Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Martha Tries Hunger

Both my parents come from poverty.

My dad was raised in rural Georgia, the son of a saw sharpener, and hunting for food wasn't rare.

My mom grew up in war-torn Vietnam. My dad has a story he sometimes tells - how the first time he brought her to a grocery store, she tried to stockpile the rice because she didn't believe it would be there the next day.

They've both known hunger. Real hunger. Not the wimpy kind I'm about to talk about.

Given my obsession with apocalyptic scenarios there's a part of me that thinks - what if? What if food is gone, tomorrow? What if I can't find something to eat? Could I survive hunger? Would it break me?

I've gone days without eating before. Sometimes while fasting for religious reasons. Sometimes because I've gotten too busy to eat. Sometimes because it's just something to do.

Don't get me wrong, I eat often, I eat lots, and I eat well. I'm not in any danger of anorexia. I don't have glamorized ideas about our world's hunger problem. Sometimes I just like...not eating.

It's weird what gets to you when you go hungry.

It's not so much the sensation of hunger. The gnawing at your ribs. Or the cramping in your gut. Although it's not pleasant, trust me. Sometimes you're so hungry you can't sleep and sometimes you can't think about anything else but making that pain go away.

But it's really the lack of socialization that gets to me first. So much of what I do with my friends surrounds food. In the end, what breaks me is hunger, not for nutrition, but for companionship.

Who knew I was so needy? :)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hunger in America

Sometimes, it's difficult to be slated to post in week two of a topic. This is one of those times. We've talked about character hunger, metaphorical hunger, cravings, all slants I considered for this topic but they've already been done and done well. So I'm going to return to a subject that is near and dear to me.

Hunger in your town. With the shift in the national economy, the squeeze on local budgets, the corporate layoffs, the trickle down effect to every single citizen has been felt in our bank accounts. Add in the rising cost of food and you've got a recipe for a whole lot of hunger right around the corner.

The Hunger in America 2010 study is the first research study to capture the significant connection between the recent economic downturn and an increased need for emergency food assistance. The number of people in need of food has increased 46% since the previous study in 2006.

If you want to read more about Hunger in America:

The thing about food bank donations is that everyone thinks to donate around the holidays when they are out shopping for their own excessive meals

but food banks need to feed the hungry year round.

Consider ways you can help:

1. Find your local food bank website online. They likely have events all year long where they will have donation bins. Buy a few extra cans of corn or an extra jar of peanut butter at the store to place in their bin. Every can or jar feeds someone.

2. Organize a food drive at your school, church, tennis club. Most food banks make it very easy to organize a drive. Your job is to promote and get people to give.

3. Donate money to help with organizational costs. This is the easiest way but probably for most people the hardest thing to do is take money out of own already tightened budgets.

4. Donate your time. Volunteer to sort food. Most food banks have volunteer shifts to take the food out of donation bags and bins and sort into food categories for storage AND to make sure the food is edible. (FYI-They keep any cans within one year of the expiration date.)

And remember EVERY gesture helps.


ps. And now for listening to my plea, I'll leave you with a little taste of my next thriller, Betrayals, due out at the end of September.

Something snuffled in the corner.

I curled my arm protectively around the meager bowl of whatever they’d brought me. No stinking rodent was going to touch my daily ration.

The dank smell of urine-soaked sand, feces, and human sweat filled the fetid air. A thin layer of grit and despair coated everything, including my tongue. I vowed never to set foot on a beach again.

Probably wouldn’t anyway. As I was likely to die in this godforsaken rathole of a prison. I scooped the cooked until mush food into my mouth greedily, careful not to spill a single grain.

Hard to believe a month ago Jordan and I had been dining on spice-rubbed porterhouse and chipotle garlic mashed potatoes in D.C.

That life was long gone. The contrast between then and now was laughable.

Then, I’d dabbed daintily at my mouth with a soft linen napkin. Now, I lapped the bowl with my sand-coated tongue and carefully sucked on each dirt-crusted finger.

If malnutrition didn’t kill me, the germs probably would.

I could hear the woman, our chef, server, and general attendant, coming. But I wasn’t finished.

Fuuuuuccckkkkk. I screamed the expletive silently. I’d learned brutally fast that cursing, especially from a woman, in this prison was taboo.

One by one, the locks clicked open. I huddled over the tiny tin bowl, licking with short, frantic strokes, trying to eat it all before she took my food away. My arm chains clanked as they swung together, ringing in the silence. I ignored the stabs of extreme pain in my left arm.

The woman scurried in furtively and eased the door closed.

This was a change in routine. Subtly, I shifted to a higher state of alertness. The bruises, aches, and burns from the last ‘change in routine’ still hadn’t healed. I hadn’t had a beating or torture session in a few days. They’d left me alone.

I was pretty sure the radius bone in my left forearm arm was broken. Fortunately not the ulna and fortunately not my shooting arm.

“Miss,” she whispered in Pashto.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how much they knew about my background and I wasn’t about
to give anything away.

“Miss.” This time she whispered in Dari.

I remained silent.

“Miss.” Next it was Modern Standard Arabic. Something must have flickered in my eyes because she continued in Modern Standard. “Come. I will let you go.”

My brain whirred. It had to be a trap. Let me go and then follow me. Thinking I’d lead them to whatever they thought I had.

Common torture tactic. Slowly break down all barriers to civilized behavior until the prisoner was more animal than human. Then dangle the carrot of freedom and watch the animal lunge for it.

If I was in their shoes, that’s what I would do.

pps. Some national and international food resources.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hungry for Stories

L.G.C. Smith

It’s tempting to think that the hunger for stories follows hard on the heels of our need for food and shelter. As far as I know, all cultures have rich story traditions. Those of us who write popular fiction feed a need that must surely be as old as humanity.

Readers look to assuage different tastes with different types of books. From the time I was able to choose my own novels, I always loved stories about times and places beyond my reach. The first novel of my very own that I remember reading was Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s “The Velvet Room.” I got it through the Scholastic Books order program at the elementary school in Cincinnati where I attended third grade. Remember filling out those order forms, and the careful deliberation that went into choosing however many books you could get? And then the exquisite anticipation when they arrived. I couldn’t wait to get them home and start reading.

"The Velvet Room" was about a twelve-year-old girl, Robin, whose family struggled to survive as itinerant workers in California in the 1930s Depression. When her father gets a job at the McCurdy ranch, life is better, but it's still hard. An unexpected friendship with an older woman who lives in a hidden cottage opens a new world to Robin. She sneaks into the derelict mansion on the ranch. There she finds the velvet room, full of magic and the promise of hope. I've forgotten the mystery Robin solved, but the velvet room is still clear in my mind and heart.

“The Velvet Room” whisked me into a world I’d heard about from my father, who had traveled from South Dakota, where his parents, both teachers who didn’t get paid through the summer, to work in the apricot and cherry orchards that belonged to their California relatives. At three years old, my dad was put to work cutting ‘cots grown on land my sister now owns. Like Robin, they lived in a tent community of itinerant workers. When I read “The Velvet Room,” I could see the kind of people who had worked in those orchards. I could smell the fields and feel the hard won stability Robin’s bare-bones four-room house represented. “The Velvet Room” whetted my appetite for more. More stories. More novels.

I still hunger for good stories. I like variety, but I can live for a good long time on a steady diet of romance and adventure. A little mystery, a little magic, a lot of history or a setting where I’ve never been—all add spice and savor. Because I like to read stories with these elements so much, that’s what I write.

I’m curious: What stories do you hunger for most?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't Go Hungry! Cook With Nicole

I'm cheating a little bit this week. My revisions for book 5, Tempest's Fury, are due next week and we just started our fall semester where I teach. So I'm going to cross-post something I did at my own blog at the beginning of this summer. It's fitting, however, as this Friday afternoon will find me making a HUGE batch of this turkey ragú to freeze. It's absolutely delicious.

I knew I wanted to make this recipe over at the New York Times the moment I clapped eyes on it. I loved a number of things about it: I loved that it looked a bit lighter than most ragús, especially with the use of turkey meat instead of the beef, veal, and pork many recipes call for. But I also loved that except for being a tad bit lighter, it wasn't too fucked with--the soffritto is the traditional onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, without any Neapolitan flourishes like dried fruit or nuts.

The first thing I did, as the recipe calls for, was to render my pancetta. Unfortunately, I no longer live in a place where pancetta is readily available. But a nice, thick-cut, bacon will do nicely. Now, this recipe is on crack with its timings, especially the fat rendering. It'll take longer than 2-3 minutes to properly render some bacon, and bacon is nothing if not properly rendered. ;-)

So plan for about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much fat is on your pancetta. Here's mine, fresh in the pan. Mmmmmm. Bacon.

While the bacon cooked, I chopped up all the vegetables. Remember to chop the soffritto finely--it's supposed to be almost like a paste as it cooks down, not like a bunch of chicken-soup vegetables. I cut corners by grating the carrots, rather than chopping. I also threw in a bunch of mushrooms I had left over from the party I'd held a few days earlier. They were delicious, giving the ragú a nice earthy flavor and chunkier texture. Here's my lovely veg all ready to go in the pot:

The next step is to take the bacon out and put it on a plate, but leave the fat in the pan. Pour in the olive oil, then add your vegetables. And here's what you want them to cook down to. They should be soft, and just starting to get golden and stick to the pan. You don't want to burn the hell out of anything, but you want some lovely caramelization happening so you can scrape up all that goodness when your wine goes in.

When the vegetables are done, take them out and add them to the same plate that you did your bacon. Then fry up your turkey, breaking it up so it's in nice small chunks and cooked through. Then you just throw all the veg and bacon back in, and add your red wine. Let that cook on the bottom of the pan for a few seconds, then start scraping all that caramelized goodness up into the sauce with a wooden spoon (be sure to use wooden as many pots are damaged by metal spoons). This is called deglazing your pan, for those of you who give a toss. ;-) When you've got all that lovely goodness off the bottom of the pan, then season everything and add the crushed tomatoes. It'll look like this as it cooks down:

To serve, spoon some sauce over pasta and add a dollop of ricotta cheese.

This sauce is super easy, super fast, and tastes relatively light for the season. But it's absolutely delicious, and you can really taste the vegetables, the garlic, and that lovely bacon.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk

I've always had a strong connection to this Rufus Wainwright song. Though I don't smoke (anymore) and Nesquick doesn't do a thing for me. If it had been my song it might have been called Cheetos and Giant Cups of Coffee. Not quite the same ring, I'm afraid, but you get the picture.  I am not a woman of modest appetites. I never have been. And not just when it comes to food. But let's be honest, it comes down to food a lot

I have never understood how people can walk away from anything halfway through. I'm not saying I don't envy them--they're usually quite a bit thinner than me, for starters--just that I don't get how they do it. How can you turn your back on the last piece of cake? Or spend half a vacation day in a hotel room? How can you watch just one X-Files episode and not want to settle in for an all day marathon? Seriously, tell me. I'm dying to know how you do it.

Yeah, like he says, we won't mention those things. But I will say there is an upside to this constant hunger--my mind is always humming. I never worry about running out of story ideas, never fret that I won't be able to come up with unusual characters to write about, because they're always there. The downside--they're always there.

Yeah, what he said.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Spice of Life

Food is wonderfully nostalgic.

The tiniest whiff of gumbo file makes me think of my mom, and the smell of an omelet sizzling in the morning reminds me of dad. The aroma of turkey and stuffing? I’m immediately transported to Thanksgiving feasts throughout my life.But sometimes we hunger not for the familiar, but the exotic. Something different. Variety. It's fascinating to remember that much of our human history was motivated by food – the attempt to get enough, sure, but also over spices. Salt –and certain other spices-- helped preserve food, but they also made it taste better, more interesting, more intriguing.Many years ago a "sound man" told me about a film project he’d worked on with a rebel group in Central America, back in the 1980s when that region was rife with war. He believed in the cause and spoke about it passionately, but what I remember most was his description of eating the same thing, day in, day out, for every meal (Imagine the following told in a darling half-British, half-Spanish accent):

“We were hiding in the mountains for weeks at a time, eating nothing but black beans and rice -- no onions, no chile, nothing to spice it up." "It’ll keep you alive, but boy… It kills the spirit. One day I found a small patch of wild chives growing in the jungle." "I kept them to myself, hoarding them as though I were a miser with gold. I never thought of myself as a stingy man, but I cut up a tiny bit at each mealtime, hiding at the edge of camp from my companions, and used them to spice up the beans. Just the tiniest taste of something different, some variety, kept me from going insane. I don’t know how the others did it – they were much tougher than I.”Recently I asked the Indian man at the copy shop what he liked most about this country and he told me that Ethiopian and Thai food were his favorites, though he was developing a taste for Mexican as well.

Mind you, I didn’t ask him about food.

But this is common when speaking with immigrants. They often are amazed at the food in this country, not only its plenty, but its variety.

And this is what harvest festivals celebrated: the joy of a full belly, and the ability to eat lots of different kinds of things.

Enough really isn't enough. We’re animals. Eating is a base instinct. Compelling in a way only a primal urge can be. And as humans, we crave the variety to keep our palates interested, happy, content.

I feel a metaphor for life coming on...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of my greatest hungers has been sated, and it feels like a miracle.

All my life, from the time I knew what a book was, I’d longed to write one. When I was five, I wrote a small book and illustrated it, and I was frustrated it didn’t look like a book. As the years went on, I routinely took a pen, a notebook, and a flashlight under my covers, determined that this time, I would write a real book. Every time, I didn’t write more than a few disappointing words.

When I was eleven I tried to write a romance novel. It was going along great guns until I got to the second chapter and got irrevocably stuck. The worst part was the I knew with complete certainty what that book was. I knew the emotion of it. I knew the ache of the kiss, the look of the night sky above my world-wise (and practically elderly) fifteen-year old protagonists. I just couldn’t write it.

In high school, I started short stories based, again, on an emotion—the urge to capture a moment of great change in a small space. I failed. In college, I started to “really” write. I wrote what I thought was a good short story, and my beloved mentor and professor Al Landwehr, sat me down and told me I was talented. Then he leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and said, “Talent doesn’t count for much, though. And I’m not sure you’ve got enough to say yet. Even after you've lived some more, I’m not quite sure you understand this—it’s a hard road.”

Of course, I didn’t think he was right. I knew I was ready to write big things. Novels. I just had to start, that was all, and I’d get it right.

So I started. Over and over again, I started. I’d lie in bed and figure out the story. I had plot! Characters! I knew exactly which amazing words I’d use. Then I’d get up and string a few words together and stare at them, almost unable to believe how much it was possible to let myself down.

I know now I was at that state where your taste is better than your talent, a state Ira Glass talks beautifully about here. An excerpt:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

You know what’s good—you just can’t do it. Most people, I think, stop there. They have the hunger to write, the burning need to share emotions on paper with another person, but when it doesn’t go well on the first or second try, it’s so damn easy to say, “I was wrong. I’m not cut out to be a writer.” Or worse, “I’ll figure it out later, when I have more time.”(The thing about later is that it automatically holds less time, not more.)

Some people (those crazies who don’t mind slamming their heads into walls, over and over again) just keep sucking at things until they get better. That’s what I did. I worked at sucking at writing until I sucked a little less, and now, every day I write I get incrementally less sucktastic.

And here’s the miracle: that ache is gone. The longing I’d had my whole life to write, the hunger I’d feel in the middle of dark nights to pick up a pen and get the words down, is completely satisfied because I do it. I do it all the time.

I remember about five years ago, after I’d been writing regularly, I felt tired one afternoon. I didn’t usually nap—it wasn’t something I’d ever been able to do. But that day, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, and when I woke, I realized it had been because the voice was quiet in my head, the voice that had always—always—been telling me I needed to listen to it, to feed it.

The unsatisfied hunger is gone, and now I write. I am a writer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Hunger at the End of the World

by Sophie


Juliet and I occasionally do a workshop titled "Creating Emotional Depth," where we guide writers to identify and describe and heighten the emotions their characters experience. During one of the first times we taught that workshop, I had a sudden epiphany. It might have been because we were sitting in a room full of women with a table laden with donuts in the back, but I blurted out that if a writer was stuck on exploring a female character, she should consider her relationship with food.

In that split second that followed my declaration, I had a flash of regret, because it was most assuredly a moment of projection. I have a complex relationship with food. I pour all my emotions into afternoon binges during tough times; I greet the deepest hurts of my life with rare, but debilitating, bouts of not eating at all. I sense emotion in my gut, and satiety often gets confused - at the synapse level, where I can't do anything about it - with response to fear, to sadness, to loss.

But that does not mean that every woman experiences the same. Or does it?

Certainly, in that room, there was a lot of nodding and hell-yeahs. I've read a fair bit about disordered eating and I'm not naive about how wide-spread it is. We had a good discussion of the subject, and when it was tabled, it was with the knowledge that there was far, far more to say and explore.

Which, of course, I naturally do in fiction.

When I began the AFTERTIME series, Cass's relationship with food was central to her character. (In fact, I think I blogged about it here). Cass practiced asceticism, punishingly so, in a variety of ways; also, the apocalypse delivered a whole new set of food challenges. I saw metaphors in physical denial and hunger; a spectrum of lush vitality to starvation that was being played out on both the global and individual canvases.

But now that all three books have been turned in, I see that I let this subject languish. I did not plumb or pursue it; hunger became a mere by-product of events, something experienced more or less equivalently by everyone, and in simple terms. Food sources were wiped out; a "replacement" nutrition source - adequate but pleasureless - appeared. Sustenance replaced enjoyment. Satiety was not possible; overeating too. The occasional treat (a can of fruit, a cup of coffee) was welcome but not fantasized about, at least on the page. I was aware of sweeping the whole subject aside to pursue other sensory aspects.

Both LOST and WALKING DEAD "fail" in this way as well, surprisingly. I didn't watch either with great care, but from what I remember, in each, the subject is glossed over. Food is scarce, and there are scenes of gathering and preparing (berries and boars and such) but truly it's ludicrous to think that what was shown the audience was even a fraction of the effort or emotional space such a problem would consume. Those people had to be *hungry* - achingly, soul-bruisingly so - but that is not revealed on the screen.

(The treatment of Hurley's character doesn't even bear considering in this realm. I found it objectionable and unrealistic.)

Research with prisoners of war reveals that, in deprivation, people fantasize about food above and beyond anything else - more so than sex, than escape, than any other missed pleasure. This remains a challenge for me to explore in the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hard Rocks, Cold Water: The Beach at Dunnottar Castle in Scotland

by Gigi

One of the things that happens when you're told you have cancer is that you stop and think about what you want out of life. I'm lucky in that I've always been good at seizing the day, so I didn't have a whole lot of new ground to cover.

Therefore I find I'm not longing to do different things with my life. Instead, I'm going to do things BIGGER.

For example, one thing I haven't been doing as much of lately as I'd like to is traveling abroad. Before my diagnosis a little over a month ago, I was planning one trip. Now I'm in the process of planning three.

Traveling to a sunny beach to sunbathe isn't my kind of scene. I'd much rather go hiking along a cold and treacherous cliff overlooking a rough sea. Such as along the cliffs near Dunnottar Castle in Scotland.

Now this is my kind of beach. I took the photos below on the trip I took to the UK for my 30th birthday. The castle ruins sit atop rocky cliffs next to the North Sea, and the only way to reach the ruins is to hike down a steep path and then climb up another one. It's both spectacular and also remote enough that I've visited when it's been eerily empty. Definitely my kind of beach.

While planning upcoming trips to Europe and Asia, I also realized I've been to all but 7 of the 50 states. Anyone feel a road trip coming on? 

Lastly, I promised I'd show another new look for my Sexy Cancer Hair. So here you go!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Martha's Beach Horror Experience

When I was young...maybe six or seven years family went on a Hawaii vacation over Christmas break.

Here is what I remember.

Like any horror movie, we open on a beautiful scene.

We stayed with my mom's friend, a beautiful Vietnamese woman. Her family owned hotel properties on the island, and she invited us to her gorgeous beach-side home where the ocean's waves were practically a welcome mat.

She had a son named Paul who was about my age, and while my parents insisted we would get married when we were older, all I remember is that I wanted to kick his ass at everything. If he dove off a diving board, I dove off a higher one.

She took us to luaus and other celebrations where I was constantly singled out to go on stage or hula. At the time, I thought this was because I was unbearably cute. While this may have been true, I now realize it's because I was with the boss.

Like any horror movie, there was a turn.

The shenanigans became too much.

My brothers held me over an open volcano pit, threatening to drop me inside.

I went for a swim in the ocean and a strange woman encouraged me the race a wave. I was tossed around and unable to break the surface. I took gulp after gulp of salt water which stung my lungs until the wave finally tossed me onto shore and I choked it out.

I was buried in the sand up to my neck, unable to move, and while movies had made this seem fun really it was cold and kind of sucked and hey did I mention there are bugs in the sand?

Hawaii was beginning to lose its shine.

Like any horror movie, we soon realize the true horror is not what we expected.

We left cookies out the night before Christmas, but two things struck me was incredibly wrong. For one, how was Santa going to find us. For two, there was no friggin' chimney in this place. Was Santa supposed to use the door?

I worried about it all night. I couldn't sleep. I finally decided I needed to leave the cookies outside on the doorstep. I slipped out of my room (in what I imagine to be an adorable nightie) and saw the unthinkable.

My parents and their friends in the dining room eating Santa's cookies.

Now I wasn't an idiot.

I'd had my doubts about Santa. But now they were confirmed.

What I hadn't known is that my parents were in on it.

I left Hawaii knowing two things for certain.

1. Nature could kill you. Like really, totally kill you.

2. Parents are deceitful liars.

So while I like a good beach, Hawaii can suck it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Life in Beaches

My life can be measured in Beaches. Almost all (with the exception of the birth of my children and my wedding day) the special days in my life revolve around a beach. When I was little we would visit Rehoboth Beach in Maryland.

Image courtesy of Paul McGehee Art

My great-aunt and great-uncle had apartments right on the beach. As family we could rent the place for dirt cheap (the ONLY way my parents roll) if we helped clean the apartments at the end of our stay. Looking back as an adult, I was too little to help but I’m sure it couldn’t have been much fun for my mother. However, my memories of the beach were magical.

Then we moved to the Midwest and for awhile I was beach-less.

When I traveled to France at age twenty, I spent a fascinating and liberating three days on the beach in Nice.

My senior year of college, I road-tripped to Ft. Lauderdale with my college pals and spent my days on the beach drinking beer and posing in my bikini.

When I met my husband in college, his parents lived in Myrtle Beach so I was lucky enough to visit the beaches in South Carolina several times.

Sunrise on Myrtle Beach

Our first vacation together we visited the beach in Pacific Grove. Our bed and breakfast was across from the boulders with a room overlooking the shore. We left the windows open at night to listen to the susurrous of waves as we slept.

Seven Gables Inn in Pacific Grove

For my honeymoon, my husband and I visited three islands in Hawaii and I learned to snorkel and spent most of my days either in or on the ocean.

Finally as an adult I moved West and my love affair with beaches resumed. I did have to alter my perception when I realized that the ocean on the West Coast is COLD. Our first vacation after my son was born was to the beach in Santa Barbara. I have the cutest picture (not digital sadly) of him in his diaper and a little white hat with beach balls on it, squeezing sand through his pudgy little fingers and smiling.

Rio Del Mar beach

Every year when my kids were little we would trek to Rio Del Mar for a few days. Boogie boards, skim boards, sand pails and shovels to make castles and dig for sand crabs. Coming home entailed shower after shower to get all the sand from our hair but the inconvenience was worth every moment we wrung out of the trip.

We also spent at least one weekend a year in Monterey (arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth), crawling over the rocks and peering into tide-pools to search for anemones, crabs and little fish.

In the past few years, I visited the Mexican coast at Puerta Aventuras. The white sand beach of the Caribbean at Atlantis in the Bahamas.

The ancient fishing pools of King Kamehameha

The absolutely amazing Kohala coast of the Big Island where we swam with turtles and other tropical fish in a shallow reef.

And most recently, we spent a day on the beach on Tybee Island in Georgia.

The Lighthouse at Tybee Island

The ocean is integral and necessary to my survival. I know that I will continue to make visiting beaches a priority in my travels and I’ll treasure those memories just as much.

Hope you enjoyed this little road trip! And if you have a beach that you love and that I need to visit--TELL ME! :)


ps. I started thinking about all the beaches I’ve visited in my life and marveled that there were so many. I purposely did not read any of the other Pens’ posts before I wrote this. I didn’t want to be influenced or feel that I couldn’t express my deep love for the ocean because it had already been done before.

But what I have to say now, is y'all are crazy. The shush of the waves, the sun searing your skin, the scrubby roughness of sand against your feet. The soothing waves of ocean, walking the shoreline, searching for dolphins, turtles, seals. Scouring tide pools for the variety of creatures that live in the crevasses. The endless magnificent power of water and the sheer openess of the Universe. Sunlight and moonlight shimmering on the waves. How can you not LOVE the beach?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Delicate Flower/Fusspot Goes to the Beach


You know I can’t resist recounting the suffering I endured in childhood or any opportunity to complain. The notion that if I don’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything is just plain no fun at all. I live to rant.

I first saw the ocean at age five somewhere along the Oregon Coast west of Portland. We had just moved to Beaverton from Billings, Montana. My mother and us kids had never seen the ocean, which my father, with a Navy stint under his belt, was determined to address at once. Our first weekend in Oregon, before the moving boxes were unpacked and the bunk beds set up, my dad piled my mom, seven and a half months pregnant with my youngest sister at the time, and the three of us kids, ages five, three, and eighteen months, into the Volkswagen bug and headed for the Pacific Ocean.

It was November. The beach wasn’t much improved by the intermittent snow. It was grey. Grey water, low grey sky. That wasn’t so bad. At least I didn’t get a sunburn. The worst, as I was to discover is usually the case, was the sand. Sand is evil. I don’t care how pretty it looks, it’s not nice.

In this case, it was grey and covered with clear bubbly things that turned out to be jellyfish. My dad picked one up on his car key and dared me to touch it. Huddled in my snowsuit, I refused. My sister, brother and I finally took refuge behind my mother, using her as a windbreak. We pleaded to sit in the car. When frozen spume began pelting us, my dad finally relented. (The picture below is the total antithesis of that Oregon beach. It's on Guam. That's my brother in the water. He was five.)

When we showed little enthusiasm for further beach trips, my dad found a lake for us to camp beside near Fort Clatsop. It was close to the beach, but it had its own special kind of lake beach hell that involved being devoured by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds while sinking up to our knees in mud.

A few years later my Dad dragged us all out to Guam. This was ostensibly for his job, but it might have been purely for the potential to inflict torture on me. On the way, we stopped in Hawaii to visit our cousins. There were some bad beach experiences: Sun burn at Hickam Beach. Flattened by a sneaky (and big) wave at Waimea Bay. Sand in all the usual uncomfortable places, including rather a lot permanently embedded in my scalp. You don’t know pain until you’ve tried to rinse all the sand out of your hair with a sunburned scalp underneath.

And dear God, is there any more dastardly garment in the world than a wet, clinging swim suit? Especially when you have to go to the bathroom and you need to get it down fast when you’ve waited for your turn in the long, long lines at the totally inadequate beach bathrooms? And you’re a kid whose parents don’t believe in bikinis on little girls? And you’ve fully embraced the rule that you never, never ever pee in the water?

All this was nothing compared to what was coming in the three years on Guam. The sand in Guam is special. The island is surrounded by a coral reef. It’s not like Hawaii at all. The ocean breaks on the reef, and there’s a lagoon inside. There’s coral everywhere. Coral is sharp. The sand is full of coral. Cuts from coral don’t tend to heal well. They easily abscess. Tropical climate. Weird microbes. Bleh.

To protect your feet, you wear shoes. This was before water shoes. We wore Keds.

Can I just say that swimming in wet Keds sucked. They felt like the proverbial cement overshoes. Walking and running in not-very-nice sand in wet Keds wasn’t much fun, either. They attracted clumps, which caused stumbling and made me lose races. They rubbed on my heels. I got blisters. They tracked whole deserts worth of sand into VW vans and bugs, and into the house if one wasn’t careful. This typically caused lots of parental yelling. The one advantage, aside from avoiding coral cuts, was that when I accidently stepped on sea slugs, it wasn’t as disgusting as it would have been in bare feet. Having your ankles spayed with sea slug guts is never fun, but at least they didn’t get stuck between my toes.

I’ll spare you the times my father tried to force me to snorkel. I couldn’t coordinate breathing through the tube. He got mad, and it scarred me for life. I have never wanted to snorkel since. Alas. And the agony of constantly having to buy ugly swimming suits was traumatic. I thought it would never end. All those years of being dragged on almost daily family trips to the beach have left me a lesser, wounded soul.

For the record, I don’t actively hate beaches anymore. I’ll even seek them out as long as there’s no sunbathing or swimming required. No other people present is best, but sometimes that can’t be helped, so up to twenty people on a good long beach is okay. Dogs don’t count.

Ah. Beaches.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Beaches versus BEACHES

Hello folks. This week's topic is the beach.

I'm not a huge beach fan, as far as tropical beaches are concerned. I don't dream of rubbing oil on myself and basking for hours in the sun, not least as my mother (an olive oil sun bather in the 70s and 80s) constantly has to have pre-cancerous patches burned off her. Cultivating melanoma isn't my idea of fun, and I'm just not good at doing nothing for very long. Finally, reading is hard in the sun what with all the glare.

But I do love the BEACH. And by that, I mean the rugged, rocky coastlines of places like Maine. Setting Jane's books in Maine was partly because I wanted to pay homage to the beauty of the place.

So I was thrilled to visit Whitby, on the northern shore of England. It was my ultimate beach, AND the landing site of Dracula's ship. But just like in Maine, it's the kind of place that should have something supernatural lurking around its edges.

Mostly when I'm at a place like Whitby, I wander around and stare. I smell the air and watch the crashing waves. I wander out to see the sea at different tides, and then I wander back in to take notes on whatever inspired me.

For that's what the sea is, to me: it's inspiration. Something I'm in awe of. Something that's beautiful, and a little frightening. Something that's not ours to control. Something that lives up to its legends, as so few things do.

Wordsworth called such things sublime, and that's how I like my beaches. Less coconut oil and more sublime.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The River

If there is a perfect summer day, its spent on the rocky banks of the Russian River.

Pack up a cooler and some towels. Bring along an old cotton dress to throw over your bathing suit if you want to stop in at the shops that dot the country road.

Spend the afternoon floating on the water. Watch your kids splash each other at the river's edge.  Read a book on the shore. Eat the strawberries that you bought from the stand down the way. Feel every moment of the day go by.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

No Beach Vacation for Me

By Juliet

I’ve never been to Hawaii. I know, I know. It’s glorious. Gorgeous. Incredible. I’ve tried to go, several times. But each time I add up the airfare, and the cost of hotels, and ponder the tourist beach culture…and then wind up going to Mexico or Europe.

The thing is, I'm not really a Beach Vacation kind of gal.

Normally I skip the beach altogether. When I do go to beach towns, I prefer Mexico, where I can speak in a foreign language, drink really great tequila, eat great Mexican food, hang out with friendly Mayan folks and tromp around ancient ruins. The only Mexican town I’ve been in that I didn’t like was Cancun, which is a modern city built entirely to cash in on the beach culture: it’s full of big tourist hotels, tourists, frat boys and girls, and sugary frozen drinks. Um...not my idea of fun.
Above, the ruins in Tulum, a Mayan city built on some incredible real estate

None of which is to say I don’t like the ocean, or the beach for that matter. I love the ocean. I grew up in the Bay Area, and whenever I’ve been called upon to live out of easy reach of the sea I feel a bit jittery. Just knowing it’s there is soothing to me. I think there’s a sneaky little part of my brain that figures if the sh*t really goes down, I can always lash some inflatables together and set off in a raft. If nothing else, it would be a poetic way to die, better than, ya know, waiting on shore for the zombie apocalypse *nods to Sophie*

But as for sitting on the sand, fighting off the tan you really want but aren’t allowed to have (skin cancer, dontcha know) with oily, expensive sunscreen? Not so much.

I like doing something when I’m on a coast. I’ve already written about my summer working a corn-dog stand at Santa Cruz’s Beach Boardwalk – now, put a roller coaster (or an entire amusement park) on the beach, and I’m sold.

I also adore the rugged northern California coast, the land of my birth. I love climbing rocks and checking out tide pools and peering, breathless, over cliffs so steep it feels as though you’re about to fall.

Once I was on the beach in Scotland when snow flurries starting swirling about us. It snowed on the beach. As a native Californian, it had never occurred to me that it could snow on a beach. Once I thought about it, it was a “duh” moment – after all, there are coasts and beaches all over the world, including in places like Alaska, where it sure as heck snows on the beach. I went in the late summer, and it was still cold.

at left, Tuluk gave me a ride on a beach along the Bering Straight. No mai-tais, but great memories.

I want to go to Jamaica one day, but I wouldn’t go to one of the resorts. One of my best friends is from Jamaica, and I’d love to visit the island nation with her, to meet her family, learn about the history, the culture, soak in the music…they speak English there, but with the kind of musical cadence that is a joy to my ears.

At right, a beach in Jamaica, calling my name

So chances are that come vacation time, I won’t be sitting on a beach drinking mai tais. I might well be in the local museum, though, or hiking along the cliffs. Tasting the local fish specialty, or at the very least, building a freaking awesome sand castle.

Oh, screw the beach. It's time to go back to Mexico and climb a pyramid.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I'm not comfortable if I can't see the ocean, in some way or another, every day. Inland, I'm cranky. Itchy. I don't fit into my skin. I spent a summer in Colorado once, and I felt as if I couldn't breathe the entire time. Where I live now, in order to come home, I have to drive down a steep hill--the view is a wide expanse of the San Francisco Bay, a perfect shot of the city in the distance, sometimes obscured by fog, sometimes sparklingly clear. Sometimes, on perfect nights or gorgeous days, I just pull over and stare at the water for long minutes.

But the best place for me is an island. Surrounded on all sides by water? Yes, please. That's where I feel most at home.

1. My parents met in Western Samoa. Dad (in the Peace Corps) lived on Apia and heard about a woman with the NZ Diplomatic Service who lived on Savai'i who had a bigger record collection than he did. He called her; the rest is Herron history.

2. My mother was from New Zealand. She was from the South Island, and I think her blood that runs in my veins was what infected me first. Once, on a trip to New Zealand, during a plane refueling stop in Fiji (remember those?), my sister Christy and I got tired of waiting for Mom to come back to us where we were sitting on our suitcases. A little worried, I set out to find her and found her in the middle of a ring of island dancers, swaying and moving to a rhythm she understood. She was exotic and gorgeous at that moment, more than my mother--she was a woman I didn't understand but wanted someday to be.

3. When I was a teenager, we went to live on Saipan, a tiny island in the Northern Marianas, north of Guam. Of every good thing in my childhood (and luckily, there were many), living there was the best part. We were home-schooled in the morning, and every afternoon we went to a beach. We snorkeled on the Philippine Sea side, and we jumped off volcanic rock into deep swirling waters on the rough Pacific side (what was Mom thinking?). Set on the Ring of Fire, earthquakes were a daily occurrence, and we'd lie on our mats and watch them happen: little ripples of sand that looked like rumpled bedsheets, moving toward us, under us, and on. The beach was our classroom, our playground, our home. Digging my fingers and heels into the sand, I held on as hard as I could.

4. In the early 90s, I visited Venice for a day and fell head over heels in love. I've been back as often as possible since. It doesn't make sense how that city got into my veins, but I think it can best be explained by this: 117 miniscule islands, connected by small bridges. Sometimes only mere steps separate these islands, and of course, because much of it is man-made, there is no beach, per se (we could talk about the Lido, but let's not), but the water matters to me more than sand, and it's home.

I have a theory that there are three kinds of people: ocean people, desert people, and mountain people. The passion for each is probably the same, although I can't understand the other two. They are like a foreign language--I understand that there are adverbs and nouns in those languages also, but surely, the words can't be as beautiful, can they? The words peace and rest can't sound the same on an inland plain as they do on the beach, can they?

When I sit and imagine my perfect writing spot, there is always a desk at a window that overlooks the water. At night, I can see the moon tracing a path to the shore, and the breeze flutters the curtains. And in the mornings, I can smell salt.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hazy Beach Memories

by Sophie


I'm not much of a beach person. Too antsy, too distractible, too incompetent at leisure. But when I was a little kid, my dad took us to the Rhode Island shore every summer weekend one year. There was a particular magic to that beach, much of it centered around our amateurish events at fishing. It took me many years to understand that there was more to those long afternoons with my brother and my dad and - mostly as an afterthought - my sister, still a baby....than merely casting and reeling slowly in, with nothing, nothing, nothing to show for the effort except for the dwindling plastic container of disgusting purple baitflesh. (except for the days when dad used rinds of salami from our home-packed lunches; on those days, inexplicably, we got nibbles.) I think I understand, as a parent these many years later, that my dad had just slowed down the clock, had anchored us in a place and time where we could all go about the business of being kids.

Years later, when my own children were toddlers, we lived in a land-locked state. There were no briny piers or clam fritters to be had. Lake Michigan was a stingy hostess, offering windy afternoons when lying on the sand was a test of wills. Still, there was an occasional beach day; I have photos of us in our sweatshirts clutching paper coffee cups while the kids toss rocks into the frigid water.

(Sometimes, people say that no one truly likes to write; they like having written. I think that day was a little like that. I cherish the memories; I still have the cupful of pebbles I gathered during that long afternoon. At the time I believe I longed only to get somewhere warmer.)

Later this month, my brother and I are taking a few of the kids to an island in Boston Harbor, overlooking the skyline. On offer are, apparently, clouds of bugs and stunning views. Rocky campsites and borrowed equipment. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm guessing the sand will be too gummy for proper castles, the flora of the sharp-bladed variety. The youngest will, if tradition is to be observed, be bored and despairing before the first day is out.

Beaches are, in the end, incubators of memories. We cherish the gilded glimpses, sunrises on the water, dolphin cresting, children laughing, lovers walking in the sand. We forget the sunburns, sandy soda cans, soggy paperbacks, long stretches of boredom. Every generation endures, first, and later remembers fondly. An August toast, then; lift your glass - sand-dusted or sunwarmed - to the beaches of our memories, no less spectacular for being embelllished by the passing of time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

And we have a winner!

Our friend Susan Shea wrote a post for us a couple of weeks back, and offered a signed copy of MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT for one lucky commenter. Barbara won! Congratulations!

(Barbara, Susan will be in touch with you directly by email.)

And thanks again, Susan, for stopping by Pensfatales -- it's always a pleasure.

Susan C Shea is a former non-profit executive. MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT was her first mystery novel. THE KING'S JAR is the second in the series. She's active in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and lives in northern California. Visit her at
"...A series to watch." - Booklist

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sex from the Start

The Pens are thrilled to have Kristin Miller visiting us today!

Kristin Miller has had a passion for language and literature her whole life. Born and raised in Small Town USA, she often made up stories about faraway places and edge-of-your-seat adventures.

After graduating from Humboldt State University with a degree in psychology, Kristin realized there is no scarier place than the warped human psyche. Wanting to combine her love of writing with her desire to paint twisted villains, Kristin wound up in the unlikeliest of places—the classroom. She taught high school and middle school English before giving in to the desire to create her own world, where villains can be sympathetic and heroes can be devilishly good.

When I first wrote the beginning of Intervamption, my paranormal romance novel with Avon Impulse, I started at the moment I thought would best capture readers’ interest—the moment when Dylan, a vampire rehabilitation specialist, witnesses a young vampire’s suicide. From there, Dylan’s world and the beliefs of those in it, spiral out of control. The novel turned out dark and gritty and perfect…or so I thought.

I sent out queries. One agent emailed right away, stating he was interested in representing my work, but only if I could vamp up the beginning. “Your strengths are steamy scenes and action,” he wrote. “Start with a combination of those from page one, paragraph one, line one…if you can.

The last part was a dig. A challenge. If you can? Didn’t he know he was talking to the most competitive girl on the planet? It was the best thing he could’ve said at the time. Had I been told to write a steamy scene from the get-go, I probably would’ve turned down the suggestion. But in the face of possible representation, there was no way I could not make it happen.

The more I thought about the angles from which I should write, the more I doubted if I could really make a sex scene work in the beginning of my novel. My hero, a dangerously sexy shapeshifting assassin, is charged with shifting into a vampire to make his final, and most critical mark. My heroine is a work-a-holic and CEO of her own rehabilitation center, ReVamp. The two leads don’t even meet until the Newborn Vampire Induction meeting in Chapter Four.

How the hell could I start Intervamption with a sex scene? There was only one answer: my hero would have to sleep with another woman. Yikes, right?

This first section is what came out:

Slade didn’t think twice about slamming the blonde against his closed apartment door. She gasped as her head snapped back, hitting the wood with a resounding thud.

“You son of a bitch,” she seethed, meeting his stare head on. “You think you can just push me around like I’m a fuckin’ doll?”

“Yeah, I do.” He pressed against her, the wide span of his chest dwarfing her petite frame. His mouth hovered so close to hers, he could taste the cranberry from the Cosmopolitan on her breath. “Tonight you’ll do what I want, when I want, how I want.”

It flew off my fingers, practically writing itself. The challenge was not writing the sex. In fact, that was the easy (and super fun!) part. The challenge was making the sex smoking hot, without letting the reader care about the woman in my hero’s arms. Yet, if I swung the writing too much that direction, making the woman cheap and easy, I risked my hero looking like a womanizing asshole. I wanted my readers salivating over Slade, not thinking he was a player. When he met his heroine, readers needed to feel that their chemistry was genuine. They needed to trust Slade’s feelings. How could readers do that, I wondered, if he slept with another woman not fifty pages before?

I walked a really fine line…

Once the writing was massaged into shape, that one scene ended up showing more about my shapeshifting world and my hero’s character than I could’ve imagined. It showed how much Slade despised what he’d become. How trapped he felt. How ready he was for something new—for Dylan, his one true love.

The opening worked because sex scenes are more than sex. They’re glimpses into the internal conflict of the characters involved. They break down walls and maybe build new ones up. They reveal insecurities and deepest, darkest desires.

What better way to start a book than by exposing the most vulnerable part of your hero or heroine? I can’t think of one. I challenge you to give it a shot. Rewrite the first scene of your novel using a sex scene to propel the story forward…if you can.

And if, after all this build up, you’re interested in reading Intervamption’s steamy first chapter, Amazon is offering it for free.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sexy Cancer Hair and a Bit of Angst

Pop quiz: Do you recognize me?
by Gigi

As many of you know, I've been absent from the blog for the past month because I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Since I'm a health nut in my 30s with a gym in the garage, this news was not at all expected!

But I'm fortunate in so many ways. In addition to having caught it early and being treated by a fantastic team of doctors, I've learned that I've got the most amazing friends in the world and the greatest husband on earth.

And to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to seizing the day, while I've been recovering from surgery I've been having FUN (in between all the extra sleeping and resting, of course).

I'm enjoying reading alchemy books as research for my next novel. But the real fun has been experimenting with new hair looks I'll need due to chemo.

Oh yes, I'm going to have sexy cancer hair. 

I've had the exact same hairstyle for the past 20 years. (Nope, I'm not joking.) It's nice hair, so I'm not complaining, but my curly long hair always refused to be styled in any way. But it worked for me. Therefore I went with it and kept the same hair I had in high school. I liked it well enough, so I never had the guts to cut it short to try something new.

But now that I have no choice about cutting my hair short, I'm free.

Last week, I cut off my hair. (It's what they recommend you do before chemo -- less stress on the hair follicles and also less traumatic if you do lose your hair.) Here are a few photos below. I was shocked to find that it's actually rather cute!

Even more fun was another recent expedition -- the Pens took me wig shopping! Photos are below.

If I do lose my hair temporarily, hell yeah I'm going to do it in style. I've got to keep up with the rest of the Pens, after all.

The last time I posted, I wrote about starting a part-time sabbatical this summer to dive into extra art and writing projects. Instead, I'm postponing my sabbatical for one year.

This year I'll be taking care of myself and getting well. But since I'll also have more time than usual at home when I'm not working or at Kaiser, I'll fit in some creative projects as well.

I've previously lamented my lack of angst and wondered if it would keep me from creating depth in my writing. So in addition to getting myself some sexy hair this year, I'm also hoping this experience will have some positive effects on my writing.

Since I have to go through this, I might as well get something out of it!

I already have reason to believe this will be the case. Normally I'm a huge plotter, and character depth is what I find most challenging. But as I've been brainstorming this alchemist novel, I'm all about the characters and their haunting secrets. As for the plot... Well, I'm hoping plotting is like riding a bike and that it'll come back to me once I start writing.

p.s. Thanks to guest bloggers Lisa Alder and Cecilia Gray for filling in for me on the blog last month!