11 August, 2014

Why Every Writer Needs a Puppy

Strange though it may sound, I believe a puppy to be an invaluable tool to all writers, particularly those just getting started.

What are some of the basics you need as a writer?
  • a daily routine
  • sources of inspiration/information
  • regular  breaks from your computer to refresh your mind & body
Six weeks ago I rescued a 9-month old Golden Retriever and rechristned him Murphy.

If you've never had a puppy, let me tell you that they have endless energy until bed time and then they sleep like the dead.  Unfortunately this quiet time doesn't last long.  Murphy wakes up at 6:05 every morning. Not 5:34, not 6:20; always 6:05. And he immediately wants to go out.  Not in 15 minutes, NOW. Once you're out of bed, having stood outside in the cold air for 15 minutes waiting for him to complete his "business," and then made his breakfast, you're wide awake.  No sense in going back to bed, just get your coffee and start writing.  This sets a pattern for your daily routine with no effort on your part.  Score one for the puppy.

Murphy proved to be unreliably house trained, to say the least.  In order to preserve my floor and rugs I need to let him out every two hours during the day, providing regular breaks from the internet and keyboard. More good patterning for a writer. Score two for the puppy.

Want to see unharnessed energy? Believe me, you don't, but with a puppy it's a package deal..  So take the dog for a two mile walk daily.  This is your "free thinking" time, when you have nothing to concentrate on except plot issues, red herrings, and how to find an agent. When you get back, the dog will nap and  have probably solved your issues or devised a fiendishly devious new plot.

Run an unscientific test.  Leash your puppy, take him down town and see how long it takes before someone comes over to pet him and talk to you.  Estimated time: two minutes. Puppies are nature ice breakers.  Need info on organic farming?  Take him to the local veggie stand and you'll be striking up a conversation in minutes.  And before you leave, you'll have a friendly source of all things organic.  Also works in hardware stores, golf courses, laundromats, etc. I got a wonderful lesson in beekeeping last weekend - info that will no doubt find its way into a book. Also how to find a moose using a VW bug, but that's for another blog.

So, if you're a writer,  why don't you have a puppy????  And remember, adopt don't shop.

13 May, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Thyme is of the Essence...

This year, next year, some thyme. . . .

Today, for no particular reason, I’m celebrating thyme, the final herb in the quadrumvirate. Thyme is believed to be lucky in two different ways: for protection and cleansing, and to Bring About an Increase in money. Not bad for a humble herb that grows wild.

Thyme, called thymos by the Greeks, means "fumigate" or "smoke". They associated thyme with valor in battle, and the restoration of physical power. Roman soldiers were known to bathe in a decoction of thyme before going into combat, to boost strength and courage. The Sumerians used it as an antiseptic, and in Egypt, thyme was one of the herbs which was used in the mummification process.

On a more cheerful note,some people plant thyme in their gardens, saying that as it grows, their money will increase. Others take a dollar bill, fold it around thyme leaves, fold it again to make a packet, tie it up with green thread, and bury the packet in the middle of a Crossroads on the night of the Full Moon.

White witch Felicity recommends thyme as a treatment for whooping cough or as an ingredient in a dream pillow to ward off nightmares. She has also been known to use it in healing rituals.

Women who wear thyme on their person are irresistible to men, and carrying sprigs in your pocket aids in developing your psychic abilities. You can create a magical broom using thyme, to banish negativity, or burn some in a bowl to help boost your courage before confrontations.

As a cook, I value thyme for its flavour: there is nothing quite like a thyme-touched soup or stew on a cold winter day. Fresh thyme is preferable to dried, but in a pinch, any thyme is better than none at all.

Lemon and thyme cake
  •  3/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
  • 7 oz Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup good-quality lemon curd
  • 1 Tbsp honey (optional, if you like things sweet)
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350°.

In a small bowl, combine glaze ingredients until sugar dissolves. Set aside.

Set aside 1 Tbsp sugar. In a large bowl, cream butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after
each addition.

In a small bowl, combine the 1 Tbsp sugar, minced thyme and lemon zest.Add to egg mixture and mix in.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt; add to creamed mixture alternately with milk. Stir in lemon juice.

Pour into a greased 9x5-in. loaf pan. Bake 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Remove from oven and pierce top all over with a cake tester. Drizzle reserved lemon juice & sugar mixture over top.

Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.

Serve with a large dollop of the yogurt topping.

25 April, 2014

Fiction Friday: In Search of a Job.

A couple of months ago I received a letter from an agent I'd queried.  She began by telling me how much she enjoyed my writing and my voice.  I was elated.  Then she proceeded to tell me that she was passing on my manuscript because she didn't feel she could sell it in the current cozy market because the protagonist wasn't original enough.

Okay, my protag is a caterer ----point taken.  But culinary cozies sell, right? I don't particularly want to change her occupation, but I'm open to suggestions--as long as I don't have to go back to school to learn the profession myself.

The agent's comment got me thinking and I did some research on cozies and the occupations/hobbies represented.  The list is exhaustive:
  • Accountant, Financial Advisor, & Investment Banker
  • Actor & Actress
  • Anthropologist or Archaeologist
  • Antiquing
  • Attorney/Judge/D.A.
  • Author
  • Backpacking/Camping
  • Bed & Breakfast, Boarding House, Hotel Owner
  • Bookstore Owner, Publisher, Illustrator 
  • Camper/Backpacker
  • Candle Making
  • Card Player (Poker, Bridge, Gambling, & Card Games)
  • Coffeehouse and Tea Shop Owner
  • Crafter (Quilter, Beader, Scrapbook-er, Decoupager, Card Maker)
  • Crossword Puzzle Editor
  • Dancer
  • Doll/Teddy Bear Maker/Collector/Seller
  • Dollhouse Miniatures Collector
  • Foodie (Chef, Caterer, Cook, Baker,  Cheese maker, Butcher)
  • Gardener/Farmer
  • Genealogist
  • Golfer/Golf Pro
  • Home Repair Expert/Enthusiast
  • House Keeper, Cleaner, Maid
  • Interior Design
  • Journalists
  • Laundromat Owner
  • Librarian
  • Medical Field Practitioner (doctor, nurse, midwife, psychologist, psychiatrist, herbalist, apothecary, ambulance driver, medical fraud investigator, medical examiner, deputy coroner, forensic pathologist, forensic anthropologist, forensic sculptor, hospital patient representative, forensic psychiatrist, meal delivery program director, undertaker, alternative healer, naturopathic doctor)
  • Musician
  • NASCAR Enthusiast
  • Needlework/Needlecraft/Knitting Shop Owner/Enthusiast
  • Pet Lover
  • Photographer
  • Private Investigator
  • Professional Organizer
  • Quilter
  • Realtor
  • Religious (Priest, Nun, Wife of Pastor, Pastor, Rabbi, Rabbi' Wives, Shaker)
  • Soap Maker
  • Stay-at-Home Mom &/or Housewife AND Stay at Home Dad &/or Househusband
  • Sudoku Champion/Creator
  • Teachers
  • Tour Guide / Cruise Ship Employee
  • Veterinarian
  • Wedding Planner
  • Witch/Ghost/Vampire
So here's my question: what occupation is not represented in cozies that you'd like to read about? Leave a comment and let me know.

15 April, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Rosemary for Remembrance and Bread

"As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language."
Sir Thomas More

Rosemary holds a special place in my heart, perhaps because I graduated from Rosemary Hall, or maybe because it is such a beautiful, versatile herb.

A native Mediterranean herb, Rosemary was worn by ancient Greeks to improve memory. Just picture Socrates’ and Plato’s students, cramming for exams, with wreaths of rosemary around their heads and necks.

The wonderful smell of rosemary is often associated with good food and great times. But it could just as easily be associated with good health. Rosemary contains substances that are useful for stimulating the immune system, increasing circulation, and improving digestion. Rosemary also contains anti-inflammatory compounds that may make it useful for reducing the severity of asthma attacks. In addition, rosemary has been shown to increase the blood flow to the head and brain, improving concentration. Maybe the Greeks were on to something!

According to my mystery’s white witch, Felicity, for magical use, burn rosemary to rid a home of negative energy, or as an incense while you meditate. Hang bundles on your front door to keep harmful people, like burglars, from entering, or mix with juniper berries and burn in a sickroom to promote healthy recovery. In spellwork, rosemary can be used as a substitute for other herbs such as frankincense.

Whenever possible, choose fresh rosemary over dried. It’s simple to grow in your garden or window, and lasts a long time. It’s a gorgeous ornamental to add to container gardens, as well.

Buttermilk Rosemary Bread

1 1/2 Packages Active Dry Yeast
1 cup Warm Water -- 105-115 degrees F.
1 cup Cultured Buttermilk
1/3 cup Olive Oil
1/4 cup Fresh Rosemary Leaves -- finely chopped
4 tsp Salt
6 3/4 cups All-Purpose Flour
Yellow Cornmeal -- for baking sheets
Coarse Salt -- for sprinkling
In the bowl of an electric mixer stir yeast into warm water and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add buttermilk, oil, rosemary and salt and mix until blended well. Add flour gradually, beating slowly until incorporated, and with a dough hook, knead dough on low speed for 3 minutes. Transfer dough to a floured surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes. Put dough in an oiled bowl, turning to coat with oil, and let rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

On a floured surface turn dough out and cut in half. Shape each half into a round and put on an oiled baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover loaves with a dampened towel and let rise 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

With a serrated knife, gently cut surface of loaves in the shape of a large asterisk and sprinkle tops with coarse salt. Bake loaves in middle of oven, spraying oven occasionally with water during first 15 minutes, until golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped, about 55 minutes. Transfer loaves to rack to cool completely.
Yield: 2

"Where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled."

01 April, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Sage for health & prosperity

"How can a man die who has sage in his garden?"
(12th Century proverb)

Sage, or Salvia Officinalis to give it its proper name, is one of my favourite herbs. 

I never liked sausage, hated the taste which I found out was sage. But that was dried sage, not fresh. If you've never tasted fresh sage, you've missed out in life.

The name “sage” comes from the Latin verb salveo, meaning “to heal.” This testifies to common sage’s ancient reputation as a healer and life-prolonger. Folklore maintains that when sage flourishes in a garden, the owner’s business will prosper, but when it withers, their business will fail.

Herbalists treasure the herb for its antiseptic and astringent properties, prescribing it for coughs, epilepsy, lethargy, and to cleanse the blood. Sage tea is useful for treating sore throats, mouth ulcers, and laryngitis. Fresh sage leaves rubbed on the teeth are said to clean and whiten them and strengthen the gums, and the tea is recommended as a mouthwash. Sage tea is also recommended to be drunk for colds (add some lemon juice and chopped lemon rind when the leaves are steeping) and for upset stomach due to overconsumption of rich or fatty foods.

In witchcraft, as my character Felicity could tell you, rosemary is a powerful guardian, and a
protector of woman.  This wonderful herb is widely used to bring good dreams, keep marriage
faithful and the home peaceful, and for brewing up cleansing and beautifying baths.  Rosemary is
also known as Compass Weed, Dew of the Sea, Elf Leaf, Guardrobe, Incensier, Polar Plant, and Sea
Dew.  Rosemary is considered masculine, and is associated with the Sun and the element of Fire.

Garden sage lends a smoky, earthy flavor and aroma to a wide range of dishes. Try sage with beans, dried peas, and lentils; cheeses (if you make your own cheese, sage and garlic make a nice addition; sage and chives are tasty baked into cheese biscuits or mixed with cheese spreads); cornbread and polentas; and meats such as bacon, ham, liver, pork, rabbit, and sausages.
Personally, I love the combination of squash and sage.

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Butter Sauce
  • 1 lb fresh pumpkin ravioli (I like the Trader Joe brand)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 6 fresh sage leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 2 amaretti cookies
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add fresh ravioli and cook according to package directions.

While water boils, in a small saute pan, melt the stick of butter over low heat.

When butter just begins to sizzle and brown, tear the fresh sage leaves into the pan and
fry for 20-30 seconds. Remove butter sauce from the heat and grate in the nutmeg.

Drain pasta and place in a deep platter. Pour butter sauce over the ravioli.

Sprinkle with grated cheese and toasted hazel nuts (if using). Grate the amaretti cookies
over the dish and serve immediately.

Serves 4

28 March, 2014

Fiction Friday: Agents & Editors can Make or Break a Conference

Last weekend I attended the Unicorn Writers' Conference for the first time. A small, Connecticut conference in its fifth year, it draws a national audience of writers from a widely diverse genres, everything from romance and mystery to paranormal and non-fiction. In fact, one writer characterized his work as "a novel of Time, Magic, Myth, Murder & the American Revolution."

Arriving at the gorgeous venue — St. Clement' Castle — I was reminded of how much I enjoy to opportunity to mingle with other writers, swapping experiences and war stories. 

Maybe I've become jaded, but it seems to me that every conference has the same panels and workshops.  How many times do you need to be told to spell check your work before submitting, or to check out an agent's interests before querying?

I find I'm far less attracted by sessions than opportunities for critiques and personal interaction.
While most conferences provide some opportunity for manuscript reviews and agent pitches, Unicorn has one of the largest panels of agents and editors.  This year there were a total of 32!

In addition to sessions and one-on-one manuscript review sessions (at an additional, but very reasonable price), opportunities to meet and mingle with fellow writers and agents/editors abounded.  A buffet breakfast, sit down lunch, cocktails, and finally a buffet dinner. These informal interactions are so important because yes, we all want to sign with an agent, but it's also nice to get to know that agent, to understand if your personalities are going to mesh.  All to often, writers sign with agents they've never met face to face--and may not meet for years.  In person is so much preferable to phone/email/text/IM when you're signing on for that all important working relationship.

I had signed up for one review, but after the editor panel (there were also 3 agent panels) I signed up for a session with an editor from Kensington Press.  Although she had not had the opportunity to read my manuscript, Esi Sogah spend a half hour with me discussing concepts and ideas.  In all honesty, that half hour was the most productive session I've had at a conference in a long time.

I came home with a list of revisions to make and questions to ponder.  All in all, a good conference! Plus I met some very nice agents and some I know I don't need to query.

If you're curious, here's the list of agents/editors from Unicorn 2014.
  • Meredith Bernstein, Literary Agent
  • Mackenzie Brady, Literary Agent
  • Malaga Baldi, Literary Agent
  • Regina Brooks, Literary Agent
  • Dawn Dowdle, Literary Agent
  • Stephany Evans, Literary Agent
  • Jita Fumich, Literary Agent
  • Doug Brad, Literary Agent
  • Christina Hogrebe, Literary Agent
  • Carrie Howland, Literary Agent
  • Katie Kotchman, Literary Agent
  • Sandy Lu, Literary Agent
  • Erica Rand Silverman, Literary Agent
  • Kathleen Nishimoto, Literary Agent
  • Gina Panettieri, Literary Agent
  • Laura Blake Peterson, Literary Agent
  • Rita Rosenkranz, Literary Agent
  • Shira Hoffman, Literary Agent
  • John Rudolph, Literary Agent
  • Katharine Sands, Literary Agent
  • Rachael Dugas, Literary Agent
  • Alec Shane, Literary Agent
  • Brooks Sherman, Literary Agent
  • Bridget Smith, Literary Agent
  • Julie Stevenson, Literary Agent
  • Sarah Younger, Literary Agent
  • tephen Frazer, Literary Agent
  • Stacey Barney Editor, Penguin
  • Rose Hilliard, Editor, St. Martin’s Press
  • Elizabeth Poteet, Editor, St. Martin’s Press
  • Esi Sogha, Editor, Kensington Books
  • Annie Stone, Editor, Harlequin

18 March, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Mixing research and pleasure

When not actually plotting or writing, what do authors do most?  Research.  Beware of an inaccurate fact in your manuscript – your readers will never let you forget it. My mystery features a caterer who lives next door to a white witch, a wonderful herbalist who not only practices magic but also natural medicine. This led me to research the use of herbs in spells, poison, and medicine— and cooking—beginning with the most basic quartet of herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

"Parsley seeds must go to the devil and back nine times before sprouting."
                                     (Folk Saying)
Parsley is a grossly underrated plant. Who hasn't lifted that little tuft of parsley off their veal cutlet and dropped in on the side of their plate? Bad move. Did you know that parsley is a source of antioxidants, folic acid, vitamins K, C, and A?  Not to mention lycopene, alpha carotene beta carotene, and Lutein+Zeaxanthin. Pretty impressive for a little sprig!

In medieval times, parsley was associated with the devil, leading to the belief that only the wicked could successfully grown the herb. It's earliest medicinal uses were to fight kidney stones, bladder infection, and jaundice, as well as a digestive aids. It should not, however, not be used during pregnancy since the oils in parsley can induce miscarriage or preterm labor in high doses. 

Externally, oil of parsley leaves and roots is effective in repelling head lice, while an ointment helps reduce swelling and itching from bug bites. Just pound the leaves into a paste and mix with a little water or tea and apply. A little oatmeal can be added to this mixture for better consistency.

Parsley is a natural breath sweetener.  Eat the leaves right off the plant to combat garlic breath. The Romans did.

Felicity, my white witch, suggests using parsley to counter bad luck. Here's her suggestion:
  • Choose the day and time. The following is most effective when carried out at 12pm on a Tuesday.
  • Fill glasses with water. Have at least one glass for each room of your house. Fill 3/4 full with tap water.  Add a teaspoon of sugar, a sprinkling of cinnamon, and a few sprigs of fresh parsley to each glass.
  • Place one glass with the mixture in each room of your house.
  • In homes with high positive energy, the parsley remains fresh. Wilting occurs quickly in homes with negative energy. In case of wilting remove parsley and replace with fresh sprig.
  • To notice positive change in your luck the glasses must remain in your home for at least a week. The longer you keep them the better your luck will be.
And now for the good stuff!
Beef Roulades with Parsley Pesto (serves 6)
  •   1 cup chopped fresh parsley (do not substitute dried which has little taste)
  •   1/2 cup shelled almonds, walnuts, or pine nuts (about 1 3/4 ounces)
  •   1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
  •   2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  •   1/4 teaspoon salt
  •   1/4 cup olive oil
  •   12 slices beef bottom round, cut for bracciole, each 1/2-inch thick
  •   12 slices imported Italian Prosciutto
  •   12 pieces of Fontina cheese, cut into 1/4 x 1/4 x 2-inch sticks
  •   Salt
  •   freshly ground black pepper
  •   3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  •   2 small onions, chopped
  •   ½ cup dry red wine
  •   1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  •   1 can beef bouillon or consommé
  •   1 Tbsp room temperature butter mashed with 1 Tbsp flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Put the parsley, cheese, garlic, salt and walnuts into a food processor. Pulse to combine. Turn the machine on again and slowly pour in the olive oil, just to combine. Reserve.
Pound each slice of meat to a thickness of about 1/4 inch between two pieces of heavy duty plastic wrap. Arrange one of the pounded meat slices in front of you with one of the short sides closest to you. Spread slice with a thin layer of pesto. Top with a slice of prosciutto and place a piece of Fontina near the top edge. Fold the side borders in to overlap the edges of the stuffing. And roll burrito-style  into a compact roll about 4 inches long. Secure the end flap with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining beef and stuffing, then season the rolls with salt and pepper.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy casserole over medium heat. Stir in the onions and cook until the onion is wilted, about 5 minutes. Add as many of the braciole as will fit in a single layer and cook, turning the braciole as necessary, until golden on all sides, about 7 minutes. If necessary, repeat with any remaining braciole. Adjust the heat under the pan as necessary to prevent the beef from scorching.

As they brown, transfer to a plate. When all rolls are browned, pour in the red wine and boil for 3 minutes, scraping up any brown bits (fond) with a wooden sppon or spatula.  Add in the tomato sauce and return the beef rolls to the casserole, along with any accumulated juices.  Try to fit them into one layer.

Pour in beef broth until it reaches about ¾ of the way up the meat.  Bring to a slow boil, cover and place in preheated oven. Cook until the beef is tender, about 2 ½ to 3 hours..
Remove rolls and cover to keep warm. Place pot on stove over medium high heat until it boils.  Slowly add in the butter/flour mixture stirring constantly.  Cook until thickened.   Remove the toothpicks and serve with sauce.

Tip: Keep parsley fresh by washing, spinning dry and wrapping in papper towels.  Refrigerate in a plastic bag.  The small amount of water remaining on the leaves keep it crisp.  Or place parsley stems in a glass of water (like flowers) and refrigerate.
Next time: Sage.

10 March, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Rustic Sausage and Squash Tart

By the end of winter - and this year is pushing the limits - I'm looking for something different to serve for dinner.  I found a couple of sausages in the freezer and came up with a rustic tart. Yummy.
  • Pastry Dough, rolled into a 13-inch round (see recipe section of this website or use your own, just be sure to roll it thin)
  • 1 medium acorn squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2"-in chunks
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • ½ Tbsp butter
  • Coarse salt
  • ¼ lb Smoked chicken and garlic sausage, diced (buy the fully cooked kind)
  • 1 large yellow onion. sliced thin
  • ½ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 large egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp water
Position the rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat oven to 400°.
Place the rolled out pastry dough on a rimless baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate.
Place the squash on a rimmed baked sheet, drizzle with 1 ½ Tbsp olive oil , sprinkle with coarse salt, and toss to coat. Spread into a single layer and roast until almost tender (10 minutes). Remove from oven and cool.
In a frying pan, melt the butter with the remaining ½ Tbsp oil. Add the onions and cover. Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking until golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes longer. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
Raise the heat to medium-high and add the sausage. Saute until lightly browned. Add to the onions and cool.
Spread the chilled dough with the onion, squash, sausage mixture, leaving a 1 1/2" border. Sprinkle with the grated cheese. Fold the pasty edges up and over the filling, forming loose pleats to fit. Brush the pastry lightly with the egg mixture.

Bake until crust is browned, about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with a green salad.
Feel free to ad lib with other types of sausages and squashes.  Butternut squash and chorizo would be good.  If your sausage doesn't have garlic already in it, just add a clove of minced garlic when the onions are almost finished cooking.


28 February, 2014

Fiction Friday: Chicken or egg? Character or Plot?

It's the age old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg--only for writers it's character or plot.  Which comes first? Here's my take on the question.  Feel free to disagree.

Characters are important. It's wrong to say you can't have a story without characters.  What you should say is: you can't have a good story without strong characters. Most readers will take accept some little inconsistencies in your plot, forgive flights of fancy, if they relate to your characters.

On the flip side, plot is important.  You don't have a story without a plot. Without a plot, your characters are just...there.  Without characters, plot is irrelevant.  How's that for circular thinking?

For me, characters come first because they give me the most trouble. The plot "happens" as I write, but I sweat over characters. I was never good at chemistry and creating a character is a lot like mixing a formula.
Coming from a journalism background, I never bothered a whole lot about descriptions which  just took up precious column  space available for facts.  Now I know better.  Whether describing a physical person, thing, or place, description is key to centering your reader. How else will the reader empathize with your characters? It's not like movie, after all, where you get a freebie, an instant rapport with the actor playing the part.

The trick is to create a picture in your reader's mind and keep it consistent.  Without simply listing a bunch of physical characteristics.  I've seen it done, but it isn't pretty.  For the most part, we try to drop hints here and there throughout the narrative until the reader builds his/her own mental image – which may or may not bear any resemblance to the writer's.

What amazes me, three years after typing "Chapter 1", is how my protagonist has developed--largely thanks to the comments of  test readers and one stupendous editor (you know who you are, Mary).  This editor told me there was really only one problem with my novel: the protagonist had no character.  She was a follower, not a leader.  She would not resonate with readers. No soon had the editor uttered those words than I realized she was right.  I went back and wrote in a backbone. Now she has a strong will; a polite, but forceful manner; and no fear of leaping before looking. She's also sassy, red headed, and pissed off at the entire male sex -- temporarily.

11 February, 2014

Tastely Tuesday: Winter -Buster Soup

Over a foot of snow on the ground and more coming tonight, along with frigid temperatures. It definitlely doesn't feel like a salad day, I'm in soup mode once again. Okay, I'm in soup mode most of the time, but this is special  "winter buster" soup.

To qualify as a "winter buster" a soup must be served hot, contain hearty fare, and be seasoned with warming spices.  It must also stick to your ribs so you can so skiing after eating.

Here's my answer to tonight's snow!

Spiced Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

1 medium to large butternut squash
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion (1 medium)
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon (it like the spicier Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 tsp grated, fresh ginger
4-5 cups low sodium chickn broth
Croutons or sour cream & chives

Preheat over to 375. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray lightly with oil.  Split the squash lengthwise and place on the sheet.  Bake 35 to 50 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife or skewer.  Re3move from oven and allow to cool until you can handle.

 Remove the seeds and discard. Scrape the pulp from the skin and set aside.  Discard skins.

Mix together the curry, cumin and cinnamon and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over moderate heat and cook until the butter turns brown and smells nutty. This will take 5-7 minutes. Do not allow to burn!  Add the onions and saute until slightly softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.

 Add the apples, raise heat slightly, and cook, satirring, until the apples and onions begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes.  Add the grated ginger and reserved spices and cook until everything is coateed with butter.  Add in the reserved  cooked squash, breaking up large pieces, if there are any.

Add the chicken stock and 1 tsp kosher salt, cover, bring to a simmer and cook until everything is tender, about 40 minutes.


With a hand blender, puree the mixture right in the pot.  Alternatively, puree in small batches in a blender.

 I like to serve this with home-made sour dough croutons, but it is also good with a dollop of sour cream and some chopped chives.  Or try all three!

04 February, 2014

Fiction Friday: Do you remember your first book?

I was at the library last week when a mother came in with two young children, maybe 4 and 5 years old.  They were so excited to be there and to pick out new books to take home. I love seeing kids get excited about books.  If they read, they'll imagine, and if they imagine, there's no limit to their world.

Do you remember your first book? Not the first book you wrote, but the first book you read.

I can't remember learning to read, actually learning.  Someone told me that means I was a "sight" reader. I just remember reading, well before I got to first grade.  Maybe it's because I had two older brothers, and parents who read to me.  Or maybe it's because I was destined to be a writer.  I like to think it's the latter.

I fondly remember Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans is a relative - my only claim to literary fame), The Box-car Kids and The Secret Garden.  I still have my well-worn copies of Now We are Six and When We were Very Young. By seven, I was reading in  both English and French. There was a whole series of books about children by the Countess de Segur, a French writer of Russian birth.  And yes, I still own all 22 of them, bound in red leather. Obvious I have a problem getting rid of books!

With older brothers, I read the Hardy Boys before Nancy Drew. Little Women and Little Men were favourites for a while, as were Dadou Gosse de Paris and Sissi.

I went to boarding school for the first time when I was nine, a Catholic school in Belgium where we slept in tiny cubicles with a cloth curtain drawn across the opening. Most of us had books and flashlights hidden in with our uniforms and we burrowed deep down under duvets in the unheated dorm to read so the nuns couldn't see the lights. Now that's dedication -- you don't want to know the punishment if caught! The Borrowers, Charlotte's Web, Le Petit Prince, Vol de Nuit, so many great memories. So many close calls with Sister Jean Berchmanns!

I imagine most writers are life-long readers. Chicken and egg? And I'd be hard put to decide which gives me more pleasure, reading or writing. Maybe it's a tie.

So, what was your first book?  Can you remember your childhood favourites? Are there any I missed and should read?

28 January, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Popovers

I'm dubbing today Tasty Tuesday. My day to share a recipe with my readers.

I've been backing bread for years.  I love the feel of dough and the frustrations you release kneading it, to say nothing of the magical appeal of a homemade, freshly baked loaf.  But I don't always two or three hours to allow the yeasted loaves to proof. That's what happened last week.  I had a big pot of beef barley soup and no bread. 

Never one to give up easily, I decided to try popovers...for the first time. I had a popover pan I'd received as a gift over a year ago and never used, so what better time?

First step.  Find a recipe. I was seriously tempted by Emeril Lagasse's Cheesy Herbed Popovers, but opted to go simple the first time. (I'll be trying his recipe next!)

Basically, if you have the right tool—a popover pan—the recipe is no harder than making pancakes. They take about 10 minutes to whip up and less than 30 to bake. And look how they turned out! Even warmed over in the oven the next day they crisped back up. They were huge!

Herb Popovers
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted and divided
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1. Preheat oven to 450º.

2. Whisk eggs in a blender until frothy. Add milk, flour, salt, and 2 tablespoons butter; whisk until well blended. Add herbs and whirr to blend.

2. Use 2 tablespoons butter to grease popover pan; place pan on a baking sheet. Warm pan in oven for 5 minutes. DO NOT skip the warming step. Remove pan from oven, and divide batter equally among popover cups.

3. Bake at 450º for 13 minutes. (Do not open oven during the first 10 minutes of baking or popovers won't rise properly.) Reduce oven temperature to 350º, and bake 15 to 20 more minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven, and pierce each with a wooden pick to release steam. Remove from pans, and serve immediately.

Try your own combination of herbs, but stick to fresh ones as dried herbs will be overpowering.