You can’t always do what you’re supposed to do

papers on a desk
Some of the notes about this story I’ve been scribbling over two years.

There’s a live Arlo Guthrie album (I can’t remember which one) in which he’s talking between songs, and at some point he says, “I know I’m supposed to be singing. But you can’t always do what you’re supposed to do.” To which the audience roars approval.

It’s true. You can’t always do what you’re supposed to do.

The second Fatecarver book (Fatewalker) is with the editor, and I really should be working on book 3 if I want to keep the books in the series coming out at a reasonable pace for my readers.

But a couple of weeks ago when I sat down to start book 2, a different book began pouring out of my fingers onto the keyboard.

It was like a flash flood. Within a few days, 15,000 words of a book I shouldn’t be spending time on right now had flowed out. I gave in and have let it flow. I don’t even have a title for the story, which has been kicking around in my head since New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown in 2020, but it’s already over a third written.

Here’s the gist of the story. I can’t wait to be able to share it with you. If things carry on this way, it won’t be long before I can.

Alex Blackburn has inherited all her Grandmother’s possessions. And all her secrets.

When she discovers an ancient book on summoning spirits among Gran’s books, she … sort of accidentally summons one of them.

It’s three metres long and looks like a centipede. 

And it’s just eaten Gran’s dog.

She drags Gran’s neighbour, Shelby, into the drama because the book came from his great-great-great-grandmother. Alex can’t work out how to get rid of the demon, but maybe Shelby’s inherited some of his ancestor’s ability with magic.

Or maybe he’s just terrified of centipedes.

While the demon munches its way through the neighbourhood pets, Alex and Shelby scramble to find a way to send it back to where it came from before it …

Has babies.

This fantasy set in small-town New Zealand will have you sitting on the edge of your seat (while checking underneath it for centipedes), and cheering on Alex and Shelby as they bumble their way around magic and each other.

10 Garden Hacks

A few days ago on an online group I’m part of, someone asked about people’s life hacks.

I thought about it for a while and realised that I spend so much time in the garden, that my ‘life’ hacks are mostly garden hacks.

So here is a list of 10 of my many garden hacks:

  1. Cut up empty milk bottles to use as plant tags.
  2. Give your chickens the run of the vegetable garden during winter—they’ll keep pests and weeds down and make springtime garden prep easier.
  3. Recycle old cotton sheets and clothes, and raffia baskets as biodegradable plant ties.
  4. When picking carrots, water well about an hour beforehand—the soft soil will make the carrots easier to pull.
  5. When thinning carrots, remove the largest plants first—the small ones will grow, and you’ll be able to eat your thinnings.
  6. Instead of tossing empty juice bottles in the recycling bin, fill them with water and line them up in the greenhouse—they’ll store heat during the day and release it at night. Paint them black for even more heat absorption.
  7. Fill plant pots with cement to use as weights for things like bird nets and row covers. Give them wire handles threaded with a short section of irrigation pipe so they’re easy to move around.
  8. Whenever you cook something, like pasta, that is boiled and drained, save the boiling water and pour it on weeds to kill them instead of sending it down the drain.
  9. Plant summer lettuces in the shade of tall crops like corn to keep them from bolting too quickly.
  10. Plant rangy crops like pumpkins next to early crops like brassicas—by the time the pumpkins grow large, the brassicas are gone and the pumpkins have space to sprawl.

Guerrilla Art

We spent a night in Wanaka last week before our tramping trip. While wandering around town looking for a likely spot for dinner, we came across some poems stuck onto a bridge railing. 

Like a Banksy painting, the poems were certainly not ‘legal’ and were no doubt frowned upon by the local authorities. But also Banksy-like, they made passersby smile and think.

Years ago, when my husband and I lived in State College, Pennsylvania, we regularly took our walks in the agricultural fields near the edge of town. Along the path, shortly after leaving the neighbourhood, someone had installed a tiny section of sidewalk. Embedded in the concrete was the poem ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ by Shel Silverstein. There was no indication of who had installed the poem, and it was tucked away beside the field as though it had been surreptitiously installed in the dead of night. 

There are municipally sanctioned examples of Guerrilla art—art that appears in unlikely places. The poetry among the rocks along Wellington’s waterfront is one example. But there’s something particularly delightful about the non-sanctioned art—the amazing sand sculptures people create on the beach, the sidewalk chalk drawings that proliferated during lockdown, the splash of graffiti on train cars. It’s an expression of life and spirit, a proclamation of something uniquely human, a statement about human lives.

I think we all could use a little more guerrilla art in our lives. Thanks to the Brownston Street Bard for your lovely contribution. May the ink continue to flow from your pen.

The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

skink
One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

October Book Promotions

Whether you’re heading into autumn or coming into spring, October is a great month for reading. (Okay, EVERY month is a great month for reading!) This month, I’m participating in a pair of promotions with other authors, so if you like fantasy, get ready to go wild, because there are some fabulous reads here.

The first is a selection of free Fantasy books for Children and Teens. The selection includes The Dragon Slayer’s Son and a whole bunch of other great books. Definitely worth checking out!

The second is a fabulous group of fantasy books ranging from teen to adult titles that includes Fatecarver. Check out the list. Who knows? You may find your new favourite author here!

Inspiring Landscapes

When I was writing my Dragon Defence League series books, I delighted in placing my characters in some of my favourite places in New Zealand—the mountains of Fiordland, Kahurangi National Park, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, and many others.

But New Zealand’s landscapes infuse my latest book, Fatecarver, even though it is set in a purely fantasy world.

While I was writing Fatecarver, I kept imagining specific places in New Zealand. I sat on a peak near Arthur’s Pass and imagined my characters there. I scribbled down descriptions of real views, storms, trees, and hikes to use in the book.

I took the New Zealand landscapes and mixed and mingled them with favourite places in the United States, Panama, Peru and Bolivia until the Fatecarver world included elements of a lifetime of adventures. 

Many of my fellow authors are adventurers like me. We take inspiration for our writing from dramatic landscapes and other settings we’ve experienced. The landscape becomes a character in its own right, thwarting other characters’ plans, throwing up challenges, or providing aid at a critical moment. Just like real landscapes do.

Natural landscapes play a huge role in my own real life adventures—it’s only natural to include them in my fictional ones.

Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.