Archive for December, 2020

Getting Ready

December 30, 2020
Now All I Need Is Black Coffee and Some Paper!

We’re just a few days out from the New Year.  Now that my Christmas preparations are taken care of, and we’re in the middle of that lovely liminal space between holidays, I’ve been readying myself to start back into my writing routine.

Over the years, I’ve been given some lovely mugs celebrating my work as a writer, and I’m marshalling these along with a new fountain pen to launch me into creative mode.

Although the majority of my writing is done on my computer, I often start a new piece longhand.  Maybe because I started writing fiction longhand, it’s as if there’s a hotline between my writing hand and my Muse that isn’t always there with the keyboard.

Even my choice of keyboard is made to provide the absolute least interruption between the Muse and getting the story into a form I can share with other people.  I use a very old keyboard on which I’ve worn away about half of the letters from frequent use.  (I really need to get some of the stickers that have been recommended to me.)  I even have a back-up of the same old model for when this one goes, because the point for me is not thinking about the act of writing.

In that way, I guess my root perception of myself is as a storyteller rather than an author or writer.  I’m just a storyteller who prefers to use writing as the way to tell my stories.  However, as my gamers can tell you, I can spin a pretty decent yarn with nothing but the spoken word.

One of my self-assigned challenges for this year may be to use a cool digital voice recorder Jim gave me for my birthday to make short audio files of some of my work.  However, on the whole, I don’t really like to listen to myself composing.  For that reason, I hope that—unlike my buddy David Weber—I don’t find myself needing to transition to voice-activated software.

That said, if the choice is that or not telling stories, you can bet I’d learn.

Now, although I’d promised myself a break (or maybe even because I took a break), I wrote a bit (longhand) the other day that got me through a rough patch in my current novel revision.  I think I’ll go insert it into the manuscript, then see if the Muse wants to talk some more.

FF: Cookies and a Good Book

December 25, 2020
Which One First?

Merry Christmas to you all.  I hope to spend part of today curled up with a good book, cookies, and a cup of coffee.  For your amusement, at the end of this, I offer “Find the Roary.”

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.  A lovely book of mythic fantasy that is also a tale about the cost of inspiration.  Despite being firmly rooted in a specific time period and a specific setting, it does not seem in the least dated.

The Tower of Nero by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Apollo and Meg return to Manhattan where their journeys began.  Possibly the oddest thing about this book is the repeated mentions that only six months have gone by since the first in this series.  These kids should have seriously PTSD with what they’ve been through.  And, perhaps they do.  I enjoyed, and there were hints as to what the next series may be about.

Tales of Ancient Persia retold by Barbara Leonie Picard.  Good translation.  I was familiar with many of the tales of Rustem, but I had never read the larger context in which they developed.

In Progress:

Armenian Folk-tales and Fables retold by Charles Downing.  I enjoyed the translator’s note at the beginning.  I’ve just started the story.

Wild Magic: Immortals Book One by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook.  I’ve read this series, but I don’t  think I’ve ever listened to the full cast audio production.

Also:

And here’s Roary!  If you can find him…

Where’s Roary?

Baking and Decorating

December 23, 2020
Persephone Unpacks the Tree

Busy time here, as we squeeze in decorating and baking into our already busy lives. Here and there, I’m even finding time to write.

Our young cats, Mei-Ling and Roary are enjoying the changes and fuss, quite possibly because Persephone greets it all with enthusiasm.

Blissed Mei-Ling

Wishing you and yours a happy whatever your choice of celebration is!

Roary Samples the Tree

FF: This Is It!

December 18, 2020
Roary Considers the Problem of Keeping Warm

Prioritizing holiday stuff and writing, back and forth as the demands of one take over from the other, hasn’t left as much time for writing as I’d like.  But I’m still writing!

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson.  Published in the mid-seventies, this is both an affectionate homage to the classic detective stories of the 1930’s, and a good yarn in its own right.

Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  One of Archie’s attempts to prod Nero out of his typical lethargy has unexpected consequences, and Archie ends up as the client.  A good story, although sadder than many.

In Progress:

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.  A lovely book of mythic fantasy that is also a tale about the cost of inspiration.  Despite being firmly rooted in a specific time period and a specific setting, it does not seem in the least dated.

The Tower of Nero by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Apollo and Meg return to Manhattan where their journeys began.  Possibly the oddest thing about this book is the repeated mentions that only six months have gone by since the first in this series.  These kids should have seriously PTSD with what they’ve been through.  And, perhaps they do.

Also:

Holiday prep and writing haven’t left me a lot of reading time, so other than glancing at a few magazine articles and often re-reading the same paragraphs over and over, this is it!

Silence and My First Book

December 16, 2020
Doctor!

My first book wasn’t Science Fiction or Fantasy.  It was my doctoral dissertation: The Persephone Myth in D.H. Lawrence.  I’ve been told it’s pretty readable, even for a non-expert, which is nice.  What’s the good of a book no one can read?

I don’t talk about my Ph.D. very often these days.  For one, I earned it over half a lifetime ago.  I defended my doctoral dissertation on my 26th birthday.  I could have defended it earlier, but the English department at Fordham University couldn’t assemble a committee to read the document and gather for the required defense until the Fall term, so I had to wait.

Another reason I rarely talk about my Ph.D. is that I rapidly discovered that people became uncomfortable when they learned I had a doctorate in English.  They’d apologize for the grammar in their letters or even in conversation.  Oddly enough, I’ve rarely encountered this reaction when people learn I’m a writer.  I guess writers aren’t supposed to know anything about language.

I’ve even been “silenced,” most memorably by a well-meaning, well-educated, female author who let me know that a person in publishing with whom I was going to be working was very self-conscious about his own lack of education, and so I probably shouldn’t mention mine.

As I recall the conversation, she said, “It’s not that you brag or anything.  You just mention your graduate work and that you taught college from time to time, because it’s part of your life.  But I thought you should know that…”

Keep quiet.  Women shouldn’t make other people—especially male people—nervous.  The message is given over and over, usually in ways far more subtle than this.

The lack of use of the title “doctor” for other than medical professionals also reflects how the U.S. doesn’t really value higher education.  The silencing is general, usually applied to male and female alike.  Even the addressing of medical doctors as “doctor” is more an identification of a skill set than the honor it should be.  “Is there a doctor in the house?” means “Is there a body technician available who might fix this problem?”

I have friends who brag about how their colleges were informal, how they never addressed a professor as “Professor” or “Doctor.”  I think this is a pity.  Those people earned those titles.  This is the one setting in which our culture permits that to be acknowledged.  Yet people who themselves were striving toward a degree devalued their own goal by their lack of acknowledgement.

Do I give people their titles?  You bet.  Years ago, Jim and I spent a lot of time with a talented and very kind veterinarian who made herself available to help us with a severely handicapped baby guinea pig.  She is quite a bit younger than we are and, at one point, she suggested we use her first name.

I looked at her and said, “You worked hard for that title.  How about we call you by your first name and ‘doctor’?” And so we do.

Anyhow, there’s the story behind my first book…  And of one of my achievements, about which I remain, to this day, very proud.

FF: Mystery and Midnight

December 11, 2020
Mei-Ling Poses

My reading is the usual eclectic mix this week.  I haven’t found a Christmas book yet.  Any suggestions?

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.  Tiffany Aching is now sixteen, and while she’s a highly capable witch,  changes in those she’s known her entire life may be beyond what she can deal with.

A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia.  Somewhat dated (originally published in 2010), definitely slanted to a male point-of-view, and sometimes not carefully researched.  Nonetheless, an interesting read.

In Progress:

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson.  Published in the mid-seventies, this is both an affectionate homage to the classic detective stories of the 1930’s, and a good yarn in its own right.

Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  One of Archie’s attempts to prod Nero out of his typical lethargy has unexpected consequences, and Archie ends up as the client.

Also:

With the fourth Star Kingdom/Stephanie Harrington novel officially turned in, Weber and I are brainstorming on the fifth, which means I’ve been doing some research reading.

Cats and Christmas Trees

December 9, 2020
Persephone Dons The Tree Skirt

When you have cats and Christmas trees, you need to make choices.  From the start (some thirty years ago, when I was still in graduate school), I’ve opted to decorate with my feline co-residents in mind.  I’ve never regretted this decision.  It’s nice that the tree is something we all have fun with, rather than just being another reason to yell “No!”

Choice One was to make the majority of my ornaments unbreakable.  In these days of glittery plastics, that’s not as much a sentence to dull and drab as it once was.  Since I love carousel figures, and these are often wood, resin, or plastic, I have a perfect combination of something I love, and something unbreakable.  It also helps to curl the ornament holder complete around the branch, rather than just hanging the hook over the bough.

What to do with breakable ornaments we’re given from time to time?  Jim and I string garland along a wall, above cat height, then hang the breakable ornaments there.

Oh…  We also avoid edible ornaments, since that might be unfair temptation.  Any gifts we suspect might contain food also get put under the tree later, rather than when they arrive.

Choice Two was to give up tinsel and any garland that uses tinsel.  This was hard.  I’ve always loved the shiny stuff, and remember fondly the childhood task of carefully placing tinsel so that it would accent the ornaments and lights, rather than obscuring them.

However, tinsel can be deadly to cats if they eat it (as can thin pieces of string and yarn), tangling up in their guts and causing blockages.  Given the choice of that risk or giving up tinsel, giving up tinsel was an easy choice.

Choice Three has to do with the fact that some cats will climb Christmas trees and the tree may fall down.  We’ve dealt with that problem in several ways.  First, we opt for an artificial tree, which, if it falls over, is less likely to be damaged.  Another advantage of this is that an artificial tree doesn’t need to be watered.  The additives people often put in the water they give a cut tree can (depending on the additive) be unhealthy for the cat to drink.

We also put up our tree minus ornaments a few days before we decorate it.  This gives the cats a chance to inspect the tree, as well as for us learn which cats are likely to be climbers, and to take precautions if necessary.

Some people anchor their Christmas tree to a convenient wall.  We’ve not yet needed to do that, but I won’t say “never,” because this year we’ll be introducing two young cats: year-and-a-half-old Mei-Ling, and eight-month-old Roary to their first Christmas tree.  Who knows what mischief they may cause?

When we know we won’t be home for the holidays, we don’t put up a tree at all, because bored cats will do things that cats with their humans around to amuse them won’t.

Over the years, our cats have loved the Christmas trees.  Ogapoge (who we lost a few years ago) not only would carefully climb the tree, he would bring Hugs, the teddy bear, which was his favorite toy, out to see the tree.  My first cat, Gwydion, spent his last Christmas watching the festivities from beneath the tree’s shelter. 

Persephone, as you can see from the picture above, thinks the tree skirt was put in place for her to enjoy.  I’ll try and remember to share what Mei-Ling and Roary think, and, if we can get some pictures, share those, too.

FF: Bits Here, Pieces There

December 4, 2020
Persephone In Her Thick Fur Defies The Wintersmith

Anyone doing “holiday reading”?  Two of my favorites are Hogfather (Terry Pratchett) and The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper).   I’m interested in new (to me) suggestions.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.  The third Tiffany Aching book.  Once again, Tiffany dances in where angels would fear to tread.  Can she get herself out before all she loves freezes solid?

Black Mountain by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Nero leaves not only his home (unthinkable) but his adopted homeland to return to Montenegro on the trail of the murderer of his long-time best friend.

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  A spy thriller from late in her career.  Honestly, reads a bit like a draft that hadn’t yet been firmed up.  Nonetheless, ambitious and with a political setting that, in some ways, seems all too familiar today.

In Progress:

I Shall  Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.  Tiffany Aching is now sixteen, and while she’s a highly capable witch,  changes in those she’s known her entire life may be beyond what she can deal with.

Also:

I’m doing research for a couple of projects, so a lot of scattered bits here, pieces there.

When Life Gives You Tunas

December 2, 2020
Prickly Pear Jelly

There’s something about writing here, but it will come at the end.  First, a tale of exploration, woe, and triumph.

This summer, our prickly pear cactus produced an amazing crop.  We did some research, learned that the fruit (which are called “tunas”) could be frozen for later use.  Therefore, over about a month, Jim started his  morning by arming himself with a set of long bamboo tongs and a small bucket, then harvesting tunas.

I did some more research (because this is very me) and found a variety of recipes I wanted to try.  This past weekend, I decided to make my first attempt.

The first step was peeling and seeding the tunas.  Happily, freezing not only makes the tunas easy to peel, but also softens the spines so I was only minimally pricked when skinning them.  I think that with practice, I will be able to do this without any damage to my fingers at all.

Next, I seeded and pureed at the same time by rubbing the pulp through a screen sieve.  This went well.  The only change I’ll make next time is to use my four-cup glass measuring cup as a bowl, so I can save the step of pouring from a bowl to a measuring cup.

The first I recipe I wanted to try was for gumdrops.  I chose this recipe for a variety of reasons.  One, I’d had cactus pear candy before and liked it.  Two, it involved minimal ingredients (cactus pear juice, apple sauce, sugar, and pectin), so I could test the flavor of our particular cactus pears with minimal additions.

Oh!  What does cactus pear fruit taste like?  Umm…  It tastes like itself but, if I had to choose a “like,” I’d say slightly melon, slightly strawberry.  Even without sugar, it’s lightly sweet but not cloying.

So far so good but, when Jim and I got to work, we immediately ran into a snag.  The recipe called for heating to 225 (as measured on a candy thermometer).  The best we could manage was 212.  This is because we live at about a mile high and at 5,000 feet the boiling point of water is 212.  I wasn’t too worried, because my high altitude cookbook said that the problem with jellies and jams was that they would dry out, and we needed the gumdrops to dry.

Therefore, we poured the cooked syrup into a glass pan and set it aside to dry for at least twelve hours, as recommended.  However, when we checked the next morning, the candy had not set.

After consulting with Jim, I decided to reheat the syrup, add more pectin, and hope for either a thick syrup or jelly.  I’m happy to report that we ended up with jelly.  As you can see from the photo above, the color is a wonderful, vibrant pink-red.  I plan to use some of the jelly instead of raspberry in the Linzer tart cookies I make at Christmas.

While jelly is nice, I don’t eat a lot of sweets, so I’m going to be seeing what else we might make with the remaining tunas that still reside in our freezer.  I’ve seen some interesting recipes…

And now for the writing bit…  The other day, someone posted the following quote to Twitter: “Life isn’t about finding yourself.  It’s about creating yourself.”   I checked the source and found this was said by George Bernard Shaw.

Writing is a lot like life, a lot like making jelly from a “failed” recipe for gumdrops.  You don’t fail as long as you learn something along the way.  Even the stories that don’t sell, even the stories that don’t get finished, aren’t failures as long as you learn something from the process.

The only way to fail is to refuse to learn.

You Can See Why You Pick These Using Tongs!