Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Setting in a novel

NaNoWriMo is coming soon, and I’ve resolved to do it this year. I have an idea, I’m excited about it, and I’m beginning to outline it so that next month I can sit down and fill it out into a 50,000+ word novel in one month.

It turns out that, previous novel experience notwithstanding, I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew last time that plot was a weak area for me, and I’m determined to improve this time around, but I’m having trouble materializing concepts about love and familial obligation into events that take place in three dimensions, which is where my characters live.

With Post Rock Limestone Caryatids, my previous novel, I had distinct settings, and I basically placed my characters in them and let them flail around and figure out what to do. I took much inspiration from the Flint HIlls prairie, where I live. Writing about the prairie was one of my essential motivations for writing the book, and some of the highest praise PRLC got was about my nature writing.

This time around, I’m writing from a dream. The heroine, Stella, is a farmer and a witch. She lives alone, because her mother and sister, years ago, disappeared. She obviously spends a lot of time outdoors, and she works with plants and, I suppose, some chickens. So the location of her farm is going to be pretty relevant.

At first I was thinking New England. It’s a natural place for witches, and there are beautiful old mountains to place a family farm, and lots of trees and water. The problem is, though, that I don’t know how people farm in New England, and I don’t know any particular places to work into the story. My New England experience is largely limited to a summer in Boston, twenty-five years ago. Nice city.

It would be sensible to place the book in the Flint Hills, to write what I know, as the adage goes. I’ve done a little work on a farm in this region. I know the climate and landscape well. But when I imagine Stella on the open prairie, she doesn’t seem to fit. I don’t know that I have more to say about the prairie at this time. I don’t see Stella as a rancher, and I don’t see the prairie as the place for all the changes she’s going to go through.

At this time I’m kind of leaning toward an imaginary place, with temperate forests and abundant water, with cities closer than they are out here (it’s 75 miles to either Topeka or Wichita, which some wouldn’t even consider to be cities at all). A place with very old trees, rich soil, roads and streets that wind among ancient mountains. A place with a culture that’s been more or less continuous for at least a couple hundred years, as opposed to the 150 or so since the Native Americans were kicked out of Kansas and replaced by the Europeans.

There’s freedom in making up my own place, but in some ways it’s more work. Most of the writing about the prairie in PRLC came directly from my own experience. At times, when I didn’t know what to do next, I could close my eyes and recall the prairie and feel the answers, or even go there and hike and listen to the sound of my boots on the earth and stone, or watch turkey vultures ride the wind overhead. How could I not write such a place?

I have just under a month to figure out where Stella’s farm is located. Then the marathon begins.

Readers, what are your thoughts on setting, on writing place, on preparing for NaNoWriMo?

How could I not write this place?

How could I not write this place?

The Stolen Hall Pass

I can do what I want, Prue said so. So there.

I can do what I want, Prue said so. So there.

I found this object while clearing my parents’ house. It was in a box of stuff under the bed I used to sleep in when I was in high school, along with flows from past debate rounds and papers I wrote for classes. It took me a while to remember what it was, and piece together why I had it.

Looking at the red plastic thing, I finally remembered it was a hall pass. I don’t remember having a lot of times when I needed to be out in the halls, but, like many teenagers, I bristled at the thought of being required to justify my movements. It seemed that high school was mostly about acquiescing to rules. My brother had a rockier time of it than I, and he got kicked out once for giving somebody a ride to school (long story). I loathed what seemed at the time to be a highly authoritarian structure, at the expense of learning anything really consequential.

What’s more, it seemed in those years that everyone had an agenda for me, that my own needs and desires were the least of anyone’s concerns, that I’d best keep my feelings buried if I wanted to get through my four-year sentence. I’m getting short of breath just thinking about it, the suffocating hierarchy, the mindless spouting of rules and policies.

Prue Schmidt was one of my favorite teachers. She headed Emporia High School‘s gifted program. I always suspected I hadn’t really passed the test, but that she had fudged the rules and let me in anyway because she liked me. (Years later I ran into Prue and confessed my suspicion; her response was that not only was it not true, but that if I thought that, she hadn’t succeeded at her job.) The only regular class I ever had with her was called Critical Thinking, and consisted of a few kids going to a pizza place after school and talking about whatever we wanted to talk about. But I had periodic meetings with Prue in her office, and sometimes I just liked to go there, for any excuse I could think of. There were usually other kids hanging around, some working on projects, some maybe debating current events.  Prue loved “her” kids, and she wasn’t afraid to confront the school’s administration on our behalf. Prue’s office was like a sanctuary to me. She listened to everyone without judgement. She didn’t hold back her own opinions, but it was from her that I learned the phrase, “agree to disagree.” (I confess it was quite a few years later that I actually learned to do it.) She acted ethically and lovingly, but without much regard for rules. Prue had my back.

Why did I hang onto Prue’s hall pass, which I’m pretty sure I never used, and not even return it at the end of the school year? It must have had a symbolic meaning to me. Having it meant I could wander the halls at will. It was power. It was freedom. It was unconditional permission. Years before J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter, I had a magical object to rival Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. No one could harass me, if I had Prue’s name sticking out of my back pocket. Whatever kind of jam I might get into, this thing would keep me safe. Prue would back me up, even if I had stolen her hall pass.

I’ll be attending my thirtieth reunion soon, and things look a lot different now than then. I have a lot more sympathy for anyone trying to run a school of 1200 adolescents, and those people with agendas for me probably truly believed that their agendas served my best interests. Nonetheless, I still sometimes find myself going through life as if I’m waiting for someone to give me permission to live, to make choices, to follow my passion rather than some rules or expectations I learned so long ago I don’t even remember where they came from. While writing my novel, I realized I often felt I was stealing time from my family to write, and I desperately wanted someone to give me permission to ignore the housework, and dedicate myself to what I most wanted to do. The day I found the hall pass under my old bed, I thought I’d return it to Prue, who’s been retired for years, with a letter thanking her for her positive influence on me. But since, I’ve decided that I’m not done with it. I can still use an occasional reminder that I am free, so I’m keeping it on my desk. I have permission, Prue Schmidt says so.

Your Good Old Days Are Right Freaking Now

Rachel Creager Ireland:

I met Bryn Donovan at Knox College, and she wrote good poetry back then. Now she has an MFA and writes romance novels. I recently discovered her blog, where she shares writing tips and practical wisdom.

Originally posted on Bryn Donovan:

In a great moment in the finale of the TV show The Office, the character Andy realized that a job he viewed as a way station rather than a destination is one that he will miss terribly.

In the past week, friends of mine have kids who are going to grade school for the first time, and off to college the first time. Transitions like that can be bittersweet or downright painful. But the end of an era is the beginning of another one.

It’s easy to think that happiness is located at some time in the past: back when I was in college, back when the kids were little, back when I had that job, back when I was in better shape.

And it’s just as easy to think that happiness is something that will happen some time in the future: once this semester is over, once I find…

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When Dreams Change

The Palermo house is being auctioned today. It might even be over by now. I’d love to see who gets it, and I’d love even more to see what they do with it.

This spectacular house stands out in Cottonwood Falls as one of the grandest residences. Maybe too grand for modest Chase Countians, because sometime in its past, it was broken up into twelve apartments. In the 1970s, the Palermos bought the house and began restoring it to its former beauty. They knocked out twenty walls. They gutted rooms and replastered the curving walls. They removed excess plumbing. They lived in the house while they worked on it, and continued to live there after reclusive Kain Palermo fell ill, and restoration was halted. It remains unfinished.

I’d always wanted to see the inside of this house, and I’d sometimes fantasized about owning it. Living in it. I’d pass occasionally and gaze at the ornate urn in front of the porch, at the wide screened sleeping porch upstairs, the round attic window. Overgrown hedges and trees looming close to the house gave it a secretive, haunted feel. It’s a house I might well find myself inhabiting in a dream, one of so many, in which I walk the rooms, imagining what I’ll do in each, feeling the satisfaction of calling this place my own.

Hundreds of people came to the pre-auction open house. I imagine that they, like myself, had been under the spell of the Palermo house.

As I walked through the expansive, empty rooms, the parquet floors gray with wear, the spell broke. It’s a glorious wreck with immense potential. Contrary to the many dreams I’ve had of possessing a place like this, I find at this time in my life I have not the slightest shred of desire to own this house in the waking world. Let someone have it who has the skills, ambition, and resources to resurrect this grand old dame into the spectacular home she was meant to be.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

It’s been quite a busy summer. I’m a personal assistant to two children, which is a job I never thought I’d be competent to perform. Early in the season, I bought a Passion Planner so I could keep it all together. I love how the planner has a place to write the focus of each week, though too many weeks all I can think of to focus on is simply getting through the week.

I had ambitious goals for this summer. I was going to do a project every month. June’s project was renovating the spa, but that has dragged on much longer than I’d hoped, and I’m thinking about coming to a stopping point and moving on to the July goal, which is to publish a story which has been waiting for a book cover for several months, and to do some more original writing. Not to mention getting caught up on both my blogs, and promote them more actively. But even scaling back my goals doesn’t get me through the days. This week I’m going with one Girl Scout troop on an overnight trip, and planning, organizing and supervising a full day event for the other troop. In between, a dear friend who lives far away will be in the midwest, and bless her, she’s going to take a day to come out to the sticks just to see us.

Keeping on top of it all is a constant challenge. I’ve tried coffee, but the extra energy seems to come with even greater propensity to flit randomly from one task to another, so I’m not sure there’s a net improvement. A little yoga and meditation are perhaps more beneficial. I saw on facebook or somewhere that some famous yogi said that everyone should meditate for at least ten minutes per day, unless one doesn’t have time, in which case, twenty minutes. So I am making the effort to prove that ten is enough for me.

Today I was doing my usual practice: after a little yoga, I cool down and end in corpse pose (savasana), in which I listen to my breath, attempting to take a full breath in and out without a thought. There’s always a thought, though, but for some reason I always think the next breath will go better, so I try again. Sometimes I do get almost to the end of the inhalation before a thought comes. Today somewhere in the middle I heard a voice asking, “Been in the dungeon?” Oh no, I haven’t been—wait a minute, who’s been in the dungeon? Who put you there, and why? It was Mariah, the little waif/saboteur with whom I had meant to make friends. But today she says I put her in the dungeon because I wanted to prove that I was in control.

Before I could figure out what to do with that, I heard a ruckus in the yard. Blue jays are known to be annoyingly loud, and from my observations this summer, I’d say they can be alarmist as well. That crow-like screech is their alarm call, as well as warning to any creature they consider a threat. When the threat is resolved, they make a pretty cuckoo-like signal. The screeching was louder and more urgent than I’d ever heard, even from blue jays, so I looked out the patio door and sure enough, there was Wildy the cat in the tall grass (mowing was one of the things I haven’t had time for this summer) playing with something gray in front of her. Damn! It’s been nearly ten years since we’ve had blue jays, since the year Wildy’s predecessor 23, (may he rest in peace) killed all the babies, one by one, as they flew the nest. I’ve regretted ever since that I didn’t keep him inside that day.

There was no time to lose, so I decided to let my pants lie where I’d left them on the ottoman and ran out in my underwear. Two adults were swooping and screeching all around, and in the middle of it, cat and fledgling were facing each other off. Not waiting to see what would happen next, I grabbed Wildy by the nape and wrapped both my arms around her as I retreated. Inside, we watched from the patio doors while the bird hopped over near the door, mom and dad screeching incessantly. (They can see us through the doors, though they don’t know that fixing the doors so they open and close is another project that hasn’t made it to the top of the list yet.) But I watched long enough to see the juvenile hop on both legs, and stretch and fold both wings, so there’s a pretty good chance the bird was uninjured. Then I closed the curtains to give the poor parents a break.

I might have looked up the symbolism of blue jay earlier in the summer, but a drama such as this is what happens when one ignores the more subtle signals. What does Ted Andrews have to say about blue jay?

“For those to whom the jay comes as a totem, it can reflect lessons in using your own power properly.”

The power comes from both the spiritual and the physical realm, as blue jay moves between worlds. “The main problem will be in dabbling in both worlds, rather than becoming a true master of both. Those with a jay as a totem usually have a tremendous amount of ability, but it can be scattered or it is often not developed any more than is necessary to get by.”

“If the jay has flown into your life, it indicates that you are moving into a time where you can begin to develop the innate royalty that is within you, or simply be a pretender to the throne. It all depends upon you. The jay has no qualms. It will teach you either direction.” Okay, jay friends, I hear the message loud and clear, but damned if I know how to live any better than I am right now.

Fifth Disease

A bit early, I did a semi-annual review of my goals for the year, and was pleased to see that I had made good progress. But there was still so much I wanted to do. I bought a planner so that I could visualize how it was all going to fit into the rest of the year.

It wasn’t even the solstice yet before I hit a wall. I couldn’t get a thing done. If it could conceivably be put off, it was put off. I’d made exciting plans to do some renovations in the spa, which would concur with raising my prices; but suddenly nothing felt worth the effort. Instead of pushing myself to do just a bit more every day, I was doing a lot less. I was antsy to write (how long has it been since I last blogged?), but it wasn’t in the planner till July, and I wanted to be making more money for massages I’d be doing along the way. On top of that, working out the summer schedule of gymnastics and camp and swimming lessons made me feel like a personal assistant to my two children, and I’d always known I’d be a terrible personal assistant. I can’t even do that stuff for myself.

The I got a rash all over my body, and I put together a veritable list of disparate symptoms which had affected me or my younger daughter or both of us, she a week ahead of me. Headache, low-grade fever, malaise; which disappeared, followed by a red rash all over the body. It sounded like fifth disease. It’s not a very serious disease, and probably half of adults have had it, but most don’t even remember, or didn’t have noticeable symptoms at all. She’s already forgotten about it, but I got one symptom she didn’t: aching joints all over.

Now, I’m only on day three of the aching joints, but it is a little disconcerting. Is this what it feels like to be old, or to have rheumatoid arthritis? Taking epsom salt baths and doing slow yoga before even attempting to make breakfast? It was worse today than yesterday, but I could work through it; when a client didn’t show, I went back in the house to lie down and meditate upon this condition. Failing that utterly, I went to the internet. RA Warrior discusses the similarity between the joint pain that often accompanies fifth disease—particularly in adults, particularly in women—and rheumatoid arthritis. So I looked up the symbolism of rheumatoid arthritis, and found this from Misa Hopkins:

“Rheumatoid arthritis is about being angry with yourself for what you did not do or accomplish that you think you should have done. It includes a deep criticism of authority and a feeling of being very put upon.”

Well, that hit a nerve, even as I thought, I forgive myself so much. I really do, I’ve worked hard at it. It’s just that I want to write, without my family having to make sacrifices to support me in it.

Perhaps 90% of people who get joint pain from fifth disease recover completely, usually within two weeks. I intend to do whatever is necessary to make sure I am one of them. See me writing, right now?

Made for me by dear friend Amy Carlson (yes THE Amy Carlson!)

Made for me by dear friend Amy Carlson (yes THE Amy Carlson!)

Some Days

I’m supposed to be finishing the Costa Rica journal, but instead I’m writing poetry. Some days are just like that.

Some Days

Some days feel heavily burdened by
a miasma of inertia. The work refuses
to get done, the kids whine and refuse too.
Some days nothing works, no effort bears
fruit everything is a futile struggle, and the only
thing to do is to recognize
the hopelessness of it all and quit. Give in
to your children’s demands to go to the pool,
get there fifteen minutes before closing,
be in the water as long as you can,
until the whistle blows. Because—
remember this—on days when trying
doesn’t work, not trying doesn’t work
either, it’s just a little easier, a little more
likely to precede an inexplicable
moment of sublime grace when you
suddenly notice you love everything,
the dust on the wall, chigger bites,
the tomatoes you still haven’t planted
and the picnic you’re planning. Simple pleasures
like the swimming pool and the city band
that plays music in the park. Quit fighting,
and notice it’s a remarkably nice life you have.
Notice the way time passes and
every moment is slightly different
than the previous one, until it’s another season,
you’re middle aged now and it’s okay.
Accept that nothing works, and get in the water,
be in the water as long as you can, until
the whistle blows.


So there was this one time when she was in high school, she was partying in a dorm room with some college guys, who were giving her and her girlfriends some kind of greenish mixed drinks they called bullfrogs. They were generous with the liquor, not at all concerned that the girls would drink it all. At some point she found herself alone in the room. Everyone had gone off to another dorm room, but she hadn’t left with them, probably too queasy to move. Finally she dragged herself off the bed and up the hall looking for her friends, but halfway there she barfed all over the floor. It was right by the lounge, where a college girl was watching TV on a couch, and the college girl said, “That’s gross! Are you gonna clean that up?” and she said, “Yeah, I will. I’ll clean it up.” And not because you yelled at me. The other girl obviously didn’t believe her, but they both knew there was no point in arguing. You don’t know me, girl with acne watching TV in your dorm on Saturday night. Just because I’m a teenager wearing too much make-up and jewelry and barfing drunk with some boys whose names I already don’t remember, doesn’t mean I’m the kind of person who would leave my own barf stinking on the floor. She went back down the hall to the room she’d come from. Naturally there were no cleaning rags on hand; the best she could find was a bath towel hanging on a rack above a sink. She hated to use what might be the guy’s only bath towel, but wouldn’t it be worse to leave barf all over the floor? So she took it up the hall to the lounge, and wiped up everything she could find, taking extra care because she was so drunk she was sure to do a sloppy job. She went back down to the room and rinsed the towel in the sink, and because her mother had taught her that you never wipe a spill with just a dry towel, you always go back over it with a damp one to get all the sticky residue, she took the towel up the hall again and wiped the floor so thoroughly that Nerdy Girl finally said, “That’s good, thank you.” Then she went down to the room and hung the towel back on the rack by the sink, feeling slightly regretful that she’d used a good bath towel to wipe barf off the floor.

This was not the last of her partying days. She continued through high school, college, and well into her twenties, after she’d fallen in love and married.  She didn’t clean up her act until she had children, two beautiful, brilliant daughters, at which time she was surprised to notice that she didn’t really miss partying at all. Long after the children were old enough to sleep on their own, she would lie down between them at bedtime, their heads one on each of her arms, until they fell asleep. Listening to their breath, she would entertain herself by thinking about old times, giggling silently to herself when she imagined that guy—the one in the dorm, feeding mixed drinks to underage girls in his room, yeah that shithead—waking up hungover, blearily stumbling to the sink, reaching out for his only towel and finding it clammy and—she can only hope–still stinking of barf and alcohol.

Wined Towel

Snow In May

Dear friends, it is I, Veronica Speedwell. Perhaps you thought you’d heard the last from me; But no. Spring positively requires poetry about flowers, and that is a job for me, whether Rachel likes it or not.

Snows of the Prairie

White fluff falls from the sky
of a glorious early spring day.
Cottonwood seeds catch the breeze:
Snow in May

The sunflowers peak and die back—
summer’s last ember.
White heath breaks into bloom!
Snow in September.

white heath by fence

Professor Lucretia Blackwing

The kids wanted me to play outside with them. Be a Hogwarts professor, they said. I had a million things to do, but it was a fine day and it seemed reasonable to take an excuse to do the outside stuff instead of the inside stuff, so I said I would, because: about a month ago, I got spring fever and bought some tomato seeds and planted way more than I have space to grow, and I’ve never had much success with tomatoes from seed, until this time. So I needed to prep a bed for them. I told the kids I’d be Herbology professor and we’d study nightshades.

So I started digging and first thing, Kiran (Hogwarts name Lila Blackwing, because she is my daughter in Hogwarts world, and I am Lucretia Blackwing) asked me what I wanted to teach about nightshade. She said it made her think of “deadly nightshade,” and I concurred that some nightshades are deadly, but there was one in particular that we commonly eat. She was not able to guess it, even when I told her that what I was doing at that moment was a hint. Finally I told her tomatoes.

Rowan (Hogwarts name Stella Galaxy) was in a more academic mood (I always think she should be a Ravenclaw, but she was a Slytherin today), so I told her to go inside and get my Jeanne Rose Herbal and look up nightshade and write me a report on it. She couldn’t find the book so she started searching the internet. Conveniently, her computer is next to a window that overlooks the tomato bed-to-be, so I told her to search “Solanum,” and she found an enormous amount of information. I’d forgotten, myself, that potatoes are nightshades, too. She took lots of notes, but I haven’t seen the report yet.

I dug until I hit some concrete, and couldn’t plant a tomato there. Kevin came home from church and we got ready to go the the in-laws’ for Sunday dinner. So it was a fruitful morning. I did a small amount of gardening, got some sun and fresh air, and progressed in my ongoing lesson that magic is absolutely real, and everything is magical, if you’re willing to look at it the right way.

Photo by Rowan Ireland

Photo by Rowan Ireland


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