Hope for Spring: Prince Charles’ Duchy Home Farm

Snow pea seedlings in a pot.
Tiny snow pea seedlings on the balcony. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We just watched DER BAUER UND SEIN PRINZ (The Farmer and his Prince) about Prince Charles’ organically run farm. I ordered the DVD from the local bookstore here in Germany. Oddly, it’s unavailable anywhere in the Commonwealth.

The film made me think about growing things and raising chickens. For years after failing with chickens the first time, I didn’t try again because it felt too frivolous and too much of a luxury to keep hens of your own when you knew you could buy eggs, even organic ones, at a fraction of the price.

The film reminded me of what matters to me. The farmer kept going into the middle of various fields and pulling out a plant or a handful of dirt and explaining why it was better or stronger or different than the plant/dirt in the control field. The smell of the good garden soil in spring is so hopeful.

The film gave me a new view of cows. Their cows loll around in a huge barn with deep hay bedding, looking for all the world like bovine matrons in the Roman bath. Comfortable is not a word I connect with cows in a barn. Resigned or placid, but not comfortable.

Prince Charles demonstrated how to make a hedgerow. He leaned thorn trees at a 30 degree angle and then wove all kinds of other things into it. There were lovely photos of established hedgerows covered with blossoms with flocks of birds sailing in and out of them. My resident zoologist has been saying this for years: Hedgerows are good habitat.

Prince Charles’ farm manager said that the average age of farmers in the UK is 59 and young farmers are needed. My youngest is interested in farming so we all perked up our ears. He also said that many young people don’t seem to have had the kind of practical childhood that would help them with farm skills. We’re all brought up to sit in front of computer screens these days.

It’s hard to move toward the future, even when you are convinced it’s worthwhile to do so. We resisted getting a car for three years because we know that petroleum reserves are already so low. But now we have one even though I wanted to go everywhere by train.

I’m wondering how I can contribute to conserving the soil and growing more organic vegetables on my balcony. It’s easy to say: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” But there are always seeds to plant.

In January, I looked up a planting calendar for my area and planted snow peas in a big pot outside. Now they’re coming up. We can’t eat them yet, but they make me welcome the rain.

It’s like writing a book (or reading one). You don’t get guarantees about how it will come out. But we know, inside ourselves, that the attempt is worthy. Even if we fail, this is what life is about.

 

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Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

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Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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