winter

winter

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where Comfort Lies...


It's cold and windy here today, and I feel a bit in need of some comfort food. So, I have been busy in the kitchen today.

My first project was marbled brownies, which made the entire house smell of warm chocolate and vanilla.

On to the second project, which you see pictured here. Shepherd's Pie. The complete recipe is on my blog, some pages back, October 3rd, actually. Now, traditionally, one is to use lamb to make the pie, but Springfield seems a bit short on lamb chunks and so I tend to go for ground chuck. Whole different animal, I know, but it works. Who can't resist hot mashed potatoes? Not to mention tender vegetables and seasonings encased in a meaty filling?
So, now I'm pleasantly fed and plan to lounge by the fire with a book. No further action required on my part until tomorrow...
What comfort foods do you seek out on a cold, windy day?


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Women's Fiction - Women's Work?


I just finished the attached article, written by one of my favorite writers and teacher, Barb Samuel. As I often do after reading one of Barb's articles, I leaned back in my chair to give some thought to it, and today, I thought about my love of cooking, where it came from, how it started, and why food (good food) is so important to me today.


I didn't always cook. In fact, when I was young I found it to be an awful chore and a bore besides that. No, I was perfectly content to leave that task my mother, only interested in consuming the meal, not interested in being an active participant in its creation. Washing the dishes afterward with my sister was enough women's work for me.


If I had any shadows when I began cooking (as Barb describes her ex-husband), it would have to be my mother and her mother, both strong farmhouse cooks. Three big meals a day for the men working in the field, complete with fresh yeast rolls, chunky preserves, and a pie from scratch for desert. They used pound after pound of lard, gallons of fresh cream, and raw milk, all the ingredients we're warned not to use today. There were strawberries from my grandparents' never-ending garden, corn, tomatoes, green beans, fresh peas. Their eggs came from their own chickens. My love for the farmer's market must have been planted years ago, at my grandparents' farm in Wisconsin.

At our home, my mother gave us a dinner of roast on Sunday, nearly every Sunday, after the handshaking and post-sermon chit-chat was finished at church. The table was spread with her nicest tablecloth, and covered with steaming dishes of roast acorn squash, baked potatoes, sugared carrots. Thinking about this, I plan to incorporate more food memories into my writing in the future. Barb describes it as "Easy. Invisible. Holding up the pillars of the world." How true.

And so, women's fiction, like women's work, is important. When people ask me what I write and I respond with, "I write women's fiction," the reaction sometimes is, "Oh ho! Women's fiction! I bet you give a lot of thought to THAT!"

No, it's not particulary literary, or historical, or heavy in nature. Like women's work, it seems invisible. Invisible it is not. It's earthy, it is sensual, it can be healing, often it provides a bonding agent, like food. If my writing can give a harried, or sad, or tired woman a brief respite from the rhythym of her day, then I have done what I came to do.

Yes, if that is the case, I have done what I came to do.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

y (Why) write


Lately, I've been bothered about my lack of regular posting, and being rather ashamed about it, I sat down this evening and asked myself a question. How do you write? Why do you write?

Now, as you probably know if you follow me at all, I am part of a writers' group here in Springfield. If you know me even better, you will recognize that there is an awful lot of noise in my head. It's sometimes very loud and chaotic. I see you looking at me askance. The noise in my head, what is that. Well, it's ideas and supposings and I-wonder-how-that-works drama, and what if this happened or that happened, and what would be the outcome, who would be affected, AND if I were the heroine of that scenario, how would I react, what would I do, what would I say? And if I'm NOT the heroine of that scenario, how would the main character deal with all that and how is it right in the end?

As writers, we spend a lot of time in our own heads. There's a lot going on in there. In fact, at times it gets damned crowded. Our characters can be quite demanding.

So, how I do write. Well, I happen to be somewhat musically oriented. I was a pastor's daughter, after all, required to learn how to play piano, and my mother wanted her daughters to be good prospects for marriage in a Victorian sense, and therefore, I was required to learn another instrument,which turned out to be the flute. But, at some point in my young years, I discovered a reel to reel recording that my father made of a radio station somewhere in Wisconsin, and on that tape were songs I'd never heard before. Rock songs, love songs, sensual, pretty songs. And I loved every second of it. My love of music was born at the discovery of that scratch reel to reel tape. And so, from that point on, I wanted to hear something besides church hymns. Whenever I could, I filled my mind with music. Music is a fantastic catalyst for writing, mind you. Music can produce mood, can produce dialogue, can produce voice or setting, can push a story along. Music is a provacative force,which I use often; it can push, it can pull, it can expand but it never stands still.
On another note, sometimes the best ideas I ever get are when I am out walking my dog. Yes, how simple is that. It is simple, yes, but sometimes, walking, clearing my mind of clutter, is the best way to produce new ideas. Breathing in fresh air, pumping the lungs, moving the feet, it's so organic, all good.
I have a writing friend who endorses "Artist's Dates." By this, she means taking in something new, off the beaten path, taking time off to watch a movie, go to an art museum, try a new restaurant, take a class on whatever you want, watch the sun set (or rise, whichever). Go outside your comfort zone. Go outside your comfort zone. Very important. You never know what you can do until you stretch yourself to what to think you could never do. Seriously.

Now, why do I write. I write because I cannot imagine not writing. I cannot imagine a world without stories, without written accounts factual or not, of a happening, of love or redemption or victory, of surviving the odds, or eternal sadness. I just can't. It would be such a sad world without stories.
I hope you feel the same. In fact, tell me, how do you write and why?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Springfield Has a Castle?


Who knew? Apparently, not me. Having lived here since 1995, I must have been walking around with my eyes shut, not that I spend a lot of time thinking about the possibilities of castles existing in Springfield, Missouri, but anyway.

But yes, having said that, Springfield is home to a castle.

Looming large from a grassy knoll on 2.66 acres in northeast Springfield, Pythian Castle, once known as The Pythian Home of Missouri, sits quietly, the total monarch of all that surrounds it.

The place was built in 1913 out of huge Carthage stone blocks, and was part of a 53-acre tract, which was whittled away bit by bit until only 2.66 acres remains. Built by a mysterious secret order, the Knights of Pythia, it was intended to be an orphanage and retirement home for children who were direct descendants of the Pythians, and older relatives of the same. However, in 1942 it was acquired by the Army, and became a branch of the O'Reilly General Hospital, treating over 44,000 wounded. From that time forward, the land was sold off, once for a college to be built, some land was sold to contribute to other city needs, and then in 2003, it was purchased privately and the owner now lives in what was once the girls' dormitory wing.

Well, it being a castle, there are going to be stories. October seems to be a good month for stories, doesn't it.

Rumour has it, the place is inhabited by others.

I mentioned it was an orphanage. Well, not the kind of orphanage where kids are adopted out to loving families. Oh no, these children were placed in the home due to the Great Depression and their parents' inability to care for or support them. If and when the parents were once again able to care for their familes, the children were reunited with their parents. If not, I don't know what became of the children. Chances are, once they reached some level of adulthood, they were turned out to make room for other children and were forced to eek out an existence alone. As far as it being a retirement home, there were many elderly people living there, often suffering from dementia, or some other form of mental illness. There were two suicides, both of which were elderly people. One man shot himself due to the ravages and intense pain of cancer. The other slit his own throat in the showers and no one knows why. There are also records of the castle keeping prisoners of war from World War II. Italians, Germans and Japanese men were kept in the basement, in cells.

What I am told today about all of this is that children have been heard laughing, crying, or otherwise talking in the rooms. Boxes and crates are heard being shoved around on a regular basis. Supposedly, there is a presence in the tunnel that once connected the castle from its boiler room housed some distance away, and this presence doesn't want to be annoyed. On ocassion, someone calls, "yoo hoo!" and no one is there. Objects are arranged and rearranged. A presence routinely walks through the front door into the foyer calling, "hello! Hello!"

So, I took a tour. Beforehand, I felt some trepidation, not sure what I was in for. But once the tour started, I became completely relaxed. I did hear something like a heavy crate being shoved about in the boys' dormitory hall. I did feel a cold burst of air rush between me and another person while standing in the foyer. Other than that, nothing. Nobody "yoo hooed" at me, no one called, "hello!" There were no messages from beyond.

Whether the place is haunted or not, it's a beautiful building, full of lovely architectural details. I'm absolutely enthralled by it.

Will I go back again? You betcha.

Do you know of a haunted place? It's October, after all. Tell me about it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Easy Shepherd's Pie


This is a chill-chaser for those nights when you'd really like a fire to warm your feet and maybe your heart too.
Here are the ingredients and following, is what you do:
To begin:
1 onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
Kosher salt
Pepper
Red pepper flakes
Extra virgin olive oil
Drop about 2 generous tablespoons olive oil into a large, nonstick skillet. Throw in the diced onions, carrots, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, drop in a few red pepper flakes. Once the onions and carrots start to carmelize, drop in the chopped garlic. Allow this to carmelize for about five minutes on medium heat.
Okay.
1 red pepper, diced
paprika
1 TBSP Worceshershire sauce
2 lbs. ground chuck
Peas
Cream of celery soup
About 8 medium sized yukon gold potatoes
milk
Peel potatoes, cube and drop into boiling salted water. Allow them to cook for about 16 minutes. Drain them when finished. Have a large bowl with 4 TBSP unsalted butter, seasoned with salt and pepper ready. Once the potatoes are drained, drop them into the bowl with the butter, salt and pepper. Use a potato masher or a hand mixer to mash up the potatoes, adding milk as necessary.
Preheat oven to 350°.
In the meantime, drop your ground chuck into the pan with the onions and carrots. Reseason with salt and pepper. Throw the red pepper in, mix it all up. Once the meat is brown, drain off the grease and drop some paprika, and the Worcestershire sauce. Mix one can cream of celery soup to a half can of milk, mix together in a separate bowl, throw into the beef mixture.
Once your beef mixture is finished, grease a large casserole dish. Maybe a 2-quart, maybe a 9 x 11, depending on what kind of bakeware you own. Drop the beef mixture in, smooth it out, and drop the mashed potatoes atop, sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake for about 25 minutes.
Serve with a hot loaf of crusty sourdough bread and a nice green salad.
Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September Passing






Took a long walk with my beloved dog this morning. Watched the dew evaporate from the grass. Came back home and started a pot of broccoli cheese soup. Thought about September passing, thought about putting summer away and walking towards fall, which is right around the provibial corner. Wondered what kind of winter we might have this year and prayed the power would stay on all winter, no disastrous ice storms, no darkness, no fear, no dismal, dark, unrelenting cold.



I love fall, but I don't love winter, not here in the Ozarks. I don't love brown, molded trees and lawns, don't love unforgiving, mocking ice. I don't love getting up in the dark, driving to work in the dark, driving back back home in the dark. Having said that, I love the mystery of it all, the quiet, the lack of summer riotness that is fall and winter here where I make my home now.



Here is what I look forward to, in this autumnal spirit; I am looking forward to full-bodied casseroles, hearty soups, candlelight, big flavored bread, red wine, quiet laughter with friends, red maples, golden maples, leaves strewn about on sidewalks, pumpkins carved or not on porches, random dashes through corn mazes. I am looking forward to fleece, pretty sweaters, black tights, heavy earrings. I am looking forward to the first snow, which may not happen until January but regardless, I'll be ready with a pot of herbal tea to salut it's arrival.



Where are you and what are your fall rituals?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Location


Location, location, location.
Yesterday, at Springfield Writers' Guild, one of our members brought in some work, and asked for a critique. Her story line was good, her writing was pretty strong, she had created a character I could care about but, I had to ask myself where was the story happening? What was the location?
It wasn't enough to know that her main character was a Mexican woman with smooth skin, or that she was recently divorced, or that a kind stranger had given her a job as a waitress in his truckstop. I wanted to know, where in the sam hill we were in her world. Later, I think it was said the story was taking place in southern California, which is a great location, completely appealing.
Your readers want to know about location. They're interested. This is where our writer fell down a bit. Had she given us a little Spanish here and there, described a cactus or a plant that grows in southern California, we would have known where we were, and quite honestly, felt a little more secure in the story. Not knowing your location is sort of like taking a trainride to nowhere in the fog. There's something swarming all around you, but you can't really grasp it or see through it, and after awhile, you feel chilled, and maybe you want a blanket.
Location. Look around the world of your characters. Is there dialect, speech patterns, learned mispronounciations? Physically, is it desert, tropical, cityscape? What nuances of the location mesh up with your characters?
There's also a "why;" why is this location important? Is it generational? Had they always been there? Is someone starting over, making a new start, as in the main character of our writer's story? Why is it important?
So, think about location as you create your stories. Clue your reader in. It'll give your story more depth and hold your reader's attention for a longer period of time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Point of View


Several years ago I was so, so fortunate to be able to attend the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, held annually in Colorado Springs. I can't remember now how many years ago this was; I remember I had a different employer at that time, and how I thought I was the next Nicholas Sparks, whose writing I now don't admire very much, point being, what a greenhorn I was.

I arrived at the convention, starry-eyed, stomach fluttering, convinced that I held the next Great American Novel in my hands, and (ta-da!) I got a pitch with Jessica Faust, and then one with Lily Ghahremani, and both of them told me I was toast. "What is your point of view," Lily wanted to know. "I just don't get it."

What??? I'd written the next greatest American Novel Ever. Point of View? Seriously?

Yup. You see, I had confused them both, and therefore, they declined representation of my manuscript.

Point of View determines how your story is going to be told; therefore, it's important to know what point of view to choose. Below is a brief synopsis of point of view.

First Person - this is the most intimate point of view because you see the story through this person's eyes. This point of view uses the "I" stance. It can be limiting as you will only see the story from one point of view; thus, other characters' thoughts, feelings and ambitions won't be seen.

Second Person - told from the standpoint of "You." Not used in fiction writing much; this is for more instructional work.

Omniscient - this point of view knows all. This is sort of a nineteenth century tool, and not used a lot these days either.

Third Person - sort of a compromise between first person and omniscient, and is used the most today by fiction writers. With this point of view, you can move back and forth between characters and the unique way each of them act and react. As you are head-hopping with this point of view, the main thing is, don't make it confusing for your readers as to whose head you're in now. If you suddenly switch midstream, your reader will be confused, and likely, put the book down.

So, how do you choose a point of view? I've been told to choose the character who has the most to lose, but no matter what your story is about, the point of view you choose will determine how the story is written.









Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Love Summer


Or, maybe I'm just a humidity-craving, sweating, in denial, nutball. Always a possibility, of course.
So, I went to the farmers market this morning, of course. This is, after all, my Saturday routine. And, while immersed in my Saturday routine, I spied peaches.
Peaches. Luscious, fat, juicy, sweet, seductive, beautiful as a sunrise, peaches.
I was a goner. Toast.
So, below, find two recipes for what you can do with peaches if you really want to do anything with them besides just eating out of hand.
Peach Pie:
6-8 good sized peaches, blanched and cut up. [If you don't know what blanching is, it is plunging your peaches into boiling water for about 15 seconds and then, plunging them into ice-cubed water before peeling.]
Okay, blend your cut up peaches with: 3/4 c. brown sugar, a splash of nutmeg, a splash of white sugar, a splash of kosher salt, 2 TBSP butter cut up, about 1/4 c. flour and a splash of brandy.
Splash, splash, just do it.
Dump your peaches into your crust, moisten the edges of your crust with warm water, drop another crust atop, seal. With a knife, make some vents in the top, sprinkle white sugar over the top, and bake at 350° for one hour.
Here's the other idea (and possibly my favorite):
Peach Preserves:
This is so sweet and luscious and makes a great gift.
12 medium-sized peaches or 18 large peaches
5 c. sugar
1/2 c. lemon juice
1 teas. salt
Okay, so in a big dutch oven, bring your water to boil and drop a few peaches in at a time, allow them to cook for 15 seconds, transfer to a deep bowl, filled with cold water and ice cubes [Blanch, remember?]. Do this until all the peaches have been in the boiling water and now all are in the cold water. Drain.
Now, wash and dry your dutch oven, and drop in the sugar, lemon juice and salt. Peel peaches, cut into bite-size chunks. Drop peaches into sugar mixture. Over high heat, bring peaches to boiling, stirring, turn heat to low and allow to cook for an hour and 30 minutes, or until the fruit is translucent and it seems syrupy, slightly thickened. With metal spoon, skim off foam and discard that. Meanwhile, prepare your jars and lids for processing the preserves. Bring water to a boil in the canner.
When peach mixture seems thick, ladle into drained hot jars to within 1/4 inch of top of jar. Seal jars. Process in simmering bath for 10 minutes; remove. Allow to cool.
Depending on your generosity, this recipe should yield about eight 1/2 pint jars.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hello, from the great computer-world beyond

Oh jeepers. I don't mean to whine, but it's been a horrible summer between me and my computer. Bad, like you don't want to know how bad it's really been. It's been bad, and I don't really want to talk about it. I haven't been able to post, haven't been able to do much of anything of value, and I've really missed it, the posting to my blog, that is.
So, I'm trying to come back and regain whatever credibility I had. I promise to post more in the future.
Please hold steady with me while I get all this ironed out.
Thanks!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Russo Factor


First of all, do I like this photo? No. But, it's all I could find that wasn't a generation old. So, sorry universe, and sorry Richard, you're just such a recluse, and I wish you'd get another picture taken.
Anyway.
I love Richard Russo. Been a fan for years now. I have friends who claim they'd rather walk through their skin backward than read anything he writes but I have to differ. I just simply have to stand up for this guy. Besides that, the man won a Pulitzer Prize for crying out loud. He can't really stink, can he? I don't see how.
The thing I like about Russo is how he sees the underbelly; how he shows you, the reader, what's so freaking awful about the situation without actually SAYING it. He sees what the character doesn't want to see, what the character doesn't want to admit to himself or anybody else, he sees what the character sees without seeing it.
Does he cook? No. And you know me well enough by now to know that I do appreciate a good recipe snuck into a good read. But, Richard doesn't cook, so none of that.
So, I'm going to share the Richard Russo books I've read and maybe you will read them too. "Empire Falls" - loved it. "Nobody's Fool" - this may be my favorite. "Straight Man?" I may have read this ten times. And then, there was "Bridge of Sighs."
Quite honestly, there were passages in "Bridge of Sighs" that I had to just turn the pages until certain things came to a close. "Bridge of Sighs" is a great read but, if you love animals, if you love dogs in particular, you aren't going to be able to stand some of the text in that book. Aside from the purposeful cruelty to animals, I loved the book and, I do understand that a writer writes and writes what is given to him to write. I'm not at all condemning Richard for certain passages in that book, just saying I could not read those particular passages in that book. Now, having said that, I also understand that humanity as a whole is so flawed that, if you're going to write and going to be an honest writer, you have to be able to write it all, whatever that may be, and I give Richard credit for doing that and doing it very well. That's really what it's all about for you, for me, for any writer. Tell the truth. It's going to make you throw up sometimes but, if it's truth, tell it. Don't be nambsy-pamsby about it. Tell the truth.
So, on to the latest book from him, "That Old Cape Magic."
I loved this book. I see somewhat a departure here from the older Russo works. "Cape" seems more introspective, particularly into the world of married people, sadder, more honest maybe; it seems to grasp how frail we all are and how fragile relationships really are whether we want to think so or not. Again, Russo grasps our humaness and runs with it and makes a really good showing.
The thing about Russo is that he tells the truth. If you are a fiction writer, you must tell the truth. You absolutely must, whatever that truth is. If you don't tell the truth, don't expect to be found credible. So, write what is yours to write today and tell the truth. Always.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Oi. And Vey.


I'm not Jewish. Sorry about that.

Also, I meant to publish something about food, but, well, that didn't happen, quite. It may yet but, not quite right now.

I am not sure where to put this post on my blog. While I'd like to say, and started out to say, it's all about the food, really, it's not so much that, it's really all about me. It's all about me on a personal level. I've become retrospective now. I'd like to combine food with this post but, really, in all actuality, not sure I'm going to be able to do that. Not that I've stopped cooking, oh no, I think it's just that this year, I'm really, REALLY seeing my life in compartments and trying to be honest about this phase or that one, and where I am now and where I'd like to be.

Very strange thing for me this year, not to mention, uncomfortable.

Okay, let's bring in the proverbial cat ( a big fat orange one because I like those) and let's let it out of the bag, as it were.
Drum roll, please, if I can get one...I may really prefer trumpets if there are any out there.

In just a few weeks, I am going to reach the half-century mark in my life.

Fifty years on this earth. Fifty. Does that sound old to you because it sure does to me. And I hate to say it but, I'm scared. I'm scared because it sounds like I have not accomplished the things I wanted to do in my life and now, here I am, fifty years old, and still haven't moved heaven and earth like I envisioned I would at some point, and well, what then??

Seriously, what then?
Well, there's this.

I hope I've been good to people. I hope I've helped someone in need. I hope I can leave this earth one day, it being a better place then when I was here, but, can I be assured of that, really?

Maybe it doesn't matter because the whole issue of control won't be mine anyway, at that point.

I just know I love being alive and I love living and I appreciate the opportunity to be here.

So, I was going to publish a post having to do with food and bounty and summer and somehow, I've morphed into this soul-searching issue about turning fifty this year. I know I'm not the only one who's gone on this journey; however, at this point, it's my journey to take.

Come over. Let's talk later, over a chilled bottle of wine, about your journey and mine.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Calm Down, calm down


My mind has been a jumble lately. I went on a much needed short vacation with a dear, wonderful friend recently. I came back from vacation, went back to work and have been working with a vengeance ever since. My desk looks as if a paper mill regurgitated without apology all over it.

Well, I've tried to resume my life since I came back from vacation. I've tried to keep up. I've resumed my quest for the perfect summer fruits and vegetables. Been running my younger son back and forth to work. Been paying bills, worrying about the economy, worrying about my aging parents, worrying about my oldest son, going to visit an injured friend, trying to keep up with every day life while I find myself slipping away. Again. Like before vacation.

I need to let my mind rest. The quiet place I am looking for, the quiet place I need, is somewhat elusive right now, being buried between mounds of production documents and personal issues. Can I take another vacation?

Well, probably not.

So, I have to remind myself, and probably you do too: do what is yours to do today. Show up. And do it. This is not my personal sage wisdom - it's Barb's and I take no credit for it, except to say that I need to follow it.

I say that because I have spent considerable time sitting in front of my monitor, staring at my manuscript like a blind woman. Where are the words? What am I supposed to write next? For a writer, a spiller of words, this is important. I'm trying not to worry about it but, I am worried.
I'm going to continue to show up and do what I have to do that day. The words will come.
So, please, whoever you are, show up. Do what is yours to do today. Don't worry about the rest of it. Just how up. And do what is yours to do today.
I'll do the same.
Let's meet back here and talk about it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stuffed Green Peppers

I love green peppers! And stuffing them is the ultimate peasant comfort food.
Here's how I do it.

6-8 good sized green peppers
1/2 c. onion, chopped
2 cloves chopped garlic
salt
pepper
1 - 1 1/2 lb. ground chuck
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 c. cooked rice
8 oz. tomato sauce
Oregano
Cumin
Sugar
1 c. corn
Velveeta cheese

Carefully cut the tops from your peppers and immerse them in boiling water for 6-8 minutes. Drain, allow them to cool for just a bit.

In the meantime, throw a little olive oil around your skillet and drop your chopped onions in. Salt, pepper. Let them sizzle for a few minutes before dropping the garlic in (garlic burns easily). Drop in the ground chuck, a little more salt and pepper, season with oregano and cumin. Drain grease from meat. Pour in about half of your tomato sauce, throw a little sugar down to cut the tomato, drain your stewed tomatoes and pour in. Stir in the cooked rice corn. Season again, using salt, pepper, oregano and cumin to taste.

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Now, slice up four or five pieces of the Velveeta, yes, Velveeta. I know it's processed cheese but, it melts well. For six peppers, you'll need twelve squares of velveeta. Place one square in the bottom of each pepper. Spoon the meat mixture into the pepper, packing down slightly. Once all your peppers are filled, drizzle the rest of the tomato sauce on top of each pepper, lay another chunk of cheese on top. Cover tightly and bake for 45 minutes. Take the top off, bake another 15 or so minutes.
Yum!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sum, sum, sum, sum, sum, sum, summertime!


Ah, roasted tomato caprese salad, that's what I'm talking about.
Might seem a bit elementary to bigger cooks than me, however. Gotta say it. Knowing it's not really tomato season yet, I'm thinking I'm pretty smart right now. Thinking that roasting these pre-season tomatoes is a darn fine idea.
Roasting your tomatoes (or any vegetable, for that matter) will bring out the natural sweetness, and in this case, tomatoes aren't really in season yet, so they need a little help in bringing out all their natural goodness. So, I vote roasting. I've never seen it fail, with any vegetable.
Here's what I do:
10-12 roma or plum tomatoes - halve these babies. Lay them out, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
Preheat your oven to 275°. Drizzle with about a quarter cup extra virgin olive oil. Drizzle again with 1 1/2 tablespoons blasamic vinegar. Combine 2 large garlic cloves (minced), with 2 or 3 teaspoons of sugar, some kosher salt and some pepper. Sprinkle liberally over tomatoes. Roast the tomatoes for 2 or so hours, or until slightly carmalized. Let them cool.
Bring out a very nice serving dish. Come on now. Summertime!
Here's something about mozzarella, and I'm talking about fresh mozzarella, not the shredded variety - freeze your cheese for about 15 minutes before you plan to slice it. There is something just really gross about trying to slice room-temperature mozzarella cheese. It's seriously icky. All that sliding and buckling under the knife, no way. So, freeze your mozzarella, allow it to get slightly hard before you slice it. Slice your mozarella into thin strips, layer your dish, alternating your cheese with your tomato halves. Julienne about 10 good size basil leaves. Now, don't cheat and sprinkle the dried version here. Just don't do that. Seriously, roll up your basil leaves and slice them. Scatter the basil atop your tomatoes and mozzarella, sprinkle some more salt and pepper, drizzle lightly with olive oil.
Serve. Eat. Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Absorb!

Wow, those women over at "What Women Write" are kicking some serious writing butt and, taking no prisoners I might add. I'm not saying that just because Julie Kibler is one of the most unique, talented women writers I know, I'm saying that because ALL of them are unique, talented writers. See for yourself at: http://www.whatwomenwritetx.blogspot.com/. And, p.s. I love Julie. Go girl!

Now, here's something else, something close to my heart, something we've talked about before. New York agent Nathan Bransford wrote a great article recently on voice: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/05/how-to-craft-great-voice.html. You guys know how I feel about voice. I can erect my own soapbox and jump on it anytime but, listen, if you've been told that you, the writer, have no voice, only your characters have voice, skip on over and read what Nathan has to say about that particular subject. Great article.

Okay, so, I am not going to get in your face tonight about reading. You've heard enough of that to kill an elephant, say, so I'll skip that and just say, cultivate your resources. Tap into other writers, their blogs, their websites, their writings, all of it. Find a hobby, whether it be photography, painting, music, whatever. Absorb, absorb, absorb, all that surrounds you, for good or for naught. Absorb. Breathe in the moment, deeply. When the well is full, put pen to paper, fingertips to keypad, and dump it all out. Empty your soul. Write it all down, no hesitation.

Other than that, I have no more to say but to apologize for the date on the photo. I have FINALLY learned how to take the date-stamp off my photos and I am sorry this one has a date but, I sort of liked it anyway. I hope you'll bear with me regarding my various faux pas.

So, anyway, write on, read on, study on, absorb, absorb, absorb! What would the world be without your stories, seriously?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Talking About Meatballs



Spaghetti and meatballs.



Wow.



Not talking about spaghetti and meat sauce, here. Talking Meat. Balls. In Red Tomato Sauce. That's what I'm talking about. That's what makes me one happy girl.



Spaghetti and meatballs is such a fun food. Seriously. It's just fun. Everybody likes it. Kids love it. Adults find comfort in it. I can't even tell you how many times I've found comfort at the bottom of a steaming bowl of pasta, sauce and meatballs atop. Who doesn't love curling tomato-laden garlic infused linguine around a fork into a lump so big you can't even get it into your mouth without being sort of crude, and the happy sigh that follows the successful shove into the mouth; can't beat that with a stick.



Not sure why anyone would want to beat a meatball with a stick anyway.



Well, my main point with this whole diatribe is the meatball. The Meat. Ball. Yes, indeed. The ball of meat. That beautiful meaty roundness squatting atop a huge mound of pasta and beautiful marinara or, whatever you like, sauce. I'm not picky. I want you to be happy.



Oh boy. Let's make some meatballs. So, grab your apron and a knife and let's get down to it.



My first move is to chop about a half cup of onion and slap that down into some olive oil, salt and pepper and let my onions sweat and get all kinds of tender and pretty in the saute pan.



In the meantime, I get one egg from the refrigerator, I pull out my oregano, nutmeg, bread crumbs, grated parmesan cheese, my ground chuck, and my ground italian sausage. I like to use about a pound and a half ground chuck to a half pound ground italian sausage. Dump my meats in a bowl and then I start dropping the rest of my ingredients in. I don't measure anything, sorry, don't count on me for that because I don't do it, so, just watch what you're doing and if your meat mixture starts looking dry, keep in mind, we're going to add some warm water in a minute.



You might wonder about the nutmeg. Well, I used to wonder about that too, until a friend of mine said, just use it. It's the mystery ingredient that will keep people guessing. So, being sort of structured, more or less able to follow command at times (foodie stuff may be the time), I tried it and well, nutmeg seems to add a little question to the palette wherever it's used so, I like to throw it in there just so people will taste it and wonder, what's that edge? What is that anyway? It makes them curious and when they get curious, they tend to taste more, all the while trying to figure out what are we eating here anyway?



So, work all that above-mentioned mixture together with your fingers, adding salt and pepper, and more or less 1/4 cup warm water. It really doesn't matter how much liquid you use as long as your meatballs are moist but firm when you start rolling them up. So, when you're satisifed the increments are right, dump in your sauteed onions as well and then begin rolling up your meat balls. I always make them too big. I know I do this and I can't seem to stop it so, my family has become used to mega-meatballs.



Drop your meatballs into some sizzling olive oil, saute, turn, and once you are satisfied they are browned enough, drop them into your sauce, whether homemade or bottled, and let it go about 20 more minutes on a low simmer. Not a lot more than that because tomato-based sauces tend to become bitter if they're cooked too long or too hard so, in that same vein, don't turn your temperature way up for same reason. Just let it simmer. Throw some linguine, or the pasta of your choice, into a pot of boiling water, cook for 8-9 minutes, drain, coat with sauce and meatballs, grab a big loaf of crusty bread and enjoy!






Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reading is Good....


I guess I've said this about 19 times now; however, I feel I must say it again.


Reading is paramount to writing. If you fancy yourself a writer, well, then, read. I'm not meaning to be harsh here. I'm just saying, if you want to write, if you are serious about the craft, you must, you MUST, read. Absolutely. The two cannot be separated.


Besides that, isn't it nice to lay back in your easy chair or your lawn chair and just retreat from everything you have to deal with in your real life? Come on.


Well, listen. You may think of me as a fiction writer, albiet the womens' fiction writer, the light stuff, the fluff, the happy ending stuff. Okay, yes, I do that. I do it with wild abandon. There is something about the idea of finding love, love working out, love being the catalyst for a happy and productive life, that I really like. Yes. I'll stand on my soapbox about that always. But.


Lately, I've been venturing out of my shell. Maybe you've noticed with the post on "Winter's Bone" and a few other works that aren't necessarily in my proclaimed genre. Can I tell you I have a couple of writings, out of my usual realm, for you to consider?


You didn't respond in the affirmative but, nonetheless. I am going to deliver here.


I borrowed a book from a friend recently, "Lucky Jim," written by Kingsley Amis. You know, I don't usually go for so much prose but, in this book, it's well done. The hapless James Dixon, the non-tenured professor, the lovable loser, eternal prankster, well, he's just a great character. The women in his life, his boss, his adversaries, it's all totally hilarious. At first, I thought about putting the book down because, as I said, I don't go for a lot of flowery prose but, out of respect for my friend, I thought I needed to give this book a go and I'm glad I did. It's a great read.


The other book I want to mention is "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave. This story haunted me for days after I put it down. A young woman, a teenager actually, left in a country not her own, with nothing? Nothing but a phone number and a driver's license of someone who may have helped her once but, who bears so much guilt about earlier circumstances that he takes his own life when she shows up at his home out of the blue. Wow. It's a really good book. I highly recommend it.


So, once again, I am imploring you to read. It's been said it's fundamental. I agree. It's fundamental but, if you want to write, please, please read.


That's all folks.

Mom


And so, today is Mother's Day.

So, let's talk.
My mother has been such an extraordinary force throughout my life, and I wish I could give her tribute without sounding cliched or slightly moronic. I fear I can do neither and, so I sit here today saying this: My mother has been the push on my back, the voice in my ear, the conscience speaking, the summons issued, the solid rock I've run to during various times in my life.

I remember this: my mother was way before her time in so many ways. When I was a teenager, or maybe even a pre-teenager, when we lived in southwestern Minnesota, my mother used to talk about things that should be invented and patented; things that would make life easier for all. I can't now remember specifically what she was talking about; however, in later years when things came out that had been patented and were known throughout the world, I do remember thinking that my mother had, at some point, thought about that already. She knew. She just somehow knew. So smart. So right on, she was.


Here is another thing. As an adult, I am not a church-going person; however, my mother has seldom missed a day of church in her life. While I don't follow that particular habit, I respect it. She has an anchor that I don't necessarily see as an anchor, but it's valuable to her. She has a bedrock that I respect, even if I don't quite agree with it.


My mother sees worth in people according to their work ethic, something I hope I am carrying on according to her standards. She was born in 1934; she lived through a truly miserable time in our country and, as a result, she places great value on hard work and persistence and perserverance. She did it. She has no patience for those who expect it all to be done for them. I hope I make her proud in this respect.


Onto something lighter, and I so wish I had a photograph to prove it but, my mother, well, she liked her fashions and hairdos and the like. If I find a photo (I think my sister may have them all), I'll share it but, at present, I don't. Sorry. At any rate, my mother put a lot of store in how one presents. There is a lesson to be learned there, in this age of pants on the ground, for God's sake.

And so, I hope my mother has had the most wonderful of Mother's Days and I hope she knows that her influence is paramount to me and that it is valued.

Thanks, Mom.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Great Opening Lines


“She was trying to tell the joke right, but it was his joke and she had to keep checking with him.”

This is a great opening line by an unknown student, provided by a recent speaker at SWG. It is not my line, but I wish it was.

This particular line reminds me of John Updike, the master of middle-aged, middle-class pornography, and also one of my favorite writers. My mind sees a couple, married or not, but having been together a long time, and they are at a bar or a party, someplace where alcohol is being served. They are among friends, other married or nots. He is remote, distant; he’s lost interest in the relationship. He may have kindled an interest in someone else. Maybe she knows it, maybe she only suspects. I see him sort of slumped on a stool, hands hanging in his lap. I see her standing. She is desperate and loud. She wants his attention, she wants him to like her again, but she’s trying too hard. She attempts to tell a joke, but she can’t pull it off without his help and he shrugs and turns away. The joke isn’t humorous any more. Their friends catch a vibe from the couple, and they begin to make excuses to go home early. Later, at their own home, she is in tears. She becomes clutching. He pulls away, tells her she drank too much and he falls asleep.
She had to keep checking with him on the telling of the joke. Wow. What does that tell you? A relationship in turmoil, an end, what? How do you feel about it?
What are other great opening lines that you know?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Winter's Bone - Supporting Local Writers

I hope you will forgive the bone-chilling photograph. I did it on purpose, yes. Quite honestly, I thought to make a statement.
Daniel Woodrell, author of "Winter's Bone" was asked to explain his latest title. Simple, he replied. The winter part is obvious. The "bone" is slang. Sort of like, "hey give him a break (a bone)." Somehow, in this story, winter gave its heroine, Ree Dolly a bone, a gift, a break.


"Winter's Bone" is a stunningly austere portrait of life in the hard-scrabble Ozarks. It is a hauntingly original tale of stubborness and survival against odds so bleak, so nakedly bare in a winter storm, that the very idea of a break, a bone, a gift, seems completely out of the question.


Ree Dolly is sixteen years old as the story begins. She does not go to school; rather, is kept at home to care for her medically managed mother and her two little brothers. She is part of a huge clan living throughout the Ozarks, a clan of many names but tied together in blood. Her father, Jessup, a notorious "crank cook," disappears into the night and doesn't return. When Ree learns that Jessup not only skipped his court appearance but put the entire family farm up as bond, she goes in search of him. He must come back and fix this fiasco. It is only the grit and grace deep within Ree that keeps her alive as she searches through the Ozarks netherworlds for her missing father.


This is a serious page-turner, folks. It's rich. It's real, sometimes so profoundly real that it will cause you to shudder. It is not a long book by any means but it is a very, very good one. I will tell you, the conclusion is as satisfying as hot bread dripping with real butter.


Now, the photograph is cold, I will be the first to admit it. As I said before, I did it on purpose. Partly because Ree's story takes place in the winter, a particulary unforgiving season in the Ozarks. I also thought about, coming here so many years ago, I thought about the steeliness of the Ozark people, the strength of the clans, the steely cords holding them all together. That is what I was thinking of: steel. Silvery, grey, hard steel.

Ree is made of steel. You will not forget her easily.

Daniel Woodrell lives south of me, somewhere around West Plains, is what I am told. I have yet to find this elusive author who has treated me to such a profound vision of life in the rural Ozarks. However, I said all that to say this: support your local writers. Support them because, one day that could be you striving to push your laurels out there. Support them because, when you support your local writers, you are keeping your own dream alive. Quite frankly, why couldn't the next one out there be you? Think about it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Good Reads


I have to say, I had not heard of Chris Bohjalian before now. And what is even more bizarre, I picked one of his books up off the "editors' remnants" tables at Barnes and Noble and walked away with it on a whim. I had no idea what I was in for.

"The Double Bind." What a mesmerizing tale. I don't know why I found this book or why this book found me. Maybe because I have always felt the plight of the homeless, felt the derision of the mentally ill, wondered where that man walking with a backpack was going to sleep at night, wondered who he once had been and what brought him to the point of grimy hopelessness, the depths of total despair.

The double bind, what does that term mean, exactly? After reading this book and researching it a bit, I believe it means, "being taught to believe in one thing by a superior while the superior behaves in a completely opposite fashion." Just my interpretation, but you understand. According to the experts, this double standard of expected behavior can cause schizophrenia.

Here's the book.

A brutal attack on a young woman in Vermont. She is left alone to die, to bleed to death, along the woods, on a country road. She blocks out the savagery of the attack, believing for years that she escaped with nothing more than a broken collarbone and broken finger. Throwing herself into her job at a homeless shelter, she believes she is putting the whole episode behind her.

A box of old photos, crisp and peeling at the edges, left behind by a mentally ill homeless man, a talented photographer, someone our heroine, survivor of the brutal attack, identifies with and wants to know intimately. Who was Bobbie Crocker? What do these photos mean?

The heroine's quest to first validate Bobbie Crocker and then herself, spirals her into the netherworlds of the mentally ill. This book will entice you, will bring you to the edge of your seat. When you think you know what is happening, trust me, you don't.

Chris Bohjalian writes seamlessly, flawlessly, in this novel. His construction of this entire story (complete with photos), is nothing less than fabulous.

"The Double Bind" is a psychological thriller you need to pick up. I can't wait to read another one of Chris Bohjalian's books.

Switching gears completely now. For some southern sweetness, let's travel to Mullaby, North Carolina, for Sarah Addison Allen's new book, "The Girl Who Chased the Moon." Seventeen-year old Emily's mother passes away and there is no one left to take her in. As a result, she comes to Mullaby to live with her grandfather, an eight-foot giant, in a house where the wallpaper changes with the mood. She soon learns that Mullaby, for all it's sleepy sweetness, is not the town she expected. Secrets, old recriminations, old tragedies whisper through the trees. Her deceased mother's name is a bad word in that town, but why? Mysterious lights appear in her grandfather's back yard. Emily makes a new friend, Julia, who is working through her own secret pain by baking cakes, beautiful, sugary, rich cakes. Julia believes she is calling someone back home with the smell of her baking, but who? The long-buried dream Julia carries- will it come true? Wyn Morgan is the nicest boy in town but carries a peculiar affliction. Will he and Emily be able to be together in the face of his family's strong disapproval?
Sarah Addison Allen is a rich voice, an enchanting beckoning voice. This story, as with all of her stories, will bring you in and hold you in a starry, gossamer, magic world long after you put the book down.

"The Girl Who Chased the Moon" is a beautiful book, full of magic, romance and carrying a strong hint of food. As with all of Sarah Addison Allen's other books, the cover itself is amazing. Just wait until you enter the world of Mullaby. You'll be enchanted, I promise.



Saturday, March 20, 2010

Giving Your Characters Dimension


Stories are about people. Stories tell us what they do or what happens to them, how they react, how they resolve the conflict in the end. Without people, there would be no stories.

In talking about this world we carry around in our heads, We must see our characters as real people. This is something I am passionate about in writing and I've said it before, but I believe it bears repeating. You must develop your characters. Without that breathe of life, they will lie there on the table, flat, lifeless, boring.

So, in developing your character, let's think about a couple of things. Your character has a past. You may want to call this "backstory." With that, let's talk about your backstory for a minute. You came from somewhere, right? Were your parents immigrants, bringing customs and traditions from another country? Were there language barriers to overcome? Was there suspicion and prejudice against your family because of your unfamiliar heritage? Listen, there are so many possibilities. Explore them all.

Here is an example of one dimensional characters, and realizing that all of America will stand up in protest, I still must call them out. Ward and June Cleaver, step forward, please.

Have you ever seen such a perfect couple? Here they are, perfectly manicured, well dressed, perfect mirror images of each other. They don't quarrel (not really), they have no differing opinions (about anything of substance anyway); it's Ward and June Cleaver, and they could be clones of each other. They have no hobbies. They seem to have no interests. They seem to have no conflicts, confusions, goals, hopes for the future, nothing. They dispense advice to their goober sons, and then June cooks a pot roast while Ward settles serenely into the couch and reads the paper. They smile benignly at one another as the picture fades. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it will be the same.
I have no idea where they come from, who their people are, what life experiences led them to the point of the tv show. I read somewhere that June had a college education. If so, why is she picking out aprons to match her dress and planning menus everyday? Seriously. Well. Hate to say it folks, but Ward and June, well, they're boring. They are one dimensional characters, the type you want to avoid whenever possible, or just always.

What would happen if...What would happen if, one day, June snuck a cigarette into the house while Ward was at work, and smoked it? What if Ward is secretly harboring a real hatred for his job (whatever that was), played hookie all day long and went to the horse races and then, just forgot to come home for about five years? What if June took up guitar lessons and moved to Nashville to become a country singer? What if, one evening as Ward read the paper, June threw a china plate at his head because she was tired of him sitting on the couch, reading the paper every evening?

Well, we don't know and we'll never know because Ward and June amble on, eating pot roast on nice plates, and reading the paper on the couch forevermore in celluloid land.
I don't have anything against Ward and June. There is a certain coziness in predictability but, I believe you want to up the ante a bit.

Therefore, the preceding is just an example of what you don't want to do. What you do want to do is create characters that readers will bond with. The emotional attachment is the most powerful tool you have. If your readers can't or don't connect, chances are an editor or agent won't either. So, explore your brain. Go back in the murky darkness and pull out a jewel in the rough. Pour it all out on paper and see where your story goes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cutting the Chaff


Ann Aguirre wrote a great post on "Writer Unboxed" this week titled, "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast."(//http://writerunboxed.com/2010/03/10/six-impossible-things-before-breakfast) You should check it out. By the way, WU is a fantastic magazine for those of us who write genre fiction. I've found it to be a wealth of insight and experience for me and I think you will find it will greatly enrich your writing.

After reading, make your list. It might go something like this:

1. Finish, actually finish, the manuscript I am working on. This includes first draft, second draft, edits, polishing.

2. Research the market (very important) for agents who might be interested and send query letter.

3. Eat chocolate, bite nails, check the mail eagerly every day for the next however many months, buy more chocolate, invest in a manicure.

4. Start the next manuscript.

5. Stay in motion. This means, I will keep writing, reading about writing, reaching out to other writers whether published or unpublished.

6. Jump up and down when I get a positive response from an agent.

My list may seem a little shortsighted but, for the moment, I have no plans to travel to Europe, buy a mansion or any of the other gigantic endeavors I've seen on other lists. My desire is to be published. And then published again. Maybe after that, you'll hear from me in Europe or come to my mansion for dinner!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Big Girl


The thing I love about dogs is their unreserved, unrestrained, unconditional love for their humans.

Having said that, what a week it has been.

My beloved lab-charpai mix, Sunny, has been sick. Last Sunday I took her to the Springfield Emergency Veterinary Hospital thinking she may be dying. Doctor there thought she had a urinary tract infection and an eye infection and prescribed antibiotics and eye drops.

She improved some for a few days and then she fell downhill really, really fast.

Both of us, the ER vet and me, had overlooked one simple, obvious fact. She's never been spayed. She's ten years old. I can't blame him any more than I blame myself for overlooking that fact.

So, when I called my regular vet, Dr. Molly, yesterday and told her that Sunny's not eating, she's drinking copious amounts of water, she's peeing like a racehorse, I was told to get her in and get her in now, which of course, I did. Dr. Molly did some testing and came back and said, it could be polymetra or, it could be kidney failure. Polymetra presents certain problems in a dog this age; surgery could be dangerous. Should the uterus be punctured during surgery, all that bacteria could spill into the abdominal cavity and she could die on the table. Kidney failure, not a whole lot going on there that's positive. Let me test some more. Of course, yes, yes. As I sat in the exam room, I felt as if the world was falling apart around me. My dearest and best friend of ten years is stuck in a cage somewhere behind closed doors and this day, the 6th day of March may be the last day I ever know her. Would I even see her again?

I wanted to be brave. I wanted to think that should she leave me, I could say she lived a good and full life and be happy for that. I wanted to be noble. I wanted to be unselfish.

But I really wasn't brave or noble or unselfish in the end. I sat in the exam room, arms tightly wrapped around me, and cried. I grieved for the noble dog, the dog in the next room, who so patiently and lovingly has stood by me these past ten years, never asking for one thing but that I love her. Never judging me for all my indescretions and stupidity, just happy to be with me. Regardless.

Dr. Molly came back and told me the good news is, her kidneys are fine. Bad news is, she must have surgery to get that uterus out and she must have it now. She said, "I could prop her up for a couple more days on antibiotics but quite frankly, after that, there is not much more I can do." So, the decision was made. Wonderful Dr. Molly, who was supposed to have yesterday afternoon off, stayed and operated on my dog.

It is a funny thing, sort of, to think of how I was raised and the whole thought process about animals. Realizing my father equated everything, great and small, with its relation to eternity; in his mind animals were not something to be valued or respected much. He has never believed animals have souls and if they don't have souls, their only value is whatever role they play on earth and that would be the extent of it. I tend to believe that dogs and man were meant to walk together in this life and in the next one and if that is true for dogs, well...has the idea of a soul been wrongly defined? How can a dog give unconditional love and not be next to God? Is there a parallel there?

I wonder...

In the meantime, the Big Girl, as I call her often, is snoozing beside my chair as I type this, having had a dose of pain meds. I am so thankful she is still here.

Do you love a dog? What is your story?




Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reading and Writing


You know, it seems to me that suddenly, everybody wants to write a book. I hear it a lot these days. Someone will say, "If I had the time..." or, "I'm going to write a book when my kids are grown" or, "I could write that book better than that guy."

Well, then I ask, what do you read? Who do you read? At that point, it seems the would-be world famous novelist doesn't read. Doesn't have time or, just isn't much of a reader.
Sorry, that is not the way it works.

There are two requirements to being a writer. One is to write. A lot. Write a lot, at regular intervals, with no distractions.

The other requirement is to read. A lot. Regular intervals, no distractions.

The two requirements cannot be separated.

Every book, every author, brings a learning curve to your work. I like to read, simply because I like to read. I enjoy it. I make time for it. Granted, I could be "doing" something else but I choose to read. It's about the craft, sure, but it's also because I like it.

As a writer, reading should be paramount to your craft. Reading teaches such things as character development, plot structure, narration, the telling of a good story. Without reading, how would you know good versus bad, interesting versus dull, pace versus stagnant? Reading shows you elements of your own work; what needs to be developed, what is needful and necessary and, on the other hand, what is not. Your work is in a constant state of refinement. Without reaching into other worlds, without that stretch, you could never know that.

What to read? It doesn't matter what you read so long as you do it. You may not like fiction as I do. Okay, then. Read non-fiction. Make time. Take a book to your next doctor appointment. Slow the pace down for one hour and read in the morning or in the evening. Read while you're sitting in the car line at school. I've even taken a paperback to a restaurant (I was eating alone) and read while waiting for my meal. Go to your library, make friends of the librarian. Check the Sunday paper best-seller list. Buy second hand books. Here's a thought - watch less television. Read instead. Do what you must but, do read.

You will truly, truly find reading will enrich your writing. It can't help itself.

Now, challenge yourself to read every day. Every day. Monitor yourself and, in a month or two months or six months, compare what you wrote today to what you will be writing that day. On that day, your mind will be so much more open and fresh. Your characters will be more full-bodied, as opposed to one-dimensional. You will understand more about plot and pace.

I guarantee it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Roast Chicken and Vegetables

Roast chicken and vegetables. Who doesn't like this? First of all, I started feeling a little silly as I typed this last night and now that I am reviewing and revising, I realize I should take a lot of my silliness out but quite honestly, cooking should be fun. I decided not to tinker with it too much.


So easy-peasy, this one. Not to mention, delicious.


Okay, pick up a whole chicken from your local grocer; I prefer five pounds or so. Pick up fresh carrots, leeks, fennel, onions, red potatoes, garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, extra virgin olive oil. Quantity is subjective; depends on how many people you are feeding. I have several and so, I tend to use large quantities.


Rush on home, as I did today, and set all of your components on the counter. Pull out a baking sheet, a really large baking sheet. Pour a little olive oil over it. Survey your domain before continuing. If all is well, continue on to the next step.


Cut one onion into slices and arrange in the center of your baking sheet. Same with the leek. Just set your leek slices on top of your onion slices. Peel carrots and cut them up however you like them, cut potatoes into quarters, chop garlic (3 cloves), chop fennel, throw all of this into a big bowl (not a problem for me, as you may well know by now as I love bowls and own a shameful amount of those). Okay, vegetables in bowl, now what. Pour a generous amount of olive oil over, sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Throw some thyme and sage over, and then just mix it up a bunch and when you're finished, throw it out on the baking sheet arranging it around the onions and leeks, which are hopefully, already on the baking sheet.


Okay so now, you have monsieur chicken, rinsed, patted dry and ready to go. Tell him he's going to a party. He'll love it.

I like to put onions, apples or lemons in my chicken to keep it moist. I had a lemon so I used that this time but you could use any of what I mentioned or a combination of two of them. Cut one lemon in quarters, shove inside mr. chicken, along with some fresh rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper. Go ahead, oil mr. chicken all over, salt and pepper. Be generous with the oil to make a crispy skin. Place mr. chicken on top of the onion/leek/fennel mixture. Tie his little legs up.


Place mr. chicken and his backup, aka vegetables, in preheated 450° degree oven, roast for one hour, check. If vegetables are not done, roast for 15 more minutes. Remove from oven, cover with aluminum foil and let sit for 15 minutes, carve and serve.


Enjoy!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Guess I Have a Little Fetish...


I've been working really hard lately. Working really hard at my day job at the law office (big Federal trial coming up at the end of the month), and working hard on the MIP. I already put down 1000 words this morning, which is really good these days as I have been coming home in the evenings, throwing a less-than-stellar meal on the table, and heading off to bed at 8:00 pm.

Exhaustion, plain and simple. I have been too tired to blog, too tired to take photographs, too tired to do much but the essentials.

In any case, when my friend, Lorie, called and wanted to go shopping yesterday, I was estatic. I love shopping with Lorie because, for one thing, we seem to spend quite a bit of time laughing and, because we seem to see things the other one would like. Great time. Off we went, Target, Pier 1, Marshalls, TJ Maxx....well, it was at Pier 1 that she informed me that I seem to have a little problem.

Bowls. I love bowls. Can't get enough bowls. I wonder how many bowls Lorie's seen me buy over the years, since she quite calmly informed me, "you're a bowl whore." She said it with affection, I know because should the truth be told, she is one too but, we weren't talking about her at that point. I didn't find a bowl I really wanted at Pier 1. It was later, at Marshall's, as I pondered my intrigue with the ribbing on the inside of that bowl and the low rim of that other bowl, that I realized...this might be out of control. And, quite frankly, it's not like I have room in my cabinets for another bowl. The bowl with ribbing on the inside (bottom corner of the photo) won that battle, by the way.

Bowls signify generosity and abundance to me. I don't believe you can have one without the other, can you? And since I enjoy being and having both, well, let's get a bowl and think about it. Bowls are beautiful in their simple roundedness, heavy, capable clay porcelain. Maybe they are like hearts, they can hold a lot of joy or pain. Maybe I love bowls because I have seen so many wonderful things come out of them all these years; thinking of my mother many, many years ago with a bowl on her hip, one hand holding it tight, the other hand stirring with a big wooden spoon. Maybe it is the memory of her setting a steaming bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon down in front of me because she knew the walk to the bus stop was going to be cold. A bowl full of something nourishing symbolizes a warmth not found so easily anymore. Maybe that is why I like them so much.
Bowls give me joy.

What gives you joy?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Waiting for Spring (Impatiently)


Can you tell I am ready for spring? I wrote this some time ago but, as we anticipate another winter storm tonight, I pulled it out and re-read it. Yes, I will be happy to see spring arrive.

The gentle ripple of the water breaks as our canoe passes through and I am soothed. Sunshine dances in patches on the water. My mind is often torn in two parts - the person I am and the person I want to be. When I am on the river, the two parts make peace. It is idyllic. There is no conflict.



Birds chatter in the trees and I wonder what they are saying. Are they exchanging gossip? Are they calling their children home for supper? I've seen eagles here, just every once in awhile. None today though.



We pass by ancient trees; thick green-leaved groves of them. White dogwoods and purple redbuds peek out from behind gnarled lichened trunks. Sometimes, I see the brown hump of a turtle's back and he swims hither and yon. He senses our approach and scurries for shore. The sun warms my legs as we slither through a spot where the trees are not so dense. Gentle warmth is moving up the front of me, over my neck and onto my face. I turn to it. Back in the shadows now but it is not cold. I like to watch the rocks slide by. Some brown, some grey, some lichen spotted.



It is easy to imagine the Native Americans traveling down river and I wonder, who came here before me? Who knew this place before I came here? Did they cherish it as I do?



Oh, quick, look! A deer, coming down to drink the water. He hastily backs up, nostrils flaring, smelling human.



It is quiet here. The rocking of the canoe must be similar to the rocking in the womb. I don't like to talk much when I am on the river as there is no need. Soon enough, I will be back in my office in Springfield, sitting at my desk surrounded by files and email messages, but for now, I have twenty-two miles of water to rock on through. I am content.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of Sisters


I just finished Kristin Hannah's new book, True Colors, which, by the way, made the New York Times best seller list about a week ago.

This is a pretty emotional book and if you have a sister, you know what I mean. I don't know of any sisterhood that hasn't involved competition, rivalry, envy on some level, but also, steely cords of unwavering love interwoven throughout.

True Colors is the story of the Grey sisters, Winona, Aurora and Vivi Ann. The Greys are long-time residents of Oyster Shores, Washington. Winona is the smart, successful lawyer but still single and childless after so many years. Aurora, the middle sister, identifies with celebrities to hide the pain of a dying marriage. Vivi Ann, the youngest, beautiful and blond and wanted by all, seems blessed with fairy dust. When Winona's best friend from high school, Luke Connelly, returns to Oyster Bay and promptly falls in love with Vivi Ann, Winona's secret love for him pits her against Vivi Ann. Why does everything come so easily for Vivi Ann? Not so fast, Winona, Vivi Ann may have gotten engaged to Luke but it is not Luke she wants. A mysterious stranger has arrived in Oyster Bay, planting himself firmly in front of Vivi Ann and she can't back away or get around him and she finds she doesn't want to in the first place.

Dallas Raintree isn't just any stranger; he is a man with a past and a way with horses and like it or not, Vivi Ann finds herself under his spell. When a sad, lonely woman is murdered and town prejudices surface, Vivi Ann's fairy-tale life begins to fall apart. The one person who could help her, Winona, lets her down. The abyss between Winona and Vivi Ann widens as sister Aurora tries to mend the breach. As the years pass, there seems no hope of redemption, until one small secret is revealed, and truth explodes like popping corn.

In this book, loyalties are pried apart, hearts are broken, but love remains. Sister love.

Good story.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Let Your Voice Fly



Seems like I've been seeing more articles on voice lately. It's all over the place. But, what is voice, really?

Well, I invite you to a cup of tea and let's sit down and talk about that, that fleeting, misunderstood thing, that being voice.

Voice.

It was a mystery to me up until a couple years ago; what is voice, how can I achieve voice, what is my voice and is it point of view, and what else could I possibly tie to voice to make it so irritatingly difficult to understand?
It made me crazy, voice did. I read and read and took a class and I wore myself out with it.
What I found is, voice is not that hard, but it is specific.

First of all, voice is not point of view. Point of view is an entirely different subject and it is not a part of this particular discussion, at this point. Do not worry about point of view right now, today.
Okay, so.

Voice = everything that you have experienced, from birth up until this very moment. It is your parents' verbiage to you, it may even be your granparents' verbiage to you. It is your achievements and failures, it is your hopes and dreams, your belief system and your doubts, your political statement, it is simply you.

And then, you say but, who am I? What is my voice? Do I have a voice?

Yes, you have a voice and it is unique to you, whatever your story is, whereever you have been, whatever has been a part of your life. Yes, I promise you, you have a voice.

You are a product of your environment to a point. However, closer to the bone, voice is the culmination of all you have ever been, your particular view on the world, your gut.

Yes, your gut. That is where voice starts. That is where it dwells.

I have said things before about, hey, think about where you come from, you parents, their lifestyle, their point of view, so on and so forth, and now I'm ready to take it on home.

You do not have to be some great orator to have a voice. No, that is so not what it is all about.

You just have to be you. You have to recognize where you have been, where you come from, you have to analyze your own stance in the world and then, write from there. That's all that's required really.

Really.

It is safe. Go ahead and write. Send it out, your voice. I would love to hear it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What I'm Reading This Week

I like to call her my mentor, although I suspect she would hedge slightly at that acclimation; however, I believe I can call her my friend and teacher and not come off as taking something that may not belong to me.


Speaking of Barbara O'Neal, aka Barbara Samuel. Her newest novel, The Secret of Everything, came out last Tuesday and, well, naturally, I dialed up our local Barnes & Noble at 9:01 a.m., on that very day to ask whether they had that title in stock. They did and so, I happily asked to have it reserved for me and I would run by there on my noon hour and pick it up. Had to give it a little hug to my chest, yes, when I finally clutched it in my hand.


Just a little background here. The first Barbara Samuel novel I read happened to be The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue. Not sure exactly when it came out, maybe five years ago; wait, let me check the copyright on my copy - yes, 2005, Ballentine Books. Now, I don't know about you but I do not rely on the New York Times Best Seller list to dictate what I am going to read; however, I do check it every Sunday, just because I suppose it is the literary thing to do. I would like to think I'm literary. Anyway, in buying books, I tend to purchase with instinct. That particular day, the day I purchased The Goddesses, I was wandering around Barnes & Noble, picking up this book ("nah"), picking up that one ("oh, I don't think this is the one"), carrying one around for awhile with every intention of buying it, however hesitant I felt and then, I stopped off at one of the tables in the middle aisle of the store and there was this book; this yellow covered, sort of intriguing book with a photo of four women around a checked tablecloth, elbows, rings, coffee cups, silver spoons, the book just sitting there (for me?) and I ran my finger over the cover and I thought, "yes, this is the one." I do that. It's a process, no matter how weird it may sound. I do it all the time.


Seriously, I never knew, prior to Barb, that the written word could mean something. Oh yes, I'd kept journals and diaries all my life and I've written several simple stories in my day but, before her, I did not realize that the written word could be so powerful and so enormous and so important. Or that anybody would want to read it.


Long story short, The Goddesses, was the book du jour on that particular day and therefore, I put everything else I had been carrying around down and took it home and spent probably one whole weekend devouring it. And I've read it four times since. I have wondered, could I write something like this? Could I do that?


That's what Barb does to me.



And she's done it again with The Secret of Everything. Granted, I'm only eleven chapters in but I am loving every footprint on every page.


I want to know what happens to Tessa Harlow. I want to see where she has been and why it's affected her so deeply, why the memories are so suppressed and what it will take to break them out. How will she handle that knowledge? Once she knows, there is no going back. It worries me. Is Vince the man for her? I like him (oh boy, I really like him!) but, is he The One? And the dog, what about that dog? I love dogs - you know, I did notice that Barb so subtley snuck her own Sasha into that book, very fitting since Sasha is not long for this world, from what I understand and I do understand loving a dog because I love mine. Who is the mysterious man, full of anger, who appears and disappears? Natalie? I like her. I want Natalie to be happy. Sam, lovable, beautiful, secretive Sam. What secret is he hiding? Annie, Rhiannon, on and on and on. Oh wait, there is Vita and her restaurant, 100 Breakfasts. I love restaurants. Not talking about Shoneys or Perkins; no, I'm talking about where real cooking lives, where pots and pans clatter and line cooks shout nonstop and places that reek of home. I love breakfast too so, there you go. This book was to be titled 100 Breakfasts for the longest time but changed late in the editing process, I think. Hope I'm not saying something that is not quite correct.


There are recipes, several of which I'm dying to try out. Carrot pineapple muffins, for one.


Scrumptious reading.



I read an article recently, written by some big deal New York authority, who seemed to turn her nose up at foodie novels and basically stated that it all was a passing trend and one that would be easily forgotten, blah blah blah.


Well, I beg to differ. I don't think the passion for food, for good food, will go away anytime soon. As the world becomes harder, bleaker, more dangerous, I think food will endure as the mainstay, the refuge, if you will, during dark times. It will bring people together, cement families, even make families. I believe that.


I will continue writing about food and I bet Barb will too.


So, go pick up The Secret of Everything and let yourself linger there. You're gonna like it.


Ciao!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lentil and Sausage Soup with Butternut Squash



Success!!! Yay!

I liked this. I really did. Not the best picture, not the one I would have liked to display but, okay, here goes. Oh by the way, don't be afraid of lentils. I know they sound weird but they are really quite delicious.





Brown Lentil and Sausage Soup with Butternut Squash



3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 large onion, diced
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced into one-inch cubes
1 bag brown lentils
4 cups water
1 can vegetable broth or stock (I prefer stock)
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt
Pepper
1 ounce parmesan or romano cheese, shaved
1/4 cup parsley
spicy sausage, such as andouille, or whatever you like



Combine all, except for the parmesan cheese, in a crockpot and leave on low setting for eight hours. To serve, top each bowl with shaved parmesan cheese and be sure to have a loaf of crusty bread and maybe a big salad and a nice pinot grigio to go alongside?



The butternut squash is really fine in this soup. It seems to bring a sweet balance to the rest of the ingredients and since I love butternut squash anyway, any recipe that calls for it is a good deal in my book.

Try it. Tell me if you like it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ah, the Reticent One


Here I sit, staring at my computer screen, with my cup of coffee, on a bitterly cold morning in the Ozarks. The sun is just topping over my roof causing the field across the street to glisten. There is brown lentil and sausage soup in the crock pot (if the recipe is successful I'll share it with you) and I am struggling with the MIP. Well, rather, struggling with one of my characters in the MIP. I want to draw her out, coax her to join the party, but she is reticent. She just doesn't want to talk to me. Yet.

I envision her, leaning back in her big chair, in her tidy, sun-lit office, on some street in a quiet section of Philadelphia and she is tapping the end of her pen on her desk, procrastinating, not ready to face the stack of papers in front of her. Her hair is light blond, her features are patrician, she is neither tall nor short, heavy or thin, but somewhere in between. She is a successful woman, although not a glamorous one. Middle-aged. And she is thinking about how she would like to change her life and whether or not she has the guts to just let go and do it. She is thinking about what it might take and what she might have to give up and what she might have to reveal, if only to herself.

I know some things about her, such as, her father committed suicide when she was a teenager and her mother dealt with that reality with a bottle. I know she drove herself to excel all through college and graduated with honors. Her choice was success. Her drive caused her to remain alone.

She will join the party pretty soon, I am confident of that. Our characters cannot help themselves in the end, after all. They like being the center of attention. In the meantime, I need to go out to the store and pick up some items I forgot last night and while I am at it, I'll be searching faces for that set of eyes that could be hers or taking a second look at a house that could be the house she would live in. That's what writers do. We observe. We take it all in and then we strip the meat off the bone and put it into words.

Maybe when I return home, she will be ready to tell me all about it. I would just about bet she will.