The Seed of a New Story

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

We are emerging from a strange winter in North America. Recent snowfalls have shocked California and Arizona, while there was no virtually no snowfall in Maryland. The temperatures here in Baltimore were so mild that the ground could be dug in early January for the planting of trees. I’d hoped for snowfall to bring them water—but at least there was some rain.

First cherry display on my street
First cherry display on my street
The second year appearance of my hellebore transplant
The second year appearance of my hellebore transplant

All over the east and south-east, spring activity began ahead of schedule. Cherry, magnolia, quince and plum trees are in bloom. In my garden, daffodils and hellebores are showing their faces. A chillier vibe is forecast, but I’m already in “the trenches” planting seeds.

Seed gardening is my new pastime. Typically, I sit around until May, and then I dig in transplanted seedlings from gardens or nurseries. Perennials are my favorite, because if I’ve gone through the drudgery of weeding, I’d rather fill those spaces with beneficial plants that will spread their roots and make my gardening life easier in years to come.

This year, I fell prey to seed catalogs and seed company websites promising perfect mixes for pollinating insects and birds. Who can resist the allure of the elegant botanical illustrations on paper seed packets? I certainly can’t—and I swoon over these flowers’ elegant Latin names, like cosmos, helianthus, calendula, and lobularia. Don’t these names fit heroines in an upcoming season of Bridgerton? Even more racy are the varietal names made up by growers: Orchid Cream, Milk Maid, and Black Velvet. These are just a few of the varieties of nasturtiums that I’ve ordered from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. Because these flowers are annuals, my plan is to plant them in pots and the ground near any vegetables and flowers that attract aphids—and to eat whatever blooms they miss in salad—or better yet, on top of cake!

Another advantage to seed gardening is the vast number of seeds per packet at a bargain price. Not all the seeds will grow into flowers, but some will reward me this year, and surely grow their flower families in upcoming years. I refrigerated and soaked some seeds, per directions, to help them get in gear.

The process of throwing seeds into earth reminds me of the way I write. When I start a new book, I never start on Page One. Before that, I ponder the many notes that I’ve taken from reading and brainstorming. I also list places I need to visit to learn important things for the book and write down the names of experts I’d love to interview, either in person or through e-mail. I prepare the ground.

A huge challenge that comes next is the arrival of emerging weeds, which look so innocent when only one inch tall. How can I possibly tell an emerging weed from a baby coreopsis? My phone has an app, Picture This, that can name most plants, whether desirable or not. Sometimes I just  let the weed or flower keep growing before I decide what to do.It’s a guessing game, just like when I’m rolling along in my book’s narrative. And when I garden, my thoughts are often on my book.

I can write faster when it’s easy to look at synopses and notes. A word processing program called Scrivener helps me store these inspirations and reminders on digital index cards that are kept close to each chapter. In the garden today, I was planting lupines just ¼ inch under the soil. Nearby, I placed wooden sticks with their names, so they aren’t overlooked or, worst of all, weeded!

When I’m involved in a book I ramble, letting conversations unfold as they will. I’m the first to admit that these explorations lead to what I call “over-writing.” These trailing vines and redundancies can choke the life out of the novel’s central structure; but I can’t see it until the first draft is complete.  Then, I begin to thin out sentences and paragraphs, just as I’ll have to lift out some baby seedlings to provide enough mineral resources for the others. I can move some of the banished babies to other spots in the garden—just as I sometimes shift scenes in a book, or details about people. Although whether they will live is yet to be seen.

In my July 2023 release, The Mistress of Bhatia House, I’d written a scene with an Indian family eating a particular regional fish nicknamed Bombay Duck as part of a large breakfast. Reflecting on it, I realized the fish would be no big deal for the Mistrys, but it could play an amusing role if served to someone else. My redo had Perveen’s friend Alice Hobson-Jones enjoying Bombay Duck at the Taj Mahal hotel, and the dish becomes a commentary on 1920s colonialism.

My Bombay Duck swap reminds me that a big part of both writing and gardening is impulsivity. The ambitious screenwriter making a first appearance in my work-in-progress suddenly got upstaged by a much more intriguing assistant cameraman. It’s early enough in the writing process that I can delete one character for the other, thus avoiding one of my classic writing problems: too many characters!

A few days ago, I was in a nursery and noticed a thick bag of Dutch clover seeds. And in a moment, I realized that flowering clover could fortify my anemic lawn. Clover deposits nitrogen. It also crowds out weeds and feeds insects and animals. And the best part is that it’s not too late in the season to scatter this seed.

Although I consider myself a writer who gardens, I don’t always wake up eager to create on paper or in the earth. But I know that gardening outdoors sends Vitamin D into my body and raises my mood. Putting my fingers on the keyboard and banging out a few paragraphs provides a similar release. Relaxation and pride always follow a writing session.

A cosmos bloom might be tiny, but when massed together with others, it has a vast impact. I believe there will be thousands of individual flowers, small and large, in my garden this spring and summer. I’ll let you know whether the words follow.