Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zeno’s Paradox

infinity

It’s estimated that Zeno was born around 490 BC, and he apparently wrote a book of paradoxes. It has not survived, but some of his paradoxes are still known, largely due to other philosophers wanting to refute them. Aristotle in particular.

My favorite one is known as The Dichotomy because it’s about division. It goes something like this: If you want to move between two points, you first have to move halfway. And before you can move halfway you have to move a quarter of the way. And before you can move a quarter of the way you have to move an eighth of the way.

And so on and so on. Since there are an infinite number of points on any line, the division of the space goes on forever. Which logically means that movement is impossible.

The reason I like this paradox so much is that it’s neat and tidy and rational yet completely false empirically. Of course we can walk across the room. And as evidenced by this April Blog Challenge, we can get from A to Z, too.

So forget Zeno. You can get from here to there, wherever your “there” might be. Go ahead. Take the first step.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for Ylang Ylang Essential Oil

Ylang-large

Cananga odorata var. genuina – also known as ylang ylang – is a tall tropical tree with large flowers. The flowers occur in many colors, but the yellow ones are supposed to be the best ones from which to extract essential oil.

The oil smells sweet and floral with a hint of spice. It’s used around the world in perfumes, as a flavoring in drinks and desserts, and is quite valued in aromatherapy.

According to my Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, by Julia Lawless, ylang ylang is great for your skin, scalp and hair, so I’ve started adding to my facial scrub. However, be mindful that it can irritate sensitive or inflamed skin. Lawless also relates that the scent is helpful for depression, insomnia, nervous tension and stress-related disorders.

One of my favorite sources for essential oils is Camden Grey. According to them, ylang ylang is also good for heart palpitations, feelings of panic, and also acts as an aphrodisiac.

Pretty good all around essential oil, eh?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xeriscaping

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With water becoming more and more precious, especially in the West, landscape strategies that incorporate drought resistant plants and low or no irrigation designs are increasing in popularity. Xeriscaping, as it’s called, replaces or reduces traditional lawns and water-loving non-native plants. Landscaping this way:

  • Saves 50-75% of the water usually used for yards and gardens in the U.S. (and 50% of the water we use in this country irrigates landscape). Any necessary watering is done with soaker hoses rather than sprinklers.
  • Requires less maintenance overall and reduces or eliminates the need to mow
  • Encourages the use of native plants and attractive hardscape
  • Reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizers
  • Emphasizes healthy soil and thick mulch

When considering xeriscaping, keep in mind that drought-tolerant plants tend to have small, thick leaves which can be glossy, gray, or fuzzy. All these things help them retain water. Don’t mix plants that love water with those that don’t. And place plants with an eye to the sun. Southern and western exposures tend to dry out more rapidly than northern or eastern.

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If you don’t want to give up your lawn altogether, consider a drought-tolerant variety of grass. A few years ago we put in Enviro-turf sod, which is a hybrid of grasses native to Colorado. The roots reach down more than twelve inches deep, and the rich green turf requires less than half the water bluegrass does.

Or you can always try a lawn alternative like strawberries, clover, thyme or other low-growing perennial herbs.

For more information, here’s an article from the Colorado State University Extension.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Willpower

fist

“There is no great talent without great willpower. These twin forces are needed to build the huge monument of an individual glory. Superior men keep their brains in a productive state, just like the knights of old kept their weapons in perfect condition. They conquer laziness, they deny themselves all debilitating pleasures … Willpower can and should be a just cause for pride, much more than talent. Whereas talent develops from the cultivation of a gift, willpower is a victory constantly won again over instincts, over inclinations that must be disciplined and repressed, over whims and kinds of obstacles, over difficulties heroically surmounted.”

--Honore de Balzac

I gotta say, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Balzac on this one. Certainly, willpower is necessary, but alone is it enough to develop a great talent?

What about determination? Persistence? Love?

Or at least some kind of emotional impetus. Given the content of the news, it appears some people are more effectively driven by hate – or fear – than love. But I don’t think you can strip all emotion from a goal and still achieve success.

So willpower, yes, and I suppose you could say determination and persistence are components of willpower. However, you also need the practical motivation that comes from finding individual meaning in whatever you choose to undertake. Showing up is vital. Hard work is vital. But really caring about what you’re trying to achieve is vital, too.

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Video

Here’s the video book trailer for Wined and Died, to be released this July.

Comments?

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Untangling

rope tangleWhether it’s serendipity, a true reflection of how one activity can bleed into another, or just a certain perspective, I often find what I’m doing in my non-writing life serves as a metaphor for what I’m doing on the page. And, of late, it all seems to be about untangling things.

An hour spent picking at tiny silver chains which mysteriously snarled in my jewelry box when I wasn’t looking. An evening battling knots and coils of yarn while turning skeins into tidy, easy-to-work-with balls. And outside, pruning twisty grape vines and teasing apart strawberry runners gone wild.

At the same time, as I rewrite my work in progress, I’ve discovered places where character motivations are either too complicated to be readily understood, or simply inconsistent. Solving those problems is another kind of untangling, one far more intricate than physically unsnarling snarls.

Same with weaving subplots neatly into the main plot. It’s a delicate and time-consuming process – not only fixing plot knots and smoothing scene slubs, but tracking them down in the first place.

Whatever the untangling project, once it’s finished the result is a sense of accomplishment, of effecting a tiny bit of order in the world. That makes it worth it every time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Time

1267744_timeAchieving a sense of balance in life can a bit of a challenge at times. Trying to fit in a bit of everything each day makes for a task list that runs off the end of the page and automatically guarantees failure. Setting priorities is vital, but if you only get to your first two or three priorities every day then something is always neglected – usually the same something(s).

So if the first three priorities every day are, say, writing, exercise, and spending quality time with your loved ones, then things like promotion work (which every author has to do a lot of), cooking real food, yard or housework or keeping in touch with friends consistently get short shrift.

168 hours So don’t try to balance days. Balance weeks. In 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam points out that we all have exactly the same amount of time. Some people get a lot done while living full and balanced lives, and others seem to spin their wheels while constantly wishing for just one extra hour a day.

Read the book if you’re interested in all the details (hard copy or ebook), but the long and short of it is that most people don’t use the time they do have very well.

One culprit is, of course, television. But another is the constant idea we have in the back of our minds that we’re busier than we really are. A week has 168 hours. Take away 56 of those for sleeping a full 8 hours every night of the week and you have 112 hours. Let’s estimate a 60 hour work week, and there are still 62 hours left every week!

Surely that’s enough to fit in exercise, some quality leisure time, spending time with family AND time with friends, things like showering, picking up the house, doing laundry and cooking simple nutritious meals, with time left over. Time that could be used to write a novel or short story, volunteer, learn how to play the banjo or speak French or … WHATEVER.

If you had extra time, how would you use it?

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Snohomish

main street

Most of my Home Crafting Mysteries are set in the small town of Cadyville, Washington. The exception is Something Borrowed, Something Bleu where Sophie Mae returns to her Colorado home town of Spring Creek. Cadyville is a fictionalized version of the real town of Snohomish, located some thirty miles north of Seattle. It's typical of cozy mysteries to be set in small towns – it limits the number of characters and, even better, the real sense of community in smaller towns is so much more believable than trying to set a cozy in the middle of New York City or L.A. (This is when you jump in to tell me how wrong I am about that.)

I lived near Snohomish when I began writing the first book in the series, Lye in Wait. It had a rich history as a logging town and commercial center due to it’s proximity to the Snohomish River. The library has copies of the Snohomish Eye from its inception (it’s now called the Tribune), which provided plenty of fodder for the imagination. In fact, an article about a food preservation contest at the high school in the 1920s inspired the plot for Heaven Preserve Us.

Though I didn’t live within the city limits, the police chief was kind enough to authorize a ride along with one of his patrol officers. During that evening I asked plenty of questions and took lots of notes as we responded to calls. A car was stolen out of the hardware store parking lot, a domestic dispute involved a wife hitting her husband, a woman reported child abuse some ten years after the fact, and a man flashed a teenager and then escaped on one of those strange little pocket bikes that were all the rage for a while.

Almost all the calls were odd in some way, and I was struck by the officer’s comment that 80% of the people the police department interacted with were folks they had dealt with before. In fact, the woman whose car was stolen was the only “new customer” of the shift. 

Talk about limited characters! But definitely good inspiration for Cadyville, and for Sophie Mae’s love interest, Detective Barr Ambrose.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Reducing, Recycling – and Re-Posting

Ruh, roh. I thought I had my R post all ready but discovered: not so much. Since I was planning on re-posting these recipes for homemade pasta soon, today seems as good a time as any. ; )

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My great grandmother used to make her own noodles, and they were a lot like these, only, you know, better. 

Her recipe:

Homemade Noodles by Hand

3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon poultry seasoning (optional)
1 large egg, beaten

Sift flour and other dry ingredients together. Add gradually to beaten egg, mixing until thoroughly blended. Roll paper thin on a floured board, keeping the shape rectangular as much as possible. Allow to stand 20 minutes. Roll up and slice 1/8 inch wide for fine noodles, or 1/2 inch wide for broad ones. Toss lightly to separate strands, and spread out to dry for several hours. Makes 1/2 pound of dried noodles.

She gave me that recipe thirty-some years ago, and I've made them three or four times. It's hard work, as the dough is very stiff, and rolling it out is pretty tough, too. But they make absolutely the best chicken and noodles.

Recently I picked up a pasta machine on sale. And my standing mixer has a dough hook. Technology to my rescue yet again. This recipe is more traditionally European, and quite simple.

Homemade Pasta 2

  • 3 cups flour (all purpose, semolina, or a mixture of the two)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs

Sift the flour and salt together in mixing bowl. Create a well in the ce

Sift flour and salt together in mixing bowl. Create a well in the center. Crack in the eggs. Mix with dough hook until you have a fairly stiff dough that holds together. Add a little water if needed in order to get a workable texture. I ended up adding a weensy pullet egg for extra moisture in this batch.

You can also do this by hand. Put the flour+salt on a board, make the well, add the eggs, and mix them into the surrounding flour with a fork. Here's a tutorial for doing it that way.

Either way, the dough is pliable and a lovely yellow. Allow to sit for twenty minutes, covered with a damp cloth.



Then either divide the dough into four portions and roll and slice as in my great grandmother's recipe above, or follow the directions for your pasta maker. Keep the damp towel over any dough you're not working with. I used the 1/4-inch cutter on the machine, and made the noodles quite thin. You can lay them on a towel to dry, wrap them loosely around your hand a few at a time to make little pasta "nests," or use a pasta drying rack. I found this rack at a garage sale for 99 cents.


Of course, there are plenty of good alternatives to making your own pasta. Most grocery stores have a wide selection. Some farmer's markets sell 
Pappardelle's, which comes in all sorts of flavors and shapes. Whatever you choose, consider tossing with a delectable

Alfredo Sauce

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (or more)
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper

In a heavy saucepan bring cream and butter just to a boil, stirring frequently. Add the Parmesan and white pepper, and stir until cheese is melted. Toss with cooked pasta -- this is a good amount for about 8 ounces of dried pasta.

If you make additions to the dish -- cooked bay scallops, shrimp, or chicken, or maybe some lightly sauteed veggies, you'll want to increase the sauce recipe. Go ahead and double it, as it freezes really well. The sauce is also good dribbled on steamed broccoli and/or cauliflower.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Quote

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"A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders." 
 
John Steinbeck (The Winter of Our Discontent)

I’ve had this quote posted someplace in my office for over twenty years. It reminds me that once I write a story, the interpretation of it is out of my hands. And that’s not only okay, it makes storytelling a layered collaboration between the writer and the reader.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Patience

Patience is a virtue. It just isn’t one of mine.

knitting

I have a knitting book which contains deliciously simple sweater patterns. And at the beginning of each one the author advises: Be sure to take the time to check your gauge.

For any non-knitters, that means knitting a swatch that’s a given number of stitches by a given number of rows with the yarn and needles you intend to use for your project. Then you measure the result to see if it turns out the right size.

If it doesn’t, then you have to adjust your needles until it does. Or, in a pinch, know you have to knit tighter or looser than usual.

When I was younger (let’s say much younger) I hated taking the time to do the whole swatch thing. I wanted to make a sweater (or socks or whatever), not fuss around with knitting useless little squares.

Hmm. Not entirely useless. Without making sure the gauge was right I ran the risk of wasting many, many hours knitting away on something that would be too large or too small or fit funny because the gauge was off. And yes, I learned that the hard way, though luckily on a pair of socks rather than a full-blown sweater.

It’s the same with crochet, but also similar to so many other things in life. You have to let the pie crust rest in the refrigerator after it’s made so the flour can absorb the moisture and it will be firm enough to roll without falling apart. You have to do the research so the facts will be right even if you’re writing fiction. And you have to wait a year or even three before harvesting the asparagus bed.

Patience is a virtue. And I’m working on it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Oatmeal Mask

oatmealIn this simple spa recipe the oatmeal softens and soothes, while the egg acts as an astringent, tightening without stripping oils. It’s especially nice for combination skin. If you don’t happen to have any oatmeal powder on hand you can use baby oatmeal (look for it in the baby food aisle) or powder your own oatmeal in an electric coffee mill or food processor.

Simple Oatmeal Mask

  • 1 Tablespoon oatmeal powder
  • 1 egg white
  • 2-3 drops lemon, lavender or orange oil (optional)

Mix ingredients into a paste. Adjust the consistency to your preference with a few drops of water or a pinch more oatmeal and spread evenly on your face. Allow to dry for 20-30 minutes. Rinse off.

There are all sorts of simple handmade toiletries you can make from items commonly found in your kitchen. Look for more recipes like this on Hearth Cricket in the next few months.

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And:

I’ve posted more about my stint as a juror over at Inkspot today. Click on over and see what the trial was about.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Nostalgia

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As a modern woman writing in modern times about contemporary characters and colonial home crafts, it’s no surprise that I have a fascination with the concept of nostalgia. It’s probably the primary drive behind my interest in old-fashioned skills and domesticity.

nostalgia3

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be. Originally it was a medical diagnosis closely related to melancholy, and the word comes from two Greek terms meaning “returning home” and “ache”. It was, in essence, a kind of homesickness.

Now the definition has become tricky; ask different people and you’ll receive differing responses. Some say nostalgia describes the feeling you get when remembering something from your past. Others say it’s more of a yearning for the past. I’ve also heard nostalgia described as a memory triggered by the senses, especially the sense of smell.

nostalgia2

However you define it, I know the feeling. It is indeed a kind of ache. But to me it’s a yearning for something in the past that we never had in the first place. An ideal. An impossibility.

How do you define nostalgia? What do you feel nostalgic about?

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Mayonnaise Cake

Mayonnaise Cake

This recipe contains no oil and no eggs. Actually, that’s not much of a surprise since they are replaced with mayonnaise, which is made of … oil and eggs. It’s moist and chocolicious and holds up well to something as fancy as a ganache filling or a simple dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top. But the thing that makes this variation special is the Mexican Chocolate Frosting.

My aunt gave me this recipe. No idea where she got it from, though.

Mayonnaise Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 cups real mayonnaise
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Grease and flour two 9” cake pans. Sift the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir in the mayonnaise. Gradually stir in the water and vanilla until batter is blended and smooth. Pour into the prepared pans and bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes or until the cake springs back when touched. Cool completely. Remove layers from pans and frost with:

Mexican Chocolate Frosting

1 12oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups sour cream
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler (or in the microwave). Allow to cool down a bit and then add the sour cream and cinnamon.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Little House on the Prairie

log cabin

It’s time to check in on Book Two of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular series. If you’ve been following Hearth Cricket for a while you already know I have a real thing for those books and blame/credit them for my interest in colonial home crafts.

So I’m rereading these childhood favorites, slowly but surely (and mostly on the elliptical because they nicely distract me from my abiding hatred of that machine).

Little House in the Big Woods had all sorts of wonderful material about hunting, harvesting honey, making straw hats, and FOOD. Little House on the Prairie does not make my mouth water so much. Think beans, fried prairie chicken, corn cakes, molasses, repeat.

Oh, but the detailed construction information! Building a log cabin from trees dragged from the creek bottom. How to make a door with a latch string. A stone fireplace with stick-and-daub chimney, plank flooring and bentwood rocking chairs, oh my!

All that work and they had to leave it behind. The Ingalls family was on Indian land, and the government made them move on. It’s hard to argue with that, frankly, but holy cow they did a lot of work for nothing.

Next up is Farmer Boy, about the childhood of Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder. Though I haven’t looked at it for a long time, I remember food will again play a major part. There will be wheat threshing and ox training. Plus, Mrs. Wilder spun her own wool yarn, wove it into cloth, and then cut and sewed that cloth into clothes for her family.

I suspect I’ll be spending a lot more time on the ol’ elliptical in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kindle

flames

After a few companies made futile stabs at creating electronic books, Amazon’s Kindle came along and did it right. The traditionalists who said electronic books could never take off were proved wrong. At this point e-books are outselling hard copy books, and the trend seems certain to continue.

And there are the Nook, and the Sony Reader and Googe E-books, and at some point there will likely be some kind of standardization amongst formats. Some people like one reader over another. The Nook Color in particular seems to be popular.

But I’ve been thinking about the word kindle.

What a stroke of marketing genius. Kindle means to build or fuel a fire or to cause to glow or light up. It’s an active, transitive verb Amazon changed into a noun. But the original meaning lingers in the back of our mind. Not only is the name a propos of the softly glowing, backlit screen, Kindle indeed sparked a flame, the light of a new technology that is affecting the publishing – and reading – world to the nth degree.

It seems everyone has blogged about the Kindle. Heck, given the A-Z Challenge, I’m probably not the only one doing it today. Authors, agents, editors and publishers are all scrambling and muttering and, on occasion, panicking over the e-book revolution.

But what about the readers?

A friend told me the other day that she received a Kindle as a gift and didn’t think she’d use it because she likes the feeling of a book in her hand. But then she started looking at the offerings, and at how easy it was, and how much less expensive. She ended up buying a ton of books. She’s reading more than she ever used to because it’s so convenient to keep her Kindle with her.

I don’t even own an e-reader, but I have the Kindle app on my phone. I’ve read four books I wouldn’t have otherwise because they were quick and inexpensive to download, and I had access any time of day – or in the middle of the night. No more reading lamps flicking on at two a.m.

I’d meant to take a book to read during jury breaks last week, but forgot. So I downloaded something I needed for research right onto my phone and dove in.

Now libraries are joining in. They purchase licenses for e-books and you can check them out and download them online for a given checkout period – without ever leaving your house.

With the increasing costs of paper, printing, and the fuel used to deliver hard copy books, they’ve become pricier and pricier. In this economy it’s a boon when the reduction in production costs is passed on to the consumer. E-books also offer a greener delivery system.

There are certainly issues with how payments are structured for writers who usually published in hardback. Some authors have bypassed traditional publishers altogether. And some unpublished authors are self-publishing their work as e-books, which means a combination of fresh, new talent and, unfortunately, some poorly edited offerings.

But it’s all starting to shake out. Industries – including the publishing industry – have changed before, and will again. But the Kindle kindled a new interest in reading for people of all ages at a time when reading in general had been falling off for years.

Kindle on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Jury Duty

gavel

I’ve only been called to jury duty one time in my life and couldn’t go because I was attending college in another county. So yes, I got a little thrill when the summons arrived a month ago. Mystery writers are weird that way.

Still, it’s a bad time to hijack any chunk of my schedule. I could have postponed, but there isn’t really another time this year that would have been better. Besides, my friend Patricia mentioned it would be a real fluke if I was selected. First off, there would be a large crowd from which to choose. Secondly, I write about crime, so even if I did end up in the initial random drawing it was unlikely they’d want me to stick around in the long run.

Wrongo. First off, I was in the random group selected from the thirty people who showed up. The attorneys nixed half of us after extensive questioning. Not me, though. I got to participate in two days of trial goodness – a surprisingly good experience.

I’m going to post more about the particulars of the trial on Inkspot, the Midnight Ink author blog, on April 18th. That’s “O” day in the A-Z Challenge, and I’ll add a link to that post along with my regular post here. Right now, though, I want to share a few memorable bits and pieces unrelated to the actual case.

  • When we checked in at the County Clerk’s office, no one asked to see IDs. We had to go through security, but I could have been anyone as long as I had the jury summons in my hand.
  • Everyone who went through security set off the buzzer. The officer went over most people with a wand. He just shrugged at me, pointed at my shoes, and went on to the next person. My heels must have contained metal of some kind?
  • The courtroom had such good acoustics that whispered sidebar discussions between the judge and attorneys could be heard by everyone. They successfully dealt with the problem by turning on a white noise machine every time the attorneys approached the bench.
  • The majority of potential jurors showed up in jeans or shorts. I didn’t expect black tie, mind you, but that did seem a bit casual.
  • We were a six-person jury. I hadn’t realized (or even thought about) the fact that not all juries are made up of twelve people. There are also three-person juries. The charge in this case was a criminal misdemeanor, which apparently determined the number of jurors.
  • When we were all done the judge came in and gave us each a Certificate of Appreciation for completing jury duty. Nice, if a tad juvenile. It says, “… trial by jury is more than an instrument of justice and more than one wheel of the constitution: It is the lamp that shows that freedom lives …”

I was happy to serve as a juror, and would gladly do it again. Have you ever served on a jury? If not, would you want to? If so, what did you think of it?

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Inspiration

sanctuary

"I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de- humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for the Happiness Project

hearing

In a time and culture when anti-depressants are dispensed like Chicklets (wait – does anyone remember Chicklets? Do they still make them? Or dispense them? Anyway…) it seems that happiness is an elusive commodity. Countless books, studies, experiments, and papers have examined the ins and outs of how to be happy.

Was it always such a tricky thing?

Well, no. And yes. Perhaps we’ve not always been so concerned about whether we feel as happy as we think we deserve to feel (got that?), but happiness has been a subject of consideration by everyone from Aristotle to Charlie Sheen (okay, I don’t know about that last one – pick your own up-to-date icon at will).

Gretchen Rubin studied what they – as well as plenty of modern experts and scientists – had to say during the experimental year of her Happiness Project. She chronicled that year in a New York Times bestseller which you’ve probably already heard about. The paperback version was recently released. I heard about the book on NPR, but really discovered Rubin’s work through her Happiness Project Blog.

Her conclusions are anything but esoteric. Most are practical suggestions for how to manage modern life. Reduce your clutter. Be yourself. Stay in touch with friends. Let go of stuff that doesn’t matter. Do the things you usually avoid, and you’ll feel more content. Treating yourself doesn’t always feel great in the long run. Get some exercise.

From what I can tell from following her blog, happiness comes in large part from acting like an adult most (though perhaps not all) of the time. It’s not about self-indulgence so much as being kind to others. Paying attention and being grateful.

There’s a huge wealth of information on her site, and I love how much of it is inspirational while at the same time being utterly practical. And if you want to pursue your own Happiness Project you can jump right in at any point.

Oh, and that picture above? It’s there just because it makes me smile. Hope it does the same for you.

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Garden Update

494350_handful_of_dirt_1

It’s been forever since I’ve posted about the garden. This spring feels early, especially since last spring seemed to lag behind. But I went back and looked at the Hearth Cricket posts last year around this time only to find exactly the same things going on: buying berry canes and seeds, planning for the vegetable beds and lots and lots of clean up.

032911 060

Again this year we brought in branches to force: forsythia, dogwood, crabapple and apple. I love the drama of this huge arrangement – especially on the small table. They’re just beginning to show teensy leaves and flower buds.

032911 034The crocuses are spent, the daffodils heading for full bloom, while the tulips and bearded iris play turtle to the hare.

And as nature cycles along in her usual (and very welcome) way, I realize my writing projects operate in much the same way.

032911 044

This year I’m growing garlic for the first time. Planted last fall, it tender green spikes reached out of the ground about when the mulched strawberries poked their little noses through the soil. And last fall, I began writing a paranormal mystery for the first time and will deliver it to the publisher the same season I delivered a different manuscript last year. So writing and gardening activities return to a spring schedule once more: scribbling morning and night, and outside during the warmest hours of the afternoon.

032911 049

And then? Just like I’m planning this garden bed (though I have a good idea of what will happen here) I’ll plan my next book (and I have a good idea what will happen there, too).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Fabulous Fast Food

Despite the 30+ cookbooks on my shelf, five get regular workouts because of their focus on real, fresh, tasty dishes that come together quickly. A little grocery planning and a well-stocked larder means I can wander into the kitchen after a full day of researching, writing and doing the author promo thang and still make a fast, healthy meal. 

eight Eight Items or Less: Fine Food in a Hurry  by Ann Lovejoy. This was first published in 1988 when the express checkout lane was limited to eight items (never mind the grammatical error this engendered in grocery stores everywhere). Lovejoy is an avid and expert Northwest gardener, and has several books out on gardening, cooking, and healthy living. Her writing style is accessible and conversational, and her recipes are innovative, simple and fresh. She provides suggestions for companion dishes and what to drink with most dishes, as well.

gourmetGourmet’s in Short Order: Recipes in 45 Minutes or Less and Easy Menus from Conde Nast Books. Designed for cooking for two without compromising either quality or time, this cookbook features elegant menus and recipes for many classics. Forty-five minutes might not seem like fast food, and it’s not, but these are quick enough to put together after an active day when you still want a good meal.

kitchen express Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less by Mark Bittman. I’ve mentioned this one before: simple, fresh, fast, seasonal, varied, and tasty. What else could you want? It’s the one I reach for when I really have no idea what to cook.

artisan breadArtisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe  Francois. Another one I’ve mentioned for the simple fact that so many different kinds of homemade, artisan breads can literally take mere minutes of actual hands-on time, and the dough is ready whenever you want it. Really fabulous.

pressure cooker 200 Best Pressure Cooker Recipes by Cinda Chavich. This is a recent acquisition after borrowing it from the library. It’s specific to the pressure cooker, yes, but covers everything from tandoori chicken to risotto to desserts. I only use the pressure cooker a few times a month, but I do love the slow food fast results.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Edible Landscaping

Sure, flowers are pretty. But it’s a lot of work keeping them weeded, pruned and deadheaded, fertilized and watered. Why not spend that time tending plants that are beautiful and that you can eat, too?

Okay, so some people rip out their lawns and turn the front yard into something resembling a small truck farm. This is one option, and frankly, not a terrible one. If that’s your thing, I say go for it. Vegetable gardens can be quite beautiful, especially if the various plants are arranged as in a landscape bed with plenty of hardscape like trellises, rock walls, pathways, and maybe even a bench or funky wheelbarrow.

But if turning your yard into a big veggie patch is not in the least appealing, there are alternatives.

If you are lucky to live in tropical climes, zones 9 or 10, you have tons of options: citrus, pineapples, figs, etc. But if you live in hardier zones, there are still good options.

rosemary Flowering rosemary

Many herbs are very attractive, with or without flowers. There are lots of varieties of thyme that make terrific ground covers. I especially like the variegated lemon thyme. Rosemary can be formed into topiaries and sports sweet blue flowers for three or four weeks.  The dusty plum of purple sage is stunning set against the green of other foliage. Likewise with purple basil (and it’s beautiful served with yellow or orange tomatoes, too.)

chives Chive blossoms

Alliums like chives, onions, and garlic boast spiky texture and pom pom flowers, while the airy fronds of fennel are a nice addition to any border.

elderberryElderberries

Plenty of bushes offer edible fruit. Cranberries, goji berries (which are hardier than you might think), gooseberries, currants (red and black), hardy kiwi, grapes, elderberries (for lovely preserves and wine), and bush cherries are all nice yard accents.

swiss chard Bright lights Swiss chard (sometimes called silverbeet)

And then there are the vegetables that are just too pretty to hide. The vermillion stems and large leaves of rhubarb, the various eye-catching colors of bright lights chard stems, the fluffy ferns of asparagus ferns, and the somber clusters of horseradish leaves are good examples. Mustard greens are available in many colors, including a gorgeous deep maroon.

nasturtium

Nasturtiums taste slightly of cabbage

Still want flowers? Many are edible. Pansies, violas, and nasturtiums are common flowers that add both beauty and spice to salads. Roses provide rose hips after the petals have dropped, chock full of vitamin C and nice for jelly.

And if you’re really feeling adventurous, quinoa is a beautiful landscape plant, with five-to-six foot feathery seed heads – and available in yellow, orange, purple, red and white.

Check out Edible Landscaping for more ideas and to buy some of these goodies.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Dumplings

Is there anything that says comfort food more than chicken and dumplings? ‘Course, it helps if the dumplings are light and fluffy and cooked perfectly through. Two tricks for achieving that are cake flour and steam.

These can be served with chicken for the classic dish, but they’re also good on top of beef stew or goulash with lots of smoked paprika. I found this recipe online but don’t remember where. It’s really easy.

dumplings2

Light ‘N’ Fluffy Dumplings

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 Tablespoons melted butter

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Stir butter into milk, then mix lightly with the flour mixture. Drop the batter (it will be a bit sticky) onto simmering liquid by heaping teaspoonful. Cover and cook for fifteen minutes. DO NOT remove the lid during this time, or the steam will escape. After fifteen minutes test the dumplings with a toothpick or wooden skewer. If it comes out clean, they’re done.

Enjoy!

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Contest

Wined and Died_1 (2) It’s funny the kind of thing that can get a person’s back up. We all have reactions to different things, heaven knows, but the result of one of my knee jerk responses will give you a chance to win a copy of any one of the Home Crafting Mysteries – including Wined and Died when it comes out this July if you’d like.

When I was, er, pre-published, a writing instructor friend told me (and several others) that a particular agent mentioned that authors were wildly overusing a certain name in the submissions she’d been receiving. This agent had in fact decided that as soon as she saw that character name in a manuscript, she would reject it.

That seemed a bit like overkill. I mean, really, what kind of criteria is that in the age of search-and-replace? Changing a name in a manuscript is easy peasy. There are lots of reasons to quickly reject a query, but that just doesn’t seem like a good one.

Never mind that I happened to have a variation of that name in the mystery manuscript I was shopping to agents at the time: Lye in Wait.

I didn’t change it. In fact, now every one of the Home Crafting Mysteries so far has some version of that name.

The first person to guess (or know) what that name is in a comment here on Hearth Cricket, on Twitter (@CricketMcRae), on my Facebook wall, or even emailed to cricketmcrae@gmail.com will receive a copy of the Home Crafting Mystery of their choice.

Good Luck!

_________________________________

We have a winner!

Ruth, who subscribes to Hearth Cricket via email, remembered that in Something Borrowed, Something Bleu there is a Sheriff Jaikes. The name the agent didn’t like was Jake, and besides the good sheriff there is a Jacob in Lye in Wait, a Maryjake in Heaven Preserve Us, and a Dr. Jake Beagle in Spin a Wicked Web.

I may have gotten that out of my system now. ; )

Thanks for playing!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for Beate Boeker

I am pleased to introduce you to my guest author, Beate Boeker. Her newest book, A Little Bit of Passion is releasing this month from Avalon.

Karen calls herself a modern gypsy because she has split her life into two perfect halves: In winter, she's a skiing teacher in the Teton Mountain Range, and in summer, she works at her book store on Long Island. But one Easter holiday, John and his son Gerry join her skiing group, and her perfect universe is shaken. Can she overcome her need for independence and find a compromise between her freedom and the man who might be the love of her life?

Welcome Beate!

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Cover_A_Little_Bit_of_Passion

Now this will sound funny, and I know it's straight against the rule “write what you know” - but I can't help myself. To me, reading and writing are escapes into another world. It means putting your nose in places you've never seen, smelling them, feeling them, being AWAY from this normal-every-day-world that you are stuck in every day.

Some years ago, when winter came and the air started to smell of snow again, I got this longing to go skiing. But at the time, I couldn't afford it. So I decided to dream myself into that world by writing a novel about a skiing instructor. I live in the north of Germany (not a mountain for miles), and I hadn't been skiing for ages. I wanted to set this novel in the US, as all my previous ones, so I started to Google the best skiing areas in the US . . . and soon zeroed in on the Teton Mountain Range as one of the loveliest places to go skiing.

I researched the area, looked at innumerable Internet websites, learned about the mountains and lifts and all their names, the famous champagne snow, got lost in those bright, glittering, blue pictures, and dreamed every detail up to the crunching of snow underneath the boots. I was happy in my world – and the bits I couldn't find, I simply made up. 

Just one thing had me stumped: One mountain was called Fred. How romantic is that? The other mountains had fabulous names like Grand Teton or Mount Owen. Names that sound full and promising, names that fill your mind with images. But . . . Fred? I'm sorry. I can't get excited about Fred.

Not surprising then, that my heroine Karen agrees with me. :-) She voiced her displeasure to her best friend Leslie in an e-mail, just as she writes her about everything else that comes into her mind . . . about the interesting but confusing man who has joined her recent skiing course, about the man she nick-named Turtle because he is giving her a hard time, and about her doubts as she falls in love.

I hope you'll have as much fun sticking your nose into the Teton Mountains and into Karen's world as I had while writing A Little Bit of Passion.

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Author_Picture_Beate_Boeker-500

Beate Boeker is a product manager by day and a writer by night. She's also married and the mother of an energetic kid who loves snow as much as she does. If you mix Latin and German, Beate Boeker literally translates as Happy Books . . . and with a name like that, what else could she do but write romances? Beate would love to hear from you. You can get in touch via her website, www.happybooks.de

A Little Bit of Passion is Beate Boeker's third book for Avalon. Wings to Fly and Take My Place are also available.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Ares

a

Starting the A to Z Blogging Challenge today!

Thanks to NPR, the Minnesota Planetarium Society, and the rotation of the earth I’ve learned that despite thinking I was a Taurus my whole life, I’m really an Ares. Good old Ophiuchus threw a real monkey wrench into long-established astrological thought.

zodiac

Now, astrology is not my strong suit. Don’t buy into it at all. It’s obviously pure gobbledegook.

At least that’s what I thought until my zodiacal (rhymes with maniacal) designation changed from an earth sign – creative writer, cook, gardener, fiber artist – to a fire sign.

Fire? Wha …?

No longer a strong and stubborn sturdy Bull but the God of War? Really? As an Ares, I’m supposed to be a starter but not a finisher. Energetic, workaholic, fiercely independent, quick to anger, make decisions very quickly, friendly but sometimes tactless.

Really? Well … maybe. Sometimes. Okay, a lot.

But Tauruses (Taureans?) are supposed to be nurturing, earthy and practical. Which I am, sorta. And I do finish things. I do. Not everything, of course. That would be crazy making.

Now I’m not supposed to get along with Leos. Hey, guess who’s a Leo? K is! And you know what? We get along better than any two people we know. Seriously.

Of course, the key is in the interpretations – whether you’re talking horoscopes and the zodiac or tarot cards. And knowing the supposed characteristics of different signs can be quite helpful under the right circumstances.

For example, sometimes when a character – especially a secondary character – gives me trouble I choose a zodiac sign and read about it. Sometimes – not always – that provides a spark, a framework upon which to build more of the character’s personality. You can employ psychological types, homeopathic psychology, tropes and archetypes in much the same way.

Haven’t tried making a character an Ophiuchus yet. But I will. Tools are tools, however obscure.