Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Pumpkin Nirvana

As mentioned in the last blog post, I like to eat wonderful food. Three years ago, to celebrate our 25th anniversary, my husband Calvin took me to Paris. It was an indulgence in art, architecture, and food. 

Les Papilles was one of the restaurants we visited. And a few years ago, I found a recipe that they'd posted online. It was for cream of pumpkin soup. Not something I’d normally be interested in. But I had cream of squash soup in their restaurant. I hate squash, but the soup was gastronomic bliss. I printed the pumpkin recipe.

 After all three years, I finally made the soup.

My husband is on sabbatical, so I had a sous chef/dishwasher available. Very handy, because whenever I make anything “weird,” my sons need an “alternative food opportunity.” Tonight, it was andouille sausage.

The recipe called for garnishes that included: crumbled bacon,
chives, shaved almonds, bits of fresh pumpkin, croutons, and
a sprinkle of cocoa.
What I didn’t notice three years ago is that Google had put the recipe through Google translate. I could have cooked from the French recipe. The "Franglais" recipe—that was harder.

For example, I’m not sure what “have harmoniously” was supposed to mean. And then there were the words that were neither French nor English...

In the end, the soup was pumpkin nirvana. Instead of andouille sausages, my sons had second helpings of cream of pumpkin soup.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Come Edit Me, My Darling

Two blog posts ago, I mentioned that I signed with literary Chris Bucci of the McDermid Agency. (Still so amazing to be able to say it.) And then, I got down to revisions. At minimum, I worked 5 hours a day on them. Or at least, until my brain got foggy and I began confusing plot elements. Then, it was “back away from the computer slowly, hands above your head.” (I’ve made the mistake of editing with muddled brain before—it’s not a pretty picture.)

In any case, I got the revisions sent off. And it was time to wait. Here’s what I did while I tried not to think “what if my revisions suck?”

1. I cleaned house. According to my sons, that meant instead of spraying every surface with bleach and wiping it down, I scrubbed every surface with bleach. Okay, they aren’t wrong. Just sarcastic. I love bleach. Nothing is as calming to me as the scent of bleach, especially bleached bed sheets. Yeah, I know, my kids tell me I need therapy.

2. I did yard work. (And listened to podcasts on my phone. I love Writing Excuses.) Weeding was one of the first things, I did. So, when my husband asked me at breakfast what I was going to do that day and I said “edit the garden,” he didn’t bat an eyelid—he’s awesome like that. I’d post a photo of the garden editing, but suffice it to say, I was wearing painted-stained shorts, a tank top, gardening gloves, and earbuds while wielding a big shovel and spray tank of Round-up. Not the coolest photo op.

3. I found my thoughts straying to my revisions. And redoubled my efforts to think about something—anything—else.

4. I studied some Dutch. My mother is from the Netherlands, so I grew up speaking the language. But I’ve never had a good command of Dutch spelling or reading. Plus, I speak a nearly archaic version of the language—think, King James/Shakespeare version of Dutch. When native speakers hear me, they always think/say, “Oh, you’re so cute.” Cute is never what I’m going for.

Here are the ingredients for Muhamarra: dill garlic,
roasted red pepper, carrots, sumac, roasted almonds,
 pomegranate molasses (which I made), etc.
5. Cooking. I don’t love to cook. But I love weird food and exotic flavors. (As does my husband. Though our youngest boys scowl at my culinary forays, convinced that one day I’m going to serve them toasted baguette with cocoa-cockroach spread or lemon-thyme braised goat testicles.) Anyway, I’ve been dying to make muhamarra, which is of Turkish/Levantine origins. It took me a while to collect all the ingredients—some were weird, like sumac, which is a beautiful deep purple and tastes a bit like lemons, only more sophisticated. So, you know, lemons from SoHo.

6. And last but not least, I found myself daydreaming about my new novel. The completed rough draft that now calls to me. Begging and whispering sweet promises, like “My darling Connie, please edit me—we will make beautiful music together” in a sexy Middle Eastern accent. Of course, the novel is set in the American South, so the accent doesn’t quite work. But hey, my daydreams are my daydreams. ;)

Here's the finished muhumarra along with a loaf of bread I made.
Sadly, the flavor of the bread overwhelmed the spread, so we got out crackers. :)

Friday, September 9, 2016

Book Review, The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, which explores themes of jealousy, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.

I eagerly began reading this novel because I thoroughly enjoyed a previous book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew). However, it would have been wise if I’d considered whether I’d want to read a retelling of A Winter’s Tale.

Given that the play revolves around Leontes’s misguided belief that his wife is having an affair and pregnant with a child that isn’t his, I should have considered how that might be handled by a modern writer. And the truth is that the novel is much more sexually explicit than I am comfortable with, particularly in the first third. I would have set the book aside, except that I received the novel in exchange for a review and felt obligated to finish it.

Aside from the graphic nature of the novel, it was beautifully written. At times, even lyrical. Though there were some occasions when the novel felt disjointed (the play has the same nature), the pacing is quite good and propels the reader through the text. 

I received this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Offer of Representation!

Signing the contract! Woot!

In the past couple of years, I've begun writing adult upmarket fiction. And I am thrilled to announce that I've signed with a literary agent and am now represented by Chris Bucci of the McDermid Agency! (Here's a link to the "agents page" of the agency website.)

Signed contract!
For those who aren't familiar with the term upmarket fiction, it's the "sweet spot" between literary and commercial fiction. The idea being that it's both plot-driven and has beautiful language. If you're a bit more interested in what "upmarket" means, here's a short article from Writer's Digest.

My novel is an adult Southern noir with elements of magical realism. In other words, it's a suspenseful novel set in the South with a character who's not quite of this world. I'm very excited about the book and hopefully it will find just the right publisher and editor.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Because Chemists Have a Sense of Humor

Yep, the James Bond figure is holding a beaker.
  My son Matthew did undergraduate research this summer in quantitative analysis, a branch of chemistry. (Yep, another Keller chemist. We love our chemists.) One research students came up with a design to celebrate their summer research and the university gave each student a shirt. It's so cool, I wish I had majored in chemistry.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review, Vinegar Girl

Because Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I’m so glad I picked it up because the novel is a delightful literary romantic-comedy. It tells the story of Kate, a feisty young woman, who’s too comfortable in her stalled life. So Fate intervenes in the form of Pyotr, a handsome, brilliant Russian biologist, who desperately needs a green card. (I nearly rolled my eyes at this trope, but it works.) Thankfully, Tyler does not take the easy way out with insta-love or a laissez-faire sure-I’ll-marry-him-faux-compassion. Instead, the characters grow. Kate realizes that her life has frozen and she desperately needs to change. And Pyotr is not a two-dimensional, alpha male archetype. Instead, the reader discovers he is a lonely, vulnerable man—albeit one with a tongue and temper as sharp as Kate’s. But like all rom-coms, they fall in love and get married. Or rather, vice versa.

The story is well told, and the pacing is excellent. In fact, I read the book in two days because I couldn’t put it down. The writing itself is clean, and Tyler’s prose is very witty—I read sentences aloud to whomever happened to be around me at the time (even to my 21 year old son, who’s an electrical engineer and not the most sympathetic audience). Further, Tyler nails the Russian accent and immigrant mindset, making Pyotr even more endearing.

I do need to add that I can’t really discuss how faithfully or innovatively this novel retells Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew because I haven’t read that play. But I can say that you don’t need to be familiar with the play to enjoy this book.

I heartily recommended Vinegar Girl. It’s a perfect summer beach read!

I received this book for Blogging for Book in exchange for a review.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Guest Post by Laurel Garver, Building Story Tension

Displaying AlmostThere_cover_midsize.jpgDisplaying AlmostThere_cover_midsize.jpgToday I'd like to welcome author Laurel Garver to the blog. Laurel is the author of several books
I had the privilege of reading this novel
early. It was wonderful!
including: Never Gone, Almost There, Muddy-fingered Midnights, and Emotions in the Wild.

How Fragile We Are: Building Story Tension through Illness and Injury

By Laurel Garver

If you want tension in your fiction that’s truly organic, you can’t go wrong with a character experiencing bodily weakness, whether due to illness or injury. It’s something every reader can relate to, at least to some degree. We’ve all had a stubbed toe or minor cut or bruise, fallen ill with a head cold or stomach ache.

Suffering a more serious injury is something we all deeply fear. The mere implied threat of it will naturally cause a self-protective fight-or-flight response. Illnesses provoke a similar fear—and often disgust as well, sure to create tension in any relationship.

No matter the time or setting, human characters are vulnerable to forces that can steal their health. This applies to every character in your story. Illness or injury can incapacitate or simply hobble your protagonist, and it can also remove his or her usual sources of help. It can threaten the protagonist’s one true love, or family, or other favorite people. It can also knock your antagonist down a few notches when you need to buy your protagonist time.

The illness or injury might also become a rallying point for your heroes, such as cancer or a sudden loss of sight that requires a team to help the affected person.
In my novel Almost There, I explore the way illnesses and injury can become a family’s rallying point. Illness also directly challenges my protagonist Dani’s core flaw—wanting to be in control—by first removing a source of help and then hobbling her. The medical components of this story took the most significant research and planning. Here are some lessons I learned from that process.

Do your homework before selecting your means of bringing on a fictional illness or injury. Some injuries heal more quickly than others, some are more dangerous in certain environments, some gradually drain a person of strength, and some will lead quickly to more serious issues. Not all illnesses are created equal either. Many vary in how they spread, how quickly or slowly they incubate before causing symptoms, and how easily they can be treated.

Some key things you want to know before picking your “poison”

What commonly causes this?
What’s the typical range of severity?
How much and what kind of pain and discomfort accompany it?
What is the typical treatment for this injury?
How much professional care is usually called for?
What is the typical healing time?
What are the stages of healing?
What are common complications that prevent healing?
Under what circumstances might this injury prove permanently disabling or even fatal?
(For non-contemporary stories—how advanced is care for this kind of injury in my world?)

How is the illness contracted?
What is the incubation period?
Is there a vaccine? How effective is it?
What parts of the body does it effect and how?
How much and what kind of pain and discomfort accompany it?
What are early interventions? How effective are they?
What is the typical treatment?
How much professional care is typically called for?
How long is the typical recovery time?
What are the stages of recovery?
What complications can arise?
Under what circumstances could it cause permanent disability or prove fatal?
(For non-contemporary writers: how well is this disease understood in my world? How would it be treated? Could it be cured?)

Read as much as you can from established, evidence-based medical sites to begin with. The CDC and Medline Plus are government-run health agency sites; The Mayo Clinic and Web MD are two other comprehensive, well-regarded sites worth exploring.

You might discover that your cool medical plot twist requires some additional planning. I make use of a common contagious illness with a very long incubation period—10 to 14 days, most of which the person has no symptoms. I found I had to create a calendar in which I tracked not only the incubation but also the progression of symptoms and recovery for each affected person.

Once you’ve done some initial research, you absolutely must fact check it with a health professional. Chatting with several nurses and doctors in my life has helped me tremendously—not only in having the most accurate information, but also in getting real-life details about how real people experience the condition. Chances are you are no more than one degree of separation (friend of a friend) from a healthcare provider who’d be happy to answer your questions. (For additional advice on interviewing, see my posts “Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction” and “Channel Your Inner Reporter: Using Interviews to Strengthen Your Fiction.”)

Be sure to let them know this information is for a fiction project, not a real person who could hold them legally liable for health outcomes. For this reason, some folks will prefer to fact check something you’ve already written—so give that as an option. You might find that the healthcare pro will steer you toward even cooler ideas than you could have come up with on your own.

How might illness or injury add tension to one of your stories?

About the Author
Laurel Garver is a writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly's Fairmount Park. You can follow her on her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

About Almost There
Seventeen-year-old Dani Deane is certain a magical trip to Paris will cure her widowed mother's depression. But when Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, they must go to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. In the midst of crisis, can Dani trust God to bring hope and healing?