Recipe Wednesday: Sympathetic Cookery

So on Monday, I got out of work early and hustled myself over to the dentist’s office for my check-up…only to learn that my appointment was for Tuesday at 4:00, not Monday.

Well, dang.  I guess it’s better to show up a day early than a day late, but it was still annoying.

What to do with myself now?

And then the answer hit me:  I could make spaghetti.

After a quick trip to the grocery store, I headed to my pantry shelves and loaded my arms up with cans of tomato paste and tomato sauce.  (Yes, it’s nice when I can start from tomatoes and go from there, but life doesn’t always work that way.)

And then I pulled out a couple of jars of Prego.

I know what you’re thinking:  Why not just open the jars and call it good?  But that’s not the way it works.

I learned to make spaghetti sauce from my mom, whose method was:  Brown a pound of ground beef in the electric skillet.  Drain off all of the fat.  Put the meat back in the skillet.  Take one envelope of “Spaghetti Sauce Mix,” one can (small) of tomato paste, and three cans of water.  Combine in skillet and simmer for the number of minutes directed on the sauce mix package.  Pour over cooked noodles (that have been broken into thirds before cooking because Dad likes his spaghetti tidy) and mix.

Yeah.  Not exactly inspirational, right?  You can tell there are no Italians in my family background.

Well, once I got married and moved out of my parents’ house (yes, I am that rare person in this day and age who did it in that order), I decided I didn’t have to be bound by “The Old Ways” any longer.

But I also had no clue as to how to go about making homemade sauce, either.

But I had watched my mom make chili, which she did using a method I think of as “Sympathetic Cooking”.  Which I define as, essentially, starting with a bit of what you’re trying to make.  (Kind of like sympathetic magic, right?)

So when Mom makes chili, she starts with…a can of chili.  From there, she’ll go on to add ground beef, and seasoning mixes (Mom was big on those little seasoning packets) and cans of tomato sauce, and beans, and who knows what-all.  And by the time she finishes, she ends up with something that, while still identifiable as chili, tastes nothing like that original can of chili.

And that’s how I make my spaghetti sauce.  I start with a jar of Prego and go from there.  I usually add tomato sauce and tomato paste and canned tomatoes (sometimes) and bunches of seasonings, and ground beef, and Italian sausage (note: the turkey sausage I tried this time out was, sadly, not a win), and gobs of garlic, and some bay leaves, and a spoonful of sugar.  I don’t add wine, as much as I’d like to, because Beloved Husband doesn’t care for it.  And I don’t add mushrooms, because mushrooms and I don’t get along anymore.

And when I finish up, the result is nothing like the Prego I started with…but it’s still pretty tasty.  Or at least, Beloved Husband and I think so.  And since no one else was invited to supper, I guess we’re the ones who count.  Right?

(For the record: I have made sauce without starting with the jar o’Prego.  Oddly, it tasted just the same as when I used the jar.  It also tastes the same if I use some other brand of jar sauce.  Oh, and after years of practice, I’ve finally managed to break myself of the habit of breaking the spaghetti into thirds before cooking.)

Does anyone else practice “Sympathetic Cooking?”  What dishes do you make?

 

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Writing Thursday: The Death-March Continues; or, Editing Progress

It really is starting to feel like a death-march, this manuscript edit I’ve been working on.  Bits of the story have been fighting back, tooth-and-nail.  The epilogue, in particular, was bad-tempered and unruly.  And we won’t even talk about how many instances of the word “that” I’ve removed from the story.  (Well, we might, at some point.  After I’ve had a chance to tally them up.  But I bet the number is in the hundreds, and not necessarily the low hundreds.)

I’ve slaughtered adverbs with reckless abandon.  I’ve pared prose down to its barest essentials.  I’ve murdered darlings and excised sub-plots.  And still, the story weighs in at right around 144,000 words.  Aaugh!  I had visions of getting it down to 125,000, but I just don’t know what else to cut out.  There really isn’t much left that isn’t vital to the plot (at least to my mind).  No doubt a professional editor would be able to spot the excess bits right away, but I’m not a professional editor.  I’m just the person who has been staring at this manuscript for the last two months, until my eyes are ready to fall out of my head.

But I think I’m finally on the home stretch, for this edit of this story, at least.  I’ve no doubt that there are bits that could be polished a bit more, but right now, I can’t see what those might be.  So I’m taking one last skim through the whole story, sweeping up a few last “thats” as I go.  My goal is to get it out to beta readers by early next week.  And then…barring any major changes…it’ll be time to start agonizing over the synopsis.

Has anyone else ever had a manuscript edit that seemed to go on forever?  Got any survival tips to share?

 

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Recipe Wednesday: The Joys Of A Well-Stocked Pantry

The forecast here for the next few days is for 6″-10″ of snow.  Which means we could get anything from a light dusting to three feet.  (Colorado weather can be exciting.)  And, as a local radio station observed, that probably means that by 5:00 pm tomorrow, grocery store shelves will be completely bare of bread and milk.

That has always puzzled me:  Why bread and milk?  Because the only thing I can think of that you can make with bread and milk is…soggy bread.  And really, who wants to live on that for a couple of days?

It’s odd, because while most people consider bread and milk to be staples, I rarely buy them unless I have a specific purpose in mind for them.  Milk usually goes sour and bread gets moldy before I can get around to using them.

On the other hand, there are certain things that I almost always have on hand.  So in the event of a freak snowstorm, I know I and my Beloved Husband won’t starve.

However, it was somewhat disturbing recently to finally get around to putting up the pantry shelves I’d been wanting, and to start stacking food on them.  See, we’d outgrown the cupboard where we’d been storing canned goods and pasta and such, so instead of dutifully putting things away when we brought it home, we ended up stacking up piles of plastic grocery bags on the counter, and the back porch, and pretty much everywhere.

But once the shelves went up, I decided that everything was going to get put away.  And while I was at it, I was going to take a rough inventory and see what we needed to stock up on.

Thirty-three cans of tuna and forty-odd packages of pasta later, I decided we had plenty of those things.  Which sounds like the makings for a lot of tuna casserole…except for the part where we were lacking any “cream of whatever” soups (which are essential for casserole-making, you know).

We also had five or six bottles of barbecue sauce (which was actually less than I expected, since Beloved Husband has a tendency to bring home anything saucy that catches his eye…oh, wait, that’s not quite what I meant….).

What we didn’t have were things like the makings for spaghetti sauce, or much in the way of canned vegetables (which are handy for snowed-in stews), or the above-mentioned cream-of soups.  Guess I’ll be doing a little stocking up over the next few weeks.

What’s in your pantry right now?  What should be in there, but isn’t?

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Writing Thursday: Learning and Unlearning; or, Old Habits Do What?

I’ve been deep into editing the first book of my Winterbourne series these past few weeks (as I–ahem–may have mentioned once or twice).  But the other day, when I went to open my file, my mouse pointer slipped, and instead, I opened a file containing one of my older (and very much unfinished) works.

Because I’d been so intent on my editing, I decided to give myself a little break and read a bit of it.  I figured I’d find a lot of the same things I’m trying to edit out of the current piece–passive voice, rambling descriptions, overuse of “was”, intrusive dialogue tags–only more so, and that it would make me feel better to see that I had improved at least that much.

This particular piece is one I started in college, as a sequel to one I wrote in high school.  The plot is very juvenile, and a bit hackneyed.  But one thing I found surprised me.

All those things I expected to see?  I found almost none of them.  Oh, there were a couple of instances of passive voice, but really, far fewer than I’d expected.  And there were a few rambling passages.  But really, would it be my writing if there wasn’t at least a little rambling?  I also found very few intrusive dialogue tags.  (You know the kind:  She panted, he gasped, she admonished, he ejaculated–oh, wait, different kind of story, there.)  In fact, if I say so myself, the dialogue tags were handled quite smoothly.

The other thing I expected but didn’t see was a lot of “was”.  (I did a posting about that a few months ago, if you need to see an example.)  Since I’ve had to weed quite a bit of it out of the current volume, I’d expected to see a lot more in my older work.  But I didn’t find very much at all.

So somewhere along the way, I picked up a bad habit.  I’m not sure why or how that happened, though one possible explanation is that the older story was written in first person, while the current one is in fairly tight third person.  Because first person is limited to what the MC is directly experiencing, there are a lot fewer opportunities for overuse of “was”.  Which is interesting to note, given that I generally prefer first person: I find it more comfortable to write, which means it also comes out more smoothly.

What bad habits have you learned, and then had to unlearn?

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Recipe Wednesday: Adventures In Bento

It was bound to happen.

See, my friend Melanie gave me a bento box for Twelfth Night.  And so, sooner or later, it was inevitable that I would, in fact, commit bento.

Came home last Sunday night after a weekend of hanging with friends, watching movies, and noshing.  And I had some leftovers in hand: specifically, the remains of a meat and cheese tray, and of a veggie tray.

I set them down on the counter, in preparation for putting the meat and cheese into a smaller container for storage, and I caught sight of my bento box.  Hmm.  Okay.  Maybe it’s time to test the thing out.

My first attempt wasn’t very impressive.  It looked like this:

(Sorry for the crummy cell phone picture.)

Now, for my first-ever attempt at filling a bento box, this wasn’t bad.  In the upper left, I put tiny slices of turkey and swiss cheese; in the lower left, ham and cheddar.  On the right, in the biggest compartment, I put julienne celery, cauliflower, snow peas, cucumber slices,  broccoli, and baby carrots, and then scattered in some grapes wherever they’d fit.  As bentos go, it wasn’t as attractive as it could have been, and as lunches go, well, it wasn’t very filling, either.

But I could do better, I knew I could.  And therefore, Day 2:

This time, in order to make the small amount of meat I had left go further, I shredded it finely and mixed it with finely minced celery and onions, and used some of the yogurt dip left over from the veggie platter to make a sandwich filling.  I sprinkled in a bit of curry powder, too.  Then I took two heels of bread (one white, one wheat), cut them in half, squared them off, and made two tiny sandwiches.  I cut each in half and put them in the big compartment.  I squeezed in some baby carrots and some snow peas for color.  Then I sliced up some of the cucumber chunks and marinated them in rice vinegar to which I added sesame seeds, a few drops of sesame oil, and a small amount of fish sauce.  Those went into the upper left compartment, along with a few green olives I found in the fridge.  In the lower left are two artichoke heart wedges, forming nests for two quail eggs.  (I pretty much always have a can or two of quail eggs around the house.  You never know when they’ll come in handy–served with a sauce of mustard, vinegar, and melted butter, they make an easy-but-impressive-looking appetizer.  You can buy them at your local oriental market.)

That was much better, both in terms of how it looked and how filling it was.  The only problem — and it was a minor one — was that using the yogurt-based dip as a binder for the sandwich filling made the bread a little soggy on the bottom.  I’m going to have to experiment with other binders to see if I can find one that’s more effective.

For Day 3, I had some Boston Market leftovers I wanted to use up.  So in the upper left corner, I diced three wedges of new potatoes, and sprinkled them with a little paprika for color.  In the lower left, I put some creamed spinach, with a decorative border of baby carrots.  In the big compartment on the right, I de-boned and diced the leftover chicken, drizzling half with a sesame ginger sauce, and half with a Thai peanut sauce, both of which I found in the fridge.  In the middle went two more of the quail eggs, this time sprinkled with a dash of curry powder.

Yum.

For Day 4 (which will be tomorrow’s lunch) I pretty much repeated the side dishes from Day 2, with the rest of the marinated cucumbers in the upper left, and quail eggs nested in artichokes in the lower left.  For the big container on the right, however, I decided to get a little fancier.  I had a little meat left over from making stew last week, so I thawed a bit of that, mixed up a marinade/sauce of ginger/garlic sauce, a little fish sauce, and some more garlic and ginger.  I also sliced up some of the onion left over from Tuesday’s sandwich filling, and stir-fried them together.  They smell heavenly.  Then I took some of the broccoli left over from the veggie tray, trimmed it down into dainty florets, and stir-fried that with just some garlic and ginger.  I laid it in next to the beef with onions.  Since it’s meant to be tomorrow’s lunch, I can’t tell you how it turned out yet, but it sure smells good!

So I’m obviously having fun with my new bento box.  I don’t know that I’ll necessarily use it every day, but it is a fun way to use up small leftover bits of things.

Anybody else have a bento box?  What do you put in yours?

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Writing Thursday: The Revision Grind; or, Advice From The Trenches

For those of you who are curious, yes, I am in fact still hard at work revising the first book in the Winterbourne series.  I’m currently on page 211 out of 249, which means I’m … uh … roughly 85% of the way through.  Looking at what’s left to change, there are only a couple of scenes (and the dratted epilogue) that need major work; the rest is just tweaking and reducing wordiness as much as possible.  I did finally manage to get the manuscript under 148,000 words (where I was stuck for weeks: I’d delete a scene and save five hundred words, only to add them back in again somewhere else).  I’m currently down to about 145,000.  It should probably be trimmed back more, but I just don’t know what else to cut out at this point.

In fact, I’ve reached the point where I’m just tired of looking at the silly thing.  Which is why Carrie Vaughn’s post this week was just the pep talk I needed.  You should go read it.  Just don’t forget to come back.

Okay, are you back?  Good.

So everything she says (including the part about wanting to stab your eyes out) is pretty much how I’ve been feeling about this particular story.  And yet, when I go back and read the scenes I’ve changed, I can see that they’re better.

There have been a couple of times in the past week when I’ve come across a sentence (or even a paragraph) that just plain doesn’t work the way it should.  I’ve worked at it and worked at it, until it’s really close to what I want.  But it’s not quite there yet, and I just don’t know what to do to make it better.

That’s when this particular phrase from Carrie’s posting kept ringing through my head:

“When you’ve changed one sentence ten times and it still doesn’t look right, you have to love the work enough that you’ll change it an eleventh time. “

With that in mind, I’ve gone on to change it that eleventh time.  And in some cases, the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, even twentieth time.  And every time I have, every time I’ve stuck with it and just kept hammering at it until it was right, I’ve been really pleased with the result.

So thank you, Carrie Vaughn.  If I ever get this thing published, you’re so getting a mention in the credits.

Meanwhile, my goal is to try to wrap up this revision by the end of January, so I can go back to finishing Book 3 of the series while I have some beta readers go over it for me.  (Still looking for some volunteers, by the way…)  And then…the scary step of writing a synopsis.

I’ll agonize about that here when the time comes.

What keeps other folks working on revisions when the words just stop making sense?

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Recipe Wednesday: Baba Ghanooj

From time to time (i.e., when I can’t think of anything better to post about), I think I’m going to use this space to muse about specific recipes.  And I think I’m going to start this week with one of my favorites:  Baba Ghanooj.

I have to admit, I ate Baba Ghanooj for several years before even bothering to find out what was in it.  Discovering that the main ingredient was, in fact, eggplant, didn’t really bother me.  (I actually rather like eggplant in just about any form except raw.)  But for a long time, it never occurred to me to even try to make it for myself.

At least, not until my Beloved Husband sent me a limerick:

While a nice aubergine’s roasting through,
Chop garlic, perhaps scallions too.
Then mash them up nice,
With olive oil, spice,
And tahini. Serve pita and goo.

–Limerick from OEDLIF

And I thought, “Hey.  That doesn’t sound hard.  I bet I could make that.”

As recipes go, I’ve had a lot less to work with.  So I gave it a shot.  Decided that “spice” was open to interpretation, but that cumin would probably be good.  And decided to leave out the scallions.

As I recall, the result was somewhat…lacking.  I wasn’t sure just what it was lacking, but it needed something…more.

Research was obviously required.  I’m lucky; Denver has several very good Middle Eastern restaurants, and for the most part, they have Baba Ghanooj that ranges from very good to excellent.  After sampling, I determined that what was lacking was something to give my baba a touch of an acidic tang.

Vinegar was too strong, so I settled on lemon juice.  That helped, but it seemed to need just a little something more.  So I picked the mildest-tasting vinegar I had (rice vinegar) and added a small amount.

That turned out to work pretty well.

But it still wasn’t the best baba ghanooj I’d ever had.  The best baba ghanooj (at least in Denver) comes from Damascus Restaurant.  It hits the palate in the same way a rich chocolate does.

Now, naturally, they’re not going to just hand over their recipe.  But after extensive sampling, I’m pretty sure that the secret ingredient is pomegranate juice.  They also add some kind of finely-chopped nut; I’m guessing it might be pistachio.

So my recipe, as it currently stands, looks something like this:

——————————————————————————————

Baba Ghanooj

3 large eggplants
1 tablespoon canola oil
3/4 cup tahini
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 large cloves garlic, very finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon rice vinegar OR 2 teaspoons pomegranate juice
1/4 cup pistachio nuts, finely chopped (optional)
Olive oil, chopped parsley, ground sumac and/or cumin, for garnish

Wash eggplants and cut them in half longways.  Coat thinly with oil.  Place on preheated grill and cook with cover closed for about 10 minutes; turn over and cook for an additional ten minutes.  Eggplants are cooked when they become soft.  Remove from grill and allow to cool for ten minutes before handling (refrigeration speeds the process).

Meanwhile, mix together tahini, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, salt, garlic powder, vinegar or pomegranate juice and nuts (if desired) in a small bowl or large measuring cup.

Scoop the meat out of the eggplant skins into a large bowl.  Mash with fork or potato masher until any large lumps have been mashed.  (Alternatively, place eggplant in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth.).  Add tahini mixture and blend thoroughly.  Scoop onto a plate and smooth the surface.  Add garnish as desired.  Serve with pita bread or just a fork.  Makes about two cups of baba ghanooj.

——————————————————————————————

I like roasting the eggplants on the grill, for that bit of smoky flavor (which I like in my Baba Ghanooj), but there’s no reason they couldn’t be roasted in an oven instead.  I’d give them 20 minutes at 350F, then check for doneness.

Now, this yields a pretty good Baba Ghanooj, but it’s still not quite as good as Damascus’.  I have a couple of changes I’d like to try.

The first is that I’ve heard that you should sprinkle raw eggplant generously with salt, to draw out the bitterness, then rinse it well before cooking.  That might make a difference in the flavor of the final dish.  It’s worth a try, anyway.

The other change I’d like to try is to swap out more (or maybe even all) of the lemon juice for pomegranate juice.  That might prove to be the key.

Now I just need a good sale on eggplant, and a weekend day that’s nice enough for me to fire up the grill…

I’ll keep y’all posted.

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Writing Thursday: Gifts Writers Will Use; or, What Not To Get Me For Christmas

I found this list prior to the holidays, but declined to post it then because I didn’t want people to think I was fishing for gifts.  I’m not.  Really.  But I found the article thought-provoking because the author was so sure she’d found a list of things any author would love and use…and I disagreed with most of them.

First, the original article:

12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use

And then my evaluation of the list:

1.  A Cheesy New Bestseller

I have to admit, Chick-Lit is one of my guilty pleasures.  But I’m picky about it; I won’t read just anything you put in front of me.  So unless you know your author well enough to know what they would really like, don’t buy them a book.  Buy them a gift card to your local indie bookstore, and then go with them to make sure they use it.

2.  Good lipstick

Dear gawd, no.  First off, not all writers are female.  And second, even the ones who are don’t all like wearing makeup.  (I just look stupid in lipstick.)  Something more universal might be a bottle of good-smelling shower gel.

3.  Foreign language learning software

Oh, yeah, right, like I need another time suck?  Not that learning another language would be a bad thing, but I’m afraid the software would sit on a shelf, gathering dust and generating guilt for years to come.

Instead, find a craft or hobby your writer already enjoys and give them something related to it.  If she knits, buy her a yarn tote; if he’s into photography, find out what kind of memory card his camera uses and get him a spare.  That kind of thing.

4.  A Bathrobe

“Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t washed it in a long time, and could use another.”

Again, not a safe assumption.  I have two already.  Nor do I need slippers, or a Snuggie.  (Though a heated throw to keep up by my desk might be nice….)  Chances are that there’s something your writer might need or want.  But don’t make assumptions.  Take the time to find out.

5.  A Manicure

Confession time:  I bite my nails.  I’m much better about it than I used to be, but my nails still aren’t going to win any prizes.  So I’d probably just about die of embarrassment if a nail care professional even looked at my nails.  Even the thought makes me squirm.  I had a dream the other night that I was getting a manicure, and woke up feeling as though I’d been violated somehow.   Honest.  And polish just chips off and makes me crazy.  Besides which, I keep my nails short on purpose–if they get to be more than about 1/16″ long, they interfere with my typing.  So no manicures for me, please.

Instead, find some personal service or bit of pampering you know they’ll enjoy.  Speaking for myself, I’d far rather have an hour in a tub at Ten Thousand Waves, or up at Hot Sulphur Springs, than a manicure.

6.  “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software

Nice thought, but that’d be up there on the guilt shelf beside the foreign-language-learning software.

Instead, get them something that will help them with stress management.  Angry Birds, for instance.  Because sometime you just need to knock down walls and kill piggies.  They have it for PCs, by the way, and it’s not even expensive! ($4.95? Really?)  http://download.angrybirds.com/

7.  Booze, coffee, and other stimulants

Finally, one I can agree with–again with the caveat that you need to know your writer’s likes and dislikes.  (For example, I strongly dislike coffee, or anything coffee flavored.  And caffeine give me migraines.  But decaf and herbal teas usually work, as do alcohol and chocolate, in small amounts.)

8.  Yoga Classes

Um, no.  I’d find excuses, then feel guilty about not going.  Instead, find out what sorts of exercise your writer practices and enjoys, then get them something that relates to it (like music to listen to while they work out, or a water bottle for their bike).  Or just get out there and do it with them, if that applies.  Offer to go swimming, or on a bike ride, or take a long walk with them.

9.  A pet

At least she’s realistic on this one and advises the reader to check with the writer first.  Much as I’d love to have a pet, I have a spouse with allergies.  Better idea:  Get the pet yourself, and let me come visit.

10.  Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods.

Okay, I can sort of agree with this one.  Again, with the “know your writer” caveat:  I’m on a fairly strict diet, so baking me a batch of my favorite homemade cookies isn’t going to be much of a treat for me.  But some chicken soup that I can stick in the freezer and save for the next time I have a cold?  I’d love that.

11.  A hand-written letter

This is nice in that it says that you care enough to go out of your way to do something personal.  But what I’d far rather have from my friends is more face-time with them.  Because time spent with friends?  That’s a present no money can buy.

12.  The Gift, by Lewis Hyde

PLEASE, NO!  Never, ever, ever, no matter how great you think a self-help/inspirational book is, give it to anyone as a gift.  You can suggest it.  You can lend them yours to see if they like it (and if they do, you could pick up a copy for them).  But in my mind, handing someone a self-help book says that you think they need help.  And it’s not all that different from handing someone a religious tract and expecting them to read it and change their life.  So don’t.  Just don’t.

(I can guarantee you that every self-help book anyone has ever tried to force on me is sitting packed away in a box somewhere, and when we finally get around to unpacking those boxes, those books are going straight to the thrift-store donation pile.  I swear it.)

Instead, get them a calendar you know they’ll enjoy, or that will make them smile.  I have one with teapots on it.  Really gorgeous teapots.  They inspire me to great things…or at least, to making fussy little sandwiches and sticking out my pinkie finger while I sip tea from a delicate china cup.  That’s the sort of inspiration I want in my life.

——————————————

So now you know what to really get for that writer in your life.

The one I want most of all?  See my response to #11.

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Recipe Wednesday: More Recipe Book Natterings

Okay, since people seem to be interested, perhaps I should turn one of my weekly postings into an update on gathering recipes and compiling recipe collections.  Perhaps that day shall be…Wednesday.  Yeah, Wednesday.  That’d be good.  Right?

So for the time being…for the next little while…I declare Wednesday to be “Recipe Wednesday”.

And in that vein….

One of my projects last week was to compile my historical recipes (mostly gathered and reconstructed through my involvement in the SCA) into a book.  I’d already done a lot of the work, as far as getting the recipes together into a single Word document and such.  But I want to be able to print nicely-bound copies of the volume, which means doing things like:

Standardizing typefaces and font formats:  I’d gathered a lot of my material from various menus and recipe files I’ve put together over the years.  But the files were all in different formats.  Some were formatted to print out as recipe booklets to distribute at feasts, while others were in the large-print format I print out and use when cooking at an event.  So when they were all gathered and pasted together, they looked a bit like a really odd (and long) ransom note.

So the first thing I did was to standardize all of the formats.  I chose Bookman Old Style as my primary font, but within that, each of the following has a distinct format:

  • Recipe title
  • Author
  • Original source recipe (usually from a historical text)
  • Ingredient
  • Instruction
  • Note

To see what the format I’ve chosen looks like, click the link below to open a PDF file containing a sample recipe:

Shrympes

I wanted the recipe title to be bold and easily readable as you scan through the book.  I also formatted it so that anything using that format will automatically be added to the book’s table of contents.

I thought the original source recipe should stand out a bit as well, so I ended up putting it in italics, then putting a border around it as well, to help distinguish it from the “Notes” section.

I think the formatting choices I’ve made make the recipes clean and easy to scan.

Standardization of ingredients and instructions:  The next thing I wanted to do was to go through and standardize the recipes themselves.  By this, I mean:

  • Eliminate most abbreviations.  I’ve gone through and tried to replace all of the standard abbreviations with the full word.  So instead of “teas.” or “t.”, you’ll see “teaspoon.”  Back when I was typing recipes onto 3″ x 5″ cards using a manual typewriter, abbreviations made sense.  After all, each keystroke introduced the potential for making a typo–which meant getting out the eraser, or the liquid paper, or sometimes starting over altogether.  But now, when typing and editing on a computer keyboard are so much easier, there’s no reason not to spell out the entire word.  (Or, if you still don’t want to type that much, there’s always “search and replace”.)
  • List ingredients in the order they appear in the recipe.
  • Make sure all ingredients used in the recipe appear in the ingredients list.  (Don’t you just hate getting three-quarters of the way through a recipe, only to discover that you need another ingredient that wasn’t listed?  And if your luck is anything like mine, it’ll be the one ingredient you don’t have and can’t substitute!)
  • Likewise, make sure all of the listed ingredients actually get used in the recipe.
  • Make sure cooking instructions are clear and concise.
  • List cooking times and temperatures, where known.
  • List number of servings and sizes, where known.

Once I had done all of that, I was surprised to see that my little collection of recipes was starting to look like a “real” cookbook.  It’s not there yet, but these are some good first steps!

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The Good vs. The Bad; or, Why Didn’t I Have A Creative Writing Teacher Like This?

Today, author James Van Pelt* posted a blog entry on good poetry vs. bad poetry over on his LiveJournal.  You should go read it.

In particular, his list of characteristics of good vs. bad poetry (in the photograph of the whiteboard) struck a chord in me, because it seems to me that they apply to all creative writing, not just poetry.

The first three seem particularly applicable:

Good: Specific
Bad: General/Vague

Good: Appeals to the senses
Bad: Abstractions

Good: Interesting/fresh language
Bad: Cliches/familiar language

Looking at the editing I’m doing now on the first book of my “Winterbourne” series, I can see where, when I’m having problems with a scene working the way I want it to, it’s probably because I’m failing at one or more of those three characteristics.  Either I’m being too vague, or too abstract, or the language is dull and boring.

For example, early in the story, the heroine, Celia, describes her father’s steam-powered horseless carriage:

Celia had always loved riding in it.  She liked the way people turned to stare and point at the contraption as it made its way down the street.

Which, even I can admit, is kind of vague.  I’ve noticed, on this editing pass, that I’m awfully fond of having characters “make their way” from one place to another.  “Make their way” tells us nothing about the character or what he or she is doing.  Is she walking, running, or shuffling along with her head down?  Is he in a hurry, or does he look like he’s lost?

So after editing, the passage became:

Celia loved riding in it, delighting in the way people stared and pointed at the contraption as it hissed and hummed its way down the street, spewing steam and cinders in its wake.

Which is a bit of an improvement, anyway; it’s more specific as to why people would stop and stare, and it uses the senses to remind the reader that the vehicle runs on steam power.

(The description, by the way, is loosely based on my experience of riding in a Stanley Steamer some years ago.  They really do make a sort of humming, whistling sound as they roll along.  Not what I expected from a steam-powered vehicle.  Which just goes to show that you never know what experiences in your life might come in handy again later.  I’d really love to do it again sometime, if only so I could take better notes. )

So I’m going to try to keep these guidelines in mind as I finish my edits to Celia’s story.

How do you think these guidelines could help you in your writing?

——————-

*Mr. Van Pelt (I can’t help thinking of him as “Mr.” Van Pelt–he is a teacher, after all!) is also an English teacher who lives in Grand Junction, CO.  Topics on his blog range from writing to teaching to running (another of his passions).  After seeing some of his postings regarding exercises he’s given his creative writing classes, I really wish I’d been able to take a class from him when I was in high school.

——————–

(Gah!  I wrote this yesterday at lunchtime and set it to autopost in the evening…and somehow put today’s date in instead of yesterday’s.  Sorry about that!)

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New Year, Old Project: The Cookbook Update

Hello, and Happy New Year, interwebs!  I decided to take last week off from blogging–from the internet in general, actually–which is why there were no postings last week.  I probably should have announced it in advance, but it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Taking the week off from social networks was strangely refreshing.  And this is speaking as someone who normally gets twitchy after twelve consecutive hours in The Land Of No Internets (a.k.a. my parents’ house).  It helped that I was off work for the week, and therefore not in front of a computer for 8+ hours/day.  It also helped that my main desktop machine at home was malfunctioning for most of that week.  Nor did the cold I came down with four days ago hurt matters any.

But I’m back now (well, I still have the cold, but otherwise…), and in the meantime, I did make some progress on the cookbook project.

I printed out a full-sized prototype and bound it with a comb-binder, then took it along for Christmas to show to the relatives.  My thought was to get feedback (Did the format work? Were there any really obvious recipes that I left out?), as well as to gauge interest so I would know how many to print up.

Feedback from Beloved Husband’s family was somewhat indifferent.  I have one person who wants a copy, I think.

Feedback from my family was somewhat more enthusiastic.  Mom was thrilled.  Tickled to death, even.  So much so that I left the prototype with her.  Both brothers and that niece want copies (Older Brother even paid for his up front!).

Also, Mom suggested a few recipes to add, which was good.  (Except that I still forgot to get the Watergate Salad recipe, dang it!)  So now there are a couple more fudge recipes, and an egg casserole, and one or two other things included in the book.

But you know you’re really obsessing about a project when you start dreaming about it.  And Thursday morning, I woke up from a dream about those cookies we used to make with Eagle Brand Milk and chocolate chips and coconut and butterscotch chips, where you layer everything in a pan and then pour the milk over it all and bake it.  I haven’t had them in years, but I used to love them.  Well, I thought, it’s not like I can’t just make them anytime I want to, because the recipe is right there in the book….

Oh, wait.  It wasn’t.

So of course, I had to hunt it down and add it in.

I’ve pretty much decided that once I’ve gone for a week without thinking of yet another recipe to add, or another change to make, I’m going to consider the book “done” and ship it off to be printed.  So that might happen later this week.  We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ve also done some work on my OTHER cookbook project:  The one containing all of my SCA recipes.  That one, at least, is shorter.  But in some respects, it’s also more difficult, since a lot of the recipes refer to source materials that are still in storage.  So if I need to look something up, I’m kind of stuck.  (But only kind of stuck, because a lot of the historical sources are in the public domain and freely available on the internet.)  But that one is also coming along nicely, and should be ready to ship off to the printer about the same time as the other one.  Which means I have to come up with some quick-and-dirty cover art for it….

So that’s how things stand with that project.  I’ll be back on Thursday with my regular writing post.  See you then!

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Dragon Friday #12

Wow!  All the way up to Part 12 already!  A few more of these, and this is going to start turning into a story!

The Dragon, The Wench, and Her Wardrobe
(working title)
© 2011 Sheila McClune
Part 12

I took a deep breath and turned back to Max.  “Now then, as I was saying, I think we’re going to have to splint that arm.”

“Really, now that it’s not being jostled, it’s fine, honest it is.  I’m perfectly willing to just lie here and wait for the EMTs.”  Max’s voice sounded small and scared.

I knelt back down beside him.  “Look, Max, I’m gonna be honest with you.  I don’t think the EMTs are coming.  I’m not entirely sure they could even if they wanted to.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know that the green shimmery thing, back there on the train?”

He nodded.

“Well, the dragon told me that it’s some kind of a gate or a portal between our world and this world.”  I hugged my arms to my chest.  “And he says that the last time the gate opened was a thousand years ago.  So I don’t know if anyone else can even come through, or whether they would if they could.”

“Of course other hoo-muns can come through the Gate,” the dragon rumbled from over my shoulder.  “But you’re right.  They’re probably too cowardly to do it.”

“We aren’t cowardly.” I turned to face the dragon.  “We’re cautious.  And anyway, how do we know that gate-thingy is even still open?”

The dragon chuckled.  “You can see it, can’t you?  If you can see it, it’s open.  If it disappears, then it’s closed.  I should have thought that was pretty obvious.”

“Wait, wait.”  Max tugged on my sleeve.  “Go back a second.  A portal?  Between worlds?   But…we’re not in another world.  Are we?”

I sighed and gestured toward the dragon, Vanna-White-style.  “Please allow me to present Exhibit A:  One dragon, of the fire breathing variety.  Do we have those back home?”

Max whimpered.

“What?” I asked.

“I was sorta hoping he was just a hallucination, from hitting my head on your…on you.”

I squirmed.  Our first meeting had been rather…intimate, hadn’t it?  “I don’t think we can get rid of him that easily.  He wants to take us home and show us off to all of his dragon friends.  But that’s still beside the point.  I think we need to splint your arm, so we can move you somewhere more comfortable once you’ve stabilized a bit.”  I stood up.  “So I’m going to hike over to the train and see what I can find that we could make a splint out of.  I’ll be back–”

“No!”  The word came from both the dragon above me and the man on the floor in front of me simultaneously.

“I’ll only be gone for a few minutes,” I told them both.  “I’m coming right back.”

“No, please don’t leave me alone w-with…with the dragon,” Max pleaded.  “What if he decides to eat me?”

“Don’t leave me here with him,” begged the dragon.  “What if he starts spewing forth again?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, you two!  I’m walking over to the train and back, not going to Mordor.”  I started to pick my way through the rocks littering the cave floor.

I hadn’t gone more than about five steps when the dragon’s claws slid in front of me once again.  “No, little hoo-mun.  Stay here.  I will fetch what you need.  What should I bring you?”

“Well, I had a suitcase, about yay big,” I held up my hands to show him the size of my carry-on, “and it’s purple and has wheels.  I had a coat, too, black wool.”  I’d bought it specially for the trip to Boston, wanting something more sophisticated than my old parka for when I met Paul.  I shook my head, not wanting to think about how long it might be, now, before I actually got to meet Paul.  If ever.  “Max, what kind of a bag did you have?”

“Mine’s a backpack.  Blue and black.  And a black fleece jacket.”

“Right, then.  Two black coats and two travel packs.”  The dragon glanced toward the train.  “I shall return in a few minutes.”

“But, Dragon,” I wanted to know.  “You’re too big to fit into the train.  How are you going to get our things?”

The dragon’s laugh rumbled through the cavern.  “Watch and see, little hoo-mun.”

He lumbered off into the darkness, taking far less time to walk over to the train than I would have.  I climbed up on top of a nearby boulder so I could have a better view, curious to see how the dragon would retrieve our things.

He did not disappoint me.  With a painful screech of tearing metal, he reached out with his razor-sharp claws and peeled the roof right off of the train.  With a shudder, I remembered how close those claws had been to my tender torso.

It was my turn to whimper.

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Leggo My Legos; or, Giving Yourself Permission To Play

I was chatting with my across-the-corridor cubicle neighbor at work the other day, and the subject of Legos came up.

“Yeah,” he said, “I used to really love those when I was a kid.  But I haven’t played with them in years.  I don’t even have them anymore.”

“Then you should get some more,” I said.

He gave me Odd Look #27.  “Why?”

“So you can play with them, of course.”

I could see him thinking about it.  I knew he thought he was too old for that.  (He’s in college.)  So I decided to help him out.

“I’ve got some,” I said.  “My husband and I both do.  I even got some to put in his Christmas stocking.” (This was probably not the time to tell him just how many we have.  Which isn’t huge amounts, but we do have a few of the larger castle sets, and quite a few generic bricks–I grab them whenever I see them at yard sales and thrift stores.)

“Huh,” he said.  “What do you do with them?”

I shrugged.  “Sometimes we get them out and build things with them.  Just for the fun of it.”

“You know,” he said, after thinking about it for a minute, “that sounds like fun.”

“It is,” I told him, turning back to my work with a grin.

—–

I don’t know whether he’ll actually get some Legos and play with them.  But at the very least, I’ve hopefully opened his mind to the possibility that it really is still okay for him to play.

I don’t know why it is, but many people seem to forget how to play once they get past a certain age.  And that’s a real shame, because play is a good way to unleash your creativity.  It removes barriers and boundaries, and makes the impossible seem possible.

In some ways, writing is a lot like letting my mind out to play.  First I create a world, and then I add some characters and some situations…and then I play with them, just like I used to play with my Barbies and my Legos.  What happens if I do this?  How would this character react?  Should he be sad, or jealous, or angry?  How does his reaction affect those around him?  Before long, I’ve started to build a story.

Playing also helps free your mind so you can take a more creative approach to problem-solving.  It helps you see different perspectives on an issue.  And it just gives you a rest from the stresses of everyday life.  So I believe that a certain amount of “play time” is a good and valuable thing.

But you know, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the problem isn’t that people have forgotten how to play.  Maybe they just need someone to give them permission.

Okay, then:  You, there.  Reading this blog.  Yeah, you.  By the power vested in me, I hereby grant you permission to let your mind out to play.  Sometime in the next week, allow yourself to take part in some kind of undirected activity, for at least half an hour.  Longer if you want.  I know it might be hard, for those of you who haven’t done it in a while, but try it.  Just for a little while.

The Legos are optional.  (But highly recommended.)

Who knows?  You might surprise yourself!

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More Cookbook Updates

Are you all getting tired of the cookbook updates yet?  I hope not, because I still have some blathering to do on that subject.

This week saw the reformatting of the book from 5.5 x 8.5 (in one incarnation, it was set up to be printed on plain paper and folded in half like a booklet, but it’s too thick for that now) to 6″ x 9″ trade paperback size, and finally to an 8.5″ x 11″ size.

I do like the trade paperback size better, for a cookbook, but by the time I got it all formatted nicely (I wanted to set it up so that recipes were not split across pages, which meant that mostly, it was one recipe to a page), it came out to 266 pages.  Which makes it a lot more expensive to print ($12/copy, spiral-bound, vs. the $8 I was estimating at 130 pages).

So at 8.5″ x 11″, I can get these printed and spiral bound at Lulu.com for about $10/each.  Or if I’m willing to go with their lower-quality paper and have them perfect bound (like a paperback), I can get them for around $6 each.  Since I’m planning to make gifts of these to family members and a few select friends, I’m anxious to keep costs down.

But while the perfect-bound certainly looks more professional, for a cookbook, I actually prefer spiral-bound.  Because that way, you can open it up to a specific recipe, and it will lay flat.

So we’ll see what I decide to do.  I’ve printed up a prototype, and it looks pretty good.  But I have a few last tweaks to make.  Beloved Husband points out (and rightly so) that my current format (title, ingredients, instructions, notes, source) makes it look like the source is the source of the comments, and not the source of the recipe.  So tomorrow, I’ll probably play with that a bit and see if I can come up with something that works without messing up my pagination.

Beloved Husband also pointed out a recipe that should be in the book and is not.  So now I have to see if I can find the recipe (I think the reason I hadn’t already added it is because I don’t have the recipe on any of the computers that are in the house; it’s probably on the old laptop, which is in the storage unit…someplace).

I did end up adding a few more recipes (like Mom’s Chicken Soup, and my Buffalo Wing recipe), because they seemed like ones that ought to be in there.  I also edited out a few more recipes, based on the guidelines posted here previously.  So the Chocolate Mousse recipe that has always sounded good, but which I never got around to making, has been deleted from the book and relegated to a different folder on my computer.  If I ever get around to trying it, and if it’s worth keeping, I can always add it back in easily enough.

And I’ve discovered that the hardest thing about working on a cookbook is that reading all of those recipes can make a person mighty hungry.  (Which is a bad idea when one is trying to diet…)

So that’s where my cookbook project stands for the time being.  More news as it happens!

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Dragon Friday #11

Hah. Bet you thought I wasn’t going to make it. But it’s still more than twenty minutes to midnight. Plenty of time….

The Dragon, The Wench, and Her Wardrobe
(working title)
© 2011 Sheila McClune
Part 11

“Yes, that helps a great deal.”  I stretched a hand out over Max’s torso and could definitely feel the heat from the boulders.  “Thank you, Dragon.  But….”

“What is it, little hoo-mun?”

I moved my hand over Max’s head.  “Could I get a couple more?  One for up here by his head, and another for down by his feet?”

“Of course.”

This time, I knew to shield my eyes from the bright flare of the dragon’s flame.  Once again, the dragon lowered hot boulders to the cave floor, placing them gently, almost delicately, where I’d indicated.

“Thanks, Dragon,” I said.  I leaned forward to look at Max’s arm and felt my stomach churn.  His forearm had an extra bend in it, about two thirds of the way up, one that looked swollen and mottled.  I was afraid to touch it.  I was also afraid I was going to have to, sooner or later.

“How bad is it?”  I could hear strain in his voice.

I shook my head.  “It’s not great, but it could be worse.  It looks like you broke both bones, but at least the bones didn’t break through the skin.”

“That’s good.  Isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  Especially since I doubt my first-aid skills are up to dealing with an open fracture.”  I was pretty sure that unit in my first aid class had consisted of “Call 9-1-1, keep the patient calm, and wait for the paramedics.”  I glanced back at the train and decided not to count on help from that quarter.  Turning to Max, I asked, “How are you doing?”

“Better,” he half-sighed, half-groaned.  “Still a bit cold, though.”

“Give it a few minutes.  If you’re still cold, we can ask the dragon to heat more rocks.” Max did look kind of pale, especially where his dark hair rested against his skin.  I put my hand on his forehead, but that didn’t tell me much except that he felt cold and clammy.  Either that, or my hand was cold and clammy.  He looked up at me, and I did my best to give him a smile.  “Wish I had a thermometer.”

“If wishes were horses,” he quipped with a weak smile.

“Then beggars would ride,” I finished, absently.  I scooted back around to his other side, trying to avoid the pool of vomit.  Squatting on my heels, I reached for his wrist so I could take his pulse.  Then I realized that I didn’t have a watch, and my cell phone was back on the train.  “Dammit.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t suppose you have a watch or a cell phone?”

“Cell phone’s in my left-hand pants pocket.  I’d get it for you, but….”  He gestured vaguely with his good arm.  “But I doubt we get any reception down here.”

“I need to use it as a watch.”  Biting my lip, I reached over and slid my hand into his pocket.  My questing fingers found keys, coins…ah, and the sleek flat form of a cell phone.  I drew it out and poked at one of the buttons.  The display lit up, showing the time down to the second.  “Ten-seventeen?  Is that all?”  I shook my head and set about counting out his pulse.  When I’d hit thirty well before the fifteen-second mark, I swallowed.  “It’s pretty fast.”  And a little uneven, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.

“What is that thing?” rumbled the dragon’s voice from just over my shoulder, at the same time a warm whuff of air ruffled my hair.

I jumped.  “Ga-a-ah!”  The cell phone slid from my fingers to bounce off my leg and land on the cave floor.  “Dammit, Dragon!  Don’t sneak up on a person like that!”

“But what is that thing?  It’s shiny, and it glows.”

I picked it up and tucked it in my pocket.  “It’s a cellular phone.  Humans use them in our world to communicate with each other over distances.”  I stood and surveyed the cave floor between me and the train.  It was rocky and uneven and looked like about a mile, even though I knew it wasn’t more than about two hundred yards.  “Max, I hate to say it, but I think we need to splint your arm.  Did you have anything in your carry-on that we could use?”

“Are-are you sure?  Can’t we wait for help?”  Max’s voice held a hint of desperation.

“Are you saying you could use that device to summon other hoo-muns here?”  The dragon thrust his face in front of me and huffed again.

I rolled my eyes.  “It won’t work here, Dragon.  There aren’t any cell towers.  Max, I don’t–”

“But you just used it, I saw you.  And we have towers here.  Dwarves built them, long ago.  I can’t wait to show them to you.  So why won’t your device work?”

“Later, Dragon.”

“But–”

“No.  Later.  I need to fix Max now, or at least as best I can.  I’ll be happy to discuss cell phone towers with you later.”  I looked up at the dragon.  “Okay?”

The dragon rumbled, but finally said, “Oh, very well.  Do what you must.”

“Thank you.”

# # #

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News From The Editing Front; or, What I’ve Been Up To Lately

For those of you who have been wondering what sort of progress I’ve been making on my latest (unfinished) NaNoWriMo novel, I have a confession to make:

I haven’t made any actual progress at all in the last two weeks.

By “actual progress,” I mean words written.  However, if “virtual progress” counts, then I’ve gotten quite a bit done.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time working out some troublesome plot points for the rest of the story.  I knew that some of my characters were going to have to make some difficult decisions before the story was over.  What I didn’t realize was that almost all of them are going to have to face difficult decisions, and how those decisions were going to interleave with each other.  On top of all of that, I’ve needed to work in certain bits of foreshadowing, both for the end of this book and for the end of the series (next book).  So there’s an awful lot going on there, and I think I need to do some more pre-processing before I’m ready to write that bit.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to make a push toward getting the latest round of edits done on the first book, in hopes of beginning to (ulp!) send out query letters after the beginning of the year.

One of my editing goals in this pass was to try to reduce the size of the manuscript a little further.  It’s currently sitting at about 148K words.  I’d like for it to be more like 125K words.  Unfortunately, while I’ve trimmed out quite a bit–including some scenes that were near and dear to my heart–I’ve also been adding a small subplot, which seems to be doing its best to completely negate all of the cuts I’ve made.  But I think it’s a necessary subplot, especially based on feedback from my critique group.  I may need some volunteer readers to give it a quick once-over and tell me which bits they don’t think are necessary.  (If anyone reading this is interested, drop me a comment and let me know.)

I think this editing pass is going pretty well, though.  I’m getting rid of a lot of wordiness and passive sentences, which is good.  But I think I’ve also fixed a few scenes where the characters had a tendency to over-talk things.  I’ve tried to work in more subtext, and not resolve every last little hanging thread in a scene (thereby removing all of the tension from the scene).  I’m learning that these are some of my Bad Writer Habits, so I’m trying hard to teach myself not to do that.  Or at least, not too often.

I think it helps that I know my characters so much better now than when I was first writing the story.  There have been a number of places where I’ve caught myself thinking, “Oh, that character would never say that,” or “That doesn’t sound like this character; it sounds like a different character.”

I’m at about the halfway point in the book right now, with a goal of finishing my edits before Christmas.  I don’t know how realistic that is, given everything that has to be done this time of year, but we’ll see how it goes.  I may decide to take one of my days off between Christmas and New Years and go off to the library and spend the day editing.

What are other folks working on?  Or is everyone too busy with the holidays to be working on anything?

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More Natterings About The Recipe Book Project

So I’ve spent the last week or so gleaning through all of my recipe files and trying to decide which ones go into the cookbook and which ones don’t.  I finally established the following criteria:

Recipes to include:

  • Family favorites, like Butterballs and Golabki.
  • Recipes I’ve collected since moving out of my parents’ house, like Savory Toasted Cheese, and Potato Latkes, and Broccoli-Cheese casserole.
  • Recipes I’ve made up that just turned out really good, like Broccoli and Bacon, and Ham Chowder, and Apple Butter.
  • Recipes I’ve re-created from historical manuscripts that are too good to only eat at SCA feasts, such as Fystes of Portingale and Digby Cakes.
  • Rarities from Grandma’s recipe box, like homemade soap.

Recipes to exclude:

  • Recipes I’ve had since I was fourteen and have never ever cooked, regardless of how good they sound.
  • In fact, any recipe that I’ve never cooked myself, or at least eaten, should get excluded (except for the soap recipe referenced above).  No matter how good they sound.
  • Recipes for things I made once and wrote down but will probably never ever make again (like the eggplant ragout that takes 25 ingredients to make and two pages to describe).

Which is not to say that I won’t keep the above recipes in my collection somewhere, but that they shouldn’t be included in my “Book of Lore”.

The other thing that I’m constantly having to remind myself is that this does not have to be the one-and-only definitive version of this cookbook.  I can always “publish” a new version next year with new recipes that I’ve added, or revised versions of old recipes.  Heck, if I decide there’s a recipe I don’t really need to have in there after all, I can remove it from future versions.

In addition to culling through the recipes I’ve got, I’ve also decided that I need to add a “notes” section to each one, giving a little of the history of the dish and how I came to be acquainted with it, or some notes on the preparation, or some kind of little story associated with it.  For instance, for the potato salad recipe, I want to write up my most striking memory of preparing the dish:  being up to my elbows in a dishpan full of the stuff the night before my wedding.  Because those things are all part of the “lore” that I’m trying to record.

Finally, I went out and did a little research on self-publishing costs.  It looks like I can publish the book on CreateSpace for under $5/copy for perfect bound.  However, I’d really rather have spiral bound (so you can open the book and have it lay flat), and for that, it looks like I’m looking at more like $8/copy from Lulu.  Guess we’ll have to see how many copies I will end up needing, and how rich I’m feeling post-holidays!

 

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T’is The Season; or, A Short Christmas Story

Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, when I was still blogging on “The Melt-Ink Pot” (the now-defunct group blog of which I was a part), we did a story prompt.

The prompt was, “Late into the night, the snow fell and fell.

I looked at it and thought I might get a couple of paragraphs out of it.  Maybe even a page or two.

Much to my surprise, two days and 7,500 words later, an entire short story had fallen out of my keyboard.  Moreover, it wasn’t like any story I’d ever written before.  It was a modern romance, for one thing.  And it was set at Christmastime, for another.  (It was written in April, by the way.)

Since I wasn’t sure what kind of market there was for not-quite-novella-length romances, and since I wasn’t sure the story was all that good anyway, I just published it on my blog.

The thought occurred that I’ve probably picked up a few new readers since then, so I decided that, since it was seasonal, I’d go ahead and re-post it for folks who missed it the first time around.  It’s not a bad little story, really, if I do say so myself….

Enjoy!

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Christmas Surprises

(c) 2010 by Sheila McClune

Late into the night, the snow fell and fell. Risa’s aching hands clenched the steering wheel in a death grip. This is stupid, the nagging voice in her head told her for the thousandth time. Turn around. Go back. The voice got louder, grew strident as she approached another in-the-middle-of-nowhere exit. She turned up the iPod, patched into the radio with a makeshift cable, to try to drown it out.

That, too, was a bad choice. Bohemian Rhapsody ended, and the next song began. Three notes were all that had a chance to play before Risa mashed the skip button, but it was too late. The three notes had already stabbed their way into her heart. Their song. Her eyes flooded with tears…

A mile marker – 420, some idiotic portion of her mind noted – loomed in her headlights, straight ahead. Risa yelled a few words she’d never repeat in front of her mother and fought the urge to yank the steering wheel sharply to the left. Instead, she eased it to the left as gently as she could while still having a chance of not biffing the signpost.

The car almost-but-not-quite scraped the signpost and headed back toward the center of the northbound lanes of the interstate, but then the back end started to skid. She knew she was supposed to steer into the skid, but that would head her straight into the median, so she yanked the wheel back the other direction. The car fishtailed, then described a graceful three hundred and sixty degree turn…

(Read the rest here…)

 

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Link Salad for November

Link Salad time again! I tossed together some good stuff for y’all this month:

First, from my friend Kate’s blog:  Stand Up To Your Creativity.

Next, from NPR, some helpful advice on How To Name Your First Novel.

For those of you who write better when you have an incentive, writtenkitten.net shows you a picture of a cute kitten when you’ve typed 100 words.

Friends, critiquers, and even writing coaches all mean well, but not all the advice you’ll get as a writer is good.  Here are Nine Pieces of Bad Writing Advice It’s Okay to Ignore.

Continuing with that theme, Editing Your Manuscript:  Which Advice Should You Follow?

Ever wonder if you’re on the right track, writing-wise?  The Five Most Dangerous Career Pitfalls For New Writers.

Next, by way of April Henry, really cool Two-Page Plot/Character Cheat Sheets.

Sometimes I feel this way:  Why bother?  Nobody Reads This Blog Anyway.

Got writer’s block?  Muse just not talking to you today?  Here are Five Sites For Creative Writing Prompts.

And finally, a non-writing link:  The True Cost of Handmade.

 

Enjoy!

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Dragon Friday #10

Trying to keep up my “on-time” record, here…

The Dragon, The Wench, and Her Wardrobe
(working title)
© 2011 Sheila McClune
Part 10

“Ew,” said the dragon.  “He doesn’t smell as good now.”

“Um, no.”  I tried to cover my nose with my sleeve and failed.  “Did he smell good before?”

“Oh, yes, quite.  Not as good as you do, of course, since I gather he’s a male.  But still very tasty.  Like fresh grass, and the sea, and the new moon, and determination.  And he smells a bit like delbow blossoms, too.  I wonder if that’s because he is also a virgin?”

“He is?”  I shot a glance at the man lying on the floor below, but he was shivering too hard to be paying attention to the conversation.  “Oh, damn it!  Dragon, let me down.  I need to help him.”

“Why?  What is wrong with him?”

“I think he’s going into shock.  I need to help him.”  Though, frankly, I wasn’t sure what I could do, besides elevate his feet.  But I had to try.  “If I don’t, he could die.”

The dragon’s head swiveled to scrutinize me more closely.  “You hoo-muns are fragile little creatures, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”  I held up my still-bleeding hand.  “We have thin skins and breakable bones and internal organs that don’t take kindly to squeezing.”

I didn’t really expect the dragon to show any sign of remorse for nearly squeezing me to death, and it didn’t disappoint me.  “Hmph.  Then how do you survive?”

“Sometimes I wonder that myself.”  I looked down at the man on the cave floor.  He did look awfully frail, all of a sudden.  “Please, Dragon.  Let me help him.”

The paw holding me started to move closer to the floor, then stopped.  “Wait.  How do I know you won’t try to run away the instant I set you down?”

It was a fair question.  I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t.  “What if I promise that I won’t?”

The dragon snorted, and I smelled gunpowder again.  “According to all of the legends, hoo-muns are very bad at keeping promises.”  It bent down to look closely at me again, its eyes now shading more toward purple than red.  “Or has that changed in the last thousand years?”

I couldn’t help wincing.  “No.  I can’t really say that it has.  But I do keep my promises.  At least–”

The man below whimpered.  “Help me.  Somebody.  Please.  Help me!”

I pushed frantically at the claws around me.  “Please, Dragon.  Isn’t there some way I can convince you to let me help him?”

The dragon hesitated for a long moment, still studying me.  “Very well,” it finally said.  “But first, you must look into my eyes and promise me that you will not try to run away.”

Looking into the dragon’s eyes wasn’t hard.  After all, they were right there in front of me, and mucking huge to boot.  They had changed back to the deep, soothing red I had seen first, and I felt the racing of my heart slow just a little.  Calm, I told myself.  Everything would be all right.  “I promise,” I said, and meant it.

“Thank you, little hoo-mun.”  The paw holding me lowered me gently to the cave floor, waiting until my feet touched the stone before unclenching from around me.  “There.  Now, can you save him?”

“I’ll try.”  My knees felt a bit rubbery, but I was able to take two steps toward the man without either one buckling.  I knelt beside him and gently stroked his hair out of his eyes.  “Hey,” I said, softly.  “What’s your name?”

He opened his eyes, squinted.  “Oh.  You.”  He swallowed hard.  “I’m Max.”

I gave him a smile.  “Max, I’m Maddie.  And I’m going to see what I can do to make you a little more comfortable.  But you have to trust me.  Okay?”

“Do I have a choice?”  But the corners of his mouth flickered upwards in a hint of a grin.

“Well, you could just lie here and wait for the paramedics to arrive,” I teased.

“Okay, okay.  You were right about the sling.  I should have taken you up on it.”  He groaned between chattering teeth.  “I’m so cold, Maddie.”

“I think you’re going into shock.  We need to get your feet elevated, which means turning you onto your back.  I’ll be as gentle as I can.”  I scooted around so I was squatting behind him and slid one arm along his shoulders, grabbing his hip with the other hand.  “Ready?”

“No, but do it anyway.”  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

Taking that as my cue, I rolled him onto his back.  I did my best to go easy, but I still jostled his arm a little.  He only screamed once, though.

“There,” I panted.  “Now I just need something to tuck under your legs.”  Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks around; it took me a couple of tries to find a pair that were small enough for me to move, but I found them and shoved them under his feet.

“S-s-still c-cold,” he chattered.

“I can fix that,” rumbled the dragon from above.  I’d almost forgotten he was there.  I heard him shuffle a short distance away, then make a funny sound, like a garbage disposal clearing its throat.

Then a bright blast of fire filled the cave.  I threw a hand in front of my face to shield my eyes from the searing glare.  It stopped after just a few seconds, then started again, then stopped.

It took a moment for my eyes to readjust to the dimness of the cave.  When they did, the first thing I could make out was one of the dragon’s paws coming at me from the darkness above.  In the very tips of its claws, it held a charred-looking rock about the size of a pilates ball, which it carefully set down about four feet away.  A moment later, the other paw deposited a second rock on my other side.  I could feel heat radiating from both boulders.

“Will that help, little hoo-mun?”

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