Thursday, November 29, 2018

Preserving a Taste of the Past - Grape Dumplings!

I'm sticking with our food-in-literature theme this week, Dear Reader, since food is such a big part of my Alafair Tucker Mysteries. Many years ago, as I began outlining ideas for my series, I heard that the wonderful old pear tree in my mother’s back yard had died. All during my childhood, my mother made the most delicious pear preserves from the sweet, hard pears from that tree. I have never before or since tasted anything like it. My first thought on the demise of that tree was that no one will ever taste those preserves again, because nobody cooks like that any more. Or eats this way, either. I'm thinking of my grandfather, who buttered his green onions before he ate them. I decided that I wanted to take the opportunity to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with ten children.

The 1910s American country cooking that I write about is heavy, rich, and fattening, and I tend to overindulge in my test products. I was raised on this kind of food, and this is the way that my mother taught me to cook, so it isn’t foreign to me. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret, Dear Reader. This is not at all the way I cook at home. We are very health-foody. I’m all over the organic, local, meatless style of cooking. However, just because I don’t generally eat like that any more doesn’t mean that I don’t have a certain nostalgia for it. For my books, I concentrate on American Appalachian-style food, because just like my mother's pear preserves, the kind of cooking that my protagonist Alafair does is disappearing. That is one reason that I always put a special section of recipes and food lore in the back of each of the books.

When time comes to test and write about the recipes for the dishes that I mention in the books, I have to say that I really enjoy the heck out of myself. Here's one of my favorites, a true heritage recipe:

Cherokee Grape Dumplings

This is the recipe I used to make my dumplings. It is from a traditional Cherokee cookbook. Some recipes call for an egg, which makes the dumplings more noodle-like. I dropped my dough into the juice from a spoon rather than rolling and cutting. My dough was not as stiff as it should have been. Be sure to add a little more flour if your dough turns out too sticky. This is delicious with ice cream.

Grape Dumplings
1 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp shortening
1/2 cup grape juice (I use plain old Welches purple grape juice, but suit yourself)

Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and shortening. Add juice and mix into stiff dough. Roll dough very thin on floured board and cut into strips ½” wide (or roll dough in hands and break off pea-sized bits). Drop into 3 cups (or more if desired) boiling grape juice and cook for 10 – 12 minutes.

Some Cherokee cooks continue to make their grape dumplings by gathering and cooking wild grapes, or ‘possum grapes’ instead of using commercial grape juice. Here is the finished product, with juice:

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Inspector Green's killer latkes

This month's theme on Type M is food recipes as they figure in our books. Thanks, Rick, for this idea! I actually like the idea of having themes which we can follow or not as we wish. If we have something compelling we want to blog about, we can ignore the theme, but if, as often happens after years of writing blogs, we are scratching our heads about what to write this time, a theme offers some readymade inspiration.

Reading through the earlier blogs, I'm intrigued to see how many of our protagonists don't cook much, mostly because they have no time and are focussed on solving the case. Often they are also incompetent, wishing they'd paid more attention to their mothers growing up. Sometimes there is even a mother or the ghost of one nagging in the background.

Recipes and food feature much more prominently in cosy mysteries, where the emphasis is more on community, friendship, and comfort than on nail-biting suspense. Even if the cosy mystery has a reluctant chef, as in Vicki Delany's Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries, there is a popular tea shop or restaurant where the protagonist and friends hang out.

Comfort and community have less place in grittier, darker mysteries and thrillers, for obvious reasons. We don't want the reader settling in for a comfortable cup of tea unless there's a stalker hiding in the next room; we want them holding their breath in excitement and apprehension. And yet, interludes of relaxation have an important place in any story, to vary the pace and give the reader and the characters a chance to reflect. Not to mention catch their breath. A family dinner promotes conversation or at least inner musings about the case and about the state of their lives, which adds depth and richness to the characters.

This is why I don't like the very lean, mean, edgy thrillers that race forward from cliffhanger to cliffhanger with no time to get to know the characters or learn about their complexities and other dimensions. These characters all seem interchangeable. In grittier stories, however, balance is key, and even the food scenes should add to the atmosphere and the momentum of the plot.

My current series character, Amanda Doucette, has little time for cooking, and besides it's no fun cooking for one, but having worked all over the world, she loves the spicy, imaginative food of Thailand, India, Cambodia, South America, and Africa. So far in the series, I have added food scenes related to the setting of the book. FIRE IN THE STARS is set in Newfoundland, for example, so she eats seafood chowder and shrimp. In THE ANCIENT DEAD, the book I am currently writing, set in the Alberta badlands, they are eating a lot of Angus beef steak.

But because of the festive season about to start, I am reaching all the way back to my Inspector Green series for my recipe of the month. Green comes from a rich Eastern European Jewish tradition, so I do mention Shabbat roast chicken dinner, honey cake, and other holiday fare in the books sparingly. This week marks the beginning of Hanukkah, when foods fried in oil are served to commemorate the miracle of the lights. For my own contribution to Type M's recipe collection, here is my father-in-law's recipe for potato latkes:

Inspector Green's Killer Latkes

5-6 medium potatoes, grated (hand is best but food processor if you wish to preserve your knuckles)
1 medium onion, finely grated or minced
3 eggs
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
enough cooking oil to deep fry (not olive oil)

By hand, mix together the eggs, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper until they are light and frothy. Add the minced onion. Grate the potatoes, squeeze the excess moisture out with your hands, and add to the egg mixture.

Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a large frying pan and test heat with a small amount of mixture. When it sizzles, add batter in spoonfuls (about 1/3 cup, but they can be bigger or smaller to taste) to fill the pan. Turn when golden and cook the other side. Remove to a platter lined with paper towel and repeat until finished, topping up the oil as needed. Serve piping hot with sour cream or applesauce.

Enjoy, and Happy Hanukah!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Recipes into the future

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday Aline wrote something in her post that really resonated with me. It was also the main topic of the comments to her excellent post. I’m speaking of sharing favourite family recipes with our children and hopefully their children — and so on.

It seems a shame that valued recipes can become lost to time, often by simple oversight. This happened in our family to several treasured dishes. Grandmother Blechta’s excellent rye bread, my mother’s pressure cooker brown chicken fricassée (she would have insisted on the accent) are two notable recipes that have gone the way of the dodo. What I wouldn’t give to have both of those!

This realization happened eight years ago, and being aware that time was not standing still, my wife and I hatched a great concept for our 2011 Christmas gift: a cookbook of family recipes.

Most of them were ours, especially ones we had enjoyed with our children which they would want for the future. But we also had a number of older family recipes garnered from our mothers and grandmothers as well as recipes we gathered from our wider family. In a fit of great intelligence, I spent a day with my aunt on my father’s side and got several Czech recipes that she and her mother had been making for years for all of us (sadly, no rye bread). Those, of course, were front and centre in our cookbook. To fill in empty spaces, I used family photos, usually humorous. It was tough finding space for everyone to have their photographic moment.

As many of you know, I worked as a graphic designer for a number of years, so the actual production wasn’t difficult, although it was time-consuming. I’d already done the design work for two cookbooks put out by Crime Writers of Canada, so what was one more, right? By the time we finished, though, the book was 138 pages long!

To say the least, it was a big hit with everyone who received a copy. It was so popular in fact that we put out a second edition four years later and the page count had ballooned to 180 pages.

Will we do it again? I think so, especially since a number of forgotten recipes have resurfaced and we’ve developed a number of new family favourites, now for our grandchildren.

Food is a great connector in life. It is a way to nourish ourselves, but also to share and socialize. It can reach across generations and connect us to where we came from. As an example, one of the highlight recipes (peach kuchen) can be traced back five generations to Germany where my mother’s family originated.

In today’s rapidly changing world, that’s something to be treasured.

Here’s the peach kuchen recipe page:

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cooking the Books

Following on from Rick's suggestion to share our characters' favourite foods, I've been really enjoying the recipes that the others have posted.  It's always seemed to me that food's too important a subject not to have its place in even imaginary lives so here's my contribution to Rick's Recipe Book.  

In my DI Marjory Fleming series, the Tin always features.  Marjory's mother Janet is mortified by her daughter's total lack of interest and indeed competence when it comes to cooking. She feels it reflects badly on her upbringing - and here I confess I feel the same about my own daughter who, like Marjory, feels there are better things to do with her time.  In sympathy for her deprived husband and children, Janet regularly brings them the Tin full of home-baked goodies and collects it again to refill once it is emptied.  She is also a notable baker for the Coffee Mornings, an important feature of Scottish small town life, often in aid of the Lifeboat.

This is one of  the traditional Scottish favourites that would find its place in the Tin.

Boil Bake Loaf.
Grease and base-line a 2 pt loaf tin.  Preheat the oven to 180C

1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups raisins
1 stick butter
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Put into a pan and bring to the boil stirring.  Turn the heat down and simmer until the mixture has caramelised to a lovely deep brown.   Cool.
2 cups self-raising flour
2 eggs.
Stir in, then pour into loaf tin.  Bake for 40-45 minutes, then use a skewer to check that the centre is fully cooked - depending on your oven, it could well take longer.
Cool on a rack and served sliced and buttered. 


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Bookended by Fifty Years

Like most of you out there, I struggle to read what I should. The latest books I've managed to move off my TBR stack include one that I first read a half century ago, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and one newly published, The Golden Havana Night, which I finished this last weekend on a trip to New Mexico.

The Golden Havana Night is by Manuel Ramos, a fellow Denver mystery writer I've known for over two decades. This novel is his newest offering in Chicano Noir and the third to feature Gus Corral, an ex-con introduced as a minor character in a short story several years back. Since then Gus has morphed from a slacker sleeping in the backroom of his sister's secondhand store to a full-fledged, though crusty, PI. He's earned enough cred to warrant the services of Joaquin "Kino" Machado, a Cuban defector and now a champion ballplayer for the Colorado Rockies. Seems Kino's brother owes a sizable gambling debt to a gangster back in Cuba and Gus gets hired as a bagman to deliver the cash. No spoiler here but things are not going to proceed well for Gus or anyone else. Ramos' recent trip to Cuba gives authentic details that range from the exotic and enticing to the seedy and exhausting. The expected scenes of classic American cars kept running by island ingenuity are juxtaposed against queues of donkey carts. Marxist and revolutionist sloganeering are contrasted with physicians working as hotel porters. Ramos gives us beautiful Caribbean vistas, which you reach by bone-jarring drives over rutted dirt roads. Even an accomplished and connected Cuban police inspector lives in squalor.

Ramos' prose delivers the narrative in crisp detail:
"I was surrounded by decay and stagnation."
"The guy had disappeared into the gray world of the dispossessed, a world that none of us knew anything about, and that seemed as strange as if we'd crashed onto a lost and unforgiving alternate planet."

And when describing the office of Ben Sardo, the crooked sports agent:
"The place smelled like money and promises of even more money."

But what's keeps the pages turning is Gus sinking deeper into the treacherous murk and Ramos' expertise at wrenching the plot with one double-cross after another. The story has the delicious and satisfying bite of a good Cuban rum mixed with tequila.


I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, when I was in junior high school. The story was definitely outside my usual fare at the time: books by Frederick Forsyth, Leon Uris, George Orwell, and Upton Sinclair. Tree was the first book where I paid attention to its craft. What keeps the dense narrative moving is Smith's ability to mesmerize the reader with rich, captivating detail and by alternating poignant moments with suspense and humor. Now that I'm a professional writer, Smith's craft really jumped at me. The story is told in close Third-person POV and she doesn't hesitate to head-hop to draw us inside the characters. I've wondered about the current proscriptions about wandering POV, given that it's a powerful tool to immerse us in the scene. The argument is that head-hopping loses the reader but I can't recall once where I failed to follow the action. In this return to the book, what I most appreciated was its theme of perseverance and optimism. The story is anything but pollyanna as we're exposed to plenty of the gritty trials from early 20th century New York: poverty, alcoholism, the pettiness and meanness of people, plus hard crime in the form of robbery and sexual assault. The Brooklyn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is long gone, but as rough and hard-scrabble times were then, you can't help but lament that something valuable and ennobling has been lost forever.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Gratitude Past and Present

Happy Thanksgiving all readers everywhere. What could be a bigger blessing than a free press and the right to read anything we want? My favorite activity is reading. I can even remember the first book I ever read on my own. Ironically, it had to do with Thanksgiving.

I had finished all my school work. Our class room had three grades together. The teacher was occupied with the older kids. We had just learned the alphabet and were beginning to read. She said I could choose something from the books on a special shelf. So I picked one.

The name of the book was Hoot Owl. There was a little pilgrim boy who wandered off from his friends and family who were preparing a wonderful Thanksgiving meal. The little boy got lost in the woods. But he was rescued by a kindly little Indian boy named Hoot Owl who was happy to help him find his way back home. Elated, the community joyfully urged Hoot Owl to invite his parents and their friends to join them for the abundant Thanksgiving feast. The Indians accepted and everyone became great friends.

The ending made me incredibly happy. I simply glowed with the realization that our Pilgrim fathers were magnanimous generous people and the native inhabitants really, really appreciated all of our friendly gestures.

Yeah. Well. You've got to remember, this was first grade--a long, long time ago. I wonder if the book would get published nowadays. Besides, the big underlying dazzling magic was that their were books right there in our humble class room that actually had stories. I didn't have to put up with Spot and Jane and that wretched ball any more.

Usually, in a Thanksgiving post, I express my heartfelt appreciation for my family. That's still my biggest blessing. But right up there in the gratitude category is my reverence for libraries and the access we have to books in this country.

Thank you, thank you librarians everywhere. God bless all the writers who keep books on the shelves and the readers who keep us going.

And God bless little Hoot Owl who warmed my heart and made my first book such a happy experience.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving from Copenhagen

We are in Copenhagen this week visiting my daughter, who is studying (or that's what she claims) abroad this semester. Copenhagen seems too fun to get much studying done. A highlight for me was a trip to the Kronborg Castle, home of the real-life murder that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Legos and Storm Troopers?
I had to try the fish and chips
Turkey probably isn't on the menu this week, but excellent fish, good wine, lots of laughter, and memory-making is.

Here are some pictures from the week. I hope everyone in the Type M community has a great holiday!

Delaney, 20; Audrey, 17; Keeley, 10; and Lisa

Derek Jacobi, my favorite Hamlet actor

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Some Like It Raw

Ever since Rick challenged all of us Type Mers to come up with food that plays a part in our stories, I’ve been thinking about what kind of food I have in my Aurora Anderson Mystery Series. I didn’t come up with much.

My main character and her BFF are both in their late twenties, they both live alone and they’re busy with their careers and sleuthing so they really don’t cook very much. There’s a lot of take-out and eating at casual restaurants. I do vary what they eat from book to book. There’s Chinese, Italian and, since there are a lot of Hawaiian places around here, Spam fried rice made an appearance once.

That’s really not much difference from my own twenties. I lived by myself, worked full-time and got my masters in Computer Science so it didn’t leave much time to cook. Not that I didn’t do that on occasion.

Now that Rory has a steady boyfriend, though, the game has changed a bit. She’s starting to cook more often. In the Christmas book I’m currently working on, her mother is going to help her make a dessert to take with her when she meets the boyfriend’s family for the first time. I’m not sure what that’s going to be right now. Might be a pumpkin cheesecake or an apple pie. I'm still deciding.

Then my mind wandered to a short story I wrote several years ago featuring twin repo agents Maddison and Diamonds and their grandfather, Gus, who was a former bit player in movies. “Some Like It Raw” centered around a raw food restaurant. Yep, raw food. How L.A., you say. Well, that was the point. I’m sure this is not what Rick expected when he gave us this challenge, but I like to do the unexpected. Keeps everyone on their toes.

I did a fair amount of research into raw food for this one. Never made it to the raw food restaurant that’s not far from here, though. It closed down before I could do that. It may have reopened again. I’m not sure. The urge passed.

Raw foodists don’t use ovens, just dehydration, no flames. They don’t heat food above 110-115 degrees F. Above that range and it destroys enzymes in food and diminishes its nutritional value. That’s their claim, anyway. Such a diet is supposed to give you more energy and improve your immune system. To be considered raw, food can be chopped, blended, pureed, juiced or dehydrated.

 When I was writing this story, I wanted them to go to the restaurant and sample the food so I needed to come up with a dish. I settled on a lasagna made with thin strips of zucchini in place of the noodles and a cheese made from nuts in place of ricotta. Here’s a recipe for lasagna I found so you’ll have a feel for what one looks like. And, if you want to see how something like this is made, here’s a YoutTube video: 

If you want to read the story, it’s still up in the archives of Mysterical-E: "Some Like It Raw"

I’m by no means a raw foodist. In real life, I’m a mostly vegetarian cook, but my real love is baking. I particularly love playing around with cheesecake recipes. So my offering today is a pumpkin cheesecake recipe that I sometimes make this time of year. I put this one together based on numerous pumpkin cheesecake recipes I’ve found in all sorts of places. You’ll notice that I use light cream cheese and egg substitute. I find that a cheesecake made from these isn’t as heavy. To get the consistency to where I want it, I do have to add a little flour. If you want to use regular cream cheese, just omit the flour. I also find it helps to let the cream cheese and eggs come to room temperature before mixing together.

Pumpkin Cheesecake


1 1/4 cups cinnamon graham cracker crumbs
3 1/2 T. melted butter
2 T. sugar

Mix the ingredients together and press into a spring form cake pan. I usually either butter the pan before putting in the crust or spray it with Pam. Put in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest.


3-8 oz. packages light cream cheese
3/4 c. sugar
1 c. egg substitute
1 c. pumpkin (the stuff from a can without the spices)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 T. flour

Beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add in sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Beat in pumpkin and spices. Pour into crust. Bake at 350 degrees F for 55 to 60 min until the center is just set. Cool cake to room temperature. Refrigerate at least 6 hours before serving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In praise of the writing retreat

by Rick Blechta

I woke up this morning to find a winter wonderland outside. This being Canada, it is no serious snowfall, just a light dusting really, but it stuck to the trees and everything looks really lovely. For some reason (early on in these cold months — definitely not so much in February!) this always puts me in a good mood, one could almost say romantic.

Today, however, my response is somewhat different. The white stuff makes me want to get away. If you know Canadians, you might think, “Blechta’s about to head for Florida.” Actually, no. The place to which I want to get away would be a cabin in the woods. What I want to do is write.

My life for the past five years has been, well, very busy and distracting. There’s no need to enumerate everything for you, but the overall result has had a chilling effect on the time I can spend on writing. I have a novel in desperate need of my attention. If I get close enough to the laptop on which I write, I can almost hear my characters crying about my abandoning them for days at a time.

There have been occasions where I’ve been able to get away for a week or two, break free from distractions and able to focus on crafting something readable.

And it has been heaven each time. Get up in the morning, make coffee, write until I’m hungry, make breakfast (thinking all the while), then back to writing. Good things happen when I’m able to work like that and there have been days when I’ve written upwards of 8000 words. By evening, I’m exhausted but satisfied that I’ve done a Good Day’s Work.

This morning, looking out at my backyard, cup of coffee in my hand, it dawned on me that I need to get away. The lure of that is very strong. Ideally I’d be away for a few weeks or even a month, but because of obligations I’ve taken on, but that length of time isn’t in the cards.

So I have to figure out how to handle my needs/desires balanced against my reality. Hmmm…

Monday, November 19, 2018

Food and Mood

Since Rick has us exploring recipes, I’m going to add one at the end of this blog.

First off, I do all the cooking around in our household. I enjoy cooking. I find it relaxing and I only prepare meals that I truly enjoy eating.

Cooking was one of those things Cindy, my wife, found attractive in me when we were dating. She doesn’t like cooking. Period.

I’m pretty sure it’s why she married me.

So, when I’m writing, food is an important ingredient (yes, pun intended) to particular scenes. The protagonist in my mystery series is Geneva Chase, a female reporter with a drinking problem who makes bad life decisions. In my first book, Random Road, the only time you caught Geneva in the kitchen was to get ice cubes and a glass and to pull a bottle of Absolute out of the freezer.

Thinking I’d tone that down a smidge, in the second book, Darkness Lane, I started the book with Geneva making a pot of chili. My editor (and rightly so) flatly told me, “What are you thinking? Geneva is boring. You’ve made her too suburban.”

So, no more cooking for Ms. Chase. Now the only food you see in her kitchen is take-out from a local restaurant.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t write some good meals into a storyline. For example, in Darkness Lane Geneva goes to the home of a well known actor and his writer wife where they’re having an emergency meeting with the key players of a Broadway play in development. A teenage actress is missing, feared kidnapped by her high school teacher.

The actor’s cook brings in a porcelain tureen of steaming coq au vin and warm bread fresh from the oven. I could have just given them BLTs on toasted whole wheat, but the day outside had a crisp October chill to it and Geneva savors the deliciously earthy scent.

Why coq au vin? It sounds snooty and how many of us actually have it for lunch…brought in by our live-in cook?

Oh, plus I had prepared it in my own kitchen for the first time just the weekend before. So true to the recipe challenge, here’s mine for coq au vin...oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 5 skin-on, bone-in chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch slices
  • 3 carrots, peeled, chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, minced
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 4 cups dry red wine, such as Burgundy, divided
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
  • 12 sprigs thyme
  • 6 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 pound assorted wild mushrooms, such as oyster and maitake, cleaned, cut into bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)
  • Preheat oven to 350°. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in an ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook chicken in batches until browned, 5-6 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
  • Add bacon to pot; cook until rendered. Add carrots, celery, and onion; cook until onion is translucent, 7-8 minutes. Stir in 1 cup wine and tomato paste; simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add remaining 3 cups wine. Boil until wine is reduced by half, 15-20 minutes. Return chicken to pot.
  • Add broth. Tie thyme and rosemary sprigs together; add to pot. Bring to a boil and cover pot. Transfer pot to oven and braise until chicken is tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
  • Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté until browned, about 5 minutes.
  • Transfer chicken from sauce to pot with mushrooms; keep warm. Simmer sauce over medium heat until reduced by 1/3, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Add mushrooms and chicken to sauce. DO AHEAD Coq au vin can be made 3 days ahead. Chill uncovered until cold. Cover; keep chilled. Re-warm before serving.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Weekend Guest C. Michele Dorsey

We're delighted to welcome C. "Michele" Dorsey to Type M. Michele is the author of No Virgin Island and Permanent Sunset in the Sabrina Salter mystery series set on St. John in the US Virgin Islands. Michele is a lawyer, mediator and adjunct professor of law, who finds inspiration and serenity on St. John and on Cape Cod. She is co-chair of New England Crime Bake, Vice President of Mystery Writers of America, New England, and served on the board of Sisters in Crime, New England.

The Seeds of Story

I heard Walter Mosley use the term “unconscious writing” several times during this past weekend at the New England Crime Bake, where he was guest of honor. I haven’t been able to shake it. He talked about connecting with your unconscious mind. I think that is where the seeds of a story begin before the writer ever knows it. What follows is an evolution that can take years, even decades to root and grow.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I went on a trip to Ireland to visit our daughter who was attending Trinity College for her junior year. They waited in line to kiss the Blarney Stone, but I felt restless. I admitted to already being too full of blarney and walked through the grounds of the Blarney castle where a ground fog had risen and sent shivers throughout me, but not from the damp. Something intangible, visceral filled and excited me. Later, while visiting monk huts and other stone formations, I felt stirred by something close to being spiritual I still haven’t quite identified. But it remained with me.

During the intermittent years as I wrote more and more, I discovered myself using language that was not part of my daily vernacular, but had been used by my Irish grandmother. When I traveled to Mexico, I commented that a woman “hangs a nice wash” when I observed her colorful and orderly laundry drying on a clothesline, a phrase I later remembered my grandmother using. The more I wrote, the more her words surfaced.

Fast forward to June 2017 when I returned to Ireland for a five-day stopover on my way to Provence. A friend recommended a tour of Newgrange, a monument that is a thousand years older than the Pyramids, where historian Mary Gibbons leads you inside the oldest astronomical observatory in the world. Outside, on a cool misty day I looked out at fields of green that seem to extend forever, and I felt it again. But this time, I knew I felt like I had come home. Later as I stood on the Hill of Tara, the ancient royal site of the High Kings of Ireland, I could see twenty-three of Ireland’s thirty-two counties. While I had never been there before, it felt familiar.

By the time I arrived at the Dublin Writer’s Museum, I was relieved to be inside looking at concrete images in photos and at books and journals of Joyce, Wilde, and Yeats. I wondered why I hadn’t read more of them. But my TBR pile was already so high.

This September, I wandered onto an announcement for a course on James Joyce’s Dubliners at my local Open University, which I didn’t know existed. (To be fair, I’m new to the community.) The inner rumblings could no longer be disregarded. I enrolled and was ignited by the images of fictional people created by Joyce a hundred years ago that I felt I knew.

It was inevitable. The seeds had been planted long ago, maybe forever. I have an Irish story sitting inside of me now that is now screaming to be let out. The geographical images are there. The people are there. And the stirring from my unconscious mind can no longer be ignored. Now I must go write it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Type M Recipe Challenge

I know I said my November posts would be about doing NaNoWriMo. But I don't have anything else I want to say right now. I'll let you know how I did after it's over. Today, I want to accept Rick's challenge to share a recipe related to one of our books.

Here's the backstory for this recipe. My Lizzie Stuart mystery series is currently being reissued by Speaking Volumes. My original publisher was Overmountain Press, a small independent publisher specializing in Southern books. Overmountain added a mystery imprint called Silver Dagger, featuring Southern authors --  in my case a Southern-born author with a Southern-based character.

The Silver Dagger imprint was launched with a splash. The authors worked as a consortium, marketing together. We were asked to contribute a recipe related to our first book for a collection that  would be a giveaway. I turned to my good friend, Alice Green, for help. Alice was and still is the executive director of a community-based nonprofit. She is also an excellent cook. I asked her to come up for a recipe for "yummy balls".

In my first book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Death Favorite Child,
the victim has a peanut allergy. To satisfy her sweet tooth when she was a child, her aunt came up with a tasty treat that she called a "yummy ball". The dastardly killer substitutes ringer candy balls.

In the book, the about-to-be victim tells Lizzie what's in the yummy balls. Based on that description that I made up, Alice went into her kitchen and concocted a recipe. Her husband taste-tested several versions until she found the right combination. Yummy balls are so good that my publisher at the time served them at a holiday dinner.

I don't have to tell you (but I will) that you should not make or eat these if you have a peanut allergy. This is the version that did in my victim.

Alice's Yummy Balls

1 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup finely chopped salted peanuts
3/4 cup chopped dates
11/2 cup uncooked oatmeal
2 cups Rice Krispies
Combine corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, and butter. Bring mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter until melted and smooth. Add peanuts, dates, oatmeal, and Rice Krispies and stir. Hand roll the mixture into balls about the size of a large walnut. Place in a dish. Keep refrigerated, but served at room temperature.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Recipe Challenge - War Cake!

Today I am rising to Rick's food-in-novel challenge, an easy challenge for me to meet, for thirteen years ago, I was not more than ten pages into the first draft of the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, when I realized that I was going to be writing a lot about food, and not just any food, but American farm food–heavy, caloric, abundant meals made almost exclusively from what you could grow or slaughter yourself. Because if like Alafair you live on a horse farm in Oklahoma in 1912, and you have ten kids, you’re always thinking about what’s for dinner.

It occurred to me even then that readers would probably be interested in the recipes for these old country dishes that were so common and everyday for my parents and grandparents, so from that very first Alafair novel I have included several recipes mentioned in each story. And not just the recipes themselves, but the food lore that goes along with them. For instance, there are specific ways to eat beans and cornbread, and everyone has her favorite. There are also very wrong ways to make, say, cornbread, (which is bread, Dear Reader, and not cake) if you intend to call yourself a bona fide Southerner.

Thanksgiving is next week here in the States, and I have many fabulous pie recipes from which I was going to choose for this entry, but since the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I has just passed, I'm going to include here a recipe out of my eighth Alafair novel, All Men Fear Me, which takes place in 1917, at the beginning of the American involvement in the war.

The book is not about the life of a soldier, though, or what is going on in Europe, or trench warfare. It is about the American home front. My grandparents were all in their early twenties at the time, and as much as they all loved to talk and tell tales, none of them told me anything about life in the middle of America during World War I. So for most of my life, I’ve had the mistaken impression that the war didn’t have much impact on daily life over here.

Oh, there was impact galore, Dear Reader. But today I’m restricting myself to the impact on dinner. The United States Food Administration, headed at the time by a young man named Herbert Hoover, was charged with making sure that all American housewives were doing their part for the war effort. “Our problem,” said the USFA, “is to feed our Allies by sending them as much food as we can of the most concentrated nutritive value in the least shipping space. These foods are wheat, beef, pork, dairy products, and sugar. Our solution is to eat less of these…and to waste less of all foods.”

So every housewife was encouraged to use as little of the aforementioned foodstuffs as possible. There are several surviving war cookbooks that the USFA distributed to show women how make meals for their families without using wheat, or meat, or sugar, and these are the recipes that I’ve been trying out on my long-suffering friends. To tell the truth, some of them are pretty good.

I found the recipe for War Cake in a 1918 USFA publication called War Economy in Food. Now, I’ve tested out many old recipes in the course of writing this series, and more than once the results have been less than satisfactory. Our modern tastes are different from our ancestors’, and sometimes the old dishes are so heavy and rich that a bite or two is all we can take. Of course we don’t plow the back forty after dinner like Grandpa did.

But the reviews of War Cake were very good, which surprised me a bit because this cake has no wheat, no sugar, and no eggs. It’s dense and moist and even though it has no ginger, it reminds me of gingerbread, or Boston brown bread. Here’s the recipe directly from the booklet. It’s easy to make and delicious. But I warn you, Dear Reader. Low in calories it is not.

War Cake
1 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1 cup corn syrup
1-1/2 cup water
1 package raisins (exact quantity according to preference)
2 TB fat (vegetable oil)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 cups rye flour
1/2 tsp soda
2 tsp baking powder

Boil together for 5 minutes the first nine ingredients. Cool, add the sifted dry ingredients and bake in two loaves for 45 minutes in a moderate oven. (I baked it at 350º F. – Donis)

I like to use golden raisins because they are tender and look nice. I use a 1/2 pound package from Trader Joe’s. The corn syrup I’ve used is plain old white Karo, but I’ve also used maple syrup (which is delicious), agave syrup, honey, and a combination thereof. It’s all good.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sometimes grandma does know best

Barbara here. During the past week there have been some interesting posts about how we writers manage distractions like email, social media, and the lonely call of the dishwasher to be unloaded. If you work on a laptop connected to the internet, those little alerts and pings can pull you out of the story and down a rabbit hole of links to cat videos and the latest Trump outrage. Hours can pass without a word of progress on that novel with the looming deadline.

Several techniques have been proposed, including editing on paper and writing standing up at a computer without internet access.

There have also been posts about the damage to our attention span and abstract thinking caused by the constant, rapid-fire input of information in our digital age. This has been a serious concern among us child psychologists for several decades, and only growing worse as young brains today are shaped and developed in this new reality. Flitting from one small chunk of information to another not only does not strengthen the capacity for sustained concentration (quite the opposite) but it also does not allow for deeper reflection, analysis, and synthesis of ideas into a bigger picture. One cannot present Immanuel Kant in a series of short, interactive info bites, nor can one ever understand him without years of building up the brain to handle the complexity. Brains need training and practice to master a skill. We are training them all wrong.

Working memory underlies much of higher-order thinking. We have to be able to keep information in our short-term memory and play with it there in order to synthesize or analyze it. Working memory is increasingly underused because of gadgets that allow us to access information from our Google Home devices and phones instead of our own memory. Mental math (like calculating the tip) is excellent practice for working memory, but memorization of addition and times tables has been abandoned in favour of calculators. Furthermore, the use of word processors, no matter how convenient, speeds up the act of getting idea from brain to page and therefore cuts down on the amount of reflection and reorganization those ideas undergo.

So, to bring this post back to the business of writing, I'd like to propose a simple technique that has fallen into disfavour and invites astonishment from writing colleagues – good, old-fashioned longhand. I write my first draft using a pen and pad of yellow paper. My laptop sits ignored in the corner of the coffee table. When I occasionally open it up to check a piece of information, I inevitably fall down the internet rabbit hole and lose my focus on the story, so I've learned to simply mark "check this" in the draft before I carry on.

Besides keeping me away from distractions, longhand is a powerful tool for sinking deeper into the story. Because my pen can't keep up with my brain, I have time to think about each word and each action in more detail, choosing better words and hopefully adding richness that I may not have thought of had I been flying through the scene. The first drafts are a mess of crossed-out sentences, arrows, scribbles in the margins, and "insert next page" notations, so much so that they are nearly illegible. Even if I were wealthy enough to afford a secretary, he or she would never be able to decipher them. Transcribing those scribbles onto my computer is a laborious process, but even that gives me time for further reflection and editing.

I may be swimming against the tide here, but I'm not alone among experts. Studies have shown that students who take notes on a laptop do not understand or remember the material as well as those who take longhand notes. The latter requires more paraphrasing and organizing in order to capture the same material while keeping up with the teacher. It seems some good old-fashioned pedagogical techniques that have been tossed aside in the digital age have some uses after all.

Too bad most kids don't learn cursive any more.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A new Type M for Murder project proposal!

by Rick Blechta

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday. Being a musician by training, of course I worked in the restaurant trade along the way when musical work was scarce. Instead of front of the house — the place you find most aspiring between-gigs musicians — I was in the kitchen. Why? Because I like to cook and I’m good at it, if I do say so myself.

Anyway, when Aline mentioned food in books, I immediately thought of Nero Wolfe. Food is a huge sidebar in those novels and Rex Stout was very adept in its use to amplify the character of Wolfe and to allow Archie to make comments and observations about his boss. Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s resident chef, also became a source of “colour” as the series went on. The whole food fixation in these stories helped to give the lives of the characters more shape and background and made them seem more real.

But that’s not what I’m talking about today.

Aline’s post gave me An Idea, and I hope it’s a good one. I’m sure most of the authors here have used food in their novels at one point or another. How about we share recipes for one dish that we used in a story?

First, we give a bit of background, and then the recipe. Who’s game?

I’m going to kick it off with this:

Spaghetti alla Carbonara
(makes two servings)

200 gr dry spaghetti
2 eggs, beaten
1-2 Tbs olive oil
4 oz guanciale* or pancetta, diced
2 Tbs dry white wine (I prefer Orvieto)
4 Tbs grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 Tbs grated Pecorino Romano
1 tsp black pepper

*Wondering what the heck guanciale is? It’s dry-cured hog jowl and it is a lovely thing — but it can be hard to find. Find a very good Italian grocer and inquire about it. In a pinch, you can use pancetta which is more widely available, but it’s merely a substitute. For heaven’s sake, don’t use bacon! Garden variety bacon won’t work because it’s cured with lots of sugar.

  1. Heat a medium-size skillet over a low flame and put a pot of water on to boil. (Never put anything in a cold skillet. Heat it first!)
  2. When the skillet is hot, add the olive oil and when that’s warm, add the guanciale. If you’re substituting pancetta, you might want to use the larger amount of olive oil. (Guanciale is fatty, so you don’t need the extra olive oil.) Cook slowly while the pasta water comes to a boil.
  3. Meanwhile mix the beaten eggs, two cheeses and black pepper together. Set aside.
  4. Salt the now-boiling water well, and cook the spaghetti to your preferred level of doneness. While that’s cooking, add the white wine to the guanciale and simmer slowly.
  5. Scoop out a half-cup of pasta water when the spaghetti is half-cooked. Add it to the skillet with the meat and wine and turn up the heat to medium high. Stir well as it boils.
  6. This next thing is important! Before you drain the cooked pasta, grab another half-cup of pasta water. You might well need it.
  7. Drain the spaghetti when it’s done, but don’t shake it. You want it to be a bit wet. Add it to the skillet where your other ingredients are cooking. Turn down the heat to low.
  8. Working quickly, toss the spaghetti in your “sauce” to coat it, then add the egg/cheese mixture and continue tossing. You want it to make a creamy sauce as the eggs cook and the cheese melts. If it’s beginning to thicken too much, add more reserved pasta water. How much to add can be a bit tricky the first time or two you make it. It’s a feel thing. You don’t want this dish to turn into spaghetti with scrambled eggs!
  9. Plate the dish and add a bit more grated parmigiano on top along with more black pepper. The term “carbonara” refers to black pepper — which works very well with the cheese/egg sauce. Use pepper generously with this dish. The Romans add a ton!
Spaghetti alla Carbonara appears in my novel, The Fallen One,  at the point where the two main characters share a home cooked meal for the first time and their friendship begins to blossom into romance. I supplied one of my family’s favourite Italian meals to help spur on the growing attraction!

Buon appetito!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Food in Fiction

How important is it in a book to know what the characters eat? Does it shed a light on their characters? Or do they even eat at all?

I was thinking about this because I couldn't enjoy a book I read recently which had been shaping up to be rather a good thriller because I was so distracted by the characters, including a couple of children, all going for refuge to this remote shack where they stayed for several weeks without any indication of what they lived on or how they got it. If these children were anything like mine, the dialogue would have been totally dominated by wails of, 'I'm starving!' I got so obsessed about it that I completely lost interest in the dramatic denouement.

Perhaps it's just me who thinks like that. I love cooking and I love entertaining. I read cookbooks for pleasure and it's so important in my life that it has even taken over my anxiety dream. When I was worried, my standard dream used to be about trying to get to an exam when I didn't even know where it was or what I would be examined on. Now, it's about having people coming to visit when I've no food in the house and I can't find the supermarket.

I've always loved the descriptions of food in children's books, whether Ratty and Mole's picnic of 'cold tonguecoldhamcold beefpickledgherkinsaladFrenchrollscress sandwichespottedmeatgingerbeer lemonadesoda water' or the Christmas hamper from home with Debbie's jumbles in 'What Katie Did at School.' One of my favourite cookery books is the delightful The Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young which is a treasure trove of literary recipes.

Joanne Harris's Chocolat was such a clever book, as luscious as chocolate itself, a revelation of the character of the heroine as well. Marcel Proust's madeleine is of course the famous example, with the thin taste of the lime-flower tea and the delicate sponge reflecting his own refined sensibility.

I hadn't really thought about it before in my own books, but my DI Marjory Fleming – no cook herself – has a robust enjoyment of the hearty Polish country dishes her housekeeper makes as well as the bakes her mother sends along in The Tin, an important feature of Fleming family life. My new detective, DI Kelso Strang, is thirty years younger and as a New Man has no problem in dishing up an elegant sea bass. And yes, I suppose that does indeed spell out his more austere character compared to hers.

So, as I work out my plots should I, in future, work out the recipes to go with them?

Saturday, November 10, 2018


Vicki Writing (not exactly as shown)
By Vicki Delany

The topic the week seems to be concentration. How do we concentrate in a busy always-on-demand always-connected world?

For what it’s worth, this is what works (most of the time) for me.

I am a highly disorganized person. I write three books a year. So in my writing life, I have to be highly organized.

As part of that, I have a separate notebook computer devoted to writing books and only to writing books. I’ve never set up mail or Facebook or anything other than Word. I use Dropbox for backups and moving documents between computers, so the notebook has to be connected to the Internet but as long as nothing else is set up, I can’t access it. I don’t do any of the business-related part of writing (Facebook posts, writing blog posts or essays etc. etc.) on it. Just write the darn book.

The notebook is kept in a separate room from my main computer and my iPad. In the summer, I take it out on the back deck to write, and the rest of the year I place it on the half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room. And there I write on it. Standing up.

Aside from the fact that I have found I like standing up for 4 – 5 hours a day, I believe it helps the creative process too. When I’m stuck – for that second of what’s been called ‘creative time’ - I walk around the room, or look out the window. I don’t open Facebook to see what’s going on in the world (I probably don’t want to know).

That seems to works me.

And thus I can write three books (sometimes more) a year. Including A SCANDAL IN SCARLET which will be released on Tuesday.

Walking her dog Violet late one night, Gemma Doyle, owner of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop, acts quickly when she smells smoke outside the West London Museum. Fortunately no one is inside, but it’s too late to save the museum’s priceless collection of furniture, and damage to the historic house is extensive. Baker Street’s shop owners come together to hold an afternoon auction tea to raise funds to rebuild, and Great Uncle Arthur Doyle offers a signed first edition of The Valley of Fear.

Cape Cod’s cognoscenti files into Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, owned by Gemma’s best friend, Jayne Wilson. Excitement fills the air (along with the aromas of Jayne’s delightful scones, of course). But the auction never happens. Before the gavel can fall, museum board chair Kathy Lamb is found dead in the back room. Wrapped tightly around her neck is a long rope of decorative knotted tea cups―a gift item that Jayne sells at Mrs. Hudson’s. Gemma’s boyfriend in blue, Ryan Ashburton, arrives on the scene with Detective Louise Estrada. But the suspect list is long, and the case far from elementary. Does Kathy’s killing have any relation to a mysterious death of seven years ago?

Gemma has no intention of getting involved in the investigation, but when fellow shopkeeper Maureen finds herself the prime suspect she begs Gemma for her help. Ryan knows Gemma’s methods and he isn’t happy when she gets entangled in another mystery. But with so many suspects and so few clues, her deductive prowess will prove invaluable in A Scandal in Scarlet, Vicki Delany’s shrewdly plotted fourth Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery.

PS. Did you know I sent out a newsletter every quarter? I talk about my books and my travels and anything else that strikes my fancy. This quarter I've started a new feature called Vicki's Book Club. If you'd like to be on the list, please send me your email address. I'm at vicki at vickidelany dot com.
You know the drill!

Friday, November 09, 2018


The posts on coping with distraction by my fellow Type M'ers really hit home. I've been wrestling (or at least toying) with the idea that I'm indulging in a subtle form of self-sabotage by becoming involved with too many meetings and too many organizations. And I've done this to myself. 

When I become a member of any organization I really feel obligated to provide some sort of active service. This inclination comes from living in small towns most of my life. Stuff doesn't get done in these tiny communities without everyone pitching in. 

But it's time for me to do some serious sorting.

Last week I completed my last meeting as a board member and treasurer of my Homeowners Association. It felt good to know that in another month I would handing the binders and responsibilities to someone else. I'm on another financial committee that is very time consuming and I plan to resign from it at the end of the year. 

No more money committees.

I'm on the funeral guild committee at St. Luke's. I'm happy to do that. We've had a number of deaths in our family and I know from personal experience that having a place for mourners to gather after a service is a solace. It's a time of sharing food, renewing acquaintances and reminiscing about the loved one.  

The funeral guild stays. Probably until it's time for my own service. 

I seem to be attracted to other churchy groups that promote my own personal or spiritual development. Seem? Let's face it, I'm a real sucker for them. Our pastor started a Bible study class, I'm in a meditation group, then foolishly signed up for a six-week course in something that ended up being a rather interesting discussion group. 

Discussion groups or anything even remotely resembling this kind of interaction is out. 

I have a part time bookkeeping accounting job which I really enjoy. One of the reasons that job is satisfying is because I must focus. It feels good to shut everything else out. I have vague memories when shutting everything else out applied to my writing. 

The job stays. Plus it gives a entirely new meaning to flexible time. 

Our family is unusually close. I'm lucky to be in one where aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, children, grandchildren keep entangled in each other's lives. 

My family involvement stays. 

Ah, the writing, the writing. The demands of publishing have changed so much. I don't do nearly what I could be doing for promotion. There's writing organizations and lining up talks. Then getting there. And all the emails that it takes to make things happen. 

I'm more ambivalent about the business side of writing than anything else. Therefore a firm decision is on hold. 

Last week I began revising a short story and polishing up a book manuscript. I just loved it. 

Somehow – if I don't do myself in – the writing will always be my deepest joy.    

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Distractions, you say. Where was I?

I read Rick’s and Thomas’s excellent posts this week and had to cringe. Not because I dispute anything they say; but, rather, the opposite: I think most of us wish we had longer attention spans. I read somewhere that eighth graders know 50% fewer words now than they did in 1950. I don’t doubt it. I don’t know for certain why this is, but I do believe young people, in general, don’t read as often as they once did. Because of Rick’s dreaded television? Not sure.

I do, however, know screen addiction is real. “Close your laptops, please. Eyes up here,” is becoming a mantra in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I, too, probably suffer the same addiction. My phone might as well be a sixth finger.

Like many people, my day job requires me to be accessible for the majority of the day. Given that I oversee a dorm of 46 teenagers and need to be available to coworkers and parents just about 24/7, the relationship I have with my cell phone is probably more dysfunctional than yours.

There are, though, are a few things I’ll share here that I do to help me exceed the attention span of a hummingbird.

A single tab: The first thing I need to focus is to avoid email. At all costs. Google runs my world, so I open the Chrome browser to full screen with only one window open. I can’t see a second tab.

Lose the phone: I mean this almost literally. When I’m writing, my office door is shut, and the cell phone is in the other room. (I check it on coffee breaks, and I can hear it ring, but texts are set to vibrate.)

Work on paper: Rewriting takes place on paper and clipboard. No distractions when I’m laying on the sofa, reading, slashing, and writing longhand.

Chew gum: Yes, that’s what I said. It helps students to focus. I know it helps me.

Run: Not necessarily fast or far. But exercise helps me to clear my head, and I write much better after a run.

I don’t have a cure-all for concentration lapses. No prescription. Just some (hopefully) thoughtful tips. Feel free to send yours my way.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

CREEP And Other Unfortunate Acronyms

Recently, I’ve been watching the new History channel documentary on Watergate. I vaguely remember watching the hearings on TV when I was a kid. I was around 14 and I think more interested in getting my homework done and spending time on my after school activities than watching Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman etc. testify.

The only two things that come to mind now are seeing Dean testify and hearing about the Committee For the Re-Election of the President aka CREEP. Even then I thought CREEP was a bad acronym. It made me think of the Watergate burglars creeping around. Or someone who was, well, a creep. I understand now that the official acronym was CRP, but I don’t remember ever seeing that mentioned anywhere. Still, I think whoever was responsible for naming that committee should have taken a look at the name and seen what some people might call it. Hindsight, I suppose.

That got me thinking about other unfortunate acronyms or abbreviations.

I live fairly close to Los Angeles International Airport, more commonly referred to as LAX. Every time I see it written out, I can’t help thinking that it’s a bad declaration for an airport. Is everyone there lax when it comes to their jobs? Security doesn’t seem to be lax there.

Then there are the companies or organizations that have acronyms that are now texting abbreviations that mean something entirely different. The Wisconsin Tourism Federation predates the current use of WTF so they can’t be blamed for the acronym. They did feel the need, though, to change their name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.

Then there’s the Department of Elder Affairs in Iowa that changed its name to the Department of Aging in 2009. Yep, DOA. It’s now the Iowa Department on Aging and they use IDA.

That’s my musing for this week. Anyone know of any other unfortunate acronyms?


In other news, it was my pleasure last week to present a $1000 check from Sisters in Crime to the Yorba Linda Public Library in Yorba Linda, California. Every month SinC awards $1000 to a library in the United States for buying books and audio books to add to their collections. It’s all part of the We Love Libraries program. I’m currently serving as the WLL coordinator so I get to notify the winners, but I rarely get to attend or participate in any of the presentation ceremonies. The check was presented at a panel at the library featuring Orange County chapter members Jeri Westerson, Greta Boris and Jill Amadio.

Please encourage your local U.S. library to enter for a chance to win a grant. See for the details.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

I have a theory

by Rick Blechta

Tom’s post from Monday has a very important truth at its heart.

Speaking as a former teacher, I can definitely confirm that a large number of the students I taught — and I started 40 years ago now — had diminished capabilities for concentration. Since I taught instrumental music, this was a particularly thorny issue to navigate. If you have trouble concentrating, you aren’t going to do well learning an instrument or mastering a piece of music.

Sure, students losing interest in playing their instruments is a problem going back as far as, well, instruments. (“No, I don’t want to play lyre anymore, Daddy!”)

What I’m talking about is students having trouble concentrating for long enough to actually making even a little progress taming a tricky passage or learning new notes, rhythms, techniques, whatever. I would be working over something with a class and I could see the eyes beginning to glaze over here and there. The fidgeting would begin. Students would be looking at the clock or out the window. I knew then it was time to “change task” and try to reclaim the interest of my class. So I adopted a technique I dubbed “hit and run” — do a little bit of work here, then a little there and over the course of a few weeks’ teaching hope that I covered everything.

Talking this over with colleagues, it became clear we were all struggling with the same thing. Old teaching hands would say it always was a problem but that recently it had been accelerating.

Then I began to be curious about why this was happening.

We’ve never had TV in our house. My wife and I don’t like it and we decided that we wanted to give our two boys a chance to experience life without an “idiot box.” Sure, we knew they’d watch at their friends’ houses, gorge on TV when visiting Grandma, but we gave them lots to do when they were home and they were pretty good about their parents’ “oddness.”

One Christmas, they decided to pool the money they received as gifts and buy a small TV. We didn’t object (because they were cooperating with each other), but limited when they could watch. In order to spend time with them, I’d sometimes sit on the sofa with them and watch what they were watching.

And I was appalled.

There’s something in editing called “jump cuts”, little snippets of different camera shots or angles used to speed up “the action” in a scene. Jump cuts were all over the place, in dramas, comedies, music videos (tons of ’em there!), and especially in commercials.

It dawned on me that if this was what my students were watching, no wonder they were having trouble concentrating for more than two minutes!

Here’s the kicker: those students of mine are now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they have children and grandchildren of their own. TV (and movies) have made even greater use of jump cuts and rapid-fire camera angles to add emphasis and excitement to what they’re presenting.

Remember Mr. Rogers? If he’d wanted to start his show in the present day, he’d be laughed out of television executives’ offices. “Too slow!” “Too dull!” “Kids won’t sit still and watch this crap!”

I was lucky. I got hooked by music early on and saw the only way to success lay in being able to concentrate for long periods of time — with more than a dollop of patience thrown in. I realized innately that this was the only way to improve and I hungered to be better, so it was self-reinforcing.

Attention span needs to be taught, and we ain’t doing a very good job of it. Sure you can blame TV or movies or the internet, but the truth is fixing the attention deficit involves us taking control of what we do, how we spend our time, and how we teach our children.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Clickbait ADHD

I know that November is Novel Writing Month, but I can barely write a novel in a year.


I have the attention span of a six-year-old. That’s a bad thing if you’re writing an 90,000-word mystery. Worse, if you’re working on a computer and you’re logged onto the internet.

First off, I’m a news junkie. Every morning, I look at the websites of the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico, The Hill, Huffington Post, and the Raleigh News & Observer. The current political climate doesn’t do anything to assuage my news addiction. Scary things are happening and an absurd rate of speed.

AMAZING PICS: NASA releases image showing Sun ‘exploding’

If I just read the stories that interested me, I would most likely be fine. But I go for clickbait. Those shiny, sparkly, too good to be true headlines that always promise more that they deliver—suddenly I’m down the rabbit hole. When I should be working on Chapter 23, instead I’m clicking on something that’s caught my eye.

19 Every-day items that are actually a huge waste of money

And how much time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is too much? I justify it by saying that they’re all marketing tools to help get the word about my books. “Liking” my friends’ photos is just being neighborly. Isn’t it?

After all, they “like” and share the reviews I post of Random Road and Darkness Lane. Facebook and Twitter, well, they're just good marketing tools.

A few years ago, a Chicago psychologist, Michael Pietrus offered an interesting theory: Maybe these distractions aren’t just an internet-age annoyance but something approaching actual pathology.

It's possible the internet is giving us all the symptoms of ADHD. He cautioned, “We are not saying that internet technologies and social media are directly causing ADHD.” But he claimed that the internet “can impair functioning in a variety of ways…that can mimic and in some cases exacerbate underlying attention problems.”

According to the CDC, an estimated 4.4 percent of adults have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It can make it difficult to concentrate on one thing for any period of time. Adults with ADHD, unlike children, aren’t hyperactive in the conventional sense. But they can be compulsive, easily distracted, easily bored. They lose interest halfway through reading an article or completing a task.

When I sit down at my desk on a Saturday morning intending to have two chapters under my belt by the end of the day and I look at my watch and see that it’s already noon and I haven’t written a word—well, that’s when I slap myself in the forehead.

How do I combat my addiction? Believe it or not--YouTube. No, I don’t download kitty videos or trailers of upcoming movies (although I love those) and nor do I download outtakes from the Big Bang Theory (even though I find those laugh-out-loud hilarious).

Nope, I’ll listen to ambient music. There’s a ton of it out there. It’s like the background music in a movie. If I’ve come to a sad chapter, I put on an hour of sad music. If I’m at a place of introspection, I’ll put on an hour or so of a chill mix. Writing a scary scene? There are some ambient style Game of Thrones soundtracks that put me in the right frame of mind.

A 2007 study from Stamford University published in the journal Neuron makes the claim that music engages the areas of the brain linked with paying attention, making predictions and updating memory.

'Cursed’ Egyptian sarcophagus reveals secrets.

That’s the last one, I promise. Time to turn on some ambient music and write that novel.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Out of the Gate

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started yesterday. As I mentioned in my last post, I am trying again this year. Last year, I was a miserable flop. This year I have done much more preparation. Or, rather, I am further along in my research and plotting for the book I've been working on for the past few years. Until last year, it was a backburner book. Now, it is my focus.

So, yesterday I sat down and wrote. Because of my schedule, it was evening before I could get to it. I started with 2500 word in my bank account. I ended up doing some rewriting and tossing out scenes I had already written. Since I'm not interested in the official word count for the award, I wanted to give myself a head start. I also needed to have gone through my warm-up process that requires me to write and rewrite the same scenes over and over again before I feel ready to begin.

Last night, after playing around with my scenes and adding another 500 words, I felt pretty good about my first day. I felt even better when a problem with structure sorted itself out in the process. I am still playing with point of view. Right now, I'm allowing all of the major characters to have a voice. I know when I revise that will change, but for now I want to get through the first draft.

Donis, many thanks for the home remedies for avoiding the flu. That was a reminder that even if I get my flu shot, I need to eat right, get sleep, and exercise if I'm going to make it through the month. I'm going to be juggling classes, the nonfiction book I'm revising, and my daily quota of NaNoWriMo words.

To actually finish a 90,000 word first draft, I'd need to keep up my pace of 3,000 words a day. I don't think that's going to happen. What may happen is that toward the end -- over the long Thanksgiving weekend -- I'll be able to get two or three days when I can carve out more time to write.

But I have gotten out of the gate. I've joined a group of other writers, and we're already checking in and cheering each other on. This year, I may make it. Bad draft for sure, but at least thousands of words on paper and ready to be revised.

Anyone else doing NaNo?