What’s on Your Thanksgiving Table?

thanksgiving

Thanks to Ronna Benjamin of the Better After 50 blog for this writing prompt. Visit her here: http://betterafter50.com/

In 2016, I bring to my Thanksgiving table:

  • Our decidedly un-Thanksgiving-ish Provençal tablecloth, which we bought in Spain, because why not? It’s mostly orange, and that feels like Thanksgiving to me.
  • Memories of the twenty-seven Thanksgivings I celebrated in in Europe, mostly in Germany. Frohes Fest, ihr lieben, und guten Appetit!
  • A relaxed attitude. I’m not trying any ambitious new recipes this year. I don’t have a bin full of November decorations—that’s just not my style, and that’s OK. Our home is welcoming, comfortable, and clean, and that’s good enough.
  • Stretchy pants. It has not been a good year for my waistline, but Thanksgiving is not the time to worry about that.
  • Joy at being able to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s side of the family and Christmas with mine. No more melancholy Christmases for two, missing our loved ones across the ocean.
  • A spiny knot of worry about the state of our dear country, which I will try to soothe with pie and laughter.
  • A new song for our family guitar circle: John Lennon’s Imagine.
  • Gratitude for our good fortune, comfortable circumstances, and opportunities.
  • Freshly-sharpened determination to make new connections in my community, to do my part to hold back the wave of hate that threatens to drown our democracy. I only have my one little bucket to bail out the ship of state, but if we all bail together, we can stay afloat.

Steak and Potato Soup in the Slow Cooker

slow-cooker

In an alternate universe, I’m a food blogger. Today I’m zipping through the wormhole to share a recipe I tried that worked out well. No photo—we ate it all before it occurred to me to write down the recipe. But this turned out well, so I’ll share in hopes that someone might enjoy this hearty soup—and perhaps share his/her favorite slow-cooker recipe with me.

We recently visited the Newport Hills neighborhood of Bellevue, Washington, where my husband lived many moons ago. Of course, much has changed, and one new addition is the Mustard Seed Grill and Pub, a casual sports tavern where I had their delicious Pepper Pot Soup, tender cubes of beef and velvety potatoes in a creamy white base–perfect dish for a soggy, chilly fall day.

To lure our vegetable-phobic friend in for a weekday jam session—R and D on guitar and me on uke—I did my best to recreate this soup. Haute cuisine it ain’t; nevertheless, it’s delicious.

I diced up a big yellow onion, about a cup and half of celery, including the leaves, and three big carrots. Into the slow cooker that went, along with three diced cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, a generous grinding of black pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of Herbes de Provence.

I trimmed the biggest chunks of fat from a big ol’ beef chuck steak, a bit more than a pound. I diced the meat up small, about ½ inch cubes, peppered it generously and dredged it in flour. I browned that in olive oil in two batches, adding each to the slow cooker atop the vegetables. I peeled and diced up a monster russet potato—again, about ½ cubes. Then I filled the pot with four cups of beef broth and one can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup—the kind with roasted garlic. More pepper, a generous dash of Worcestershire sauce, and on goes the lid.

I intended to cook it on high for a few hours and then turn it down to low. Well, I forgot to switch to low, so I ended up leaving it on high for a good six hours. The result was perfect: tender meat, velvety potatoes, and a nice peppery bite. This made enough for at least six main-course bowlfuls. Our meat-loving friends were pleased. I’ll make this one again.

What’s your favorite slow-cooker recipe for a drizzly winter day?

Book giveaway: Piper Morgan to the Rescue!

piper-morgan-to-the-rescue-jpegheadshotsf

Because we’re all deeply mired in serious matters these days, a little levity is badly needed. How about an adorable little redhead with a heart for puppies? Here’s the latest release in Stephanie Faris’s Piper Morgan series, a perfect holiday gift for the little readers on your list. She’s giving away copies here!

https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/share-code/YmE3MjA1ZmE3NmM3MjJlOTUyMzIyZjViYzk5OWQ3Ojc=/?

Piper helps some four-legged friends find the perfect home in the third book of the brand-new Piper Morgan series.

Piper is super excited to help out at Bark Street, a local animal shelter in town. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by adorable puppies and dogs all day? And when Piper sees Taffy, the cutest dog she has ever seen, Piper is determined to find a way to bring Taffy home. But it won’t be easy—especially when she finds out someone else wants to make Taffy a part of their family, too!

Stephanie Faris knew she wanted to be an author from a very young age. In fact, her mother often told her to stop reading so much and go outside and play with the other kids. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Science in broadcast journalism, she somehow found herself working in information technology. But she never stopped writing.

Stephanie is the Simon & Schuster author of 30 Days of No Gossip and 25 Roses, as well as the upcoming Piper Morgan series. When she isn’t crafting fiction, she writes for a variety of online websites on the topics of business, technology, and her favorite subject of all—fashion. She lives in Nashville with her husband, a sales executive.

https://stephaniefaris.com/

http://stephie5741.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/stephfaris

https://twitter.com/stephfaris

https://www.instagram.com/stephfaris/

 

Dystopia Now

I’m in shock. I woke this morning up to find my familiar home adrift in an alligator-filled swamp. Where do I go from here?

Those of you who’ve been divorced will understand this feeling, that hollow thunk as the heavy realization lands on your guts. Someone I trusted, felt safe with, has just done something so out of character, so unforgiveable, that the marriage is irreparably rent.

Only it’s not my spouse, it’s my country. People I believed were smart, sturdy, good-hearted—they’ve voted like a pack of jeering twelve-year-olds, and they’ve elected the playground bully. My country is not what I thought it was. It no longer feels like home.

And the clown they’ve elected is abominably unqualified for the job. I pray that he gathers around him advisors with experience, education, and good will. So far, it’s not looking good.

When the smoke clears and we sweep up the debris, I’ll probably be OK. Even though the resultant stock market plunge will chew up large chunks of our safety net, my family won’t be out on the street. But I fear for my country.

Throughout my career as a teacher, I’ve promised kids that education was the key to a life with choices, opportunities, security. But now the reins have been grabbed by the kids who scoffed at school, who sneer at smart people, who think their white skin entitles them to stomp on anyone who doesn’t resemble them or toe their toxic line.

These are not my people.

And I have it easy: I’m white and, if not prosperous, at least in no immediate danger of losing my home or going hungry. Rabid packs of neo-Nazis aren’t likely to burn any crosses on my lawn. I can avoid the high-crime parts of town—I have that luxury. What about the people who are stuck there?

I’m an action-oriented person. I recover best from a dizzying blow when I can do something. It’s not in my nature to hunker down and wait. As disgusted as I am by the Trump voters, I recognize that they have some legitimate outrage. I don’t know how to fix meth-riddled Kansas, reality-TV-addled Louisiana, rusted-out Michigan—but I can reach out a hand in Tacoma. Divorce isn’t the answer here. Connection, dialogue, compassion—that’s our challenge during the next four years.

Right now, as I stare dumfounded at my computer screen, connecting Trump voters is the last thing I want to do. But there must be Republicans out there who still cherish the ideals of democracy, of opportunity, of respect for our fellow humans—even those who don’t look and act just like we do.

Please, God, let there be Republicans like that

IWSG Question of the Month

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, when all the IWSGers post on their blogs about their writing insecurities or offer some encouragement to others.

November’s Question: What is your favorite aspect of being a writer?

I’ve always had a hard time answering questions about favorites. How could someone possibly narrow down all the best songs, books, movies, foods to one shining pinnacle? I’m just not that decisive, I guess. That said, here’s a list of what I love about being a writer.

  • Working in my PJs. After years of jetting out of bed before dawn, I now roll out when I’m good and ready, pull on something comfy, pour the coffee and head straight for my office, located right between the bathroom and the kitchen. The only better location I can imagine is a magical wi-fi equipped treehouse.
  • treehouse
    • Working undisturbed. Few other jobs give one the opportunity to sit for hours at a time in focused concentration. Teaching high school sure didn’t.
    • Putting my imagination to use. All that daydreaming finally has a productive outlet. Though I’m not a fantasy writer, I’ve created a fictional town on the Northern California coast, full of the kinds of people I’d like to surround myself with. And I get to visit every day. Cool.
    • Revenge! Evildoers beware—I shall slay you (symbolically, anyway) in my stories.
    • Discovering the good side of bad people. This is often too difficult in real life, but on the page I must round out my villains.
    • Finally having the last word. In real life, when someone says something insulting or snotty to me, the perfect retort arrives a few hours later. But on the page, my protagonist can rip off the perfect zinger. Zap! (Picture a verbal lightning bolt obliterating the snotty person.)
    • The company of other writers. Even though our stories and preferred genres vary widely, we’re all creatives walking/hiking/slogging/clambering on the same path. We understand each other deep in our bones.
    • Feedback: I trust (most) other writers to point out issues with my writing that merit my attention.
    • More than any work community I’ve belonged to, writers cheer each other on, prop each other up, comfort each other when bad reviews arrive like flaming bags of dog poop on the front stoop, when editors/critique partners call for yet another revision, when a promising plot thread fizzles. And they point me toward craft books, websites and workshops that give me tools to climb out of the whole I’ve dug. Thank you.

    And you, fellow writers? What are your favorite bits?

 

NOMONANOWRIMO

Thanksgiving-Checklist-Week3-602x338[1]

When an accomplishment addict like me retires, she has to find a way to impose deadlines, milestones, items to check off the to-do list. I sort of feel like I don’t exist if I’m not getting stuff done. Two years into retirement, I still crave those external markers of accomplishment. One such is National Novel Writing Month. Each November, thousands of writers pledge to churn out a 50,000-word novel by month’s end. That’s 1,667 words per day.

After two years of “winning” NANOWRIMO, I’m taking a break. This November will find me at my writing desk every day, of course, but I won’t be churning out a first draft of anything. As a matter of fact, I’m still refining and polishing the story I started back in NANO 2014. The also-promising mystery novel I started in NANO 2015 is marinating in a folder, patiently waiting until I get back to it. This year I’m focusing on Chuck Wendig’s valuable advice: “Finish your shit.”

Just in case you haven’t read this sharp, funny, poke-in-your-writerly-ass essay, here it is: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/11/26/why-its-important-to-finish-your-shit/

NANO has given me good habits, a sense of determination, and some fun writing contacts in my local area. But despite the sparkly appeal of new beginnings, it’s time to plod, chug, crunch, grunt and push my way through this latest revision and then launch another round of queries.

New beginnings are such fun, but it’s the steady plodding forward that gets stuff done.

An Experiment in Semi-Retirement

retired-teacher

During my last walk through the halls of Bitburg American High School, I tried to predict what I’d miss the most about my job. I suspected it would be the feeling of belonging, of making an important contribution. Or would it be the abundant social contact? That seemed less likely; on the introversion scale, where one is a bubbly cheerleader and ten is a cave-dwelling curmudgeon, I’m about a seven. I enjoy spending time with children and teens, but being with them all day was exhausting. I truly miss laughing over lunch every day with my fellow teachers, and commiserating out in the hallway between classes. But what I miss the very most is…

My paycheck.

OK, go ahead and throw spit wads. We teachers are supposed to subsist on sunshine and kid’s smiles, unconcerned with pedestrian matters like financial compensation. But there you have it—the freedom of retirement comes at the price of having to pay more attention to my pennies.

And so I’ve been exploring options for making a little money on the side—that is, until my books hit the New York Times Bestseller List and I start raking in tall piles of money. (I’ll pause now, until all my writer friends stop laughing…Still waiting…Come on, guys…)

Last year’s foray into substitute teaching was lucrative, but not something I care to repeat. We all have our childhood memories of those poor subs, pelted with spitballs, epithets and disrespect. Actually, the worst thing about subbing was the boredom. There’s seldom any teaching going on, and that’s quite understandable.

If you’re, say, a chemistry teacher, do you really want some stranger with a degree in English mucking about with your expensive supplies? If you’re a P.E. teacher, do you want some former music teacher to be the only thing between forty rambunctious tweens and total mayhem? No way—you prepare a stack of handouts or an education film for those inevitable days when you’re felled by the flu.

Instead of hiring certified teachers as subs, the public schools should recruit moms and dads who’ve raised big broods. They have the skills most needed by subs: eyes on the back of their heads, and that stern mom/dad glare that forces kids to drop the spit wads, stop poking their classmates, and hush.

This year, I’ve stumbled into three different mini-jobs: I’m teaching French to little kids and adults, helping teens to prepare for the SAT/ACT, and editing a writing buddy’s manuscript. This is more or less the kind of patchwork arrangement I imagined when considering retirement: I bring in a few bucks from here, a few from there, trying out jobs that offer less remuneration but more fun. Although I could happily spend most of each day writing, it’s good for me to get out of the house and interact with non-imaginary people every day.

And so I’m working on finding my new rhythm, balancing the demands of these different mini-jobs with my not-yet-paying writing, as well as trips to the gym and time spent with my oh-so-patient spouse. And I’m back to writing lesson plans again. It’s funny, my writing is more consistent now that I must squeeze it in between work sessions. Who’da thunk it? I guess some of us just need more structure to our days.

ISWG October: Slogging through the Jungle

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

The first Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group blog-hop day. According to their website, the purpose of ISWG is

To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Learn more about ISWG here: http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: When do you know your story is ready?

There's a story in here somewhere.

There’s a story in here somewhere.

I actually suffer from premature story ejaculation. It’s an embarrassing condition. The heady excitement of typing “the end,” the tickle of positive feedback, it all gets me so excited that shoot my story out into query-land, only to have it sent back with a polite “No, thanks.” Or maybe silence.

Like many novices, I’ve thought my work was ready before it was. After running my WIP through a few self-edits and then a trip through my face-to-face critique group (only 40 pages per month!), the “finished” story was a funny, episodic ramble through a pivotal month in Lola’s life. Whee! My group liked it, especially the ending. Out went the queries. Back they came: “No, thanks.”

Two of those queries stood out. Both said they found my story premise and writing appealing. One said the story needed to focus on the main conflict. The other said it suffered from too many subplots and characters.

They were right. It hurt a little to admin that, but hey—I never expected novel-writing to be an instant win. The more I meet other writers, the more that point is hammered home: the path to publication is a long slog. And hearing that from (finally) published writers helps a lot.

Three craft classes later, I’m whittling the story down to a central conflict—well, two: one inner and one outer, but they’re closely connected. Just yesterday I realized I could slice away yet another subplot. You know what helped? On my running synopsis, I color-coded each of the conflicts using the highlight feature of Microsoft Word, and I realized I was running out of colors.

My online critique group from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association has also helped me to see the weeds in my plot’s garden. This time it’s 50 pages per month, but it’s worth it to get the feedback I need. I suspect this story will be ready for another round of queries in six months or so—but if it takes longer, that’s OK.

How do I know when it’s done? I’ll let you know when I get there.

 

 

 

 

Writer Heaven with Margaritas: The Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat 2016

Two days after returning from the WFWA retreat, my inner music track is still playing the Partridge Family’s “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque.” Go ahead, children of the ’70s, give a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swjLglCwflE

Wasn’t David Cassidy dreamy?

Albuquerque is where the WFWA held its second annual Writers’ Retreat last week. What a lovely town! We stayed in the Hotel Albuquerque, two short blocks from the historic city center.

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza. 1793!

Adobe shops in Albuquerque's Old Town

Adobe shops in Albuquerque’s Old Town

Albuquerque’s Old Town is charming, as is the Hotel Albuquerque. There was ample room on the patio where writers hung out, spun tales, and sipped margaritas. I didn’t spend much time on the patio, though; I came for the workshops and discussions. Orly Konig Lopez, author of The Memory of Hoofbeats, and the rest of the WFWA board and helpers created a brain-busting, notebook filling learn-a-palooza for writers of women’s fiction, and then scheduled three group dinners where we blew off steam—did I mention the margaritas?

This was the largest writers’ workshop I’ve attended, and easily the most welcoming. I didn’t know a soul before my arrival, and am at heart a quivering introvert who requires a lot of psychic energy to approach strangers. The eighty women and one guy could not have been more welcoming. Many of the writers in attendance had already published novels, some independently, some traditionally, but an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together” pervaded the 3 ½ day event.

Margie-fied pages

Margie-fied pages

A highlight was Margie Lawson’s workshop on her Deep Editing techniques. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but nothing has provided as much immediate practical benefit as this workshop, where we turned our printed chapters into rainbows of highlights, circles, underlines and margin notes. I’ll definitely continue exploring her courses as I polish up this and future manuscripts. And Margie’s long list of rhetorical devices, from alliteration to zeugma, put a grin on the face of this former English teacher. Here’s where you can learn more about Margie’s courses:

http://www.margielawson.com/

Another highlight was connecting with so many writers who “get it,” IT being the joys and frustrations of the writer’s journey to publication. There were sessions on diversity in fiction, queries, log lines, reaching out to readers, modalities of publishing, social media, agents and how/whether to find them, along with editors and publicists, how to stage a coming-out party for your debut book, and navigating the social media jungle.

I got to spend time with some fascinating women from across the US and Canada, along with one adorable guy, Scott Wilbanks, winner of the WFWA Star Award for The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. I met businesswomen, professors, attorneys, stay-at-home mothers, yoginis, teachers, journalists–all of them passionate about spinning stories. And you’ve never heard such raving about each other’s books! I have a long reading list of women’s fiction to warm the cold winter months.

And while you’re stocking your bookshelves, check out The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes, WFWA Star Award Winner for Outstanding Debut.