Cats Will Stalk Anything

Bear

It’s spring here in northern New England. The grass is green, the buds on the trees are finally coming out, daffodils are blooming and all the critters are out of hibernation.

This morning I was sitting on the porch writing in a notebook (with a pen–yeah, people still do that) and I had a visitor. I knew it was something wild when my cats freaked out, stood to attention and/or ran growling inside. And here comes a young bear, clambering through the trees to check out the bird feeders.

Oona and BearSo my cat Oona (a.k.a. Yoga Crasher), what does she do? She takes it upon herself to creep up to the poor little guy and scare it up a tree.

I had a brief discussion with Oona about mother bears and the prudence of leaving baby bears alone and she, well, ignored me, not that this surprised anybody.

WTF

 
 
 
 

Cats. You have to give them points for nerve.

Hemlock

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

In Praise of Editors

Stalking Hemlock

Hemlock

Never underestimate the value of a good editor.

Like many writers I often entertain the delusion that I could edit my own work to completion. I’m an OCD head case. I can’t read a cereal box without editing it and Facebook gives me hives. You don’t ever want to hand me a piece of writing and say, “Hey, look this over and tell me what you think?” I’ll get the same look in my eye as a cat does when it sees some hapless creature within its grasp.

Enter my editor. She has magical powers. I got the first part of my manuscript for Outpost back from her today. It looks like a medieval village after a Viking raid—but wow, is it good. I was astonished by all the things she saw. Once again, I found myself shaking off the spell and marveling at how familiarity gives the illusion of safety.

I can’t wait to delve into this. My book is about to get wings and shine.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Noble of the Wood

Apple Tree

A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible. ~ Welsh Proverb

The apple is a sacred tree with a long, rich history of lore surrounding it. Aside from its fruit and many medicinal uses, it was revered in ancient times as a talisman of love, healing and immortality. In Norse mythology, the goddess Iðunn gave apples to the gods to keep them immortal. Loki stole them, but had to return them when the gods began to age. In English tradition, one apple was left on each tree after harvest as a gift to the fairies. Apple wood is the traditional choice for magic wands, and a branch laden with buds, flowers and fruit enables the possessor to enter the Otherworld. Considered the food of the dead, apples are associated with Samhain.

Old Apple Tree

Apple trees grow wild in the woods where I live, and are particularly lovely in the spring, when they bloom. They tend to have dark, twisty trunks and low-sweeping, crooked branches, giving them a spooky air. A while back we bought a sturdy little tree and planted it in the back yard. It took years for the first blooms to appear. This year, it’s loaded with flowers. They smell incredible.

My apple tree has stories to tell. The winters are long and rugged up here, and the tree takes a beating, half buried in snow, torn by wind and ice. It split in an ice storm once, right down the middle and partway into the trunk. Heartbroken, I had the desperate idea of pushing it back together and holding it with electrical tape. This actually worked, if you can believe. It healed and now it’s strong as ever.

All kinds of creatures love the apple tree. The birds perch in it, and bees and hummingbirds love the flowers. In fall, I throw apples into the woods for the deer. Then there are my illustrious cats. The tree is easy to climb and perch in, and when the leaves are thick a cat can hide in it. Oh, and let’s not forget the spiders. Big, hobbit-eating spiders. They guard the tree and I’ve learned to keep my wits about me.

Oona in the Apple Tree

If all goes well this summer, we should have apples coming out our ears.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Writing and the Fairy Dust of Familiarity

Oona Creeping, by F.T. McKinstry

Oona Creeping

Consciousness dislikes chaos. Like cats pacing the borders of the yard, we tend to treat familiar things as safe and reliable. It gives us a sense of security. Given that familiarity makes a lot of arbitrary assumptions about reality, however, I personally think it’s an illusion, a convenient facade that makes it easier to deal with things. That’s natural enough, but when it comes to writing, one wants to be careful.

I recently finished a novel. It’s entitled Outpost, interestingly, a term that implies an unfamiliar place in some context or another. I finished it, revised it, edited, polished, washed and repeated until every word was as familiar as the lines on my hand. I’m weary of looking at the thing, truth be told. I put it in the capable hands of my editor.

Now things get interesting (note the mild sarcasm). Being familiar with one’s words is insidiously comforting. The process of writing, both mystical and miserable at the same time, has a way of making one’s work beautiful. Oh yes, the Universe is singing its brilliance because after all, suffering is noble. This is perilous, like being dusted with fairy glitter. You might think you’re looking at a nice green field with flowers and butterflies but those flowers have thorns, there’s a cat lurking in the shadows, the butterfly is headed for a spider’s web and the lambs are fleeing from an impending earthquake. Chaos is everywhere. This is what a good editor will see, because she isn’t strung out on fairy glamor or glossing over the goblins with a palette knife heaped with love and imagination.

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock

A useful exercise is to put the book aside for a time, let the fairy dust wear off and go back to it with a more objective perspective. This only works if you’re able to face reality without the high. If something nags you or doesn’t look right, don’t brush it off for fear of chaos by deciding it’s fine. It probably isn’t. It takes strength and courage to see through familiarity and let the work evolve.

These days, everyone is a writer. So I see a lot of things on the internet about How to Know If You’re A Real Writer. That’s a big topic fraught with nail biting. But I figure one of the criteria is knowing what it’s like to wake up from the fairy glamor with a nasty headache, a broken heart and some healthy skepticism.

In other words, chaos is a writer’s friend.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Free Reads for the Dark Season

December on Cooper Hill

There is no time of year when I don’t want to read and write books. Winter, however, has a special place in my heart. I live in the north where the winters are long, dark and nasty, the sort of winters that make one appreciate the finer aspects of being mortal. I haven’t seen the sun in two weeks (I’m not kidding). My greenhouse, the most colossal distraction ever, is closed up and snowed in, the gardens are asleep, the woodstove is glowing and the biggest excitement of the day is watching the wildlife bickering around the feeders outside. My cats enjoy this too when they aren’t beating up on each other.

What better time to hunker down into books, heh. In celebration, here are some short fantasy stories to go with your hot cocoa during the wintry hours. May your season be bright!

The Om Tree, Cover ArtTrees know things. In this dark little tale, a wizard-assassin loses what is most dear to him and thereby learns the true nature of his art.

Fantasy, 2100 words. Read here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Earth Blood Cover ArtThe earth keeps secrets. A dark tale of war, loss, and the powers of the earth.

Fantasy, 1940 words. Read here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Pattern Sense, Cover ArtIt all started with a mouse. A knitter discovers the strengths and pitfalls of an ancient power through the love of a warrior.

Fantasy, 3500 words. Read here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Pattern Sense

Pattern Sense, Cover Art

The heart is a powerful force, more powerful than the earth’s own magic. In this short story, a knitter discovers the strengths and pitfalls of an ancient power through the love of a warrior.

Excerpt

It all started with a mouse.

Persistent creatures, mice, driven as all things are by the turn of winter’s gaze, but with the added cunning of the nocturnal. In early autumn, they found a crack in the eaves of Melisande’s cottage on the wooded outskirts of Ull. The swordsman had repaired the crack before returning to the towers and yards of Osprey on Sea, the great hall over the snow-draped Thorgrim Mountains, where he served. What a swordsman knew of carpentry, well, that was open to question. But he knew other things. Nice things.

As the moon waxed, the mice kept Melisande up at night, their tiny feet pattering in the rafters, claws scraping, teeth gnawing. How such a small creature could make such a racket eluded her almost as much as her lover’s carpentry skills. The cat, being wise in the ways of the season, knew all, for he did not sleep at night, not when the moon was bright and certainly not when leaves spiraled down to carpet the frosty earth. No, he hunted. But the mice knew that.

It was the eve of the Hunter’s Moon when Melisande first noticed something odd in her latest knitting project, a thick winter tunic for the young goatherd who lived at the bottom of the hill. The wool, deep brown as the smoke-stained rafters of the cottage ceiling, formed gaps where the sleeve joined the yoke, much like the cracks between a wall and a roof. Deep in her mind, the observation awoke a visceral awareness of interconnection, the wisdom of the natural world, a tapestry of patterns, lines, curves and counts as perfectly cast as a well-stitched swatch.

Pattern sense, her mother once called it; at least Melisande thought it might have been her, though it could have been her grandmother, or one of the old women in the village. Come to think of it, her mother had turned a dark eye on such things. Being of a wilder mind, Melisande picked up her needles, hummed softly and wove a neat kitchener stitch over the gaps in the armpit of her work.

She did not hear the mice that night, the night after, or the night after that. Melisande wondered if the cat’s vigilance had finally paid off. Clever hunters, cats. So she told herself as her pattern sense curled quietly as a snake in an ivy patch, to rest with both eyes open.

Want to read more? Get it for free on Smashwords.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Originally published in Tales of the Talisman Volume 10, Issue 1.

“Pattern Sense” is also included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

This story originally inspired Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. When the gods declare war, the mortals of an ancient realm are plunged into a swords-and-sorcery storm of bloodshed, deception, betrayal and the powers of the earth.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The Art of Naming Cats

“One cat just leads to another.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Two kittens recently joined our home here in the northwoods. They are eight weeks old and full of life, mettle and innocence. Their names are Nori (short for Noreaster) and Skye.

As can be expected, my three adult cats are not amused. One would think I’d introduced a pair of wolves into the house. I’ve tried to explain: “Hey it’s just a little kitten. You guys have eaten things bigger than her!” Alas, this logic is lost to the wilds. But love and patience are great healers and everyone is coming around. Slowly.

Naming cats is an art form. Cats are complex, subtle creatures, hard to pin down. They aren’t reputed to have contact with the Otherworld for nothing. Being a fantasy geek, I have a large repository of interesting cat names. There’s always a temptation to go with a tried-and-true handle like Loki, Pippin or Merlin. But I also like to fish the waters for something unique and multifaceted. I use the same process to name characters in my novels. I might find a name in a glossary of Northern European mythology, a book on the magical properties of herbs and trees, or a fairy tale. Or I might just make it up.

Nori and Skye Resting

Often, a cat or a fantasy character will name itself. There’s a certain feel to this. It comes into my mind like an arrow from Mirkwood. And it works. For example, I once had a cat named Gabriel. I had no thought of naming him after an archangel but lo and behold, that name fit him. For that was his name.

Nori and Skye WranglingThis winter, I’ll be finishing a novel called Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. Woven with Norse mythology, nature lore and swords, this story delves into the richest and most heartbreaking aspects of mortality through war with the Otherworld. There’s a cat in it named Pisskin and a warrior named Othin. Pisskin was a Mirkwood name and Othin is, well, appropriate to the story. So I’ll be writing over the long, dark hours with all my felines to keep me warm…and endlessly distracted.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

For more on cats, writing and the felines that have inspired my work, check out “Puss in Books.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.