Odds and Sods

Really bad joke of the day (Mrs. Cobs, are you listening?): What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.

As an aspiring writer and longtime editor, I own several thesauri. A few years ago, I purchased Roget’s Super Thesaurus (4th Edition), a thick compendium that promised to be the thesaurus-to-end-all-thesauri. It’s okay, but my go-to reference volume is and always has been Webster’s New Thesaurus (Concise Edition), a worn and well-thumbed paperback. (To give you an idea how long I’ve had it, the front cover boasts “New for the 1990’s.”) This beloved volume may not have as many entries, but it always delivers when I’m seeking le mot juste.

I meant to get this post up at the beginning of the month. Regular Gillyflower readers will know that I like to blog according to a monthly theme. June might offer many possibilities theme-wise, but I can’t pick just one. So, let this month’s theme be, well, themeless. Anti-thematic. My posts will be a mishmash of miscellany, a plethora of potpourri, an omnibus of odds and sods.

The novel that I’ve been trying to write since 2010 has been languishing on hiatus for some time now. For the first few years, I worked on it furiously in my spare time, day or night, writing, editing, refining, writing, etc. But then the plot started taking on a life of its own, and I grew increasingly unhappy with the direction it was going. There were also plenty of periods of angst and self-doubt that I’m sure most writers experience: Is it good enough? Do I have the energy to finish this? Will anyone want to read it? I knew I needed to make serious decisions – and major rewrites – but by that time I was paralyzed with writer’s block, and so I put the story away and haven’t worked on it since.

Not long ago, I took it out again and started to read. Just the first few chapters, but I liked it. And I started editing again. I’m still not sure what to do with the problematic remainder, though. Perhaps, like Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame (not that I’m making any comparisons between that Goddess and me), I might approach this effort as an exercise in how to write (or how not to write), with no other aspirations.

From the start, however, my goal has been to get published, so I’ve always guarded the work-in-progress jealously, not even letting my husband or family read it. I’d like to publish some excerpts on this blog, however – perhaps I’ll create a new blog dedicated solely to the book. But I’m leery of “giving away” this cherished work once it goes online. What assurances do I have that my material – if someone deems it good enough – won’t be stolen?

My sister, an avid nature photographer who posts her clearly-copyrighted, metadata-embedded images frequently on multiple websites, can tell you that she’s been the victim of intellectual/artistic copyright theft several times: by “friends” who’ve claimed her images as their own, by companies for their advertising, and by news outlets who refused to cease and desist or pay her when she complained. (One agency finally backed down and gave her photo credit, thank you so very much.) Signatures, watermarks and statements of copyright should and do protect our property, but of course there are legions of unscrupulous people who don’t give a fig about rules or ethics and take our stuff anyway. And by that time, it’s usually too late.

Perhaps I’m flattering myself when I think anyone would want to plagiarize my work. But I’m a cautious lass. Before I blog parts of my story, I’d like to hear from you. Are you concerned about what happens to your creative efforts once you publish them? What systems of protection have you put in place – and do you feel confident that they do the job?


The Stone Cottage Syndrome

I’m attracted to stories in which the protagonist (usually a woman who’s divorced, widowed or otherwise on her own) flees her city life and heads deep into the British countryside or to a far-flung island to work through grief, research a paper, write a book, or inherit a deceased relative’s dilapidated cottage. Even before she crosses the sagging threshold, the heroine struggles to cope with the challenges of unfamiliar surroundings, eccentric villagers and the surly yet handsome neighbour who lives in tortured angst down the dank, hedgerowed lane. As our fish-out-of-water negotiates how to repair her leaky roof or feed the wheezing coin-operated boiler (encountering mysteries, ghosts and the occasional moonlit pagan ritual along the way), as she unblocks chimneys and scrubs ancient grime from the massive oak worktop, she gradually sweeps away the dusty echoes of the house’s – and her own – past. And as she cleans up the mess of her own life, she helps her odd neighbours come to terms with their respective wounds and secrets.

I call this recurring fixer-upper theme the Stone Cottage Syndrome. It’s not so much a syndrome as a device many authors I’ve read seem to use. It could very well be considered cliché, but, if done right, this motif can set a scene that’s both wildly romantic and hauntingly eerie. In other words, right up my ivy-covered alley.

DSC_7967 (7)From my bookshelf are some novels which use the cobweb-clearing Stone Cottage device to very satisfying effect:

  1. Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, who’s permanently entrenched near the top of my list of favourite authors. The main characters of Stewart’s adventure romance novels – intelligent and determined females all – find mystery, peril and love in foreign climes. This one takes place on an isolated Hebrides island with no motorcars and post that comes by ferry thrice a week. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991)
  2. Running Wild by Victoria Clayton. Leaving her unsuitable fiancé at the altar, the main character flees to a decrepit cottage in Dorset. (Orion 2001)
  3. As with Thornyhold (which I’ve discussed before but easily belongs in this category as well), the first time I read Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage, I devoured it in a couple of hours and immediately went back for a second helping. And I learned what a green baize door is; you can’t have a proper English country house without one. (William Morrow, 1997)
  4. Mandy by Julie Edwards (otherwise known as singer/actress Julie Andrews) is a sweet children’s novel about a young English girl who stumbles upon and secretly fixes up an empty cottage and its overgrown garden. Shell rooms, wildflowers and plucky orphans – what could be better?! (Harper & Row, 1971)
  5. Speaking of resourceful kids, my next selection features three of them, stranded in Wales during a heavy blizzard. Snowed Up by Rosalie K. Fry (who also wrote The Secret of Roan Inish) doesn’t have an adult lead character, but young cousins who must work together to survive a frightening night in a freezing, abandoned stone farmhouse. This book made a huge impression on me when I was a kid and has survived many a zealous purge, remaining with me to this day. Plus, this tale taught me the meaning of the word ‘swede’. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970)
  6. When it comes to meticulously researched historical romance and superb storytelling, Ontario’s Susanna Kearsley is hands-down my favourite author. (BTW, this blog is a Harlequin-free zone; no ripped bodices and heaving bosoms here. Ever.) Beginning with her first novel, Mariana, each story features an element of time-slipping, ghosts or past-life regression. But, like the zombies of The Walking Dead, these suspension-of-disbelief devices take a backseat to the real story, which is about actual historical events – and true love. In The Winter Sea (Allison & Busby, 2008), my favourite of her works, all of these are expertly combined in a remote cottage setting, and there’s even a derelict Scottish castle thrown in for good measure. This story riveted me from the get-go, and I wept at the end. For half an hour. As if that weren’t enough, The Firebird (2014) is the sequel to The Winter Sea, and both share ties with 1997’s The Shadowy Horses. Go read these, and all of Kearsley’s books. Posthaste.

Honourable Mention:  In Veil of Time by Claire R. McDougall, not only does the heroine find herself holed up in a remote cottage complete with ancient standing stones, she astrally projects (in a cool, totally believable way) to 8th century Scotland as well. Many parts of this novel were entertaining, but I found the ending a tad abrupt and disappointing. (Gallery Books, 2014)

Cauldron Bubble: 7 best books featuring wisewomen, witches and woad

DSC_8657 (3)Fragrant bunches of rosemary and thyme, hung to dry from the beams of a thatched monastery workshop. An old village healer, stirring mandrake into a simmering potion as her lovestruck client looks anxiously on. The nurse with an interest in botany, searching for a rare medicinal plant amongst ancient stones. Girls warding off evil spirits with curses from their Book of Shadows.

Any novel featuring such characters or scenes has me from the faded title on its well-thumbed front cover. An introverted and highly impressionable youngster, I always had my nose buried in a book, often sneaking reads by flashlight long past bedtime. I was entranced by the, er, charms of fantasy and historical fiction, especially if those stories involved herb-growing, mortar and pestle-wielding, spell-casting crones. I longed to be there with them, in that dimly-lit herbarium, grinding exotic cardamom to a fine powder and concocting chilblain-busting salves. My fascination with herbs and, more widely, things mystical and magickal, owes a great deal to these shiveringly evocative tales.

The very same volumes which kindled such sparks within me as a child and young adult still grace my dusty bookshelves today, alongside more recent and equally entertaining efforts. On the parchment below, in no particular order (I cherish them all), I hereby enscribe my seven favorite witchy works:

  1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Dell, 1958). A wise woman and her young apprentice, both social outcasts, face prejudice, ignorance and accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England. 1959 Newbery Medal winner for best American children’s literature.
  2. Double Spell by Janet Lunn (Peter Martin Associates, 1968). This spooky mystery involving an antique doll takes place in my native Toronto. Not a lot of witchery here, but … Toronto!
  3. Victoria by Barbara Brooks Wallace (Dell, 1972). A huge influence on my preteen self, this coming-of-age novel makes delicious use of an isolated boarding school, secret societies and a little black book.
  4. Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills / The Last Enchantment (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970 / 1973 / 1979). The Arthurian legend masterfully told from the wizard’s perspective.
  5. Brother Cadfael, a 12th century crusader-turned-healer/monk, steeps herbs and solves murders in The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters’ prolific series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Macmillan, 1977). Perfectly interpreted for 1990s British TV by the great Derek Jacobi.
  6. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) blends some of the best and most effective ingredients into the brew: plucky, resourceful woman, deserted English cottage, herb-filled stillroom, ghosts and a gall-darned happy ending. A clue to the book’s magickal motif comes from the heroine’s name – Geillis (Gilly) – a traditional moniker for a witch. Reference is made to real-life Geillis Duncane, who was tried for witchcraft in 16th century Edinburgh.
  7. Geillis Duncan appears again, this time alongside time-travelling healer Claire and her Scottish wonder, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, in Diana Gabaldon’s outrageously popular Outlander book and TV series (Delacore Press, 1991). [Haven’t heard enough about Outlander yet? Dinna fash! I may just mention it a wee bit more!]