Wildflower Wednesday: Water Hemlock


Common Name: Water Hemlock

Scientific Name: Cicuta maculata

Habitat & Range: wet, sunny meadows, ditches, my garden

Bloom Time: summer and fall

About: Last week I mentioned that Queen Anne’s Lace was in the carrot family and the root was edible (as a coffee substitute). Water Hemlock is also in the carrot family. It looks very much like Queen Anne’s Lace and like Cow Parsnip (also edible). The taproots even smell like carrots. But DO NOT CONSUME any part of this plant in any fashion as it is Michigan’s most poisonous plant. Just a small amount will cause convulsions and then death. If you have children or pets and you see this in your yard, eradicate it. Pull plants up by the root and throw away. Don’t add them to your compost pile (I’m not sure anything bad would come of it, but better to be safe than sorry).

When we moved to our house, which has several wet spots, I saw quite a bit of this plant but thought I had successfully removed it. When we came home from two weeks’ vacation earlier this month, I found a couple lurking in my vegetable garden and near the driveway. Weeds always seem to find a way. I pulled them up before I thought about taking photos, so I borrowed a photo from my friend and butterfly/dragonfly photographer extraordinaire David Marvin.

I’m also going to direct you to this website for many detailed pictures of the plant so you know what’s what when you think you’ve encountered this plant. The telltale sign is the leaf, which has veins that end in the V of the serrated leaves rather than at the tips.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

Finding Your Story’s Triple Point

Remember in high school chemistry class when you first learned about triple point? No? Let me refresh your memory. The triple point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the three phases of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) coexist in a kind of equilibrium. It’s not any of the three and yet it’s all of the three at the same time. Mind blown. In our class we used to annoy the teacher by asking what the triple point of human flesh was.

Here’s a handy chart:


The triple point of your story (and I’m just making this up here, folks–it’s not a real thing so don’t bother googling it) is when all the right elements of your story come together and you reach the point where you can really take off writing. It could be research, outlining, and a sudden burst of inspiration. It could be characters, plotting, and finally landing on the right point of view. It could be just the right combination of procrastination and pressure (looming deadlines!) It might be a hundred different factors finally converging and giving you the perfect kick in the pants you’ve been waiting for.

In the Bartels household the past couple weeks there’s been a lot of flirting with literary triple points and I think I’ve just reached mine.

Ah, the happiness and contentment one can feel with a good start on a big project. I’m two good chapters into a new novel, one that has been brimming with possibilities in my mind for some time but which has had several false starts and one fairly detailed and then discarded outline. I’ve been struggling not with characters, themes, or plot, which are all firmly implanted in my mind and loosely drawn out in a series of notes, but with form. It was the last piece of the puzzle I needed in order to really get started, to reach the triple point.

Any time you are trying to tell a story in the present that has parallels to and lessons to learn from the past, it can be hard to decide the best method for revealing the important parts of the backstory–especially if the backstory spans a long time period. I’m personally dealing mostly with 150 years of a family history. It feels like a lot to wade through to decide what is most important and determine the best method for slowly uncovering that information in the course of the narrative. But my husband (who is also a writer) is working on a new novel where the backstory covers centuries and crosses oceans. But he too is right there, hovering at that triple point.

I’ve had a few aha moments in the past few days, moments that rendered my earlier outlining fairly useless, but moments that may not have happened if I didn’t first try something that didn’t quite work for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to salvage most of the writing, removing chunks to save for later in the book and revising the remainder to lay the right hints and focus on the right thematic elements. I did kill some darlings in the process, but of course that is inevitable.

Now I feel some real inertia and the road ahead looks pretty clear. The trick will be to harness that and make the time needed to use it wisely.


What are you working on right now? What problems are you facing? What happy moments of clarity have you experienced? Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of reaching your story’s triple point?

Wildflower Wednesday: Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne's Lace

Common Name: Queen Anne’s Lace

Scientific Name: Daucus carota

Habitat & Range: dry, sunny meadows and roadsides statewide

Bloom Time: summer and fall

About: So many of our wildflowers are non-native European garden plants that have escaped, and this is one of them. A member of the carrot family (and thus a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies) Queen Anne’s Lace is a common and well-known plant. I recall hearing the story behind the little cluster of dark red flowers in the center as a child: that Queen Anne (whoever that was, I was not sure) was making lace and pricked her finger with the needle and a drop of her blood got on it. But now I’m fairly sure handmade lace is made with a tiny crochet hook (right?) so I’m thinking Queen Anne must have had to work pretty hard to draw that drop of blood. At any rate, her namesake plant is now considered an invasive, though I’ve not heard of any plans to rid the state of it.

The root of Queen Anne’s Lace can apparently be dug, dried, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. But beware that in the family of flat-topped flowers (which we shall explore in the coming weeks) there are many lookalikes–and some of them are deadly. So hold off on making that “coffee” until you really know what’s what. Next week: water hemlock.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

Here’s what’s become of Queen Anne’s Lace in the fall.

How to Find the Best Beaches in Michigan’s U.P.

Mosquito Beach
One of my favorite places in the world: Mosquito Beach.

I don’t typically highlight websites on this blog, but in preparing for my upcoming hiking trip to Grand Sable Dunes and other parts of the east side of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (and also in thinking about August’s short story) I happened upon this excellent website: Some Yooper Beach.

For the uninitiated, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is locally referred to as the U.P. (pronounced Yoo Pee, not “up”) and those who live there are called Yoopers. This particular Yooper has done the world a great service by visiting TONS of U.P. beaches and then describing them and sharing photos of them on his website. If you have ever thought of visiting Lake Superior, spend some time on this site first to see which part of the 2,726 miles of shoreline (nearly 1,000 of which are in Michigan) you would most like to visit.

Mosquito Beach
We spent more time at Mosquito Beach than any other place on the trail.

Another handy website is the Lake Superior ShoreViewer. What it lacks in interesting commentary, it makes up for in comprehensive photos of what appears to be the entire Michigan shoreline. Though it would be super nice if you could zoom in on the photos (which you can’t).

I’ve added both of these sites to my page of Michigan Links. If you didn’t know about that part of this site, why don’t you go check it out now? I’m sure you have tons of time to waste, right?

Beach at Coves
The beach near Coves campsite.

The Mad, Mad Adventure of Writing to a Title

Ideas for writing come from all over–overheard conversations, awful dinner parties, a moment in time that hits you just right and sparks something inside of you that can only be described as the literary gene. But sometimes, you have to make the ideas come. Like when you’re on a deadline, self-imposed or not.

For several of my short stories this year I’ve started with a title idea and/or cover image rather than actual plot or character ideas, and it’s been interesting to see where that leads my writing. Because of this, I’ve run into a rather interesting situation I thought I’d share with you creative types out there.

For August’s short story I started with a title which I drew from a quote from Virginia Woolf’s diary where she is describing a total solar eclipse that she and her friends saw. I loved the phrase “the astonishing moment” which she used to describe the moment the eclipse was total and the light in the world simply went out. So I pulled that phrase out and thought it would make a compelling title to write to. I popped it on a photo I took up at Lake Superior whilst hiking Pictured Rocks last summer and thought perhaps I’d do a story with hiking as a backdrop. Here’s the cover I came up with:


But then Saturday night when I started to think about getting started writing, I decided to reread the section of Woolf’s diary that had inspired the title and pull out a quote with which to begin my story. Here’s what caught my fancy:

“We kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over—this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out . . . . How can I express the darkness?”

~Virginia Woolf

Clearly that quote and my original cover concept do not match.

Rather than lose the pathos of that quote by omitting it and just writing the story I had (very) vaguely formed in the back of my mind, I decided to try again at the cover art. I pulled a photo I just took up at Mackinac Island, manipulated it a bit, and came up with this:


Clearly this new image does fit the quotation. I’m pretty sure the story will not be about hiking. I’m pretty sure it will be “maritime” in flavor. And I’m pretty sure some bad things will happen to the characters.

And that’s all I’m sure of.

Storm clouds gather over the Mackinac Bridge

Storm clouds gather over Mackinac

This is one of my favorite shots from my recent trip up to Mackinac Island. More to come later, but I wanted to share this one with you. Besides the incredible storm clouds rolling in from the Upper Peninsula, what made this photo (and the rest from this particular twenty minutes or so) such a pleasure is that no one was around when it was taken. Solitude during the peak season on Mackinac Island is hard to come by sometimes. And I really needed it that night.