Hey--giveaway week! Berkley is sending a copy of China Bayles' upcoming (April 2017) adventure to TEN lucky winners. Go here to enter (through 3/12) Good luck!
This little native tree (Sophora secundiflora) isn't a laurel at all (let alone a "mountain" laurel), and it has some other interesting names: coral bean, mescal bean, and "big-drunk bean." The Indians of the Southern plains brewed up the leaves and the seeds into an intoxicating ritual drink--the seeds contain the alkaloid cytisine, which can induce hallucinations. It seems to have been an important part of their spiritual lives: they strung the large red seeds (the redder the seed, the more powerful it was) as protective necklaces, thought to bring good fortune and shield the wearer from physical harm. I love that idea, and sometimes imagine a native Tonkawa woman--a nomad, with a baby to tend and meals to prepare and clothing to make--collecting the seeds and stringing them to wear as a necklace. She would have imagined that the tree had its own powerful plant spirit, its own soul, and that wearing its seeds brought her its protective life and energy.
Our mountain laurels are now 30 years old, most of them about 8 feet high. It loves the thin, well-drained soil of the Edwards Plateau, and flourishes even in our hottest summers. I grew them from seed that Bill and I collected from tree-grown containers on Sixth Street in Austin in 1987, the year we moved out here to Meadow Knoll. We have about 30 of them--ten clusters of three small trees--scattered along the creek and at the edge of the woods. Magical little trees, especially this time of year, when they are heavy with purple blooms that smell exactly like grape Kool-aid. The bees, eager for any sweet stuff, adore them. And so do I.
Homestead report. The girls are back in full production, now that the days are getting longer. Quiche tonight, I think. The potatoes got frostbitten again this week, but they are far enough along to make it through. The peas are up, and we have lots of perennial green onions. The daffodils, redbuds, and the Lady Banks rose have been gorgeous for the last two weeks. February was the warmest ever in this area (the records go back to the 1880s). The last three years (2016, 15, 14) have been the warmest on record, globally. And now Trump (with his appointment of Rick Perry as head of Energy) is in the process of destroying what little regulation we have. Perry, who famously called climate change a "hoax."
Book report. Did I tell you that I'm writing another of the Darling Dahlias series? I set the series aside two years ago, but readers have been asking for more. And since I'm sort of stuck on Gertrude Bell (that project is difficult, for many good reasons), I decided to take a break from it and write another Dahlias. This will be the seventh book, and I'll probably publish it via my own imprint, Persevero Press, later this year or early next. Since I'm publishing it myself, I have a little more control over the content, so I'm taking the series in a slightly different direction: a little less mystery, a little more of the characters and their lives. It's been fun to get back to Darling again, after a longish time away.
Also in the news: The General's Women--my third biographical/historical--novel is out this week in print (hardcover/paper), ebook, and audio. If your library doesn't have it yet, please ask them to order it. It's the story (a true one) of Eisenhower, his Irish driver, Kay Summersby, and his wife Mamie, during the chaotic years of World War 2--and some new information about Kay's American life after the war.
And one more bit: I heard last week from the team that is working on the film project for A Wilder Rose, which looks like it might become a TV cable-channel mini-series. They're making good forward progress--fingers crossed that it will actually happen!
Reading note. I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be there.--Mary Oliver, "Sister Turtle," in Winter Hours
After our long drought, last year's rains encouraged the daffodils to multiply and prosper. In the first decade we lived here at MeadowKnoll, planting daffs was always an important September/October project, and I planted as many as we could afford, in as many different varieties as I could find. In our second decade, I bought a few but mostly divided and replanted in the woods, along the garden fence, in clusters under the trees. Now, in our third decade here, I'm simply enjoying them. Every morning, I walk along the woods, appreciating their jaunty optimism among last summer's leaves. They remind me that no matter how much me-me-me chaos exists in our human world, the daffodils just go about their modest lives, being fruitful and beautiful without boasting about how many they are, or how clever, or how gorgeous. A daffodil just is, its own incontrovertible fact.
Homestead report. I put chicken wire across the bottom of the gate where the bunny was getting into the garden. Then replanted the spinach (he ate the first crop) and a row of snap peas. The perennial onions are yielding plenty of green onions for salad, and the potatoes survived our mid-week freeze. Our six Girls are producing five eggs a day (somebody apparently didn't get the memo). Omelets, fritattas, and quiche are on the menu--and today, a coconut cream pie, if I get around to it.
Book report. I've shelved the Gertrude project for a while--I need to think longer thoughts about the voice. Instead, I'm spending my writing time on another Dahlias mystery--because you asked. I hadn't intended to continue that series, but so many people have written to tell me they miss the books that I decided to continue. It's comforting, in a way, to step back into that little town and revisit the characters, each of whom has her own story. It's also interesting (and more than a little frightening) to see the parallels between the 1930s, with the ugly rise of fascism and ethnic intolerance, and our own time. As I work, I can't help reflecting that we haven't learned much from history. Which means, if history is any guide, that we are doomed to repeat it.
The General's Women will be out in another couple of weeks; please ask your library to order it. I'm selling signed copies for Story Circle--you can order yours here. Also for Story Circle, we're raffling off my needlepoint project, "Shining Star." You can see it here.
She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbor:
"Winter is dead.”
--A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
We're having a raffle! I love doing needlepoint--and I love sharing it. If you're the lucky winner of this 12"x12" piece, I'll send it to you, along with a signed copy of The General's Women. It will be unframed; you may either frame it as a wall piece or use it to top a pillow. Proceeds from the raffle go to support the work of the Story Circle Network, a nonprofit international organization of writing women. Go here to enter--closes February 27. Good luck!
We're having a Goodreads Giveaway of my upcoming historical/biographical novel. Set during the chaotic years of World War II, The General's Women tells the story of a hidden World War 2 love triangle: General Dwight Eisenhower; Kay Summersby, his Irish driver/aide; and his wife Mamie. Whatever you think you know about the Eisenhowers, this will surprise you.
Go here to enter through February 16.
Lichen on an oak branch in our woodlot.They may be tiny, but they're beautiful--a miniature garden on a branch. And being tiny doesn't mean being unsuccessful. Lichens are among the oldest living things on earth. They inhabit every continent on the planet and number nearly 17,000 identified species, But who knows how many unidentified species there are? They live in crevices, lurk in cracks and crannies, love dead branches, thrive on rocks in Antarctica and frozen soil in the Arctic. They are pioneers. They're survivors. Because they're so small, they're a betwixt-and-between species: they fill in the empty spaces in an ecosystem. Their microcommunities flourish where being big would be a disadvantage. They fit neatly into spaces from which other creatures are excluded because of their size. And they're incredibly powerful. Once established on a rock, they can gradually break it down. Lichens are capable of making a difference many times their size.
Lichens may not be at the top of today's "most-watched" lists. But they have their admirers. Beatrix Potter, for instance, who was the first person in England to record her speculations that lichen are symbiotic creatures: fungi co-habiting with photosynthesizing algae. She learned this herself, through close observation and down-to-earth study. She even cultivated the spores at her desk and drew them, lovingly. (The drawing is one of her fungi studies.)
Lichens are a lesson for me, living here in the Texas Hill Country, where it's easy to be impressed by big things: tall trees, massive rocks, rolling hills, endless skies. In a time when some forms of largeness loom over our landscape like a dark cloud, I need to remember the lichens. I need to look in-between, celebrate small, do the little things that might make a difference. Maybe that would work for you, too.
Reading note. It's the little things citizens do. That's what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees. Wangari Maathai
Pecan Creek is running full this winter, so we're hoping for a full recovery for the six bald cypress trees we planted in 1988. You can see one of them on the right in the photo. Her roots stretch out under the creek and when there's water, she thrives. We call this one Freya, for the Norwegian goddess of fertility. And yes, she has knees. They look like this:
Five years of drought and record-hot summers have been very hard on all our cypress and we feared we might lose some of them. Bald cypress live a very long time: there's one in South Carolina that's well over 1620 years old--perhaps as old as 3000 years. I often look at ours and wonder what our world will be like when they have lived out their lifespan. These days, it's not an altogether pleasant thought.
Book report. I finished Queen Anne's Lace, China's 26th adventure. This book is the last in a three-book contract with Berkley Prime Crime, so I've written a proposal for three more books. Here's a sneak peek at their titles: Devil's Trumpet, Passion Flower, and Dragon's Blood. A friend asked if I could look ahead and see the end of the series: the answer is no, not as long as there are interesting ideas to explore and interested readers. I'm glad I didn't choose a series with a definite end, like the alphabet. The mystery done, I'm back to work on the Gertrude project.
Garden report. One planting of potatoes is in, another ready to go.The spinach and onions are thriving, but the kale--for some unknown reason--didn't come up well and had to be replanted. I'll be planting snap peas next week, likely. It's another record-breaking high-temperature winter, pushing up the gardening calendar.
February events. I'll be in Granbury TX and in Dripping Springs TX in late February. If you're in the area, join me!
Reading note. Global warming, along with the cutting and burning of forests and other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid. This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc: it is us.--Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth
Adding to the excitement around Loving Eleanor's four book awards (Kirkus, Library Journal, Ippy, Best Books USA), I'm heading off to my first-ever Twitter chat! Join me as I try to figure out how to use TweetDeck, say something intelligent and mildly entertaining in 140-character segments, and be present on Twitter (and nowhere else) for a full hour. Join us if you're on Twitter. If you're not, I think you can eavesdrop here.
I just have to smile. When I began as a full-time writer, I was using a little Apple IIe and somebody had just invented "domain names." Twelve years later, I finally got online via dial-up, but www stood for Worldwide Wait.
Now, a Twitter chat with the potential of reaching somebody on the other side of the globe in nanoseconds, from my desk here in the Texas Hill Country. Maybe you grew up with this stuff, but I didn't--and I find it utterly amazing.
If you're around tomorrow afternoon, drop in: #SELFeCHAT. I can't tell you how it works because I don't know, but somebody does. I'll be the one who's still figuring it out.
Reading note. Tempted to type meaningless twaddle all the time on Twitter...with alliteration, no less!--E.A. Bucchianeri
We're having the first Goodread giveaway for this upcoming release now through 1/25 (but don’t put it off or you’ll forget). I enjoyed digging into the research for this biographical novel, which explores the hidden relationship between Eisenhower and his Irish driver, Kay Summersby, during WW2. I learned that when the war ended, Ike was fully prepared to divorce Mamie and marry Kay but was persuaded by both duty and ambition to take the path that led him to the White House. I also dug into Kay’s postwar life as an American citizen, following her trail in the letters she exchanged with Ike (held at the Eisenhower Library) and in the newspapers. The print edition of the novel contains the notes that document my findings; if you read the ebook, you’ll find the documentation on the book's website.
Book report. I finished Queen Anne’s Lace (China’s 26th adventure!) last week. This book is structured like Wormwood and Widow’s Tears, with a backstory set in the 1880s in Pecan Springs. The signature herb is Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), aka wild carrot, which (until the mid-19th century) was chiefly used as a contraceptive. When I started researching the subject, I found many herbs that were used in this way and found myself very grateful to a couple of academic researchers. Here are two of the most important, if this subject interests you: Eve’s Herbs and Sex and Herbs and Birth Control. You’ll have to wait for Queen Anne’s Lace, though. It’s in the production queue at Berkley Prime Crime, scheduled for April, 2018. In the meantime, contain your soul in patience (as a librarian said to me once). The Last Chance Olive Ranch will be released in just a few months.
I’m back at work on the Gertrude Bell project, which is beginning to feel like a trilogy, rather than a single novel. There’s a lot to this story, and to tell it well, I think I have to tell it longer. I’ve always been interested in WW1, but like everyone else, I mostly focused on the war in Europe. I have a lot to learn about the war in the Middle East, with its complicated webs of political intrigue.
On another topic . . .
If the soil dries out enough to dig the trenches, I’ll be planting seed potatoes this weekend. These are Red La Sodas, I think, They’ve gone through a couple of planting cycles and I’ve lost track. I try to save enough from the spring planting to seed the fall, and so on, on the theory that homegrown seed is better acclimated to the garden’s normal seasons—although like most of us, I’m no longer sure what “normal” is. Except hot and hotter.
Reading note. It may be normal, darling; but I'd rather be natural.--Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's
This is Part 2 of a conversation I had with Ann McMan, the talented artist/designer who created the cover for my upcoming (March 2017) biographical/historical novel, The General's Women At the end of Part 1, Ann was saying that she does her best work when her clients trust her to make the right choices for their books. "It's also helpful," she added, "when an author has done the heavy lifting about essential themes before they approach me. That's what happened with The General’s Women. Of course, at the same time, that complicated matters."
Susan: I'm afraid I did--complicate matters for you, I mean. TGW is a book about real people. I wanted to emphasize the story's reality, so I asked you to use photographs of the three main characters. Photos of real people are typically used for biographies, not for fiction--so we're sort of breaking an informal rule here. That aside, what difficulties did you run into using real images?
Ann: Using actual images of real people does pose challenges—particularly when you’re forced to deal with source material that isn’t in the public domain. Fortunately for us, images of Ike, Mamie and Kay were all available through public (i.e. nonprofit and/or government) venues. For example, if you had written a fictionalized account of the lives and loves of Madonna and Sean Penn (indulge me here . . . it could happen), we’d have shelled out thousands of dollars in royalty fees and probably wouldn’t have been unable to alter the images in any way—even IF we secured permission to use them. But because your principals were well-known government/military figures, there were thousands (in the case of Ike and Mamie) and dozens (in the case of Kay Summersby) of public domain images available through various nonprofit and publicly-funded archives—including the Eisenhower Library, The United States Army, The Library of Congress, and Wikipedia Commons. Having said that, finding three images that could work together was a massive undertaking that involved many hours of sleuthing and exhaustive combing through digital collections.
Good thing I was a librarian in a previous life . . . (Susan: Good thing for me, too, Ann! Thanks for that extra effort!)
After finding the best three images, the task was to render them in ways that made them work together in terms of scale, color balance and placement. I wanted them to look like they originated from the same source—and that wasn’t easy. In the end, I combined them all together and presented them as a single, yellowed photograph with a crimped edge."
Susan: I love the "military" feel you created for the cover, Ann. What went into the overall design?
Ann: I chose a sepia-toned palette to give the cover a vintage feeling. You suggested tying an image of the White House into the design, and I prowled around until I found an old postcard image from the late 1950s—perfect for Ike’s tenure there—that worked very well as a subtle way to hint at the ultimate stakes of the story. I also added an archival image of a November, 1943 New York Times story about General Eisenhower’s service in London (when Kay Summersby would’ve been his driver)—and finished it all off with some vintage Stirling Heavy Bombers—the kind that flew so many Allied missions during the air campaign over Europe. Once the final collage was assembled, you suggested adding some bars of color—which bore fruit for the whole composition. I chose to deal with those like uniform stripes, and I think they worked well not only to anchor and enliven the design—but to reinforce a military flavor.
Susan: You've been doing covers for several years. What do you consider your most successful cover?
Ann: Wow. That’s oddly like Sophie’s choice. I am sure that you, as a fellow author, know that you can pick your way through the detritus of a novel you wrote, hold up a fragment, and proudly proclaim, “I really like this sentence a lot.” Cover design is not much different. I do have a couple of favorites, though. And among those, the one that I think comes closest to being just about right is The Liberators of Willow Run (Bywater Books). I love the energy of this cover. I like the way it immediately evokes a time in our history and suggests the spirit of the women who sacrificed everything to build these B-24 bombers at the Willow Run assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I especially like the courage it took for the book’s author, Marianne K. Martin, to close her eyes and go with my idea.
My design firm, TreeHouse Studio, doesn’t yet have an online portfolio. However, I am happy to share samples of my cover work and details about pricing with anyone who contacts me at ann dot mcman at gmail dot com.
Big thanks to Ann for her work on the TGW cover, and for her willingness to talk about what went into it. We're already talking about some ideas for the covers of Gertrude In Arabia: Gertrude Bell's life as a British espionage agent--the first of a possible trilogy.
Reading note. Judging books by their covers is seriously underrated, and any book nerd who claims never to have done it is probably lying.--Amy Smith, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane.