Kate Flora: Three cold, rainy days this week have reminded me how much I hate November. The sky is gray, the clouds are gray, the world around me is gloomy shades of brown. I don’t want to write in the midst of so much gloom, I just want to eat cookies and leftover Halloween candy and avoid the fact that soon I’ll have to carry my collapsed pumpkin, the only bright spot in the landscape, around to the compost pile.
When the writing is stuck and the world is dark and dull, I take refuge in reference books for better language to illuminate the dark and the dull. Perhaps this is an exercise of “When life gives you lemons, etc.” After all, if a character merely says the world of November is dark and dull, the reader isn’t given much with which to imagine what that world looks like.
First, though, now that the sun has finally returned, I kick myself out of the desk chair where I am sulking and take myself outside. How is this November landscape different? Past the bright orange pumpkin, whose features are falling in like an old man’s face, there is still the defiant bright gold of my amsonia, rich against the fallen leaves. To my right, a handful of pink buds on a rose still look hopeful, as though maybe the weather will warm again and they’ll still get a chance to bloom.
Hiding under the bare branches of the spirea, two heuchera, transplanted from planters where they’ve spent the summer, still cling to their color—one a startling bright lime green, the other a velvety purple and silver, like the dress of a medieval lady. Farther along, somehow dark and sinister, with its large leaves resembling lily pads and thick purple stems, the ligularia has collapsed across the path as though waiting to trip an unsuspecting passerby.
More heuchera are at the edges of the stonewall, clinging stubbornly to their color. The shedding of the leaves reveals the shapes of different types of trees, and the fierce, broken stumps from storms that have been hiding behind the summer green. The blooms of grasses still stand feathery and golden above the plants.
When I come inside, I pull out the books and look for better language than brown. My trusty Rodale’s synonym finder suggests bay, chestnut, sorrel, rust, brick, cinnamon, ginger, hazel, chocolate, coffee, mahogany, walnut, dun, fawn, tawny, amber, tan, drab—and the rather delicious dusky, fuscous, umber, and musteline. If I used musteline in a story, would you know what it meant, or would it stop you in your tracks and send you scurrying to a dictionary?
Another challenge: how to convey the decay and desolation left when frost has killed the leaves. My mother liked the word “sere,” described as withered, shriveled, or dessicated. There are also terms like drooping, dragging, sagging, wilted, or limp. Searching “wilt” gives us flop, drop, dip, bow, languish, dwindle, atrophy, molder, rot or decay.
In the book I’m writing, it is still August, so I can turn my back on November and go back to Thea’s first garden, her bright new house, and Maine roads liked with gardens and farmstands. But fall will come in this book or another, and my refreshed vocabulary will be ready.