The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My demons are clever…because I help them.

I can turn anything into a story. I wander around here muttering to myself, spinning past, present and future events into stories like an old spider in a web. I make them beautiful, awe inspiring, and terrible. Some of it wanders into books I’m brooding on. Some of it I torment myself with. And some is just debris rushing down a swollen tidal bore. It’s creative, and it’s therapy. Stories reveal the essence of a thing, frame it in such a way or that, and help us to cope or understand.

I love my therapist. She has wild, white curly hair, an ornery laugh, and a dark side worthy of a crone in a fairy tale. Whenever I present one of my well-crafted descriptions of some personal demon or other, she grins and says, “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.” And we laugh, because I’ve given my demons an identity, a kingdom, power of attorney, and then carved my story in stone like a gargoyle on a cathedral roof. I’d be better off going in there with a finger up my nose. Because as any writer will tell you, no story is cast in stone.

So what’s real? If neuroscientists and quantum physicists would have their say, it’s not what you think. My therapist recently told me that when we experience something, the details of that experience begin to shift and fade in our memory after 20 minutes. Then our imaginations step in to fill in the gaps. Think about that. Twenty minutes. Now slap on a decade or three. What’s real now? Not that old memory, I don’t think. But the emotion around it convinces us that the story is real. Well. Yes and no.

Painting illustrates this nicely. Years ago, I was out in the woods and saw a trout lily blooming near the path. A beautiful thing. So I took a picture for something to paint. When I started the painting, I didn’t bother with the photo, I just went with how the experience felt. The result has nothing to do with that photo; it contains infinite impressions from somewhere else. The same is true of my memory of totaling my truck on a creepy wooded road in upstate NY, drunk and stoned out of my fucking mind. Or that argument I had with my mother about her meatloaf recipe. Just stories. I’ve long since lost the photos.

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

We live in an infinite sea of stories, alive and breathing, independent of time and space. It’s an open system, always in motion, always seeking balance. I read fantasy novels as a kid that changed the trajectory of my life and saved me from becoming a teenage suicide statistic. Were those stories “real?” Depends on who you ask. To me, they were. Not only that, those stories mean something different to every person who reads them — and they are just as real.

Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Point is, if you can write a story, you can change it. And if you listen, the story will often rewrite itself…and then healing happens. I’ll end with one of those.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Rosemary Plant

Once upon a time, in the spring, when my heart yearns to grow things, I spotted a pack of rosemary seeds in a nursery. Lovely. I brought the seeds home and planted them.

Rosemary BloomsWell, for some reason, the rosemary seeds did not start easily; it took time and effort to get them to sprout. But they did, and one of them got strong and began to grow. It’s cold here, and my gardens are no place for a rosemary plant, so I brought it inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window. In late spring, I took my new baby back outside to bask in the warm, fresh air for the summer.

So it was for many years, and the rosemary got big, with long gnarled limbs and bark like a tree. It bloomed a few times. In summer, it lived on the back porch where it was greeted each morning by the rising sun. In winter, it took up the whole bottom half of the window. It had a soul, my rosemary plant, like sun, wind, river stones and healing mysteries. When I talked to it, it talked back. Sitting outside in the morning, we discussed all kinds of things. Beautiful things.

Last summer’s end, when the shadows grew long and the wind whispered of darker things, my rosemary plant grew silent. Puzzled, I brought it inside as usual, and placed it in the window. But something was wrong. As fall descended in the mountains, my rosemary fell too.

There was no discernible reason for this, as far as I knew. But I knew nothing, and never had that been so evident. I fretted, puttered, and despaired as the rosemary leaves, once grayish green, thick and fragrant, began to shrivel and turn brown. I combed the internet for everything I could learn from those who did know, and when that didn’t help, I prayed to the Soul of Rosemary flourishing in the halls of the Great Earth Mother. A comforting image with no shadow, that. It was like trying to stop the setting sun. Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed, until at last, without a word, my friend left me.

Baby RosemaryI did remember that life is infinite and her cycles never-ending, though grief doesn’t tend to care about such platitudes. Even so, I had managed to get some cuttings, which I put into water to root. In time — a long time — some of them did. Heartened, I let the pale, tender roots get strong, and then I planted the sprouts in a pot and gave them a sunny place by my desk where I can look after them. The plant still feels fragile, with strong places and weak ones, as if it’s not yet certain it wants to be here.

I know the feeling. But as rosemary taught me, some things must stay in the dark for a long time before they’re ready to come into the light.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

The Winged Hunter

The Winged Hunter Cover

Tansel is a gardener with a healer’s hand. Fey, they call her.
Her aunt, a dabbler in hedge witchery, calls her cursed.
To the most powerful wizards in the land, she is an enigma.

The Winged Hunter is the third book in the Chronicles of Ealiron, a heroic fantasy series that revolves around an assassin called Lorth of Ostarin, an assassin and wizard who serves the old powers.

Deep in the heart of Loralin Forest, folks whisper of the crowharrow, an immortal predator with the body of a male god, towering black wings and the claws and fangs of a mountain cat. A legend, they say. But the wise know differently.

Tansel of Loralin is a gardener with a healer’s hand. Sheltered by solitude, innocence, and the secrets of three generations of troubled wizards, she does not understand why, during a personal crisis, a mysterious mage named Caelfar takes her away from her forest home under a premise of protection. But her aunt Aradia, a witch, has been waiting. She knows a terrible secret involving Caelfar and the crowharrow, a diabolical seducer and destroyer of women. When the beast casts its spell on Tansel, only Aradia knows what it means.

Caelfar, while enormously powerful, is very old and worn for reasons long buried in his past. His desperation to protect Tansel from the crowharrow and a strong distrust of Aradia’s motives drives him to summon a wizard named Eaglin of Ostarin, the son of a god and master of the old powers. When Eaglin answers this summons, he is confronted by a secret of his own, an old wound in his heart that takes shape as the crowharrow itself. Thus tormented, he journeys to Loralin accompanied by Lorth, a wizard-assassin with an inborn vision into the Otherworld, and with whom Eaglin shares a turbulent yet appreciative history.

Sheltered by the wilds her entire life, Tansel is ill prepared to deal with the intensity of an immortal seduction spell, let alone the long shadows of wizards and the complexities of family politics. At the hands of the Otherworld, she and the wizards are swept up in a whirlwind of peril, deception, and upheaval that exposes a devastating connection between the crowharrow and Tansel’s bloodline.

Unfortunately, healing this curse will require a terrible sacrifice.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Can be read as a standalone story.

Novel, 270 pages
Second Edition.
Ebook includes a Glossary and a link to Maps.
Glossary
Map of Ealiron: Sourcesee
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“The novel resonates with the beauty of the natural world, of gardens and the numinous earth.” – Michael D. Smith, author of the Jack Commer Series

“The Winged Hunter is set in a world that is one of the most detailed I’ve seen in quite some time. The book contains rich description of sights and sounds that while evocative of the real world, have that touch of the fantastical that you can only find in epic fantasy.” – Patricia D. Eddy, Author Alliance

“The Winged Hunter provides another fresh look at a fantasy landscape. It is a quiet but powerful tale of innocence and maturity, broken promises, and the value of a well-kept garden.” – Alex Willging, Mr. Rhapsodist

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Amazon

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Tulips and Writing What You Know

Cosmic Garden

“Cosmic Garden” by F.T. McKinstry

My maternal grandmother, now in the arms of the gods, had a degree in microbiology. I don’t know that she ever did much with it; marriage, a family and the expectations of her generation made that difficult. A classic German stoic, she didn’t talk much about her past, or how she felt about things. She was smart and she didn’t take any crap from anybody. But she loved her gardens.

GrandmaWhen it came to plants, my grandmother knew the scientific names of everything, it seemed. To a lesser extent, so does my mother; and to a lesser extent than that, so do I. My grandmother grew up in the North, and at some point moved with her family to Texas. She was always experimenting, trying to grow things that didn’t like heat. She was persistent. She tried tricks like freezing tulip bulbs to force dormancy, but the southern Texas climate would have none of that and eventually she gave up and stuck some plastic tulips in the garden to see if anyone noticed. She did this with such stealth and subtlety that even my mother fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.

I never saw my grandmother get excited about much, but oh, how she laughed when her tulip scam was exposed. She was less amused the time I stabbed my brother with a stitch ripper (he so deserved it, btw); she curled up her fist and punched me. But what I most remember is how she lit up when I moved to the North, where it was easier to grow things like astilbe, monarda, broccoli, and of course, tulips.

I loved my grandmother’s dark, ornery sense of humor and her penchant for tinkering, which I inherited. Every year I wage a military campaign against cabbage worms. My cats chase the pretty white butterflies, but that is not an effective means of pest control. So this year, I decided to try planting some nasturtiums, because supposedly bugs hate them. Believe it or not, there are less caterpillars than usual amid this jungle. How’s that for optimism.

Nasturtiums

Far be it for me to ignore writing gardens into a story or two. Though my stories tend to be dark, full of war, sorcery and creepy things, there will be a gardener in there somewhere; a witch growing herbs for her spells, for example. In my short story “The Trouble with Tansy,” a young woman born of three generations of wisewomen knows little of her ancestral garden’s mysteries until she discovers her own power in the darkness of winter, the words of a witch, and the loss of her innocence.

Excerpt: “The Trouble with Tansy”

Tansel loved her garden with all her heart. It surrounded the cottage and spread out beneath the edges of the forest like a wild thing, singing. She grew things for eating, seasoning and healing; things that smelled pretty, attracted butterflies, birds, bees and cats; she grew things for the shapes of their leaves, the way the sun and moon shone upon a petal or a stalk, or the way one thing grew beside another, tangling high and low in arches, tendrils and delicate patterns. Some plants loved the high bright sun; others preferred the shadows beneath hemlock trees, or water caressing their roots. Tansel grew things that she liked the names of. Things no one knew the names of.

Few could have said what grew in Tansel’s garden. Not even Tansel knew, from season to season. The garden had a rhythm of its own, a balance that took care of itself.

WWG Print Cover Art“The Trouble with Tansy” is 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 was also the original inspiration for The Winged Hunter, Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

 
 

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

One of the protagonists in Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, has an ancient power she spins into her knitting that gets the attention of not only the gods but also a malevolent immortal with nothing good in mind. She also has a garden, of course.

Excerpt: Outpost

Autumn was a knitter’s busy time. Melisande knit brindled patterns of drops and sky over the summer; wove strands of sky-blue wool into the edge of a belt as the hard gray line of a late frost passed her garden by; pulled threads of weeds from the stitched patterns of the vegetable patch, leaving purple violets to grace the air with Othin’s favorite scent; and braided black yarn with rosemary and periwinkle to protect her cottage when the shadows grew long. Such amusements aside, she always had something to do. Folk from far around prized her work for its weird charm.

Well, most of them.

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 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Gardening and the Horrid Beast

Gardens

Spring came early this year, a somewhat rare occurrence that I met with a happy sigh. Now high summer, the gardens and woodlands have exploded with abundance. The whole operation is a month ahead of schedule and it’s almost impossible to imagine it in winter, barren and frozen under eight feet of snow.

I often find writing a challenge this time of year unless it’s gloomy. Happens. But summer, short as it is here, has an almost otherworldly feel. All I want to do is smell flowers, pluck weeds, watch hummingbirds and practice sun worship. My computer could’ve been put on my desk by extraterrestrials for all I care about it.

Hummie

Like an old hippie earth mother, I have detailed conversations with plants, cats and earthworms. The bugbane got a serious talking to for hogging out the coneflowers and nasturtiums (this involved clippers). I move carefully around the apple tree to elude the Shelob spiders. And I listen to things grow.

Pee HoleAnd this assortment of branches from said apple tree? That’s my decorative solution to the machinations of my cat Hemlock, who decided the spot between the carrots and the spinach makes a good pee hole. Gardens and woods everywhere, and she has to use my new raised bed for her business. This gained her the informal title of WTF You Horrid Beast.

I suppose it wouldn’t be nature without some chaos.

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

In Praise of Long Winters

Morning in the North Country

All right, it’s a controversial title. Here in northern New England, praising this endless, toothy winter is risking a scenario involving torches and pitchforks. However, I’m going to play the eccentric author card, so hear me out.

I’m an avid gardener and spring in this climate is a special thing. By spring I mean May or even June, as anything before that is either winter or this soppy, icy, muddy, drab phenomenon we call April. Enter the greenhouse. This adds a month or two onto the growing season, allows me to grow things that simply won’t thrive in the ground up here (like peppers, what is it with peppers?) and provides me with hope during the aforementioned month of April.

March Greenhouse

March 7, 2015

Most years, my greenhouse doesn’t look much different than this, come April, and I have to dig a trench in the snow to get to it. But once I tidy things up, plant all my little seeds and rig up the heat lamps it becomes the center of my universe.

I’m writing a new fantasy novel called Outpost (no amusing metaphor intended). I just passed 100,000 words and am rapidly closing in on the last few chapters. It’s all gathering and racing around in my mind to its beautiful, poignant conclusion. No problem staying dedicated to this when — ok, I’ll weigh in now — it only recently got above freezing for the last forty-eight days or something absurd like that, the temperatures in February were fifteen degrees below average and all it does it snow; yes and as a point of interest March tends to be the snowiest month. But I’m shooing off the winter whiners because right now it’s providing me with a great big pillow fortress to hide in while I finish and polish up Outpost so I can send it off to my editor.

Because when my seedlings emerge, the perennials wake up from the cold ground and it gets warm enough for me to sit outside like a pagan sun worshiper? You can do the math.

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.

The Source

The Source, by F.T. McKinstry

Greetings on this Winter Solstice!

The shortest day of the year captivates the imagination and connects us to a universal truth that’s often easy to forget in the throes of life. A seed in the earth about to germinate, a flash of inspiration in the depths of despair, light emerges from the Void.

The winter solstice brings living things to an instinctual awareness of the Source. The moment the shift happens there is a spark, a sigh, a ray of hope. The days will now begin to lengthen. Little wonder this is a time of celebration. No matter how dark it gets, the light always comes, usually when the darkness is complete.

The Hunter is Gone

Being creative and somewhat broody — ok that’s an understatement, how about Underworldish — I’m a seasoned veteran in the Dark Night of the Soul. As many times as I’ve stood before the abyss, each time is always the very first time, as if I’ve never done it before. It never ceases to amaze me, the Void’s powers of resilience and renewal. “But this time is different,” I say. “No light can come out of this.” Hel knows it’s no different. It’s always the same. Light comes from the darkness.

This finds its way into my art: novels, stories, poetry, paintings, gardening, music, aquariums — it’s everywhere. I stare into the abyss every time I type a word, hold a brush to a canvas or put a seed into the dirt. I listen to death metal looking for a glint of the sublime. I fret over my seedlings in the greenhouse one moment and mercilessly pull weeds from the ground the next. I stand in awe each 21st of December, like a votary of the Dark Night, waiting for the light I know will come. The sun is reliable, after all.

“Only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness.” – From The Hunter’s Rede

“Gardens are made of darkness and light entwined.” – From The Winged Hunter

“In the dark, a call to love; in the light, a bridge.” – From “The Fifth Verse“, Wizards, Woods and Gods

“Where the heart yearns, there is the point of Mystery. Though the Old One holds in her arms the seeds of new awareness, healing and light, she cannot be seen or understood by the seed itself.” – From Water Dark

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

Story Illustrations: Wizards, Woods and Gods

Wizards, Woods and Gods is a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

I did a series of pen and ink illustrations inspired by some of these stories. Click on the images to zoom and get information about each story.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

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