A New Appreciation for August–Oh, and a New Story

Before I get to the post, just want to make you aware that…

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August’s Short Story Is Now Available!

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Kayaks, Lake Superior, bad weather, a mysterious woman…this story blends together elements of adventure on the open “seas” and psychological drama to create a time-bending tale that feels to me like the beginning of a much larger story waiting to be written. Hope you enjoy it! Click here to buy it for slightly less than $1 for your Kindle.

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Now, to the point…

It is the final day of August and, as I mentioned earlier in the week, I have just begun to develop a bit of a good feeling toward this month.

Since childhood, I have disliked the month of August, which I always thought of as just one more month of hot, humid, numbingly boring days before school finally started up (yeah, I was one of those kids who loved going back to school). Little League was over, the bloom of freedom I felt in June had withered, and I have always disliked very hot weather.

Into adulthood I have maintained this disdain for August. It is a month where you dress for the heat and then freeze inside every business because they set their air conditioning so insanely low. It is a month where wasps and bees, previously seen as happy-go-lucky and dopey, mindlessly buzzing about in the yard, become aggressive and swarmy as they start fretting about the impending winter. It is a month when lots of spiders and bats–BATS–start exploring your house (and your poor husband must get a painful and heart-stoppingly expensive series of eleven rabies shots after a close encounter, eight in just one sitting).

Still, there are a few perks, right?

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The farmer’s market is flush with fresh local produce. My backyard vegetable garden is busy working on a bumper crop of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. Homemade tomato sauce is bubbling on the stove top. There are peaches and apricots and plums to can. 

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Ah, but the flower garden is in such disarray! It looks terrible! Besides those common little black-eyed susans, nothing at all is blooming! And the weeds! The weeds!

Still, there was that field of nodding sunflowers we saw as we drove home from our hiking trip.

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And the sound of cicadas. And the hints of fall. The gold carpet of dying ferns beneath the evergreens. The audacious red display of the sumac along my weekly commute. The precocious tree here and there that simply cannot wait to show off her red and orange autumnal gown.

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The rumblings of the thunderstorms that wake me in the wee hours of the morning. The shimmering clouds of blackbirds gathering for their fall migration.

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The dreamy quality of the light. The foggy mornings that burn off into brilliantly sunny days.

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Yes. Maybe…just maybe…August is getting a hold on me.

But I still hate March.

Hiking with a Summer Storm at Your Heels

On Sunday, the final morning of our trip to Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable Dunes, we woke to a still, hazy morning. The largest group of hikers that had camped at Au Sable Point East with us had already silently packed up and left before 7:15 in the morning when I woke, which I remember finding a little odd (principally because they seemed to be college-aged and I, at least, was not wont to get up early and exert myself during my college days). Our other neighbors were in the process of packing up as well. Seeing the sun through the haze, I ran off to the beach to snap a few photos before breakfast.

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This serene scene belied the weather that was to come that morning. As we strapped our tent and bags to our packs, my sister said, “Do you hear that? That sounds like thunder.”

True, it did sound like thunder, but it also sounded like it could be a distant logging truck or some such noisy thing (which is what I wanted to believe). Within another 30 seconds, though, there was no mistaking it. It was most definitely thunder. Fast-moving thunder indicating a storm quickly approaching us.

With 1.7ish miles to go, almost all of it steeply uphill, we lost no more time getting our packs on our backs and getting the hell out of there. We each had a 5-Hour Energy metabolizing in us and knew the car was less than an hour away, which was powerful motivation (as if the impending storm was not enough). The question was, could we manage to get up that extremely long, steep incline before it became a river of mud should we be caught in a deluge?

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The thunder got closer and louder and the woods around us grew very, very dark, except for when the occasional flash of lightning lit up everything around us. I thought about the metal frames in our packs–the only metal for hundreds of feet, most likely–just as a loudest, closest, angriest ball of thunder burst right over top of us.

“Do we have a plan here if the sky opens up?” I asked my sister.

We did not.

The only plan was to get to the top of our climb before the rain. She suggested I say a prayer. And so with every labored, frantic step over root and sand and dead pine needles, I prayed aloud. And after my prayer was through, I prayed silently, thanking God for every dry step I took.

And you know what? It never did rain on us. We could occasionally see rain off in the distance when we passed quickly by an overlook we had lingered at the day before. We could see that it had rained on the parking lot when we got to the car. We could see that it had rained on the road when we drove back to the ranger station in Grand Marais.

But not a drop of it rained on us.

The storm passed by us and left us unscathed.

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This is not to say we were not wet. If you had witnessed our triumphant emergence from the forest, you might be forgiven for thinking we had been caught in the rain because we were drenched with sweat from the effort. When I looked at my phone to check the time I was dumbfounded. I think it’s quite possible that we made the hike in little over thirty minutes, about half the time I figured it would take us with the incline and my blisters (which, by the way, did not hurt at all the entire climb, but started to hurt the moment we hit the path that led from Log Slide to the parking lot).

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This Sunday morning hike is not one I will soon forget. It was almost as though God decided that because we had not been in church we might need a reminder of His power–and His mercy.

Au Sable Point Lighthouse, the Graveyard Coast, and Hurricane River

On Saturday, my sister and I packed up and made the three-ish mile hike to our next campsite, Au Sable Point East. I say three-ish because it really seems to me that some desk jockey at the National Parks Service (NPS) looked at a map of Pictured Rocks, estimated that the width of his thumb was, “Eh, more or less about a mile,” and then did that tongue-out, one-eye-closed sort of “guesstimating” you do when you just want to get something checked off your to-do list. Next time we are there, Alison and I plan to bring one of those fancy runner’s watches that records everything you do and actually measure the real distance.

But I digress.

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After lurching down an endless hill (“Ah, now this feels more like Pictured Rocks!”) we found the campsite and were quite happy that it was a.) very close to Lake Superior for water and scenery needs; b.) situated in an idyllic looking little area populated by pines and the cutest little baby fir trees you’ve ever seen; and c.) not far from both the lighthouse and the mouth of the Hurricane River (as we were both marvelously fond of the Mosquito River on our last trip and were looking forward to hearing and seeing another river).

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We had neighbors at this site, but everyone was pleasantly quiet and industrious and no one seemed to be there to make new friends. (Alison and I come from some painfully solitary German stock on our father’s side and are never really looking to meet anyone. Ever.)

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We happily strolled along the beach and examined rocks until we were chased away by biting black flies (“Ah, now this feels more like the U.P.!”) and then thought we’d check out the lighthouse.

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I have a friend who “collects” lighthouses, but to me they are just one of those things you look at and go, “Hm, that’s cool,” and then move on to more important things, like marking how prevalent wild blueberries are in these parts or how fascinating that rock is over there. (Aside: Did you know that Michigan has at least 116 functional lighthouses–plus more that are no longer in service–more than any other state in the nation?)

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Alison and I took the “steps” down to the beach to search out the remains of shipwrecks that are visible between the Hurricane River and the lighthouse, part of the Graveyard Coast, a very shallow area of the lake that has claimed several vessels over the years and prompted the building of the lighthouse in the first place. Despite the flies and the heat and my growing blisters, it was a beautiful walk and it struck me once again how many hundreds of miles of gorgeous beach there are on Lake Superior and how little it is really used for recreation. I think that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But when you think of crowded beaches downstate, it’s really quite incredible.

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Now, above the beach and in the woods a little bit, between the lighthouse and Hurricane River, there is a bizarrely wide footpath (wide enough for a truck, and there were tire tracks on it). I can only assume that the lighthouse staff uses that path as a road to reach the light station. It also happens to be more welcoming for the people who might use the drive-in campground at Hurricane River rather than the backcountry sites that pepper the North Country Trail that runs through the park. You know, larger families with small children, the elderly, and the less-in-shape-than-even-me. In fact we met a large older gentleman with a cane and his wife coming down a real set of stairs (rather than just posts strung together with cables and flung down a sandy hill) to go see the shipwrecks and I thought to myself how odd it was to see someone like that hiking. Then we came to Hurricane River and it all made sense.

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We first knew something strange was going on when we saw an RV. Just the night before I felt like I was the only person in the park, so devoid of human activity were the tops of the dunes. Then we saw another RV. And another. And coolers. And bottles of ketchup and mustard. Then we smelled meat grilling. I finally looked at the map and saw that this was one of two drive-in campgrounds in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A small part of me, for a very, very short moment, was incensed. But then I started thinking about bringing my son up here sometime before he’s big enough to hike with a pack on his back. And I understood completely. This would be the way to experience a piece of this place if you could not (or were not inclined to) carry your house and food on your back to and fro.

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Except for the RVs and the grills and the coolers, Hurricane River reminded us a bit of the Mosquito River in that it was refreshingly frigid and the water ran over shelves of sandstone that you could walk across (carefully). We took a seat on a log in the river, cooled our achy feet, and had a snack. Then, being the curmudgeon I am, I started removing evidence of human activity from the river (in the form of little dams of rocks that a sweet little child no doubt made but which I, ardent naturalist and generally ornery person, didn’t think should be there altering the course of the water and messing up my photos).

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I know. I’m a rotten killjoy. I also systematically destroy those “cairns” everyone seems to be so fond of making on Michigan’s shorelines. I don’t understand why people simply must leave their mark on the natural world and I resent them ruining my landscape photographs. There. I said it.

Anyway

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This is a very nice area to visit. If you are doing a U.P. trip by car and want to get a taste of Lake Superior and Pictured Rocks without a ton of footwork, I recommend parking at various parking lots along the park and taking the short hikes to places like Log Slide, Au Sable Point Light Station, the Graveyard Coast, Miner’s Castle, Miner’s Beach, Miner’s Falls, Sable Falls, and anywhere else you can see (especially the Pictured Rocks boat tours). Combine that with stops at Tahquamenon Falls, Point Iroquois, the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, the Soo Locks, and Wildwood Pasties, and you’ve got yourself a lovely trip. I recommend the first or second week of October if you also want to take a fall color tour to boot.

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We eventually headed back to camp, ate dinner, then hid from the bugs in our tent. I think we were both asleep before sunset that night (36 hours with no caffeine and a lot of walking in direct sunlight kind of saps one’s energy). I was looking forward to a fairly early start the next morning as I anticipated going home to my boys and a nice soapy shower. Little did I know there would be another good reason to get moving quickly on Sunday…

Sunset on Grand Sable Dunes and Waiting for the Northern Lights

After we visited Log Slide on Friday, Alison and I returned to our campsite, had a bite to eat, and then returned to the other world waiting above us to watch the sunset.

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Apparently, we were not the only ones with this idea. We were joined by about 63 million tiny flying bugs of the gnat variety, which frantically whizzed about in clouds all around us. You can spot some of them in the photo above.

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And yet, it was still quiet and peaceful up there. I set off to photograph the dunes in the waning light while Alison plunked down with a book. You can see her in the above photo, way up near the top of the hill.

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The sun slowly sank lower in the sky and lit up the dune grasses and sand in that perfect evening light that photographers so adore.

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And a landscape that had seemed almost stark in the harsh midday sun took on a quality that made you feel that this earth is really a beautiful place indeed.

How often do we go to bed at night having not noticed this? It should strike us daily and yet we are so busy and so insulated from the earth outside and spend so little time with the real world that we miss it regularly.

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Certainly that feeling is easy to come by in a singular landscape such as Grand Sable Dunes. But even your own yard or neighborhood or that corner of your kitchen where the light hits just so, you can see it. If you’re looking.

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Now, I have never been a fan of August. It has always seemed a wasted month of horrid heat, humidity, and boredom. But I’ve recently begun rethinking my stance.

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This past weekend it started to cast a spell over me. (More on this at a later date.)

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Finally, finally, the sun sank below the horizon. My sister headed down the now dark trail, flashlight in hand, leaving me atop the highest point of the dunes, camera firmly affixed to my tripod, to wait for a very different sort of light. I had read on Tuesday that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, essentially the sun had released a tremendous amount of energy that was careening through space toward us, the effects of which might be visible on this Friday night.

Still in the dark? I’m talking about the Northern Lights, which for the past few years of increased CME activity (which goes in 11 year cycles) have been spotted all over Michigan, but mostly on Lake Superior. And here I was at Lake Superior on the perfect night in the perfect spot to see them for the first time in my life and, if I was lucky, capture them in pixels so I could smugly share my good fortune with others.

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As the cold wind whipped around me and my surroundings darkened, I actually prayed for the privilege to witness this incredible display of the power of our star and the kind hand of the One who put our planet in such a position that I could both see it and not be harmed by it.

But it was not to be. There may have been lights later that night while I was snoozing or watching a little mouse scurry overhead between the tent and the rain fly, but I was not permitted to see them. I eventually packed up my camera and flicked on my flashlight for the descent to Masse Homestead (made exponentially more difficult by the darkness and more nerve-wracking by the thought that should I encounter a black bear or wolf in the pitch black night, it would have a significant advantage over me despite my being armed).

I was (and am) profoundly disappointed. And yet, the sun continues to shine and produce storms that will cause the Northern Lights to appear at a later date. Someday I hope to see them. In the meantime, this disappointment reminds me that I am not owed beauty. Beauty happens, but it doesn’t happen for my sake. I am like one of those grains of sand on the dune, one of billions of people in the world. My great comfort is that God knows every speck of sand, every one of us, and that He heard my prayer for light that night…and for whatever reason His answer was “Not just yet.”

The View from Log Slide

Log Slide is a destination spot on the east end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with quick and easy access from a parking lot. In a previous era it was used for (you guessed it) sliding logs that were cut from the forests above into Lake Superior below so they could begin their watery journey to sawmills in parts south. Nowadays, the only thing sliding down this patch of sand is tourists (some unwillingly, I imagine).

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There are a couple signs warning that though it can take less than a minute to reach the bottom 500 feet (300 vertical) below, it can take more than an hour to climb back up.

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The day we spent time at Log Slide I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic as we had just traversed a LOT of sand on top of the dunes and the balls of my feet were developing blisters. So instead of making the descent, Alison and I crept around on a few more-or-less-sorta stable areas just to the west of the actual slide.

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You can get a great view of the five miles of sand that make up Grand Sable Dunes from this vantage point.

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And you can see Au Sable Point Light Station from there as well, which is where we were headed the next day.

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But before we get to the lighthouse, there is the little matter of sunset on the dunes and waiting for the Northern Lights. Stay tuned…

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Surprised by Sand

This past weekend, my sister Alison and I took our second hiking trip together. We planned a shorter hike than last year and parked such that we could hike a short distance (under two miles) to our campsites, pitch our tents, then do day hikes unencumbered by packs. I must say it was an excellent strategy.

So on Friday afternoon we quickly found ourselves setting up our tent at Masse Homestead backcountry campsite on the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The hike to the site was eerily silent. We heard no birds or humming insects, encountered no other hikers, and spoke little as we walked a narrow path through a largely open, mostly deciduous woodland.

To Masse Homestead

Masse Homestead is a smaller site, with only three campsites allowed. There was some mold growing in the food box, so we opted for the food pole to keep our rations away from bears. The soil was sandy, making the tent setup smooth and bathroom breaks easy (apart from the mosquitoes). And in just a matter of minutes, we were ready to check out our surroundings.

Masse Homestead

The old bearded ranger (“I’ve lived in Grand Marais all my life but I’m slowly moving west. I’ve gotten about two and a half miles so far.”) told us about a very steep, sandy trail that led up to the dunes. It was easy to spot (harder to climb) so we grabbed cameras and water bottles and headed up.

Trail up to dunes

Near the top, one gets the very queer feeling that you are going through C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe to Narnia.

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And, in fact, I think what awaited us took our collective breath away just like Narnia did for Lucy.

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The last time I could see this much landscape all around me, I was in a plane.

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There we stood, upon the very highest point of the Grand Sable Dunes, and all around us was wilderness.

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The only sound was of the crickets and cicadas.

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At that moment, we felt as though we must be the only two people on earth.

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We hiked over the dunes, up and down, for a long time before we even approached the edge, losing site of the big hill we first stood on and the opening in the trees that would lead us back down to our tent.

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But how could we not be drawn by this landscape to abandon the trail and set off to blaze our own?

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We stopped (quite sensibly) at this line of wet sand that ran across the top of the slope. Had we taken very many more steps forward, we might have found ourselves sliding down 300 or so feet into Lake Superior.

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Instead, we rested our feet a bit and took in the incredibly blue lake and the cool breeze.

Erin on the Dunes

Besides some tracks in the sand (coyote, deer, crow, and one set of bare human feet) and one pile of scat (bear) there was little evidence of life up there beyond dune grasses, scrubby junipers, poplars, and wild roses.

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We would discover later that night that the dunes are a favored spot for huge clouds of gnats (or some related tiny flying insect) but that is a post for another day.

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Grand Sable Dunes, here we come…

Today I head north for the Second Annual Sisters’ Hiking Trip. Last year we hiked some of the more rugged trail of the western end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This year we’re tackling the eastern end where we will find Grand Sable Dunes and the Au Sable Point Lighthouse. We’re purposely skipping Twelve-Mile Beach, which I hear feels more like twenty miles since the trail is all sand.

Depending on where we decide to park this time around, would could end up doing a fair amount of hiking with packs on, or slack off and set up camp first, then hike around with almost nothing in our packs beyond water bottles and cameras. I guess we shall see how masochistic adventurous we feel when the time comes.

As I packed up the new tent (which my son and I slept in in the back yard Tuesday night) and bought my rations and tested out my new water purifier, I couldn’t help but wonder…

Will we see any early color changes that far north? (My drive to Grand Rapids is already colored by bright orange and red sumac and a few blushing maple trees.)

Will we rise early enough in the morning to catch the sunrise?

Will we be so fortunate as to experience the Northern Lights before they calm down and move north for the next decade? (Apparently there was a huge solar flare Tuesday and the effects could be seen on Friday. Crossing my fingers!)

Will we see more wildlife than squirrels and insects this time around?

Will the promising weather forecast pan out?

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But beyond the questions is the certainty that there will be beauty to behold.

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Wildflower Wednesday: Common Yarrow

Yarrow

Common Name: Common Yarrow

Scientific Name: Achillea millefolium

Habitat & Range: dry, sunny fields, prairies, and woods

Bloom Time: summer

About: Another white, flat-topped flower (which is far less insidious and far more useful than Water Hemlock) you will find blooming this time of year is Common Yarrow. If you garden with perennials, you probably know there are many lovely cultivars of Yarrow to be found at your local nursery. Common Yarrow is a bit less showy, but a very useful plant that has been used medicinally for perhaps millenia to slow or stop the flow of blood from wounds (including by the legendary Achilles during the Trojan wars–hence the first part of its scientific name). It is a good companion plant in your garden because it attracts beneficial insects such as ladybugs and predatory wasps. Young leaves can be dried and used as an herb or cooked and eaten as a green. You can find many more uses and recipes in herbals.

Here it is growing alongside lookalike Queen Anne’s Lace:

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Yarrow is upper left and Queen Anne’s Lace is lower right.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000 (also Wikipedia)

Measuring My Life in Woodpiles and Cucumbers

Despite the fact that our Midwestern home is kept warm in the cold months with a furnace that runs on natural gas, we are the happy beneficiaries of the many lovely aspects of a wood-burning fireplace. In the winter months, we often have a fire roaring and crackling away, with the whole family (animal members included) lolling around in the living room, basking in its warm glow. By the time spring came around this year, we’d burned through our woodpile and were on to the odious task of buying wood from grocery and hardware stores–wood that was never quite dry enough and since we burned it, it really did fell as though we were burning money.

This year, however, our fireplace fuel needs have been taken care of thanks to an enormous dead sugar maple that we finally decided to dispose of before it crushed our house during a windstorm. It’s a good thing we acted when we did, as the modern-day lumberjack who took it down informed us that about half the trunk was hollow (including the root system).

NovFirst2The guys cut the big branches down to fireplace log size and stacked them up on the driveway along the fence. And, as I requested, they left an enormous pile of smaller branches for me to break down into kindling, which is what has occupied a fair bit of my weekend already.

There is something so ancient-Anglo-Saxon-peasant about breaking up sticks and bunching them together in containers. Not that my Germanic and British ancestors would have used plastic flowerpots to store their kindling, but…you get the idea. As I cracked and hacked and sawed and snipped each branch into size and created my bouquets of branches, I felt I was doing good work. Work that had a practical application in life. Necessary work.

I took a break for a while to collect ripe tomatoes and cucumbers from the vegetable garden and thought about chopping them up along with some onion to make a cucumber salad, another act of breaking something down into useful parts.

I think about the apricot/plum and blueberry jam I just made, about the impending autumn chores of raking and cutting back the perennials, of the winter chores of shoveling snow and scraping the car. And I find myself very much looking forward to spending the cold months in my cozy house as we somehow cope with the fact that my son is now in kindergarten and we wait to see the tangible results of much time spent writing and editing.

Life marches inexorably on without our permission in some ways and cannot move fast enough to please us in others. So we practice contentment in all things and carry on with the tasks at hand.

Time to get back to my woodpile.

What Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, Adele, Celine Dion, Bernadette Peters, and a Bunch of Other Divas Can Teach Novelists about Voice

A Facebook friend clued me into this great comic work that I want to in turn share with you. In it, Christina Bianco sings Total Eclipse of the Heart as more than a dozen different divas, most of which you will know if you’ve been listening (even accidentally) to the radio during the past few decades. Watch the video and then let’s continue with our discussion below.

You did watch it right? To the end? Don’t cheat!

Okay. It doesn’t take a very big leap to apply this fantastically fun video to writing fiction, does it? The same song sung in many different voices.

In your current WIP, are you purposefully cultivating a compelling voice? One that will be recognized? One that is unique? Or has voice slipped your mind as you focus on plot or making sure you don’t mix tenses?

Voice is one of the main elements of fiction that is nearly impossible to define or teach, but every agent and editor out there says they are looking for what? A strong voice. A unique voice.

Voice changes the reader’s experience of the book. With my first completed novel manuscript, the voice was originally fairly flat and matter-of-fact, which was purposeful as I wrote the first draft. But upon revising many times, I realized that the least interesting and least fully realized character in the entire story was my protagonist. Everyone else was alive. She was dead. Problem? POV and voice.

So I changed from 3rd person POV to 1st person POV, and as I made that change, the voice followed. A detached voice turned into the voice of someone who was easier to relate to, who had believable reactions to things, who questioned her own motives and choices, who was thoughtful and introspective, but who invited the reader into her world.

Same story, different voice.

Next time you read through your manuscript, pay attention to the voice. Are you coming across the way you really want to? Is the voice drawing the reader in or keeping him at arm’s length? Is the voice honest or tricky? Above all, whatever voice you develop, is it consistent?

Because while it’s fun to watch a six minute YouTube video with twenty different voices, no reader wants to be jerked around like that.