstuffs or words, want you to do. Once the purchase is made, the award or endorsement has done its job. Then comes the potentially tricky part — cooking and eating, or, in the case of books, reading.

So think of an award-winning, highly-touted literary opus. Maybe it won the Booker. Then think of kale.

What would my books be, if they were foods? Hmm. The Herbert West Series is an entire feast.

The Friendship of Mortals, with its early 1900s New England setting and librarian narrator Charles Milburn, is like a good steak dinner — juicy, medium-rare, little roasted potatoes, apple pie a la mode for dessert, finished with coffee and brandy. The two volumes of Islands of the Gulf, with four narrators (actually three, but…) is a buffet. Here you will find Acadian specialties like fricots and meat pies, courtesy of Andre Boudreau, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (Margaret Bellgarde), a selection of Italian dishes (Herbert West), and maybe something a little exotic, such as octopus, oysters or truffles (Francis Dexter). The final book, Hunting the Phoenix, set largely in Providence, Rhode Island and narrated by the provocative Alma Halsey (with a little help from Charles Milburn), is definitely lobster. With lots of melted butter and Baked Alaska for dessert.

March 3-9 is Read An Ebook Week. Islands of the Gulf, Volume One will be available as a free download for that week only, and The Friendship of Mortals is always free. So sit down and partake!