Midsummer scrivenings

Let’s clear something up straight away. Today is the summer solstice, the longest day when the sun stands still awhile in a reflective pause. On Friday it is St John’s Day, which is the Christian festival most closely associated with solstice. Either today, or Friday, or anywhere in between or all of it is called ‘midsummer’, depending on your culture.

It is a mirror image of winter solstice (21st to 25th December being ‘midwinter’) and shares many of its attributes: the sense of hanging fire, pausing, holding the breath before the great cycle continues, the sense of nothing happening.


In the garden, the spring flowers have gone and the early summer poppies and buttercups are dying. Suddenly this week some yellow things appeared in my ‘nectar bed’ on the allotment, challenging those gurus who say that nothing in nature clashes. Put a marigold, a nasturtium with a face painted in Brahmin colours, an evening primrose and a buttery escholzia (spelling?) in a bed of blowsy scarlet poppies and sweet williams the colour of Indian restaurants and ‘clash’ is too sweet a word for the eye-popping effect.

Mullein on our neighbour's allotment

Sweet Williams

The yellow and the orange are the season’s markers, everywhere the yellow mullein like gothic spires attracting the bees.

Solstice was a major festival in the old days when every settlement had its stone circle the way every parish has its church. It was a day when people came together to mark time: the rest of the year they were probably a bit woolly as to whether it was Woden’s day or Thor’s day (or Celtic equivalents) except a village elder probably had the duty of keeping track. But when the sun rose or set at midsummer or midwinter, aligning with your stone clock, then for that moment you all came together, drawing disparate lives back into unity, and paused with the sun to take stock, either literally counting the cattle or metaphorically working out where your life stands.

Serpents and circles at Avebury by William Stukeley

After the horrors of last week, I’ve abandoned my Lippi book. Pamela Tudor Craig did send a postcard saying that the new version was wonderful. I read it once and didn’t think about it again. Isn’t it always like that? Praise evaporates while criticism sticks like tar. We almost prefer the criticism – the old black dog is a familar companion we’re quite fond of. But I got hauled out of it by Steven Pressfield’s new book, ‘Do the Work’ (highly recommended), and turned to my next project. ‘Don’t set yourself a start date,’ he advised, just as I was thinking, ‘Hmmm, I’ll read all summer and start at the equinox.’ ‘Start now,’ he said. So I did.

I am growing old. My powers are in decline. I don’t have the wherewithal to write another dense and complex trilogy – I simply can’t remember things well enough. My note taking these days is like that of the Sibyl of Cumaea, who wrote her wisdom down on tissue-thin leaves. Whenever anyone came to consult her and opened the door to her cave, the leaves whirled up into the air and came down in no order at all. My brain is the Cumaean cave when anyone says, ‘Got a minute?’, or when the phone rings. After any interruption, I can’t get the leaves to make sense again.

The Cumaean Sibyl, by the way, was an old crone, not the sexy young thing depicted by Renaissance painters. My mother’s name was Sybil. She came to me in a dream last night, aged about 75 and looking quite recovered from her death at 93. I do believe our ancestors get younger in the afterlife, and come to a rest around their prime (my father always appears in his 40s or 50s).

In the face of my own impending crone-hood, my plan is to write a book set in my locality, more or less, to cut down on travel. No more trips to Italy, then (sob). I also plan to write for young adults, aiming at simplicity and pace, hoping to surrender complexity for depth. I am not going my old route of writing first and structuring later. This time I’m structuring first, and I’m on day two of a trial of Scrivener.

Anyone else using this programme? It takes a lot of learning but so far I have hope that it will provide what I need: an external brain not susceptible to sudden gusts of wind, a programme which will keep all notes in one place, all web-snatches, post-its, midnight thoughts, character pages, plot ideas; then, having worked scene by scene to fill out my bare-bones structure, Scrivener will finally run it all together as a novel. Whoooooo! (Why do I doubt this is going to work?)

So almost all planting is now done in the garden and allotment. By the end of this week, the brassicas and leeks will be in, and winter crops sown. I read recently that local festivals coincide with the dragon force (fertility) in those particular areas. Our village festival is going on right now. I also read, on Facebook of all places, that broad beans grow from the seed of dismembered Osiris, hence the ‘agricultural embarrassment’ of their shape. I remembered all this as I picked our supper yesterday afternoon, crawling round the phallic beans thinking of Osiris and dragons.

All these things will be forgotten if we don’t keep memory alive. That’s what makes the job of the historical novelist a service to all mankind. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway, as I eat a bowl of cherries.

Happy summer everyone.

12 thoughts on “Midsummer scrivenings

  1. Yes! Scrivener is going to work just as it promises. I’ve written three books with it and would not think of using anything else. The key to putting the book all together is in the Editor on the right-hand side. There you check or uncheck the little box that says compile, and it puts together only the items you’ve checked, leaving the “I don’t know what to do with this” items out.
    As an example, I’ve just finished a whole pile of revisions of the stuff I wrote for NaNoWriMo last November. It was such a hodge-podge that I needed to separate the good parts. So I did the check/uncheck bit, told it to format what was left as a .doc file with chapter breaks, and within a minute I had 165 pages of double-spaced Courier . I then put that file into my Dropbox for safe-keeping while Io start working on the rest of the chapters. I’ll rearrange again later, when there’s more to the manuscript.

    • Thanks for the confidence booster, Carolyn! I’m way off compiling a document – still reading my way through the manual in daily chunks, but learning lots as I go.

  2. Hi Linda, I enjoyed your post today on so many levels. I, too, have a yard that is redressing itself in its summer blooms; I am in the middle of writing Book Two in my trilogy and can’t remember all the little details that I so lovingly included in Book One (but I’m sure that my readers will, should I make a mistake!), and I am suspicious of all of the new computer programs out there which claim an ability to make my disheveled writer’s world neater/tidier/easier for me. Good to read Carolyn’s experience with Scrivener. Think I’ll give it a try as well. (Learning a new program like that IS an acceptable reason to procrastinate further writing on the new MS isn’t it?)

    • Ouch to the last sentence! Guru Pressfield says to get writing without further ado, but I do think historical novels require more prior effort, don’t you? And once we get into note-taking, order is demanded. On my PC I use a programme called Treepad which is beautiful and very easy to learn; Scrivener works on the same principle but it’s the difference between a Mini and a MacLaren. My latest discipline with written notes seems destined to fail. I bought a set of school exercise books and allocated one to each of my reading ‘stations’: wherever there’s a book, there’s the notepad. But in practice it’s not working too well since I carry some of the books from room to room but the notebooks are staying put. Mad, huh? Anything but settle to work, as you say…

  3. I love my scraps of papers held together by paper clips, my ragged spiral bound notebooks, and my pile of reference books tagged in hundreds of places with colourful sticky notes sprouting out all along their pages’ edges. Can’t say I feel the same about any of my computer files… ha ha! I’m just old school, I guess!

  4. You’re absolutely right, Diana. I love mine too and do not mean to give them up – they are so right brain – but I do need to organise everything at the next level. These days information does sometimes snow like Sibyl’s leaves. When it comes to the first draft, I shall do as I always do and write it longhand – again, a right brain activity connecting us to the art. Perhaps I need help now not just because of declining memory cells but because of lack of space. The last time I was at this stage, my study was the size of a master bedroom (it was the master bedroom – I slept on the sofa). Now it’s a box room and my desk is tiny and I sleep in the master bedroom with the master.

    I bought a reference book yesterday which I already have but can’t find (!) – it was cheap, one section is bound back to front, and there is nothing holding me back from writing all over it in biro. What joy!

  5. I loved this post Linda- particularly the way you moved elegantly from cosmic musing through planting and picking beans, to discussion of what seems an awesome computer program. I was deeply shocked however- at myself: I hadn’t realised that it was Midsummer! Perhaps the continuous rain and gloom and sheer chilly misery of this summer has finally got to me. As I write, angry rain is pelting against the glass, and I am dressed in boots and winter clothes. OK, so I chose to live in Cumbria- and it is very green.
    Thank you for the welcome distraction from my task of ploughing through my heap of dog eared sheets, unstuck stickies and elusive notebooks. I may come to Scrivener yet!

  6. …and of course it isn’t Midsummer anymore- that was over a month ago! As if I needed proof that senility was setting in! It’s alright for rain to chuck itself against my windows now- it’s practically winter. The year gallops on apace and I am dragged unwillingly with it. Why does life pass so much faster now? Why do I forget things? I sense there is no cure and no answer… but there will be an end.

  7. Oh Connie, don’t despair! My cure for whizzing time is to stop, take a break, spend a few minutes just staring at something – usually a bird. You must be a gardener if you think it’s autumn already. IWe’re always two months ahead of everyone else, which is great in spring but not so good right now. ‘m currently sowing winter crops and have to keep pinching myself and saying ‘It’s only August!’ The weather doesn’t help, I was sitting knitting a woolly scarf this evening while a gale howled outside. I expect you’ve got all that horrible rain forecast for the north. Hope you don’t get too much! So, mob violence, double-dip recessions, awful weather, but WE’RE WINNING THE CRICKET. So don’t despair!

  8. Thanks for that comfort- and despair is something I don’t normally do, although if I think too much about the insides of those kids’ heads…. ! But yes, you’re right, looking at birds, or flowers or the mountains always does the cheer-up job for me. There are so many insects round my windows that wrens and young robins are clinging to the sills and appear to be looking in at me in their quest for food. Now that’s a really good reason for not cleaning your windows!

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