The Stories That We Tell

As a writer I am always happy to hear from readers and it has occurred to me more than once that what I love best is the fact that so many readers share their stories with me. Often they do this because something in one of my books has touched a chord in them–that of memory, that of love, that of pain. I realize what a privilege it is to have people share in that way, to tell me of something personal, of something which has impacted their life deeply, echoing into the present day. We are all an accumulation of stories. From our first breath to our last, we tell of our experiences, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams and our sorrows. And while we often feel our story matters only to us and those who love us, it’s really not true. There are times our story will help another through a difficult time or allow them to see a bit of hope somewhere on the horizon. We have to be willing to be vulnerable though, to have story tell truth. I think we need to be willing to lose something, to give some part of ourselves away with the understanding we may get nothing in return–or we might get everything, for that is the risk of telling your soul in story.

  And so what is story? Story is the collective experience and the deep buried truths of being human. I mean the really old primordial truths, the ones which come clothed in fur and long teeth, flashing with razor-sharp claws and ancient scales. Story is loss, renewal, pain, joy, hope, disappointment, grief as deep as the sea and every bit as wide.

  Story is heat, it is fire–the old one, the flame of the ancient mind, the place where we huddle when all the world falls apart around us. Story is a well, where we are drawn down at the end of a creaking rope into deep waters–those of the unconscious, thick-dark as ink, glowing with the beginnings of life.

Story is comfort. It keeps the night at bay, so that we might shelter for a bit from a world that often seems too fast, too ugly, too concerned with the matters of commerce, disconnected from that of spirit. It is the lantern at the dark forest edge.

   This is a time of intense vulnerability. A time that will long be part of our story, both the personal and the collective. It is a time to sink deep, reconnect with our inner landscape, find our old touchstones, to warm ourselves by the flame of collective experience, of story passed from grandmother to granddaughter, to breathe upon the embers of soul and re-ignite the fire of deep time thought.

  At times I imagine this sheltering in place is a time to dwell within the crone hut of the mind, the way back mind, the one deep in the forest of subconscious. The crone knows all the old stories–the dark ones with blood upon the ground, where all is lost only to be found again at the end. On her table is a scrying stone of darkest obsidian, where we can see our reflection–the true one which is that of soul. It is here we get old time instruction from the crone, which are the things of the earth and our place within it. We have forgotten that, but she has her ways of reminding us.

   To tell story is to plumb the depths of our pain and to mine the gold of our joy–to tell story is to warn, to heal, to guide. We all do it, every day, in all the small tales that we spin and speak. It is to bind our brokenness and move forward with our cracks in the knowledge that all is as it should be.

   This time will long be part of our story, both the personal and the collective. Story is useful, particularly those of people who have lived through this sort of thing before, even if it’s only written down somewhere, like tracks in the winter snow that we can follow until we find our way back to spring.

   And that is what we are all doing right now–huddling by the fire of story, hoping to escape the worst of winter’s cold and find our way out to spring. So what I am saying is this– keep telling me your stories and I will keep telling you mine. Story matters, story is who we are.

Letting Go

Last night I woke in the wee hours with the insistent drumbeat of two words thrumming in my head– Let Go, Let Go, Let Go. Let go of what, I found myself asking as I woke again far too early– one AM this time. On my better nights I make it to 4:00 or if I’m really lucky 4:30. Those hours of the night are good for doing a whole lot of thinking, or roaming into some dark terrain, which I call ‘white night’ wandering.

Mostly though, I’ve been relying on the comfort of books, while curled in the nest of blankets and pillows, window wide open to the night and its noises–the occasional car, the susurration of night breeze in leaves, the occasional hoot of an owl, or the cry of a distant fox. As it turns out, there is company to be had even at three o’ the clock. Sometimes if I can’t read another word, and I just long for sleep the way I long for a hearty meal these days, I’ll take some potion which opens that back gate into the Land of Nod. There are a variety of these–some prescribed, others truly in the realm of magical thinking, as though breathing in strange rhythms will take away my thoughts.

All my literary company has been in the pages of non-fiction books, settling in around a campfire with myth-tellers and manic depressives, with the yarn spinners and the slightly mad. As it turns out, they are tremendously good company. During the day I keep company with my own people- both the corporeal and the ones of imagination, though in truth I think the latter are very real too, and they sustain me in such wonderful ways. They have become another family to me, built through long years of acquaintance and love. I forget disease, I forget sorrow, I forget uncertainty and live in their world with all its sorrows, troubles, joys, love and beauty. They have been such a blessing and a sanctuary for me this last while.

Over these last few months, I have felt alone, not necessarily lonely, just alone. This journey now has a lot of uncertainty built into it, which is by turns, terrifying and exciting. Normally I am a person who has a very strong sense of self, even as a small child I did, maybe it was because I lived so deeply in my imaginative world (yes, even then) that I didn’t need too much of the constructs of the outer. I’m still that way, though being a rather hermit-y sort of person doesn’t make the journey of disease any easier.

It’s a strange time of life, feeling neither kith nor kin in some ways. Out of place, alone, uncertain. And yet, none of these things feels inherently negative, just a bit discombobulating with a strong sense of skinlessness, porousness, as though I have no shield between myself and the world- it pours through me–both the beautiful and the sad. Some days I’d like to be able to shut it out, but I don’t think that’s what this time of my life is meant for, so again I let go of what I think I want, and try to be with what is.  

For the first couple of months after my diagnosis I felt haunted by my auntie. I now have the same disease which killed her. Of course then, no one knew what it was and there was no diagnosis for her until an autopsy was done. My aunt raised me for the first six years of my life, and I stayed with her and my uncle and cousin every holiday after that, and always for several weeks of my summer. Her home was home to me, that place where you are loved and accepted and can just be. And now I have an inkling what that last while must have been for her. We thought she had the flu, but then she got terribly confused and didn’t know where she was, and so my dad- her brother- took her to the hospital, by that night she was in a coma, from which she emerged for one brief day a week later for an afternoon. By that night she was once again in a coma, from which she never again emerged. I now know why–she had hepatic encephalopathy, which is basically a toxicity of the brain caused by the liver cancer no one knew she had. So she was confused and probably very afraid. She was also only thirty-six years old, and leaving behind a seventeen-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old niece, who looked at her as her mother. She knew that, and asked to see me on the one day she emerged from her coma, but the hospital said no, because I was not her actual child, even though I was in all the ways that mattered.

I have the clearest picture of her from that last night, just before she was taken away to the hospital; she was on my grandmother’s couch, and the sun was setting. It was this time of year, in fact the anniversary of her death just passed last month. She was haloed in the light, sitting in a pool of red-gold, and she looked so tired and terribly distant, as if she’d already gone into a far land where the rest of us could not follow. It is a picture I have carried with me for forty-two years now. I have always hated August since then, it’s just a month I put my head down and get through. I feel relief when September arrives. But this year, I don’t mind it so much because I feel kith with my aunt, and in a place of understanding. The woman I am now, wishes she could cross that space of my grandmother’s living room floor, and simply take my aunt in my arms, and tell her how much I’ve missed her all these years. How much I wish she had known my girls, my husband, my books (oh how proud she would have been of my books. She was a reader like me, a book always on the go, and several more waiting. I’m pretty sure she would have loved Casey too.:)). I write in part for her, whose life was cut so short, who loved words and escaping between the pages of novels. I write also for my grandmother, her mother, who was never the same after my aunt died–because you never can be once your child is lost.

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go. Let go of what, I ask again. And the answer comes to let go of the pain of loss, let it be an old friend, but don’t let it steal your breath, and tighten your chest as though your heart is the weight of a stone. Let go of the expectations of your life, which even though you told yourself you didn’t really have, it turns out you did. My life was a fairly straight road for a long time, now I think I’m on a meandering cow path, bare-footed with a tongue stained with blackberry juice. There are hedgerows all around, and I can’t quite see over them into the next field, but that’s all right, the view will be all the better if and when I crest that hill, turn that next corner and see what’s ahead.

And so I open my hands, one finger at a time, and let fall the things which are no longer mine to hold.

Just Where It’s At- Book Five, That Is. :)

I like to provide a bit of an update when I’m entering into the final six months (or less) of working on a book. That’s where I’m at with Where Butterflies Dream right now. My hope is to be done by the end of October, or November at the latest. That will give me time to get the edits done, get it out to my formatting guy, and get it back in time to release it for St. Patrick’s Day- that’s the dream at this point at least.

Parts one and two are done, part three only requires finishing one chapter. Part four has a few chapters to complete and it needs some re-structuring and sorting so that it fits better with the flow and timeline which precedes it. Part five is a bit of a mess currently, as is part six. Part seven is the final section of the book and is nearly done, barring one scene in the final chapter. The last lines are written though, and I hope when you read them you get a good shiver, or maybe even cry a little.

A lot of what I do at this point has to do with seeking balance within the story itself, weighing one story line against the next, interspersing chapters so that there aren’t too many emotionally heavy ones all clustered together, nor too many political/historical chapters weighting one section too heavily. Each of the main characters needs their story told, though some storylines get combined if two characters are both affected by events. And of course there are new characters, or rather ones you glimpsed very briefly in Shadows, who now take centre stage for a bit. Trying to find balance also means getting rid of scenes I really love, but which now just don’t fit the overall flow of the story.

Size is, of course, also a consideration. Being an indie author I have constraints on just how large my books can be, and In the Country of Shadows was right at the edge of the limit. The ms. for Shadows clocked in at 322,500 words, and Butterflies is already sitting at 238,500 and I’ve got two major storylines to wrap up, and a third I will have to remove and save for another book. Keeping it under the limit is probably the biggest challenge I’m facing as I head into the home stretch here.

So in summation, I still have a lot of work to do, but I believe it’s doable to actually still bring the book in on time. Health allowing that is- I’ve already lost six weeks to not feeling well. I do think the worst is behind me though- at least I really hope it is, and that I can spend the time I need to for concentrated bouts of work. So onward and upward- and hopeful for an October/November finish!

Life, The Thing That Happens

Last week, my husband lost his job of 25 years, and I was diagnosed with stage two non-alcoholic liver disease, all within 48 hours. Emotionally, I’ve been all over the map for the last seven days. Optimistic one minute, crashed to the bottom of a pit the next. This morning I am definitely in the pit. My husband’s job was one of those new bosses coming in with a big broom and getting rid of old management situations. I saw it coming about six months ago, but I also didn’t. My husband tends to be fairly positive and optimistic, and I’m the cynic in the relationship, but because he thought things would be okay, so did I. We believe what we need to believe in the moment, I suppose.

The liver disease came as more of a shock. I’ve had pain under my ribs for years, but I always thought it was radiating from a vertebrae I have which isn’t quite in alignment with the rest of my back. I don’t drink (I might have four drinks a year, but inevitably it makes my head ache, so I tend to avoid it), don’t smoke, and usually eat a fairly decent diet and get regular exercise. This disease, as it turns out, is probably what killed my aunt (who raised me for the first six years of my life, and whom I have always considered my first real mother). She too didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, but unfortunately did have a great deal of stress in her life. She died of liver cancer, which is where this disease lands if it goes undiagnosed for too long. I did have it all checked out five years ago, and all my tests were clear. Still, I wish I’d gone in earlier—this time I’ve ended up with jaundice and bruising on my abdomen—I didn’t know you could actually bruise from the inside out, but yes, as it turns out, you can.

Either of these things would have sent us for a tailspin. I guess like Wile E. Coyote, we don’t see the anvil poised over our heads until it lands on us. Well, it landed with a thump last week, let me tell you. My husband did nothing wrong and they didn’t even give him a reason for letting him go, they just did it. He gave 25 years of his life to them, and always went above and beyond, including thousands (literally) of unpaid hours for them. Companies all seem the same in this regard these days—they simply have neither heart nor soul. We’re not exactly spring chickens, and he was only three years out from early retirement, so this has been such a blow to him.

I don’t know what the future holds, and while none of us do, currently mine seems completely blank—I can’t see a picture of it at all. I’m struggling to make huge changes to my diet, at a time when we have to cut right back on any and all expenses. Eating well is not cheap, as I’m sure most of you know. All of it feels exhausting, and I find myself truly overwhelmed. Other times I buck up and think of the people in my life who have had far worse things happen to them, and managed to get through it, or at least learn to live with it, despite what must often go on inside of them. In other moments I simply want to get in bed and pull the covers over my head for a few days. I have generalized anxiety, and of course it has shot off the charts this last week, and with my liver, I can no longer take my meds—so I stress about what the crazy anxiety is doing to me physically as well. And yes, I’m exercising, but it’s only taking the edge off right now. I think I’d need to run a marathon before I could bleed of this much anxiety. Stress always turns to anxiety for me, it’s my body’s default setting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it’s simply how I’m wired chemically speaking.

I’m not sure what all this will mean for my writing as we move forward. I don’t make enough money as a writer to sustain a household—not even close. So I may be looking for outside employment, which will put an end to writing much of anything for a while, I suspect. This is a really hard and bitter pill for me to swallow—writing is like breathing for me, I don’t function all that well when I’m not doing it. Unfortunately, I just have never hit that plateau where the books sell themselves, and I’m coming to grips with the fact it’s not likely I ever will. I’ve always had to advertise, which of course costs money—so at present, ads are something I can no longer sustain either.

I know often people don’t understand this—because the comments are said to my face—but writing is really hard work, which requires laser focus in order to do it well. I never want to put less than my best effort forth, and of course in times like this when my brain feels scattered it’s that much harder. And my self-esteem takes a hit, so I look at the book and think it’s a big horrible mess which will get terrible reviews if it ever sees the light of day.

There’s so much other stuff swirling in my head—it’s quite possible we’ll have to move and I hate that. I love this town, I love living here, my parents are getting older and starting to need more help, my girls are here or nearby, as are my grandbabies. I don’t like cities, and don’t want to live in one. I hate the thought of someone else living in my house, maybe ripping out the trees and roses I’ve spent years growing—it literally hurts my heart just to think of it. The world probably sees my type as a fool—an overly sensitive fool who loves the small things and wants to take care of them. I feel like so many of the people who succeed (in the way we seem hellbent on defining success in the West) are not good people, not kind, and not caring about what or who they destroy. Please note, I did not say ALL people who succeed, but a good number of them these days.

For now, though, I’m going to put my head down—once it stops spinning— and finish Butterflies (book five of the Exit Unicorns series) but until I have a better idea of how things will play out for us financially, I’m not sure I’ll be able to actually produce it for sale come March, or whenever it is done and edited.  I know many of my readers don’t realize that I don’t have a publisher, and therefore any and all expenses for production of anything—physical books, audiobooks, bookmarks, etc comes out of our pocket. So if the money isn’t there, there’s nothing much I can do about it. It might be there by then, but it’s quite possible it won’t be.  I’ll try to let you all know closer to the time, if I’m going to be able to put the book out for sale or not.  It’s not that I wouldn’t make my money back, I would, it’s just whether I can front it at the time.

Fortunately, the book is mostly written and I know working on what’s left will become a place of refuge for me—I love being in their world, because I totally forget about mine when I’m with them. I think I can still finish it by the end of this year, but if I’m not happy with it once it’s done, I will take the time to rework it until I am happy—or as happy as I ever am with my work.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy, by the way. When I’m upset, I tend to write it out, and that’s how I begin to sort it out in my head. Right now, my thoughts keep running in unproductive circles, so this is my attempt to start getting my head in some sort of order and hopefully begin to move forward in a less manic fashion. Also, I’m going to ask you really nicely not to tell me that change can be good, etc. I’m not in a place where I want to hear that right now.

I will find my fighting Irish spirit soon, I’m sure, it’s just taken one too many body blows this last while.

Building a Chapter

These last few days, as I was writing, I thought a lot about what goes into each chapter, how each one is a singular thing which also must fit within the overall arc of where it’s placed within the book and also within the book itself.

I’ve been slowly stripping out bits and pieces which don’t belong in the book, or simply aren’t necessary to the narrative. One thing I’ve had to fight with myself over is taking a step back and realizing that not every chapter needs to be a work of art, some chapters are simply bridges which connect two other pieces of the story, or further the narrative.

I often write upside down, starting in the middle or even at the end of a chapter and working my way backwards until I arrive at the beginning. This latest chapter was one of those—I started in the middle and worked my way out and wrote the opening last. Sometimes I know how a chapter ends, but I don’t know where it starts, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.  This was one of those ‘workman’ chapters where I need an introduction to events that will unfold throughout the book. These are often the most difficult chapters for me to write. I know what needs to be done, but no lovely bit of prose is there to start me off, or some chunk of dialogue that tells me what’s happening; it’s just a blank screen and necessity. 🙂 So I know the information I need to convey, but the chapter also needs to have life in it, as well as fitting into the flow of what comes before and after.

I begin by asking myself where the chapter takes place, and the answer is clear—Pamela’s home. So then I ask what time of day it is, and when I stand inside the house and look around it’s clear to me that it’s early morning. No one is in the kitchen with me though, so I go up the stairs. Pamela’s asleep with baby Kathleen tucked in beside her. It’s a peaceful morning, and even Conor and Isabelle are still asleep. There’s someone downstairs though—I know it’s the nanny who works for Jamie, she’s sleeping in Lawrence’s old room. So a peaceful morning which is then shattered by a knocking on the door—and now I understand how the chapter will play out structurally. I know who is at the door as well, even though I’ve never seen him before.

  It’s early in the book so I know I have to remind people of what has happened to Pamela in the previous book, so that they know why someone knocking on the door would cause utter panic in her, and that’s a matter of balance—too much and it could become a long exposition of the history from the previous book, too little and people may not remember exactly what she has been through. I need to build in the effects of what has happened to her—and show it on the page. She’s worried not only for herself, but also for her children who have also been traumatized by recent events. So I know in this chapter I have to touch on her panic, her fears for her family, and also have a dialogue between her and the man on her doorstep that introduces the story line which will run throughout the entire book. This is both the centre and main purpose of the chapter—why is this man in her home and what does he want? This dialogue matters because it will set the stage for so much that follows. So I need to establish enough of who he is to give readers a sense of him. Dialogue is often a good starting place for me simply because I find it fairly easy to write- I can almost always tune into a conversation between two characters and the chapter can be built out from there.

Then of course the question becomes how to wrap it up? I like every chapter to have a closing line which feels like a closing line, not merely the last sentence on the page before we turn the page to a new chapter. It should feel complete so that the reader is ready to go on the next chapter as something fresh, though also connected to what’s come before. But of course you have to build to that closing sentence within the space of a paragraph or two. So then I have to consider what Pamela is feeling now that the man has left and she’s got a minute to breathe and think about things. Often chapter endings are a good way to summarize feelings and add in a bit more detail about where the character is at emotionally and mentally. So internal monologue often works well to end out chapters—this is one of those things I know in a logical fashion, but that I rarely think about when in the actual process of writing.


*At times it felt that her life was no longer known—like looking into the face of someone who’d once been beloved, and finding that she did not recognize them. And so she had made the conscious choice to love that which was no longer familiar. One had to choose to love the stranger’s face each and every day, and this she would do, because quite simply, there was no other choice to be had.*


And now it’s time to write the opening paragraphs and to immerse myself in that feeling of being deeply asleep, and having someone suddenly pound on your door—with the addition of already being very jumpy and prone to panic because of what happened to you in the last book.  What does that feel like and what are the mechanics of getting down the stairs with a barking dog and a little boy and toddler underfoot while juggling a newborn? Then there is, of course, that all important sentence to open the chapter, every bit as important as the final sentence closing it out. I agonize over opening sentences the most of anything within a chapter; the sentence needs to be fresh, and I have to decide what it’s going to do. Is it merely descriptive, is it serious, is it humorous, or is it meant to convey specific information? In this case I wanted something to convey the general feeling of the household, but more specifically from Pamela’s POV, because that’s the lens through which this chapter is told.


* SLEEP BEING—at present—a more precious commodity than gold in the Riordan household, Pamela found herself feeling rather homicidal toward the person who had the temerity to knock on her door early one morning three weeks after Kathleen’s birth.*


  Last I read through it to make certain it makes sense, has a nice flow to it and that I haven’t repeated details—something that is often an issue when you write out of order. I get rid of anything awkward, and touch up the details—the way a character appears, expanding on a bit of description and fixing any dialogue that doesn’t sound natural. I re-read the opening and closing few paragraphs, making certain the entry and exit of the chapter make sense and have a unified feel. In this particular case I couldn’t figure out the chapter title until it was completely done. Sometimes I’ll have a chapter title to start and then the chapter flows from there, but mostly I sift the chapter once it’s done and find that little nugget which suggests itself as the obvious title.

Last week I finished up a chapter which was purely descriptive of a passage of time in the characters’ lives—there’s no dialogue and the action is at a distance, we’re observing rather than participating. I use chapters like that to let the readers take in a deep breath, and because often all hell is about to break loose in the chapters that follow. So I need a resting place just for a beat of the story, and descriptive, narrative passages which cover a bit of time, work really well for that.


   *May swept past, June dawdled a little, and July was a glorious sweep, bringing long hours brimming with simple joys—a wild apple tree loaded with fruit, a pair of kits who travelled tumble-drunk with new life, following in the wake of their mother, a patch of wild strawberries, sun-warmed and sweet, and the utter happiness of watching the children flourish in the deep, summer light.*


So eleven pages, 3266 words, three days of writing and I have another completed chapter, and I’ve just established the groundwork for the trajectory of an entire story line.

And people wonder why big books take so long. 🙂

copyright 2019 Cindy Brandner Where Butterflies Dream

Immersion, Obsession and FAQ

The final year of working on a book is always a strange one. I often feel that I live in an alternate universe most of the time, emerging to make and eat meals, do laundry, walk dogs, and cram in the occasional visit with family. For the most part though, I live and breathe Belfast and all the other locations the book visits, and live the lives of Pamela, Casey, Jamie and company. It’s always a bit of a jolt to come out of my reverie at day’s end and realize I have to cook. It’s going well right now though, as I’m in that zone of immersion and obsession with the story. I could probably tell you more right now about a little cottage hidden away in the woods, than about what my (incredibly messy) office looks like.

So on to a little housekeeping here and answering questions that people have been asking.

Will Bare Knuckle or Spindrift ever be in physical format?

The answer is yes—eventually. This last year has been really production heavy— three audio books with all the attendant work that comes with that—editing the master files, as I always like to take the opportunity to fix things I missed with the books on the previous edits. Also the first three books being put out in hardcover versions, which also requires re-formatting, etc and all the fees that come with any new editions we choose to put out. This year will be incredibly busy with writing, if I’m to finish Butterflies by my self-imposed deadline of November. I think I can do it, as things are going along quite well at this point. But that means I can’t take on too much extra with producing different formats of previously released books.  I understand and appreciate that not everyone does digital books, but it’s simple for me to put out my shorter works in just that one format.

Part of the problem in producing all the various formats lies in the fact that people often think they want these additional formats, but when it comes right down to it, they don’t buy them in the end. I have to at least be able to make back my set up fees for the various formats, and unfortunately that’s not a given. I really have to weigh whether each story, and each edition of said story that I publish will be able to pay for itself.

The next question that I know will be asked once ‘Flights of Angels’ is out in its audio version will be, ‘When will ‘In the Country of Shadows’ be out in audio?’ It’s a fair question for which I don’t really have an answer just yet. It’s hugely expensive for me to have these produced. They are long books and good narrators like mine don’t come cheap—nor should they, by the way, lest it seem like I’m complaining. This last year I finally filed for my withheld taxes from the IRS, and used that for the bulk of paying for the production of the audio versions. I also ran a GoFundMe with perks, which so many of you were kind enough to participate in. However that was a lot of work and of the $6600 that was raised, I managed to keep roughly $2400 once the hardbacks were paid for (my cost on them) and the shipping on all the various books and prints was totalled up. Still, it was a big help in paying for the production of ‘Mermaid in a Bowl of Tears’, and it was fun, as well as pushing me to get the hardbacks produced. I’m all set for ‘Flights of Angels’, but alas that’s where the well runs dry financially speaking. I’m still tussling with the IRS over one of the years of withheld taxes, and it’s due to an error of theirs, but so far I can’t seem to get that straightened out with them. If I can get them to see the error, and they release the money, I will be able to fund Shadows at that point.  I will eventually get all the books done, but I don’t really know when at this point.

Right now I also need to consider the production costs for Butterflies—formatting, setting it up with the printer, and the cost of that initial run of books with the printer. I know this is all rather boring talk, but I try to be transparent with the reasons I can’t always get things done in a timely fashion. It generally comes down to two things—time and money. Which is true for so many things in life. On a side note, I plan to have both the hardback and softcover available from the get go with ‘Where Butterflies Dream’.

‘Where Butterflies Dream’ is a bit of a sprawling mess right now, but so was Shadows at this point in the process, so I’m not letting myself worry about that too much. Chunks of the book are in place—by that I mean runs of chapters and sections that are pretty much done, which means while it’s still a sprawl, it’s one with good supports in place. If all goes well, I’m looking at another St. Patrick’s Day (St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 just to be clear)

nature orange butterfly silver bordered fritillary

Photo by Pixabay on

release, or the closest Tuesday to it, as Tuesday is release day in the book world.

One thing I can tell you about Butterflies is that if you cry as much reading it as I have in the creation of it, you’d best stock up on your tissues in preparation.

The Underpainting of Pain

The dictionary defines underpainting as ‘paint subsequently overlaid with another layer or with a finishing coat.’ For me, this has become a very apt metaphor for chronic pain. For the last five weeks or so, I’ve been on a bit of a journey, all because of an ad I saw on Facebook. The ad was for an app called Curable, and as it was a slow, grey Saturday when I stumbled across it, I didn’t scroll past with my usual rapid FB perusal. I clicked on the link to go find out more about what it was. It might be one of the smartest (albeit unknowing) clicks I’ve ever made.

At first I wasn’t certain what I thought about the app, it seemed a little too airy-fairy to me to be something that would actually be useful. You see, I’ve had chronic pain for a little over three years now. Even before that, going back many years, I had it on and off. On the rare day when I wasn’t experiencing some level of pain, I would feel ‘off’ and it would take a bit to realize it was because I had no pain. It’s amazing what we get used to, and what becomes our ‘normal’. Recently though, it had gotten to a place where I couldn’t manage more than ten minutes in my chair in front of the computer before I had to get up and try to find a way to bring the level of pain down. I was beginning to fear I’d never be able to finish my work-in-progress- book five of the Exit Unicorns series. Fear is a small word actually for how I was feeling- I was terrified. Because I love writing, I cannot fathom my life without it. Just the thought that I might not be able to write loomed like a big dark pit in front of me.

Over the years I had tried everything, and I should probably pause here and clarify- my pain was in my back but had migrated around the front of my ribs to the extent that my doctor was doing all sorts of tests on my liver, wondering if there was something dreadfully wrong with it. As I said, I’d tried everything- yoga, stretching, wheels, therapeutic massage, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, pain patches etc. It had gotten to the place where anything I did, including massage, was only providing temporary relief- as in a few days, and then the pain was back (no pun intended) with a vengeance.

Anyone who experiences chronic pain can tell you that it grinds you down, and it starts to really limit your life. I was starting to weigh activities based on how much I was going to pay for it in pain dollars a few hours down the line. I’m fifty, and the thought of what my body might be like at eighty was scaring the tar out of me. Pain grinds you down mentally as well, so that depression- when it’s not setting up house in your head, is at the very least, hovering at your elbow making tea and planning on a lengthy visit. So, when I read the testimonials about Curable, I figured I had very little to lose, other than the money for the app.

Curable is really based around changing your ways of thinking around pain, and building neural pathways in your brain around dealing with that pain. One of the ‘education’ sessions (the lessons are divided into ‘Education, Meditation, Expressive Writing and Brain Training) led me to a book called ‘Mind Over Back Pain’. As I read it I began to think I now understood what was behind my back pain, and it wasn’t the car accident I’d had years ago (a four car pile up in four lanes of Vancouver traffic, and my seat belt didn’t catch until my face was about a half inch from the dash) nor was it the bad fall I took on ice years ago. It was something called TMS- Tension Myositis Syndrome. As much as this seemed a little crazy to me, I saw a lot of my symptoms in the stories the doctor who wrote the book related. This is all about the mind body connection and how emotions that we don’t deal with (even from years ago) can cause us very real physical pain. It’s how the mind protects us from all those messy emotions, it gives us physical pain as a distraction- and wow, is that an effective system. Really rather miserable, but effective.

There were two things the first lesson on the Curable app taught me, which have become a bit of a mantra for me. The first was ‘recovery is not a straight line’, which I remind myself of when I’m having a bad day- because when your body’s default setting is a high level of pain, it wants to go there every chance it gets. The second thing is, ‘the pain is not your fault’. There is always a level of blame that comes with back pain that doesn’t have an actual structural abnormality as one of its components- that somehow you’re doing something wrong- wrong chair, too many hours in front of the computer, bad posture, wrong shoes, bad attitude, you name it, because the list is endless, and I’ve had pretty much every item on it directed at me over the years of seeking help. If you start from that place, it turns out there’s no good destination, other than a lot of money spent on a fruitless search for a better chair- I even sat on one of those dang exercise balls for several weeks, only to learn that bouncing like a manic Tigger is not conducive to getting a lot of writing done.

I’m a fairly emotional being, so the idea that I wasn’t dealing with my emotions was rather startling to me. But, I think I was dealing with them on a very superficial level, and then rushing on without really accomplishing anything. As it turns out meditation (not something I’ve ever been good at, the staying still in one spot or the trying to create a blank canvas in my mind) is super effective for making you deal with your emotional detritus. It’s a little like opening a closet filled with years of junk, most of which you thought you’d lost somewhere along the way, and others that you’d forgotten you ever had at all. And it falls on your head, basically, sometimes one item at a time, and sometimes a bunch at once.

I will be honest, this has been the toughest route on the pain path that I’ve ever trod. But it’s (like all the hard things) the most effective. I’ve had two full weeks with minimal pain, and my Advil consumption has gone way down. Not every day is great, and there are days I do NOT want to deal with yet another level of anger/shame/guilt/sadness but I’m always glad that I took the time later- it might be two days later, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve even taken up talking to my brain in a stern fashion, and checking in to see which emotion is topmost when the pain starts  up- and it attempts to start up every blessed day. Sometimes just internally lecturing my brain does the trick, I just have to catch the pain before it gets over that first hurdle.

Now, I think of pain as the topmost painting, the one the world sees (though to be honest, if you met up with me, you wouldn’t know because I don’t talk about it a lot, because really I felt there was no point, it’s not like talking about it ever relieved it) and this painting is in some pretty dark colours- slashes of red, showers of black, glints of iron, corroded edges of copper. The underpainting though is the emotion, all the years of it shunted to the side, not dealt with as I kept moving through life- because of course you can’t do that work everyday- there are children who need attention, houses that need cleaning and an artist’s work to be done. But I’d finally hit that wall where the pain was bad enough that it forced me to look deeper. I’m pretty damn glad that I did, even though I know this path is going to be rocky and that it will sometimes turn back on itself, and I’ll lose sight of the destination.

For now each day, I’ll remind myself that recovery is not a straight line, and that the pain is not my fault.

The one exercise I haven’t done yet- expressive writing- go figure. 🙂

The image below is a rather beautiful example of underpainting, and that’s my aim- to have that emotional tapestry below the surface become a beautiful thing, even if I’m the only witness to it.



The Truth in the Tale

I’m not sure how the creative process works for other people. I mean, I’ve read about other writers, painters, etc and how their process works, (and always find it fascinating) but it’s one thing to read about something and quite another to actually understand how that works. Heck, I am not sure how my own works if I’m asked to put it down in writing. Creativity and inspiration are strange beasts, they seem rather like quixotic friends who love you one minute and aren’t speaking to you the next. On the days during which they aren’t communing with you, you do the grunt work—editing, rewriting, constructing the fiddly bits which connect one paragraph to the next. My mode of writing might best be described as flibbertigibbet-y and so I end up doing a lot of work with those fiddly bits.

I don’t outline, and other than the history of the various places in which my books are set I don’t feel that I need an outline. I let the characters tell the story to me as they like, and in their own time—Mr. Kirkpatrick often takes great advantage of this. Still, especially this late in the game, I usually have a fair idea of where things are headed. As the series winds down, I have to draw all the threads together and tie them off, if not neatly, then at least in a fashion which will make the readers happy, or this being a tale about Ireland, happy-ish.  So, I thought I had a fairly good idea of where the current installment is headed, the front end is written after all, and I feel no need to change that. I had a prologue mostly written, and thought I understood what it was trying to tell me, and where that would ultimately take the series, and how the entire story would bow out, so to speak. Then last week I had one of those odd days, where I was working on something else entirely (‘Bare Knuckle’) for those of you who follow what I’m up to at the moment, and I had a sentence which kept insisting itself, though it clearly did not belong in what I was working on. So I switched screens and wrote the sentence down, more to get it out of my head than anything and then I wrote another sentence and another, and then several paragraphs. I realized once I was done that I was looking at a prologue, one that was insisting itself. This doesn’t happen all that often but when it happens it’s often a bit troublesome because it usually means the characters are throwing me a huge curveball. The last chapter of ‘Shadows’ for instance which insisted itself from about six months into the writing of that book, until I wrote it down and it completely changed the course of the rest of the series. This new prologue threatens to do exactly that—I’m not entirely sure who is talking to me through the prologue, it’s either Jamie or Casey, but I don’t quite know which one yet. Their voices are very different but as this is in the form of a letter, it’s a little harder to tell which one is speaking. Normally, it’s very clear which POV I’m in, they think and feel differently, though they clearly have some commonalities. Sometimes it’s obvious because of their surroundings, but in this case that’s not giving me a clue at all, it’s not a house with which I’m familiar- the house where the person is sitting writing said letter.

Writing each of them is always very different, Casey presents easily, solid,  very ‘there’ and talking. Jamie is much more fluid and harder to capture on paper, so normally that would also be a tell. Alas, when Jamie writes letters or journal entries, he does so very easily, so the letter writer could well be him. If the prologue writer is Casey, then the series ends a little differently than I thought, but it’s not earth shatteringprologueletter, if it’s Jamie, it changes pretty much everything I thought I knew about how this series ends. And it might require another book in the series to let it play out. This will make my husband smug, of course, because he’s always believed there are six books in this series not five. I’ll just have to wait and see what they feed out to me over this next while, and what it means for their lives, and the telling of said lives. I’m not even sure I’m okay with what the letter writer seems to be telling me, but I do believe in telling the tale they want to tell, not the one I might prefer, because it just comes down to the truth of the tale and the integrity within the story because of it.

Ultimately, though this is, in part, what I love about writing, it’s always about the journey rather than the destination, and the characters keep it endlessly interesting.


This Is Why #MeToo

When the #MeToo movement broke a few weeks back, when women starting stepping up and telling their truths, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of utter exhaustion. It’s an exhaustion I’m familiar with, and that I’ve felt for a long time. I could have posted #MeToo many times over, and I even wanted to, but found I couldn’t. I actually felt physically ill and I simply couldn’t do it, though if you’d asked me why I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. Maybe it’s just that we women are so used to keeping other people’s dirty secrets, that it’s a really hard habit to break. I know it was really hard for a lot of women to make that hashtag and to post it, because to step up and say ‘Yes, this happened to me too,’ makes you feel like a bug exposed on a sheet of paper. We’re all very well acquainted with what happens to women who tell unpopular truths.

This morning though, as I see the pendulum start to swing the other way again, with too many people (oh so many of them women) saying ‘It’s ridiculous, it’s too much, this can’t have happened to this many women,’ I just found myself really really angry.  Well, sister, I’m here to tell you a hard truth—what you’ve seen in these last few weeks is the tip of the iceberg, it’s only the first wave in a tsunami of pain and darkness and terrible truths. If it hasn’t happened to you, count yourself blessed, but maybe be willing to listen to those who have gone through it. I don’t know all that many women who are unscathed by sexual harassment, abuse and violence.

So here’s my laundry list. And it’s by no means complete. And let me just say this up front—I’ve always been a pretty quiet soul, dressed fairly conservatively, just because I’m more comfortable that way and not because I stand in judgement of anyone who doesn’t. Women deserve to feel beautiful and to dress in whichever way makes them feel so.

-molested at the age of four by someone I should have been able to trust

-molested at the age of five by someone I should have been able to trust

-molested at the age of seven by someone I should have been able to trust

-at the age of nine my friend’s father killed her mother because she wouldn’t come back to him, then he killed himself and orphaned their children

-harassed at ten by a boy three years my senior, who was over six feet tall, while I weighed about 65 pounds at the time. I was terrified of this boy. He would corner me on the playground and put his hands down my shirt and up my skirt, etc. He was immensely stronger than me. I told a teacher, and was told to avoid him. At that age, I loved to swim—I mean I loved it with my whole self. It was my great joy to head to the pool every day in the summer after my chores were done. I was like a little seal and felt totally free in the water. I was a good, strong swimmer. But then that same boy started coming to the pool every afternoon too, and my time there became a nightmare. He’d undo the straps of my swimming top and try to pull down my bottoms under the water. He’d put his fingers inside my swimming bottoms. He almost drowned me one afternoon, which I remember with great vividness. I cannot tell you how terrified I was of this boy, I still can feel it in my chest talking about it now, forty years later. A lifeguard had to pull me out of the pool with a pole, as I vomited up water.

What finally stopped this boy, was another boy, his age and his size, saw what was happening in the pool one afternoon and came over and told him to stop or he’d beat the shit out of him. He waited for him outside the pool that afternoon, and told him if he ever saw him touching me again, he’d make sure he regretted it and then he walked me home. I never told my parents, because I had already internalized the idea that somehow, in some way, it was my fault. That I had done something to draw that attention, that apparently other girls weren’t doing. I know now though that other girls were keeping their secrets too. Odds were I didn’t have the language then to articulate what was happening to me—hell I was still playing with my barbies, and watching the ‘Donny and Marie’ show on Friday nights like it was a religion. There was no way to process what had been done to me, or to know I’d carry the fear with me into my life as an adult.

-at eleven I was followed home by a young man who lived on the other side of duplex a friend lived in. He followed me right into my yard, he’d actually run after me most of the way, because I was on a bike. To my horror my parents had gone out for a walk when I was gone, and I couldn’t get in the house. I did not know this person, and he was a good ten years older than me. I have no idea what he intended to do to me but he was about two feet away from me when my dog came around the corner and attacked him. My parents had arrived home in the nick of time. When my dad confronted him about what he was doing in our yard, he ran.

-at thirteen an older boy (he was eighteen) became obsessed with me. He would come swim at the lake where I lived, and where I swam after school. He was constantly rough housing me, picking me up and hurling me into the water, grabbing at my breasts etc. Again this boy was much older, and he was big and really strong. I weighed about one hundred lbs. soaking wet at this point. He took great pleasure in my fear and in my pleading with him to leave me alone. I stopped swimming after school. I hid from him. It’s what girls do, it’s what women do, we learn to behave like prey—we hide, we avoid, we make nice so that we won’t get hurt. The problem is we are hurting that entire time. The weight of all this crap is piling up on us year after year, incident by incident. And we internalize it all, because it’s too dangerous to tell the truth. We’ve been taught all our lives not to anger men, not to make a fuss, not to rock the boat. Be nice, look pretty and don’t ever ever get angry—because then you’re just one of those angry feminazi bitches.

-during all this time, I watched my cousin go through two abusive marriages, and took her to the hospital with burn marks, bruises around her throat and needing stitches in her face. All this done by a man who ‘loved’ her. And me knowing the entire time she would go back to him, and I felt quite certain, would eventually be killed by him. She wasn’t,but frankly that was a miracle.

– at seventeen I was chased across a walking bridge by a group of older boys threatening to find out if my pubic hair was the same colour as the hair on my head. I was terrified I was about to be raped. They stood behind me laughing after I managed to get off the bridge ahead of them. Why someone’s terror is so amusing to some people, I will never ever know.

-by eighteen I’d been called a whore, a slut, a cock tease, a bitch, etc. Most women have been called all those things, long before we’re even sexually active.

-at eighteen I was groped by a professor I’d gone to for hypnosis therapy. Extensively groped. I told a male friend and he said I must be imagining it (yeah, because every eighteen-year-old girl dreams of being groped by a man old enough to be her grandfather- literally in this case) but he liked the professor and insisted he was a good guy who would ‘never do such a thing’. I told a counsellor, and while she made it rather clear I wasn’t the first to complain, she also made it clear nothing would be done about it and maybe I should just not go to his office anymore, and you know, keep quiet about it too.

-at eighteen I was told by a man (ten years older than me) while I was stuck in a car with him, that he’d rape me if he thought he could get away with it. He also told me he could snap my neck without much effort. He could have too, he was big and also did enough drugs to be entirely unstable. I was completely terrified of him. He was related to me at the time through my cousin’s marriage. I never told anyone, because at that point, I no longer saw the point of telling people. They’d just tell me he’d never really do it, even if he’d said it. He was a good guy, don’t ya know.

-at eighteen I had a gun held to my head by a boy I thought I loved, because I had the nerve to break up with him. He said he’d rather I was dead if he couldn’t have me. I simply stood up, blank with utter panic and left the room, waiting to feel a bullet in my back or head. I made it out of that room, that house, that relationship, but I am all too aware that many girls and women don’t.

-in my 30s I was basically terrorized for some years by a neighbour. It got to the point where I told friends if I disappeared to tell the police to look in his back yard first. I said it jokingly but I meant it as well. My great sin? I’d talked back to him when he’d been rude and nasty to me one day when I was outside. He made my life a living hell until we finally sold our house and moved. Even then he showed up outside the new house we moved to that very first night. I talked to the police a few times, and they basically said I should avoid him if I could—which considering there was a driveway between us and nothing else, was a little difficult. After a conversation with his wife, during which she told me  that he’d gone on a rant after we put our house on the market, and told her he knew we couldn’t afford to move, and that I wasn’t going to escape him that way, I knew we had to go no matter what. Why he thought he knew what our finances were remains a mystery to me. I had made the mistake of angering him, and he really was determined to make me pay the price for that.

And then, of course, there are the every day things women know only too well—the men who tell you you’d be so much prettier if you’d just smile (I’ve never understood why some stranger thinks I should smile for them, so they can find me more attractive- that’s a real WTAF for me). The men who comment on your weight, your body, your face. The men who get really angry and abusive because you had the temerity to say no to them when they asked you out. For women, our bodies are public property from a very young age, and men of all ages feel free to make lewd and nasty comments from the minute we start to get breasts and hips, and suddenly that body which we took such joy in because it could run, and bike and swim and dance, is an embarrassment, becomes a tool for others to shame us and frighten us. We take all that inside and it becomes an unbearable weight. It becomes like a dark sludge you can’t ever quite wash away. And having said all of this, I am fully and starkly aware, that I have gotten off lightly compared to a lot of women. Women that I know and women that I don’t. So many women, who were once little girls who loved their bodies and all they could do with them.

When I said my list is nowhere near complete, I meant it. In truth you get so used to it as a female, that you don’t remember all of it because it would be too much to carry with you every day, everywhere. Because we know for the most part, people don’t want to hear it or will assume right out of the gate that we’re just another lying whore. If my language makes you uncomfortable, oh well, I’ve been called that a few times, and for no good reason other than saying no to a boy or a man. Because it’s not easy to say this shit—no one feels good about having this happen to them. We’ve all spent so much of our lives appeasing  angry males that it’s habit and self-preservation. And because I KNOW someone  is going to say it, I’ll save you the trouble, yes I know #notallmen and #ithappenstomentoo—there, you’re covered, you don’t need to say it, I said it for you.

So here’s me telling my truth. I don’t know if this will ease the weight I carry, or alleviate some of the exhaustion I’ve long felt around all of it. But hey, #MeToo.

Of Golden Moons and Firelight


If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. – Meinrad Craighead


This is the season of retreat, of the turning in to spirit and to healing in the quiet and the long nights. This is the time I ebb away from the regular world into my interior space, that hut in the woods where the fire—smelling of the dark honey of peat—burns brightly through the long nights. This is the space into which I go as the Winter Crone breathes her frosted breath upon my windows, and knocks at my door with her ancient, wrinkled hands. By this fire I pick up my stitchery (not of the physical sort, I am without talent in that area) the knitting, crocheting, the sewing together of blocks to make a full quilt, decorated with pearls and ivy leaves, with barley sheaves and moonlight. Each stitch a word, a row a sentence, a block a paragraph, the end of a ball of wool—a scene entire. I feel like the characters draw close to the fire as well, sit down, and tell me their stories on a deeper level, threads of both black and gold, bright jewelled bits of detail scattered here and there. Pamela with a hot cup of tea and a shawl— because she is never warm in winter, Yevgena whose tea smells of plum brandy, and whose eyes could tell you the history of the world from before the first light. Jamie, quiet, reflective, but with a glimmer in his eyes which informs you that a wonderful tale is lurking in the near future. Casey with his hands in the air, as he describes something in detail—a house, a fairy tale castle, a cottage he repaired where an old woman lives hidden in the forest. And all around the sound of children breathing and dreaming in the depths of night and firelight.

In some ways a series is different than the construction of a single book. While there is still the unknown at the beginning of each segment, it’s more like one of those books with hollow pages, where with the turn of each leaf a little more of the final page—the full scene—is revealed. With this series I am nearing the end of that lovely book, turning the last few pages to see the full picture revealed. This book has a strange feel to it, both one of ending and beginning (still not entirely sure it’s the last book, but it’s the penultimate one at the very least). I’ve said before that each book is an element for me, and if spring was an element, that’s what this one would be. And then, of course, there is Yevgena’s story, which is truly a caravan traveling along a neverending and windy road—sometimes a brilliantly coloured road—all reds and purples and vivid greens, sometimes so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, nor the traces of your spirit.

I always thought it would be wonderful to be a painter. My dad painted when I was little, and linseed oil is still one of my favourite scents in the whole world. I love how paint feels and the way it builds slowly, slowly into something so much bigger than its component parts. Writing is not so different though, one just uses words rather than paint to layer, to create detail, to make a world entire where one did not exist before. Finding those images which walk out of the emptiness, and people a landscape we didn’t know before.

In the winter I think it is natural for all creatures—including humans—to turn inward, to go underground as it were, to turn our faces from the busy, roaring world and find peace, find rest, find the fire that burns inside but needs quiet for its heat to be felt. This is the hearth upon which creative forces are built to last out the rest of the year. It is the season written in darkness and the ink of pearls, which shines with a luminous subtlety. We need slowness, thoughtfulness, meditation to see something both hidden and pale in its beauty.

This is the season when my book will go from pieces, chapters, chunks into something more streamlined—I know because I feel the exact bulk of where it is now at— and it will begin to actually resemble a cohesive book that someone will one day be able to read, and hopefully love. And so I will retreat, turn my face away, go underground and sit by the fire in that cottage in the forest, and find those images which walk out of emptiness, to people a world entire.

Sometimes it feels like all the magic is gone from the world, there is so much strife and pain that it’s easy to feel helpless and small in the presence of so much that is heartbreaking. I ask myself at times what I can do in the face of all this, and in truth there are a lot of small things I can do and one is to make a little escape for people, give them a refuge where they can hole up for a few days, before facing the world again. And some days, that is enough—to provide that escape.

Winter with her great frosted moons, her brilliance, her quiet, her utter stillness reminds me that there are old enchantments lurking at the edges of our vision, but we need to awaken them and bring them back full and breathing, so they can remind us that we are magic, that life itself is magic. It is a part of my job, to walk those edge places, be they hedgerow or heath, forest or tide line, and find the still, small enchantments that wait there, and make them into quilt blocks, and word paintings, travel-weary caravans and the conversation of friends around an ancient fire. It is a liminal space, both haunted and visceral, this territory of the storyteller.

The vardo was warm when I went back in, but I was chilled and got into the bed swiftly, relishing the rough linen of the blankets and the luxurious warmth of the quilt. I was tired but could not settle, and it seemed Zuza sensed my restlessness for she spoke then. 

   “Would you like me to tell you a story?” 

   “I’m not a baby,” I said, a little indignant, though there was part of me which longed for a story from this woman’s lips. 

   “Child, a body is never too old for a story. I love a story, if it is told right. Now, would you like a story?” 


   When she began, her voice changed and became something other, like an ephemeral body with a foot in this world, and the other in the world of the tale. It was a trait I found in every gifted storyteller I ran across in my life, this ability to inhabit two places at once.’

Fr. The Long Road copyright 2017 Cindy Brandner