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Things I Can’t Be Without Besides Milk and Eggs

9 Feb

Just for fun and entertainment – a list.

What can you not be without?

  1. Fruit – Currently I have tangerines, a pineapple, and bananas, as well as blueberries that I froze last summer.
  2. A book to read.
  3. A notebook in my purse. Even though I can make lists on my phone, nothing beats paper and a pen for making random notes.
  4. An animal in my house. There have been only a few very short periods in my life when I have not had a pet. Currently I have two cats — Tang and Puchica.
  5. Earplugs. Someone in my house snores.
  6. Earrings. Ever since I got my ears pierced when I was twenty, I feel naked without earrings.
  7. Oatmeal. I eat it for breakfast several times a week, make cookies and granola.
  8. Windows. I love looking out at the sky. It helps me think.
  9. A whole piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to grate over pasta or soup.

Murder and Lemon Pudding Cake

2 Jan

Some of my favorite activities involve either reading or cooking, or reading about food. When the two are combined into one, I am in heaven. I love it when authors include food as integral parts of the story. The food consumed by the characters, including the types of food, the amount, and how it is prepared provide vital clues to the plot, and can be important parts of the setting.

At my local library this week, I picked up a Swedish murder mystery and a cookbook on Swedish bakery. I’m not exactly sure why the Swedish theme was going on, maybe because it’s winter and Sweden is in a cold climate, but I came home with my two books related to Sweden.

The murder mystery, Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt, turned out to be a real page-turner. I read it in two days, often carrying it around the house with me so I could read a page or two, or three or four, in odd moments while I was doing other things. Killer’s Art begins with the murder of the owner of an art gallery on the Swedish island of Gotland, when the man is found hanging from one of the medieval gates to the town. The story follows the police investigation into the lives of the victim, his family and associates in the art world. Other crimes are committed, and the lives of the police officers as well as the journalists who are clamoring for the gruesome story, become entangled. The conclusion is a nail-biting and unexpected twist. This is the first of Mari Jungstedt’s novels that I have read, and I will be looking for more.

However, her descriptions of food were not enough to make me hunger for a good Swedish meal. By page 50, the most exciting food items were protein drinks and meatball sandwiches, and of course coffee. You can’t travel in Sweden, even literary travel, without copious amounts of coffee. Later in the book, two of the detectives are treated to warm apple cake with vanilla sauce in a museum cafe in Stockholm, which sounds delicious, but the boiled cod with egg sauce that is an entree in a later chapter I’m not so sure about. Maybe — I would have to try it.

Turning to my Swedish cookbook, Scandinavian Classic Baking by Pat Sinclair, I chose a recipe for lemon pudding cake.  I had all the ingredients on hand, and it looked relatively simple. The most challenging part was beating egg whites and then folding them into the pudding mixture while retaining the volume of the beaten egg whites. The recipe was a success, and a nice treat after a dinner of leftovers. My husband proclaimed that it tasted like lemon merimg_3198ingue pie.

As you read, think about food. It is not often a primary part of the story, but it can be an important setting detail.

Moving House and Pie

14 Mar
When you begin to get ready to move, your house is no longer yours. I have no sentimental attachment to the condominium where we have lived for almost ten years, but I do have my “stuff” arranged there the way I like it. Now things are being rearranged, thrown out, put in piles for the used book store and Goodwill. I am packing decorative items and books in boxes so the house will be better organized for real estate showing.
This is fine. I enjoy organizing. I am the opposite of a pack rat. I love the feeling of freedom I have when unused items leave my house. I enjoy tossing cans and bottles and cardboard boxes in the recycling bins. I find satisfaction in making phone calls to the handyman and the electrician for the minor repairs that are needed.
But for the next few months, until we are settled in our new home in North Carolina, my time and energy will be devoted to the move.
When will I find time to write? Instead of fitting in the chores around my writing, it is the other way around. I fit the writing in between errands, packing, phone calls.
And to make this week more interesting, it is the last week of the Bahá’í Fast, so no food or drink from sunrise to sunset. And I am committed to a week of substituting in a Spanish class for a teacher who is in Spain with her students.
It’s a chilly rainy day, Monday after the switch to daylight saving time. We have to replace our bedroom carpeting,so the carpet man is coming to measure and show us samples this afternoon. The plumber hasn’t called me back. But I will bake a pie when I get home, to observe Round Pie Day. If you round the number for “pi” to 3.1416 you get today’s date. So we will celebrate this momentous occasion with a blueberry crumble pie. After sunset, of course.

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Out of the Comfort Zone

23 Jan

Someone, it might have been Eleanor Roosevelt, said to do something everyday that scares you. I don’t scare easily, and I just don’t have the opportunity for things like rock climbing and hang gliding most days, so I am left with challenging myself with little things.

I have never been comfortable getting a massage. It’s the touching, vulnerability thing. And an hour is a long time to lie still. What will I think about? Will it tickle? Will I be overcome by the urge to giggle? The giggling is a distinct possibility.

But a new place in our neighborhood advertised a hot stone massage. Especially on a cold Pennsylvania day, the idea of someone placing hot stones on my frigid skin sounded appealing. I evidently had talked about this idea more than I realized, because my husband surprised me with a gift card for a hot stone massage, and today was the big day.

It was wonderful. The stones were a bit hotter than I expected, but not unpleasantly so. The masseuse did the traditional massage with warm oil, and then rubbed with the stones. The hour passed before I realized it was time to be finished. I came out relaxed and happy, as much from the fact that I overcame my reluctance to have a massage as the massage itself.

So it’s another new experience I can add to my list. I can’t come up with something that dramatic everyday, but often just sending a piece of writing off in the hopes of publication is a scary experience. It takes more guts than you might think to hit the “send” button.

What new scary things have you tried lately? I would love to hear some of them.

Writing in Spain

15 Sep

rainbow

I did my best writing of 2015 sitting outdoors in the Spanish sun, writing in a lined spiral notebook. “Go write!” Peter Murphy, of Murphy Writing Seminars, told us. “Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.”

I sat at a wooden table outside our cottage at L’Avenç, a beautiful lodge high in the Pyrenees, and I went to a new place inside myself and wrote. I found fictional characters and brought them to life by exploring their five senses. Some were characters I had written about before, from novels I have written. In my novel Lydia’s Story, I wrote about the title character’s journey into the Pyrenees from France with a group of Jewish children to escape the Nazis. The trip to L’Avenç meant a visit to the scenes I created in my novel. I visited the reality of my imagination. Other characters were new, but they slipped right into place with the old friends.

And I wrote about myself, the me I was long before I knew I could travel to far off mountains, long before I knew I could write. Somehow the girl that I was growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, seven miles from nowhere, came alive to me in Spain. I felt the wistfulness and longing for a bigger world that I felt so often as a child and teenager, the longing that pushed me to move on to the world that I knew existed, if only then in my imagination.

When I am at home, I do most of my writing at my laptop, looking out over the parking lot of our condominiums. But I found that there was something liberating about writing in a lined spiral notebook. I took pleasure in the scratched out phrases, words added in the margin, and arrows drawn to indicate sentences and paragraphs that needed to pick up and move to another spot. My experience at the writing retreat brought out the creative side of my writing again. And isn’t that why we became writers? To create. To express ourselves. But what I learned this summer was that I cannot express myself unless I explore who I am.

One morning my husband, who is not a writer but came along to Spain with me because he enjoys being a “writer groupie,” found a hawk feather on one of his mountain walks, and left it on my notebook. I found the feather when I sorted through my writing materials when I returned home, and it seemed to symbolize the feeling of soaring that I felt writing in the Pyrenees.

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A change of scene, a new geography, opens my eyes and changes my life, as well as my writing. This happened when I moved to Costa Rica, and ended up staying for seven years, but that’s another story. Traveling two hours up into the mountains from Barcelona was more than a writing vacation. All the changes in daily life that accompany such a trip affected my writing. There were my writing friends — some new and some old friends from previous writing adventures with Murphy Writing Seminars. We made small attempts to speak Catalan, at least to say “Bom dia!” to the staff. We were all affected by the sense of history that goes along with staying at a site where the main building dates to the eleventh century. And we luxuriated in the modern swimming pool where we could wash off the writing dust at the end of the day.

The writing retreat in Spain focused on the creative side of writing, and I came home refreshed. Refreshed from writing from a new place inside myself, from contact with fellow writers, and the instruction and encouragement of a master craftsman.

The Value of Color

2 Mar

“I Think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Alice Walker

image imageMarket in Granada, Spain

Our eyes are drawn to color. Visual color attracts us and demands our attention. Like a magnet, it pulls us in. Advertisers and film makers know the value of color, or lack of color, to create the effect or reaction they desire. Steven Spielberg created an unforgettable image in Schindler’s List with the little girl in the red coat. Separated from her family, she instinctively runs to escape the Nazi soldiers. The next time we see her, the red coat tells us without question that she has failed.

Creating color in a piece of writing demands that the writer evoke the same intense images through black and white words on a page. Often what a writer refers to as color involves more than visual sense. If I were to attempt to describe the photos above from the market in Granada, I would draw on my memories of the shop, the smells of spices, fruits, teas as I walked from bin to bin, the sounds of Spanish and Arabic, and the company of my brother as we explored together.

On this gray March day, I challenge you, readers and fellows writers, to look for the color in your day. And don’t limit yourself to visual color. Color is really about intensity. So look for intensity the wakes up your senses. Be aware of the smells, sounds (think colorful music), tastes, touches, and sights that add color to your life.

i would love to hear what you discover.

Starting the Whole Dang Process over Again

3 Jan

Llieda dungeon3

A dungeon in Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. Might work it into a new novel.

Beginning a new novel is both exhilarating and scary. I enjoy the new ideas for plot details, setting, and characters that pop willy-nilly into my brain. Old characters poke their heads in to say, “Can I be in this one? You said it was a series.” Another says, “I’ll do one more. So you can kill me off in this one.” Then a new character comes in with “Hi there! I’m a little crazy, but I would fit right in with your story. Some of your characters are way too serious!” And I can’t forget the ones who speak to me in a foreign language, begging me to set the story in their home country. “ịHola! Soy de españa y mi pais es muy bueno. Venga aquí!”

Out of these bits of inspiration, if I can call it that, I begin to see the barest outline of a plot. And I say yes to that little voice from Spain. I will set the story at least partially in Spain, Aragon, to be precise. And just in case you are wondering, Nara Blake, Alex Collier, and Lily Carrington, all of whom appeared in The Gate House and Lydia’s Story, will be back. But I have a lot of writing to do before my readers will be able to see what these three are up to in Spain. And is Nara ever going to marry Alex?

The last few days I have been brainstorming and writing down ideas for plot as they pop into my head. My next step was to do some preliminary research. The Gate House and Lydia’s Story both had to do with art theft. My new novel also makes use of that theme. I am looking for a connection between Britain and Spain through art, and I think I have found a link.

I have made a preliminary outline, even though I am not generally a maker of outlines, but I thought this time I would give it a try and see if it would make the process any easier.

As I create the story, I will spend as much time staring into space as putting words down at the computer. But as a dear friend of mine knows, “staring time” is essential for writers, teachers and anyone who is trying to get through the day with their sanity intact.

Try taking a “staring break” today. You will feel better for it.

‘Twas the Day after Christmas

26 Dec

East Coast Pink DogwoodSpring is on the way!

Now that the frenzy of Christmas shopping, cooking, and eating has died down to eating leftovers, making returns and wondering how I could possibly have eaten so much the last few weeks, the end of the year turns into a “pause and reflect” time for me.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. That seems like an artificial endeavor to me. But I do take time to think about the person I am, and what changes I want to make in the coming year. I think it has more to do with the winter solstice than the the holidays that are celebrated this time of year, and the end of the Gregorian calendar. It isn’t noticeable just yet, but little by little, we will see more sunlight every day. We are on our way toward spring.

My coming year is already filled up with plans. I will travel to Costa Rica the end of January, a commitment I made to myself last year to escape some of the Pennsylvania winter. I can’t see that my character is improved at all by scraping ice off the windshield at 7 a.m. to go substitute teach. Our son is getting married in June, so that will mean a trip to Los Angeles and a big family reunion. And I am hoping to go to Spain on a writing retreat in July. Did you guess that I love to travel?

And oh, yes! I have more writing projects than I can handle! But then, I have also been a multi-tasker. I like to have several projects in various stages of development. No linear thinking for me. I have a rough draft of a historical fantasy novel that needs to be taken to the next level, and I am brainstorming plot ideas for a new “Nara” novel.

It’s beginning to sound like a fun year! I’m sure I will be thrown off track more than once, and there will be surprises of all kinds along the way, but that is what makes life interesting.

Food, Drink, and Travel

19 Dec

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Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice!

On a recent trip to Israel, my husband and I had an opportunity to stroll through the Turkish market in Akka, or Akkó. After running into a falafal restaurant to escape a rainstorm, we found fellow travelers from Peru, and enjoyed our lunch with a Spanish conversation. We parted ways and headed into the market to explore. The sights, sounds and smells drew us deeper into the ancient narrow streets.

Stalls were piled high with fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, spices and more.

exploring is thirsty work, and we soon stopped for fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. What a thrill to see he vendor slice off the top of the fruit, place it in a press and produce cups of the dark purple juice. Healthy — yes. Tasty — definitely. But you can’t beat the sense of adventure and fun.

On returning home, I delved into Emile Zola’s novel, The Belly of Paris. Zola tells the story of a man newly returned to Paris from a penal colony to the gastronomical riches of the Parisian market Les Halles.

Both our meandering a through the market in Akka and The Belly of Paris demonstrate the richness of beautiful food, and an appreciation of the bounty.

What is the most beautiful food you have eaten lately? Think of all the senses of beauty — visual taste, and the wholesome of its production. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eat and drink food that is real, and not from a can, package or bottle?

Have you read Damaged Good?

12 Dec

Occasionally I like to post a review of a book I have read recently. Damaged Goods by Jack Everett and David Coles is a great one.

The following is the review I wrote for Suspense Magazine:

Damaged Goods opens as Robert Cleghorn is chopping a tree in his brother Alan’s front yard. While he muses on the degradation he feels doing manual labor for his sibling, he watches helplessly as the tree falls through the front picture window of his brother’s dream home near Lake Kissimmee in Florida. From that point on, the action never stops. Set in Florida and England, this latest novel from the writing team of Jack Everett and David Coles is a roller coaster of a ride, a search for a serial killer who is not who the police think it is, but someone even more frightening.

Robert takes on his brother’s identity after killing him in a fit of rage, employing his brute strength and techniques learned while fighting in an elite military unit in Iraq. Using his brother’s airline ticket, passport, and credit cards, he travels to England seeking the one person he thinks he loves, his brother’s wife, Stephanie.

Police from the Leeds Serious Crimes squad follow the trail of a string of brutal murders that seem to have no connection, but the sheer number of them, as well as information shared by a local sheriff in Florida, soon narrow down their search.

The point of view shifts easily from that of Stewart White, who is just settling into his job as Detective Inspector in Leeds, and the bloody path of the murderer.

Everett and Coles do a masterful job portraying the fearless but possibly brain-damaged killer, and his obsession with Stephanie. Set in Yorkshire in the winter, the cold, bleak landscape intensifies the horror as one murder follow another. There is enough complexity in the plot to be intriguing but not too much to be confusing. Damaged Goods is the first of a trilogy, and I will be first in line to read the next book as soon as it becomes available.

Here is a link to read a few sample pages. It will get you hooked!