The NaNo experiment

Some of my favourite writing advice, but I still screw this kind of thing up.*

For November I ran a writing experiment (most everything is an experiment for me, a side effect of being a scientist in my day job), I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal was to write 50,000 words over the month. A whole horde of people do this, including a large group on my Pacific Island, there was even a steady stream of writing get togethers (I went to one).

The book I chose to write was book 3 of my Settler Chronicles series titled Abandoned Ships, Hijacked Minds, which can as simply summed up as space horror. By the end of the month, I successfully completed a first draft. Considering it’s a ‘shitty first draft’ I’m very happy with it – especially the ending. I’m itching to share it, but I need to finish polishing the first two books first.

So here’s what worked for me (and this is all common advice):

  1. I started with a moderately detailed outline, so I knew where I was going. Whenever I’ve tried working without an outline, I’ve always reached a point where I have to stop and write one. To write a book in a month (while working full time and not totally ignoring my family), I knew I wouldn’t have time to stop and worry about story structure.
  2. I found a writing buddy for support and we regularly got together to write. Find her here.
  3. I wrote every day, which went better than expected. My daily word count ranged between 200-2700. A migraine struck on one of the weekends (why do migraines always strike on weekends?), but I managed to do a bit of writing reaching the low end of my word count range.

With an outline to work from, I decided to start in the middle. Since I typically follow a three act structure, my starting point was the beginning of the second act (yeah, I started in that ‘muddy middle’). I came back to the beginning scenes at the end of the month. The reason I did that is my middle was full of action, which I prefer writing, while the beginning was focused on character development, which I find much harder to write.

I thought I’d be done with two days to spare. But, when I inputted my wordcount onto the official site, my total came to 49,999 words. I was a single word short! What was the probability, I’d get that close? I since added another few lines of dialogue, which put my comfortably over the required number.

I found NaNoWriMo a great way to get a draft novel done and I think I’ll do it again next year (assuming my writing buddy is willing).

*sadly I don’t know who originally made the zombie image

practice, practice, practice


These guys are now up.

It’s interesting how sometimes I notice the same idea coming at me from wildly different places. Lately, the concept of ‘practice’ has repeatedly emerged from very different sources.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast about Tetris (the 1980’s computer game). Compared to other video games out there it’s shockingly simple, yet it has endured in various forms since its invention. There is even a version on it on my computer right now. Tetris type games are my favourite type of games – mildly addictive and I never seem to tire of them.

The thing is, it’s impossible to win Tetris. No matter what one does, those blocks keep coming faster and faster until eventually they fill the screen. Every single game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot, I’ve lost. But winning isn’t the point, in fact, there is no set end point. Which links to the concept of practice, I can always play a tiny bit better, manipulate those shapes a little bit faster and that’s what keeps bringing me back.

I recently signed up for a new yoga class. The instructor has been talking a lot about practice and how it’s a way for an individual to push their own boundaries. There is no real end goal to yoga – well… enlightenment maybe, but that’s well outside my expectations in the same realm as winning a game of Tetris. For me yoga (or physical fitness in general) is not a project that ends. I can always push myself incrementally a bit further through deliberate practice.

Along the same vein, I just finished reading a writing book (The Creative Compass) that’s also advocating for a deliberate practice of generating words, a push to get ideas down. Although, I’m working on several finite writing projects (with my dissertation being the biggest) when I finish, I’ll simply start writing something else, a different project – I suspect there is no set end to my writing.

Gardening also fits into this practice model, as there are seasonal cycles but no real end. I can tweak what I do from year to year but it’s never complete – I can’t ‘win’ in any absolute sense (nor would I want to). There will always be weeding, planning, planting and harvesting to do. It’s the process that drives me, which is perhaps the point of considering it a practice.

(Perhaps parenting counts as another sort of practice as there is no real end state, no ‘winning’ just moment to moment choices.)

How to like squash


This is one of my fancy French heritage squash I planted last year (Sucrine du Berry), according to the seed package it is supposed to have “a sweet, musky fragrance and a delicious sweet flesh” – it just tastes like squash to me.

So I have a little secret – I don’t actually like squash (the exception is pumpkin pie, which is the best desert on the planet). I thought I would grow to like it, but it was recently pointed out to me that turning all my squash into curried squash soup only really means I like curry.

But, for the last few years, squash has turned out to be my most productive crop – I’m still working through the 67kg I harvested last year and there is only so much curried squash soup one family can stand. Which has left me with no choice but to experiment. So we’ve had coconut squash pasta (which was good, but could just be me liking coconut milk), squash and black bean burgers (also good, but I couldn’t taste the squash) and squash muffins (about as far into baking that I ever venture). All reasonable options for reducing my squashy stash.

The best option by far is lacto-fermented squash. Once fermented it’s ready in the fridge whenever, and is an easy addition to a plowman style lunch. I’ve only had it, so far, styled as kimchi, but there is plenty of opportunity to experiment here – but not with spaghetti squash (I fermented some last year and it was not good and I’ve since come across others who’ve tried and come to the same conclusion).

Anyone have other ideas on how to prepare winter squash for those of us who don’t really like it?


Plant Profile – Irish Poet Tassel Flower


Irish Poet Tassel Flower (Emilia javanica)

I thought I’d profile a plant I grew this year solely because of a pretty picture in a seed catalog. Most of what I grow is edible in some form as I’m trying to put my urban yard to good use. There are a few exceptions like cosmos and sweet peas – flowers that I grew up with and feel sentimental about. There are other perennial flowers I’ve been given which add nice colour. But, the Irish Poet Tassel Flower (Emilia javanica) was completely new to me and I’ve not seen it grown around here (if my neighbours were growing it I likely would have asked to harvest a few seeds). The rather cumbersomely named Irish Poet Tassel Flower is also known as just Tassel Flower and a red version I’ve not seen is called Lady’s Paint Brush.

The bright orange puff that makes up a Tassel Flower gives the illusion that Beaker from the muppets is lurking in my flower bed (I’m not the only one who thinks about muppets – I recently met a woman who named her rooster Beaker). The flower is kinda silly and orange is my husband’s favourite colour so I ordered the seeds (from here).


Looking down on a Tassel Flower

I had success both from plants I started early in a cold frame and from seeds I planted directly into the soil. This plant is a sun-lover and has flowered continuously since early summer without any deadheading making it a winner in my mind. Even though deer regularly visit my fortified food forest, not once did this flower get munched on (the local deer are not picky – they even ate all the potato greens). Tassel Flowers are potentially poisonous if ingested but the pollinators seem to like them. I also strongly suspect that Tassel Flowers will reseed themselves, which I’m okay with.


An Irish Poet Tassel Flower gone to seed

Native to tropical Africa, Tassel Flowers were imported to England in 1799. During Victorian times they were known as Flora’s Paintbrush I don’t know when they got their current name. The flowers are about thumbnail sized at the end of a long stock, potentially making them a nice cut flower (I always forget to do this). The leaves are thick and green, I found the entire plant quite attractive and dense enough to hide the mulch. Since they are an open pollinated variety, I collected seeds when the flower turned into a dried puff of parachutes like a dandelion does. I’ll be growing Irish Poet Tassel Flowers again next year.

some inspiring local gardens


The colourful flags look so cheery!

I went on a walking tour of local food gardens on the weekend – which resulted in me attempting to take notes while walking of new plant ideas (anyone heard of shisandra fruit?). I enjoyed peeking into other people’s gardens who were trying to do the same thing as me. So here are some pictures.


This family has converted their entire front yard to a combination of vegetables and herbs. In the poly-tunnel are sweet potatoes – which are already starting to set tubers.


Same yard as above with a view of their front yard chicken run (and more cheery flags). They collect water off the chicken shelter. On the right is a willow living arch over a sand box.


urban bees!


A local community garden bursting with growth.


a diversion to something icy

P1060542In words stolen from the old Monty Python shows – and now for something completely different. I moved away from the pleasant world of my garden to the arctic world I occasionally visit in this article over at Sustainable Collective, check it out here. I’ll get back to garden posts shortly.

Getting grubby with grubs


The grubs I found in the garden

I’m trying to get a handle on who lives in my garden. The mammals are easy: three primates as permanent residents, and transient squirrels, rats, raccoons and domestic cats. What interests me are the birds, insects, arachnids and other invertebrates (I’ve never observed any reptiles or amphibians – but some would be welcome such as garter snakes and tree frogs).

The arrival of spring means I must ready my garden beds for planting. To that end, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my hands and knees weeding. Being that close to the ground makes it easy to spot the slugs, worms, millipedes and grubs hiding in the soil. Slugs get fed to the hens. Worms and millipedes get a free pass as their presence is beneficial.

It’s the grubs I wonder about. Will they grow into a beneficial insect or one that will munch on my veggies? The picture shows a grub I’ve been finding a lot of lately. They are big, some the diameter of my pinky, and plentiful. I collected the three in the photo a few days ago and sent them to be identified. I don’t want to make the mistake of decimating the young of a carnivore that would hunt down the bugs eating my plants. Consider the fire-engine red, included-in-every-child’s-garden-book ladybug – it’s larvae looks like the inspiration for the mind-control-insect Kahn put into Chekov’s ear in the original ‘Wrath of Kahn‘.

My hope was the grubs were European Ground Beetles (Carabus nemoralis) – an beneficial and pretty beetle I often see in the garden. But they weren’t. The grubs are caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba), a moth with yellow wings as its name implies. This moth eats plants, so the caterpillars went to the hens.


European Yellow Underwing

As a tangent: both the European Ground Beetle and the Large Yellow Underwing are European invaders to the area. The beetle likely hitched a ride in the ballast of early ships from Europe, while the moth was released, by accident, in Nova Scotia in 1979.

Thanks to my husband for taking both these great pictures.

a few random tidbits


well-aged bird tags

Like the bird collection I recently went to have a look at in a nearby museum, I’ve been amassing an collection. Instead of preserved birds, my collection is electronic information. Here are a few links from my collection:

A few years ago, when I was stuck in Iqaluit on our way further north to conduct some field work, I went to dinner with a colleague. On the menu was Greenland Halibut – her study animal. She was torn on weather or not to try it. I had no idea at the time that eating one’s study animal to try it is a ‘thing’ (plus I study salt water). This scientist, had an opportunity to try lionfish, her study animal, which she found to be tasty. Greenland Halibut turned out also to be tasty – not surprising as there is a commercial fishery for it.

My adventurist other-half posted about some of his field work here.

A new material for solar panels (one from my brother-in-law).

I love the colour birds, insects and fish (there is even one mammal that does this too) get from iridescence. Iridescent colours can be seen in the sky too – here’s a post about it from Bad Astronomy.

Remember the jar experiment?

I’ve been a bit delinquent about jar experiment updates. I started with a sealed jar full of water from my fish tank here. It has been sitting on my desk ever since. A long time passed until anything grew. Now there appears to be two types of algae, a forest green scum on the sides (which can be seen in the picture) and something thick and black along the bottom. I must admit, I don’t feel inspired to open the jar as I fear what it might smell like.