Friday, December 30, 2011

Writing and Peace

On the one hand, I think writing can often help us find peace. On the other hand, I think peace can be too much of a good thing.

It's true that being a writer can help us get perspective on our own lives. Don't get me wrong: I'm just as apt to get caught up in my own little psychodramas as the next person. But, I think that understanding how narrative functions means that I can, usually, eventually, claw my way to some sort of understanding that whatever I'm going through can be narrated in different ways. Therefore, I can come with a more functional, healthy narration. We all do that already, when we say things like, "It wasn't meant to be," or "I can do better." Writers just have bigger, fleshier versions of these self-narrated outcomes to help us cope.

But as any of you who follow super dramatic writers on Twitter probably know already, we don't often use our powers for good. Because, on the other hand, too much peace in writer's life is never a good thing.

The fact is that many of us, though not all, mine our personal lives for nuggets of narrative gold. And that means that we're oftentimes looking for a reach new source of dramatic ore. Indeed, the scenes I'm most happy with in my writing are usually scenes that pick up an emotional frisson from my own experience. It'll be completely distorted in terms of actual events, but I've injected a totally fabricated scene with a grain of emotional essence that, at least to me, is real. And I think this injection of experiential truth helps makes such scenes real to my readers.

Meanwhile, this process becomes, in itself, a weirdly curative act. First of all, when I experience something negative (or positive, for that matter) I'm able to get some good distance by inevitably thinking, "Wow, this will be great to write." And then comes the second part of the equation, the writing, in which I'm usually able to exorcise, or at least spank about a bit, some of my demons. Even better is when I can indulge in a good memory, or a good experience, and get to the center of why it made me happy, or a better person.

Peace, I've discovered, has never been something I've particularly admired or for which I've strived. Instead, I've always taken a Faustian view of things--that there's something to be said for wanting, and working, and dreaming, and fidgeting. It means we make mistakes, but at least we're alive.

Our struggles, then, give us something to write about and for others to read. Our demons are our friends, and peace something to be kept at arm's length, for fear it might dull our perceptions.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What's So Funny

For your Thursday listening pleasure:

So, if that worked you should all be wanting to run out and join the Peace Corps...or a New Wave band. Either one is good.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Serenity Sucks (or, writing in cafes with friends)

The other day I was imposing myself on a very patient Penfatale (I won’t say who, but she’s an excellent knitter) who was writing in her favorite café. Since I’m on deadline, I’ve become a child about writing and needed her presence across the table to keep my you-know-what in the chair.

It’s a bustling coffee shop, always full of folks chatting and plotting and studying and writing. It also has a dedicated section for children, with toys and chalkboards and toddler-style effluvia – the kind of place I would have given my left arm for when my own son was a tot.

So as we’re writing, the play-sounds of children begin to rise above the murmur of the adult patrons. Specifically, some kid starts banging on something wooden with something metal. Or something. Point is, someone small is making noise.

The man at the table next to us sighs heavily in exasperation. He looks over at the children’s corner and scowls, harrumphing loudly. Bangs his hands on the table. Sighs again.

Then, since his will is still not done –despite his obvious displeasure-- he glances over at me and tries to engage me in conversation: “Can you believe what people let their children get away with these days?”

I stare at my computer screen, pretending not to notice his very public discontent. I decide I love the loud banging and laughing from the children’s area. I decide that pretty much whatever this guy likes, I like the opposite.

After a few more minutes he packs up his computer and books – including one titled Too Many People—and goes to complain at the counter, then hangs around to grouse with a trio of other middle-aged white guys for a few minutes before leaving the shop in a huff.

This leaves me pondering what my friend calls "white people problems". By which she means, of course, the relatively inconsequential inconveniences that ruin the day of folks who are far too privileged to understand exactly how privileged they are. And thus have their days ruined by children having the audacity to act like children in a children's play area, while they're trying to read.

Speaking only for myself, I’ve noticed something important in my life: When I feel peaceful on the*inside*, I can cope with a good deal of external chaos. In fact, I often search for a lack of peace. I once painted a mural in a massage studio and between the peaceful music and the peaceful quiet and the peaceful whispers and the peaceful colors, I thought I was going to tear my hair out. I left everyday and sought out brilliant colors and raucous laughter and vibrant life.

Sure, there are days when I want nothing more than to curl up in bed and ignore the phone and not talk, at all. Or go sit in a redwood forest somewhere all by myself and breathe in the serenity. But in general, some of my favorite things are just not peaceful. Children, animals, cities, my friends, beach boardwalks, dancing, parties….just about my whole life.

All that said, if you need peace and quiet in your surroundings, by all means, go for it.

But here’s a tip: don’t choose a busy café with a dedicated space for children to play. Things are going to get loud.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ocean's Touch

The PensFatales are beyond thrilled to host Denise Townsend here today, on her launch day! Denise is "a fantasy of salt, sea air, and sun-kissed skin. She was born to tell sensual stories that explore female sexuality and strengths."

Her new book, Ocean's Touch, features a lonely widow, a hot artist waiting in the wings, and the sexy selkie who brings them together…in every possible way. And we're giving away one e-ARC to a lucky commenter!

Rachael got the chance to ask Denise a few questions recently:

1. Ocean's Touch is out today! Congratulations. What do you plan on doing to celebrate?

I thought I'd take a walk by the sea. You know, just in case there's someone waiting for me.

2. You're obviously drawn to the sea. So, which coast? Left? East? Ivory?

I was raised near the Third Coast (Chicago), but I definitely prefer the far fringes. If I can't be on the Firth of Forth, of course.

3. What's your favorite thing about being a writer?

The cabana boys. What, didn't you get cabana boys?

[Rachael takes a short break to call her agent and ask where, exactly, her cabana boys are.]

4. What's your least favorite thing about being a writer?

The impossible amounts of money we make. I mean, how do we spend it all? ;-)

[Rachael makes one more quick phone call.]

5. If you were a road sign, what would you say?

Dangerous Curves Ahead.

Amen, sister. Denise Townsend IS all that. Please leave a comment for a chance to win, buy it here, and visit her at her website here.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

by Sophie


I've spent the last few months steeped in research set in the World War II era, and it has me thinking a lot about the way we, as a nation, participate in our foreign wars. So much of modern warfare is antiseptic, removed, cleansed and sanitized for a television audience, and it's easy - way too easy - for us to choose to ignore what is going on on the other side of the world.

I'm not, at heart, a political person, and I have no desire to discuss the merits of our participation in the various conflicts in which we now find ourselves embroiled. But I do think it's fascinating - and rather shameful - that we can so easily choose ignorance and non-participation. Seventy years ago, such a stance was unthinkable. War was participatory, and not just in the sense that families with young men made terrible sacrifices in every block of every neighborhood - every citizen was affected.

Some of the ways people were included in the war effort were heroic. Others were shameful. All of them give me pause, as I learn more and more about the hidden history of that time.

Americans longed for peace to return, but they understood it could not happen without the involvement of every family and individual. I feel like that climate could not be duplicated today. Ours is a sated culture that expects immediate gratification with a minimum of sacrifice; we expect our government to deliver peace even as we remain ignorant, indifferent, unfocused.

Americans planted victory gardens, saved fats for glycerin, participated in metal and clothing drives, made bandages. They did without new cars and appliances as plants moved their entire production cycles to the war effort. Women took over the jobs men left behind.

Here are a couple of magazine ads which I found nothing short of stunning:

How do you think our nation would respond to such pleas today? "Peace can be yours - if you all ratchet down spending for another year?" I just read an analysis of saving behavior on the part of our citizens, and it turns out that we have a fight-or-flight response - we'll spend until the bitter end, and then we react with a complete shut-down of our personal economies. We know no moderation in our spending behavior. Since we have proved to the economists that only something personally catastrophic - job loss, foreclosure, etc. - will evoke spending changes within our homes, I wonder what our reaction would be today to the suggestion that we modify our habits in the interest of supporting our military engagements?

It's not quite resolution making time, but I'm mulling over something that is quite a stretch, for me. It might be time for a deliberate increase in awareness. My reasons for being apolitical are personal, but my reasons for change are not: simply put, it is starting to feel like a responsibility shirked. I've enjoyed personal peace for 48 years; it might just be time to stop taking it for granted.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vive la France et le Cookie Monster

by Gigi

One of my fondest childhood memories is of having a Cookie Monster cake. I swear I can remember the heavenly taste of the florescent blue frosting. (I looked everywhere for a photo of what it looked like, but even Google let me down; 21st century Cookie Monster cakes look nothing like 1980 Cookie Monster cakes.)

From there, my experience with cookies went downhill.

Put a platter of cookies in front of me and I don't have to use willpower to resist them. Cookies have no allure for me. But present me with a plate of rich cheeses or buttery croissants, and that plate will be licked clean before you know it.

In spite of my struggles to move beyond intermediate French, I've always thought I'd make a good French person based on my taste in food.

Those French have it right. Strong coffee, rich savory pastries, good cheese just about everywhere, fresh produce at outdoor markets, wine carafes of whatever size strikes your fancy, long lunches every day.

Cheese shop. (I wish I was eating some cheese right now.)

A market with berry and asparagus varieties I hadn't seen before.

An outdoor cafe where it's virtually impossible to get your bill and leave (I'm not saying that's a bad thing).

Salad at a Paris cafe.

I frequently tell myself I'm going to slow down and take those long lunches. Days at work are busy, so it's easy to tell yourself that eating at your desk is the best thing to do. But I know in the back of my head that it's not the right choice.

Since it's the season of making resolutions, one of my resolutions is to step away from my desk for lunch, be it at at my home office or my workplace office. I should also resolve to sort through childhood photos to find a photo of that delicious Cookie Monster cake. But not right now. After writing this, I find myself with a strong desire to have a cup of coffee and a slice of cheese...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

If you give Martha a cookie....

The modern day classic, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, is one of the most beloved children's picture books of recent decades.

I had outgrown picture books by its release, however, as a teenager, I read it to another child.

This book, quite frankly, horrifies me.

For those not familiar with this treasure (and I do not mean that sarcastically - the book is very well done), the story begins with the gifting of a cookie to a mouse.

It continues with the mouse making repeated and continued requests growing more and more outlandish.

As a teenager, I could not believe the cojones on this rodent.


Where was the thank you? Where was the graciousness? Where was the rush home to bake cookies to return so as to erase the karmic debt owed to this kind stranger???????

If someone gave me a cookie and I asked for something else, my mom would KILL me.

So rest assured, dear readers, do not fear giving me cookies this holiday season. I will accept them, graciously, no strings attached. :)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Congratulations to Juliet for earning a spot on the NYT Extended List!!

So the Pens, more specifically Juliet Blackwell, got some absolutely FANTASTIC news last week. Her latest release, DEAD BOLT, hit the New York Times Extended list at number 24.
For most writers, the New York Times list is our mecca. We are so freaking proud of the rest of the country for recognizing Juliet's genius!!! And so freaking THRILLED for Juliet!!! Join me in congratulating her on this phenomenal accomplishment!


ps. Since it is cookie week, I'm going to share a recipe given to my mother about 45 years ago by our German neighbor. These Almond Rings are a staple every year in our house.

3/4 lb sifted flour (3 cups)
1/2 lb sugar (1 1/8 cup)
1/2 lb butter
1/2 lb blanched almonds finely grated (you can buy almond meal now!!)
1 t. cinnamon
2 whole eggs

Confectioners sugar

Mix all the cookie ingredients together until it forms into a nice ball. Cool a little in the refrigerator. Roll out dough & press into rings (use a glass and then cut a whole in the center of the circle with a thimble)

Put on ungreased pan. Bake at 350 degrees until gold.

Mix confectioners sugar and rum until you have a liquid consistency (but not too runny). Brush on cookies (warm or cold)


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cookie Tradition

L.G.C. Smith

Throughout my childhood, there was always one day during the Christmas holiday devoted to making cut-out sugar cookies. All four of us kids had to be there, and Mom. Dad did not have to attend, but if he did, he was the quality control engineer. We made mainly stars, bells, and trees. Pretty basic stuff. We had some tricky cookie cutters that were supposed to press in the lines of a teddy bear, a toy soldier, and a rocking horse, but none of us were adept enough to get the cookies out of them in one piece. So it was stars, bells, and trees.

We frosted with old-fashioned butter cream tinted with food coloring dripped from tubby little bottles. The colors weren't great, and Martha Stewart would have cried at the final results. Sloppy, gloppy and bright. But it was tradition. When other Christmas cookie shapes and recipes evolved over the years, the sugar cookies did not.

And now we inflict making them on the small children in our family. They're a good choice for me because I never liked them, and I never eat them. That isn't true of most cookies. I will eat most cookies greedily. Well, as long as they're gluten-free. Now. As a result, I only make gluten-free cookies to send to my niece in Texas since she's on a GFCF diet. Here are some of those.

These are the sort of cookies we made as kids except that these actually look better than any of the ones we made. Sprinkle technology has come a long ways.

That's one of Adrienne's boys and my niece a couple of years ago. I cleaned two and a third cups of colored sugar off the floor at the end of that evening. The kids are getting older. I anticipate less than a cup and a half on the floor this year.

When my nieces were born, thanks to years of watching Martha Stewart and the ability to follow recipes, I figured out how to decorate sugar cookies in a less gloppy fashion.

I kind of like doing it. But there had better not be any kids around when I'm doing this. Except that I'm not good at kicking the Leezlet out, and she's not too bad at dropping decorations onto royal icing if I give her a template to follow. Like on the gingerbread men on these cupcakes. We made them together for her junior kindergarten Christmas party a year ago. This year cupcakes were banned. Kind of scroogey, if you ask me. Bunch of baloney about too much sugar. (Just kidding, people. Well, the cupcakes were banned.)

Wednesday Adrienne and I are going to make the kids cut out and glop up some holiday sugar cookies. I might go basic. Stars, bells, and trees. Vanilla butter cream and sprinkles. No food coloring. There will be no cookies that look like this:

And there will be a lot that look like this. It's tradition.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Hey, cookie!"

The sexiest women, to me, are the "cookies." The slightly femme fatale, very independent women of cinema who arrive on their own at the private detectives for a problem that's a little scandalous.
They're inevitably greeted by a bartender, somewhere, saying, "Hey, cookie!" and they have the shoes to match.
The great news is that the rise in retro-style looks means that we can all be a cookie, if we can wedge ourselves into the dress. Here are some great places to get your cookie on.
The first is Pin-Up Girl Clothing, where they carry some gorgeous looks like this one:

Another great place to order from, or to visit if you're in London, is my favorite store, Vivien of Holloway:

Finally, if you're lucky enough to be in NOLA anytime soon, you have to hit up Trashy Diva. They also have a great website, where you can order such beauties as this coat dress:

Enjoy, and maybe we can all be cookies this New Year. :-)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How To Bake A Cookie

-- Adrienne Miller

It's kinda funny that I started baking as an antidote to the stress of life. Looking back, I can see my reasons. Baking seems like it would be the antithesis of writing. There's a clear plan. No reasoning is required. Just follow the step-by-step guide and--Presto!--you've got yourself a cake. Or a pie. Or a cookie.

When I first started out, I imagined that there would be a zen-like quality to working with the ingredients--carefully measuring them, mixing them together, meticulously decorating the finished product.

Maybe that's the way it works out if you're Martha Stewart, but not if you're anything like me. Now, don't get me wrong. I love to bake. Deep down, crazy love it. And it does help me reduce stress, just not the way I thought it would.

Instead of being the polar opposite of my writing experiences, it turned out that baking is like a condensed version of them, going from pie-to-the-sky optimism, to gut-wrenching doubt, to resolution. Usually in just under an hour.

Here's how it usually goes:

Decide to make something. How about French Macaroons? They're delicious. There's a lot of choices for fillings, so I can really make them my own. And hell, they're as adorable as something can be and still be edible.

Put together the mis en place. I'm at my happiest. How could I be any other way? I have all the ingredients, all in the right proportion and order. It's a thing of beauty. All will be well. I can feel it. I can do this thing.

Start making the meringue. Crap. My hand mixer starts making a strange clanking sound. The gears start slipping every few rounds. I should have seen this coming. I bought the damn thing over ten years ago on super sale at Target. It's amazing that it's lasted this long. I start praying that it can hold out just a little longer. Just a few more minutes. Just until I get this mess to stiff peaks. Do you hear me god? Just until stiff peaks.

Whew. It made it. Creaking and clanging the whole way, but the ol' beast had just enough magic left in her to make those egg whites and superfine sugar into a smooth, glossy froth. Now to make it pretty. And nothing says pretty like pink. See? Yeah, everything is going to be fine. Just fine.

Now to fold in the dry goods. Okay. Folding always makes me a little nervous. It's not my strongest skill. But I can do this. I can.

Dear God! What is that monstrosity? It looks like gritty, chewed bubble gum. Seriously, what was I thinking? This is a horrible mess. I'm a terrible baker. Why didn't I just buy the pack of perfect macaroons they had at La Boulange when I had the chance?

But I've gone to far to turn back now. I might as well just press on and see how this disaster turns out. I mean, if it's total crap--and how could it be anything else?--then I just won't give them to anyone. No one has to know.  I'll just pipe out the circles and see. No harm in that.

Shit. Even my piping skill suck. Why do I even pretend that I know what I'm doing in a kitchen?

But at least there's fillings to make up for my craptastic efforts. Nutella can at least cover some of my suckage.

Put them in the oven and try my best not to think about them for a while. Not long, just a little distance. In this case, ten minutes of watching That Mitchell and Webb Look goes a long way to reviving my spirits. The timer goes off and--low and behold!--they don't suck.

It all came together fine. They're crisp on the top and chewy in the middle, just like they should be. The color is perfect, and I even managed to get that little frill on the bottom of each cookie just right.

Yeah, they're not all perfectly symmetrical, but who the hell wants that anyway. I'll leave perfection to the Martha Stewarts of the world. I like mine with a little personality anyway.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Peanut Butter Dreams

If you put chocolate in front of me, I'll eat it. No questions asked (unless the candies in question look fuzzy, in which case I want to know as little as possible, and I'll probably still manage to choke down a few). If you bring out ice cream, I'm your girl. I've been known to substitute sweetened condensed milk for a healthy dinner--just me, the spoon, and sweet, sweet sugar.

But cookies? Meh. Mostly they've always felt like a waste of time: never as sweet as you want them to be, filling you up without the sharp, steep sugar rush that you get from, say, frosting. I'm a hardcore sugar junkie. No false starts for me. Keep your cake and most of your cookies, too.

The exception are my friend JoAnn's peanut butter cookies.

They are amazing. I'm placing the recipe here for posterity, which I realize is ridiculous since there is almost nothing to remember, but I forget this recipe at least once a year. It's a good excuse to get in touch with JoAnn though, and she's used to me asking for the recipe since I've been doing it regularly for the last ten years.

(These cookies are so delicious they garnered me a marriage proposal. No lie. (I accepted.) And they couldn't be easier.)

1 cup peanut butter (I like Skippy creamy though crunchy works well, too)
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp baking soda

Mix and bake at 350 for 11-13 minutes.

Enjoy the sugar, y'all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Naughty Cookies

by Sophie


Since I go first every time we switch themes, I always get to steal everyone's thunder. This time the temptation was high to talk holiday cookies because, having been mom-at-home for all those years, I have a *lot* of experience.

Instead, I'll leave the recipe trading to the rest of the gals, and instead talk about the *other* kind of cookies. You know...the ones that leave a trail of breadcrumbs all over your computer. The ones that, if you're not careful, tell anyone who happens to borrow your Mac for a few minutes - to check on their history assignment, for instance, or find out when the game's going to be on - exactly where Mama's been spending her "research" time.

The naughty cookies.

(These are by Icings by Ang - cuter, and less mortifying by far, than many in my search results!)

Any parent with a child over six has probably had to have the careful-where-you-click talk. And not long after that, the "your father and I found some interesting sites in your history list, of course curiosity is natural and healthy but - " discussion. But I'm guessing that most moms don't live in fear that their children will be the ones stumbling across the bad-girl URLs they themselves clicked on.

It all started innocently enough, when I was doing research for my first Stella novel. I've told that story many times, about how a simple search for "restraint gear" launched me into a whole new world I never knew existed, one that I found so fascinating I lost days to browsing and learning.

It's not like I went straight from having no idea what a ball gag was, to buying them in all their marvelous variations, but I did get hooked. Not on the toys themselves, but on the idea that there is so much out there in the world that I know nothing about, and that the power to stop being ignorant is just a few clicks away.

Blame LGC. She's the one who gently nurtured my research bug. It took me a long time, but I now kinda, sorta relish flexing my fingers and opening a search window whenever my research takes me in a new direction. Lots of it is G-rated - today, for instance, I researched 1940s women's pants styles, Amtrak schedules, and desert rodents - but some of it is not. And darn if it isn't the latter that gets one going on those endless hyperlink research benders, where hours pass in what seems like minutes, and you're suddenly an expert on, say, human autophagy, or railing oxycontin.

All of which is well and good...unless you've got a couple of kids around who are way, way better at following digital footprints than you'll ever be.

So "cookies," to me, took on a much more sinister meaning for years. I learned to clear my history, my cache, to reset Safari, but I always worried. I was convinced that one day my kids would stumble on something that would take a LOT of explaining. I had half a mind to blame the other ("oh, you know your brother..." or "your sister is probably just in a curious phase, it's totally normal") or feign ignorance (spam ads! had to be those terrible spammers!) but in a stroke of what I can only consider luck I didn't deserve...I never got busted. Not once.

They're old enough now that if they ever *do* trip over something untoward, it'll just be something to tease Mom about. I still reset and delete and so on, but I no longer live in a perpetual state of shame about my browsing habits.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Leftovers, Fir-Tree Style

Please welcome our guest today, Nancy Adams. Nancy is a librarian, freelance editor, and writer of mysteries and fantasy. Her short story "Saint Nick and the Fir Tree" has just come out in both e-book and print formats. Another short story, "The Secret of the Red Mullet," a historical mystery, is published in FISH TALES: the Guppy Anthology (Wildside Press, 2011).  Nancy is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. In her spare time she reads, sleeps, and whacks the occasional dust bunny. Find out more about Nancy and her writing at:

Trees and humans have very different ideas about what constitutes food. In the plant kingdom, there are no leftovers. Everything is used. Nourishing humus from decomposing leaves, the natural fertilizer of manure . . . What humans call waste. Leftovers.

Potato peelings left from Thanksgiving's mashed potatoes. Apple peelings from that homemade apple pie. Not exactly leftovers, but left behind nevertheless. These can turn into food for plants. Not in their current raw state, but cook a few months in a well maintained compost pile, et voila! They break down and join the rest of the compost ingredients, the perfect dish as far as plants are concerned.

There's a scene in "Saint Nick" where the Saint and the Tree are sitting in a diner. Fir Tree's become mobile, thanks to Nick's magic, but eating human food is another matter. When the Tree says there's nothing on the menu it can eat, Nick responds:

"Then keep quiet and suck on your soil. I'm starving. Just order a salad or something."

"A salad!" The thought made me so queasy, my sap almost burst through my bark. "That'd be cannibalism!"

Thinking about that scene now, in the context of compost, logically the "cannibalism" makes less sense. But emotionally, it resonated. It wasn't something I thought about: the words just tumbled out and felt right. Perhaps Tree's reaction mirrors the revulsion some of us experience at the thought of eating raw meat. Or eating fish when that big eye is staring at you out of the plate. Once salad ingredients are composted and "served" to the plant, any resemblance to green, living matter has vanished. Many of us prefer our meat dishes the same way.

In Fir Tree's world, human leftovers mean a bonanza for plants. No meat or oils, but anything left over from chopping or peeling vegetables or fruit. When I first read about compost, it appealed to the romantic in me: Nature's mysterious alchemy, transforming dross into gold.

Our own compost bin, out in the backyard, is sadly neglected these days. What with a full-time job and writing on weekends, I give it only minimum care. Dollops of vegetable leavings, but no fancy turning or layering or watering. Bags of manure get dumped in from time to time, and leaves in the fall. Someday, I say. Someday when I'm no longer working the day job, I'll take better care of the plants in our yard.

For now, I write about them. They'll have to be content with that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Soup is Good Food

Note: The title of this post was meant to be a reference to a Dead Kennedy's song, but then I realized it's also the Campbell's Soup slogan. Oh well. 

—Gigi Pandian

I've given up making declarations about things I'll never do. Life changes too much for it to make sense to say I'll never do a particular thing, even if it seems ridiculously out of the question at a given time.

Take buying a house. I never planned on staying in one place long enough that I'd do it, but here we are in a cute little house outside of San Francisco.

I also never thought I'd be interested in becoming a good cook. But our little house came with an amazing kitchen (below). For the first time in my adult life, I had sufficient counter space and a gas stove. Low and behold, I discovered cooking was fun!

My Dutch Oven is probably my favorite thing in the kitchen. I can make soup from scratch that tastes better than anything I can buy, and it gives me leftovers that last all week. (I'm always cold, so soup really is good food.)

Butternut squash soup with homemade croutons.

French onion soup.

I've learned that it's the little things that make the difference in cooking soup: learning that a shallot is not the same thing as a small onion, adding spices at the right time, making sure you brown the garlic and onions first, adding a flavorful garnish at the end. I realize that you probably already knew all of these things, but they're still new for me!

I read that Julia Child didn't learn to cook or learn French until she was 36—exactly my age—so there's still hope for me on both fronts. Yup, I've also been trying to get better at my French. Speaking of which, I should probably go do my lesson for the day. So I'll leave you with a few photos of the backyard garden where I get many of the ingredients for my soups.

Herbs in the backyard garden.

Chard in the garden. Chard is a great substitute in soups that call for Spinach.

Pretending to water the garden; in truth, I only approach the watering can to take artsy photos of it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Martha's (Stolen) Leftover Secret

A few years ago, for the first time ever, my trained chef brother was going to be home for Thanksgiving. Implied: he was going to be cooking and oh, we were not disappointed.

He refused to plan a menu, saying how could he, when he didn't know what would be fresh in the grocery store that day. Such pretentious words were never more welcome!

For the first time in years, I ate a turkey that was moist, perfect, dare I say - delicious - without the help of gravy or other accoutrements. The mashed potatoes were fluffy and buttery. The cranberry sauce tart. The other side dishes were classics with culinary twists. Everything was, in a word, delicious.

When the chef bro said he'd be coming back the next day to "take care of leftovers" I was positively gleeful. What magic would he work??

So imagine my surprise when he stopped by with nothing but a bag King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls. (I'd have a picture here...only Blogger hates

Anyhoo -

I thought to myself, there's gotta be a mistake. There's no way someone trained by the likes of Lagasse and Keller is bringing ghetto hawaiian sweet rolls into my kitchen.

But he was totally serious and explained that sweet rolls make the perfect leftover sandwich. He then proceeded to breakdown Thanksgiving dinner by its components.

Mashed Potatoes or Sweet Potatoes were to be used like condiments. We slathered the bread in them.

Proteins like ham and turkey were layered.

Then we looked for something crunchy, like green beans.

We topped it off with a sweet element, like a dollop of cranberry sauce.

We made a half dozen combinations and spent the better part of an hour creating close to a hundred sandwiches.

They shoulda tasted so gross, but it was like the perfect Thanksgiving slider.

Turns out he uses hawaiian spring rolls to make a leftover for almost anything. Leftover ground beef of any kind - spaghetti, taco, whatever - makes a beef or sloppy joe slider. It's great for sopping up leftover soups and stews. And it's bite sized, so you can eat like...a hundred of them and it's only five calories, right?


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Leftover Trauma

“For all of us there will be those irreconcilable injuries and humiliations that persist and infiltrate into adult existence. They may become the seeds for those monotonous repetitions of hurting others and getting hurt ourselves,...Or the leftover traumas can be incentives for innovation and change,...the opportunity to rewrite the scripts, introduce a few new characters, get rid of one or two, perhaps even change the ending, and free the lover and jester inside us all.”

Louise J. Kaplan

This quote is actually on parenting, but it applies equally well to writing.

The one constant draw of compelling fiction is always going to be the character. We as a reader have to connect with the main character emotionally. A character that we can relate to, even if we won’t make the same choices, differentiates a pedestrian story from a satisfying story we will read over and over again, so that we can triumph right along with the character.

The challenge of writers is to make our characters as interesting as possible. We do that by creating a fictional trauma, sometimes a childhood trauma like the death of a parent or sibling, or an early adult trauma, like a difficult breakup, a parent’s divorce, a shocking crime, to torture them. To give them a reason for the way they behave in the present. By doing so we explain why people (and our characters) do what they do. We motivate them.

Because, in reality, no one acts in a vacuum. Each experience we have, the choices we make while dealing with the experience and the final result based on those choices influence how we will behave the next time. And we still may not make the same choices.

Then factor in the character backstory, the leftover trauma. Every person is going to react to the same experience differently. And then, hopefully, even the same character response to a situation will change throughout the book as they grow. Because each time we have an experience, we are different.

As Louise Kaplan points out, leftover trauma can be an incentive. Sometimes authors make the mistake of having the character continue with the same destructive behavior, which experiencing as a reader is very unsatisfying. But if the character deals with their trauma, overcomes that injury or humiliation, they can free themselves to enjoy a happier outcome, a happier life.

As readers we long for that fictional resolution, that tidy seed of change in the character’s life, because change within ourselves doesn’t always neatly occur within a set of parameters like four hundred pages. Although some days it would be nice if life imitated fiction, wouldn’t it?


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leftover Words

L. G. C. Smith

I write like I cook for holidays. If a twelve-pound turkey is enough, mine will be twenty, and I might bake a ham, too. If two kinds of pie will suffice, I will make five. And a cake. And a pumpkin cheesecake. If a 75K word novel works for most of the world, mine will be a minimum of 125K. One of mine is 160K. (It reads fast, I promise.)

I try to write a short story, and I end up with a novella. I try to write a novella, and I end up with a novel. And one time, I tried to write a novel, which I did finish (the 160K word thriller), and ended up with two additional novellas (one of which is Staindrop, available now from many fine ebook emporia), a 75K word novel, and 150K words of variously related bits and pieces. These last are my leftovers.

In the best of all possible worlds, my time-traveling Anglo-Saxon warlord kings brought into the twenty-first century to bolster counter-terrorism efforts in Britain will eventually find reader favor akin to that enjoyed by Karen Marie Moning, Diana Gabaldon and Sherrilyn Kenyon. When that happens (a writer can dream, can’t she?), my lengthy forays into my seventh-century hero’s experiences with modern-day life might be of use as giveaways for loyal readers. There’s a lot of story in those leftovers.

For now, however, they’re sitting in files like so many pickle jars in the refrigerator. They won’t go bad. They have an indefinite shelf life. It seems a waste to toss them out. So I keep them as I forge ahead with new projects and work on getting Warlord published as well as it deserves.

My Grandpa Johnson was a South Dakota rancher who reserved a part of the field south of the house and barn for broken machinery that might come in handy one day. He had a small forge, and he did a little blacksmithing, so he could reshape an old pin to fit a new use with a little fire and some hammer work. I like to think of my leftover words as being similarly adaptable. They’re a resource. A potential treasure trove. A word hoard. Leftover the way the Staffordshire Hoard of gold and garnets was when it was buried, its value waiting to be rediscovered.

Just to be clear, though, now would be a good time to discover any food leftovers from Thanksgiving and toss them out. Except for pickles and jam. Those you can keep.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Leftovers: Or Dating in my Thirties

I’m thirty-three, and I am single. That’s by choice, as I’m both very independent and very peripatetic. But about a year ago, now, I decided that I should try to put down roots, mostly because I love my job here in Pennsylvania and I wanted to try to make the state home. For while the job is a great fit, the place…not so much.

Anyway, that led me to embark on Internet dating. Which, a bare six months later, led me to declare a moratorium on dating, period.

This is not a slam on Internet matchmaking. I know tons of people who’ve met their SO over the computer, and I’ve had a long term, long distance, "not-a-relationship!" with someone who, for all intents and purposes, I met on Twitter.

Instead, this is about dating in my thirties, and how all us thirtysomething singles have left are the leftovers. Granted, I think dating in my thirties would be very different if I lived somewhere else—somewhere more ambitious, more productive, and more economically healthy, like New York or London. But here’s what I discovered make up the leftovers—what’s left when someone’s still single in their thirties:

·      The Walking Wounded: Those men and women recovering from a divorce or separation so brutal, they’re basically an ambulatory sucking wound. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed these dates, as I am a writer. So under the auspices of being “a good listener” I probed for all the gory details, carefully filing them away for future use in my fiction. 
·      The Great Unreconstructed: This is the man (although I’m sure there’s a female equivalent) who adheres to a patriarchal view of the world that places him at the apex because he is THE MAN. Therefore, he’s certain he’s more successful than you, the woman. When he discovers he’s not, it’s like watching one of those bizarre New Guinean birds do a territorial display—all puffed chest and flaring comb(over).
·      The Disaster: Just what it says on the package. He’s got awesome excuses for why he lives in his sister’s attic and has never achieved a single one of his ambitions, excuses which you totally want to believe, because at least he’s fairly liberal. Then you realize he doesn’t judge because he can’t, as he’s really a total loser.
·      The Chameleon: That guy who tells you everything you want to hear. At first you wonder if it’s a Machiavellian plot to get in your pants, and you giggle to yourself because you’re actually rather easy. But at some point you realize that the poor sod actually has no idea who he is, and that he wants to be everything, anything, other than himself.
·      The Marquis: He’s the guy who advertises himself as a warehouse of fetishistic carnal delights. Inevitably, he’s also 5’4”, with a potbelly, no hair, and coke bottle glasses. Or nine feet tall, 150 pounds sopping wet, with a ponytail trailing down his back like an anemic polecat. Either way, you’d be too busy giggling at the sight of him in a leather harness to choke out the word “Daddy.”
·      That Guy Who Poses In Photos With a Python For No Apparent Reason: I still haven’t figured out that guy. Lemme know if you have any thoughts.

Meanwhile, the last thing Internet dating taught me was that I, Nicole Peeler, am myself a leftover. I might look good as a bullet pointed list, especially in terms of career success, etc. But in truth, I’m so successful because I am utterly, unapologetically selfish; I take the concept of “independence” to an obsessive, slightly paranoid level; and I ALREADY HAVE MY OWN LIFE, THANKS. So, anyone knocking at my door, trying to move in with their schedule and their (ugly) furniture and their (terrible) thoughts on home décor and their (stupid) ideas about where and how to live and their (crazy) idea I can’t travel whenever I damned well please and their (selfish) demands I give up my lover and their delusion they can cook sometimes and their propensity for moving my pots and their inability to put the shit back in the cupboard where it belongs and their leaving their shoes in the hallway where I trip over them and their………. Well, they can go fuck themselves.

I, my friends, am a leftover. Make some casserole out of that. ;-)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Garbage Casserole

--Adrienne Miller

There’s an old Miller family recipe--well not that old, we did come up with it when I was a kid--called Garbage Casserole. While the name isn’t all that appealing, I gotta admit the dish is one of my favorites, and the recipe is ridiculously simple. 
Take last night’s taco dinner leftovers and layer them in a gratin dish. Pile on the cheese. Heat and eat.
I can make Garbage Casseroles out of almost anything. Leftovers from roasts and poultry can become quickie pot pies. Extra hamburger can become cottage pie. And I have no idea why anyone on god’s green earth would even think of throwing away bacon. I would crumble that stuff on anything. 
Maybe it was my solidly blue-collar upbringing--or, let’s be honest, present--that gave me my mind set on leftovers. Waste not, want not. Hell, it’s more than a dish, it’s a philosophy.
I’ll admit, it’s a way of thinking that can get out of hand. My grandmother was hoarder. Not as extreme as some you see on tv, but still, pretty bad. Whole rooms were filled with old clothes and drawers stocked with those little soaps you get in hotels. The shed was packed with crumbling tools that were decades past their usefulness. 
I sympathized with her obsession with keeping things. She came from a poor I have a hard time understanding. A rural Upper Michigan during the depression kind of poor. Think Charles Dickens, only less populated.
It makes me sad to think that once she finally go to the point in her life where she did have stuff, she was so plagued by the fear of losing it. On the other hand, it kind of makes me sad to think of those who live in such abundance that they never know how precious those things that they thoughtlessly toss out are.
Maybe that’s why I like the idea of Garbage Casserole so much. You use it all up, but you don’t waste. Yeah, that’s a thought I like a lot.