A miscellany post

AKA things that I have been up to.

Preparing for the holiday cookie siege.  I made chocolate chips, and gingersnaps, and following Sally’s Baking Addiction recommendation, froze most of them in little raw balls of dough ready to be baked.  I always forget how much I love doing that.  You can freeze cookies for later (as long as the fat content is high and you wrap them well), but nothing really beats yanking out a half dozen cookies and having them bake up fresh whenever you want a treat.  I really always mean to do this year ’round and forget.

Someday I will treat puff pastry with the respect it deserves.  But this was not that week.  My roommate cooked up a bunch of local apples with cinnamon and butter and cloves and I bunged a bunch of them into the world’s most haphazard puff pastry wrapping.  They kind of looked like softballs caught mid-explosion, but tasted delicious.  And while I was at it, I used up the nutella to make puff pastry pockets.  I would have used lemon curd, but tragically, it had gone bad.

And reading.  I read a lot but every so often I lose it and go on reading binges.  Usually when I find a new-to-me author who has not only an enjoyable book, but an entire backlisk.  So Clara Coulson.  Yeah.  Her books are urban fantasy fun, and I devoured pretty much all of them between the 9th and the 15th.

CoulsonFatePortendsThat’s three of the Frost Arcana, five of the City of Crows, and one stand-alone Lark Nation novel.  Just a heck of a lot of fun, though I’d say the Frost Arcana are probably the best entry points.  Cal Kinsey in the City of Crows takes a little getting used to.  If he were a heroine, they’d be lining up to call him a Mary Sue.  Mostly Clara Coulson scratches the same itch that Mercedes Lackey used to.  I can’t wait for more of her books!  If you like adventure based urban fantasy with a surprising amount of super-violent action and great fantasy elements, this series might be for you!  Seriously.  After a celtic fantasy binge that lasted through most of high school, I was kind of burned out on the seelie/unseelie/sidhe/tuatha de danaan mythos.  These books make it all feel fresh again.

Things that I have not been up to:

Writing.  Ffs.  I’m about six thousand words into Book 2 of the fantasy series and sort of stopped working on it.  There are reasons (decent ones), but primarily it comes down to lack of organization.  Life gets busier and busier in the fall and I need to take steps to make it easy to sneak a few hundred words here and there.  It’s easy to get hooked into the crutch of the perfectly set up desk with all your note files and scrivener and the white boards full of maps and the walls full of setting pictures and character images, but when you do, you find yourself thinking oh, wish I could work, but so-sad, I’m out of the office, and not near my desk.  So, I’m trying something sensible and slightly new.  Setting up the next scene and tossing those few paragraphs into google docs so I can access it while at the day job, or out and about.  I can read the plan on the phone and write on paper, or I can read it on a desktop and write directly into g docs.  Failing everything else, at least I can keep thinking about where I want to go in the scene!

And a snippet of what I was last working on.

Genee’s feet turned her toward the side stairs and the guest quarters, not to seek her own rest, no. She might not know where Cavenner and her boys had bedded down, or even where Calyx Favager had slunk off to. But the girl…
Genee had made sure she knew exactly where to find her.
Sianan Maccuin jerked to attention when Genee melted out of the stairwell’s shadows and Genee made another mental note: More light. GreenStone Hall was as dark as a tomb.
“Commander,” she said, but quietly. “Do you need…?”
“She hasn’t come out?”
“Been quiet as a mouse,” Sianan said, “Did she really….?”
Genee waited. Sianan had a sneaky habit of talking in questions, letting people fill in the gaps. She learned more than she should that way. But she wasn’t supposed to apply that to her commander.
Sianan shrugged, “Sorry, Commander. Just… it’s such big magic, and it shook all the walls…. Hard to believe such a small girl could do so much damage.”
“She’s a Favager,” Genee said. “They’re nothing but damage waiting to be unleashed”


Time–where does it go?

Not a lot worth talking about at the moment, I think.  I’m nose down to the grindstone, trying to fight my way through a revision that’s fighting me back.  The only saving grace is that as much as I’m whining and complaining about the restructuring and rewriting that I’m doing, I can see/feel the book getting stronger and better.  It’s so hard though!  This year, I’ve really been working on the idea of letting go of perfectionism–because it takes me forever to get shit done if I’m trying to make it perfect.  And “it” could be anything: a comment on Facebook (better think about how to say something for ten minutes!), a blog post (is this really that interesting, what’s the point?), an outline (is this as clear as it could be if I showed it to someone else–not that I’m going to show it to anyone else), and of course, my fiction.

I’ve taken a big deep breath and said, “good enough is good enough”.  I used the wrong word on Facebook the other day and… I didn’t correct it!  I let it go! (I’m still thinking about it, but that’s another issue.)  I’ve written emails that I didn’t rewrite three times!  I’m trying to be more relaxed about whether a post is “interesting enough”.  Which is why you’re getting this ramble.

But the fiction?  There, I’m running into trouble because two parts of my mind are in total disagreement.  The part that says “You haven’t put out a book in a year, what is WRONG with you!” is attempting to rush things.  The perfectionist is saying, “No, you know what?  Good enough is NOT good enough for this book.  We ARE going to rearrange all the events from chapter 12-18 inclusive. And it will be better for it.”  I just might die of waiting.  Revising is SLOW.

So there’s been frustration baking, which is no good.  Because it encourages me to be inventive or aggravated or careless–you can not actually write and bake at the same time.  At least, I can’t.

So I have made failure bagels–so bad I threw them out after my poor roommate was brave enough to test them.  (A combination of screwing up the rise time, and the bath not being hot enough, I think.  Though the recipe seemed suspect.  She kept talking about a stiff, dry dough and mine was quite wet.)

There were NEAR FAILURE BISCUITS, ffs.  My mother’s from the south; we make biscuits in our sleep!  But these just didn’t get as fluffy as I like, or as golden.  At least the cast iron skillet ensured the bottoms were crusty and golden and buttery, yum!  So those got eaten with lashings of cinnamon honey butter.  (Local honey! So good!)

I almost screwed up Rice Krispie Treats.  C’mon, brain!  But no, my brain’s in book mode.  And the important things like marshmallow to krispie ratio get … skipped over.  (8 marshmallows, btw, per cup of rice cereal.)

I did manage to find time to see Ocean’s 8, which I had wanted to see very badly.  I… liked it?  But that was a movie in dire need of an antagonist and some conflict.  The most mellow heist movie ever!  Or, more likely, Leverage ruined me for heist shows.

And a snippet of what I’ve been working on:

Silla asked, “What drove him mad?” Her curiosity sounded perfunctory, but Ferrus felt all the remembered pain and horror of Robere’s death crashing back over him. Rhi rested a hand in his hair, stroked her fingers down his neck, soothing. Her touch unlocked the catch in his throat and he finished the tale he hadn’t meant to begin.
“The spell work. Robere said, before he went mad, that spell casting is like looking into the inner working of the world, a vivisection of sinew and blood and bone and that it fights back—”
“It’s like living light,” Silla said absently, her pale eyes nearly glowing. “Like hot fingers rummaging through your mind, changing the way you perceive, turning your gift in new directions.…”
“You have a spell book?” Ferrus said, attention sharpening.
“No,” Silla said. “It must have been Lanbourne that damped my gifts.” She tipped the water pot over in a fit of temper and Rhi remonstrated.
“We might have had tea,” she said.


Hard Work Cookies

So every so often, usually coinciding with intensive revision, I start telling myself terrible lies.  Things like… you don’t need that much sleep; five hours is totally enough.  You can do the laundry tomorrow.  You can absolutely live on grilled cheese sandwiches for at least a week….

And that Wakefield Cookies are a valid breakfast food.

This is a recipe I got from my grandmother who got it from the popular cookie maker Ruth Wakefield. I don’t believe my grandmother ever met her; it was just a recipe published with her name attached.  It’s one of the three recipes I have that calls for shortening instead of butter, where I actually leave it shortening.  (The other two are torticas de moron, and the Pennsylvania dutch strawberry shortcake biscuit recipe.)  Wakefield cookies are tasty!  They’re crisp and tend to dissolve in your mouth and they’re full of giant oat flakes.  Yum!

But… I get bored.  I have started adding peanut butter, sometimes chunky PB, and mini semi-sweet chips.  Sometimes actual peanuts.  And you know, once you add peanut butter, it’s obviously a health food, right?  We’ll ignore the chocolate.

So whenever I get into the crazy stage of writing–drafting or revising–I tend to make a batch of adulterated Wakefield cookies, because hey!  This saves time for breakfast!  I can eat two cookies and get right to work!  Oatmeal is breakfast food!  Everyone knows that!  And peanut butter is good for you (unless you’re allergic, I’m sorry).

They sure don’t look like much, but they are tasty!  And whether it’s the peanut butter oatmeal combo, or just the ramped up on sugar combo, I do seem to get a lot of work done when they’re around.

Currently reading: nothing too much.  Too much fighting with my own revision!  But books I sampled this week are Over Raging Tides by Jennifer Ellision (fun! will probably buy it later), The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (put on hold at the library), Cusp of Night by Mae Clair (a maybe.)  I did read (and enjoy enough to recommend) Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine.


Happiness cookies

Smitten Kitchen’s Confetti Cookies are happiness cookies.  That is all I have to say about that.  Other than to add you should definitely go make them.  But only if you’re going to buy fresh jimmies and not use some old jar you’ve had sitting around forever since you bought them to throw a spoonful on some ice cream sundae.  FRESH JIMMIES or don’t even bother.  If you taste them and they taste like nothing but stiff old wax?  THROW THEM OUT and go buy new ones.  If you can’t remember when or why you bought them? THROW THEM OUT and go buy new ones.  Besides, this recipe uses a lot of them.  You probably need more anyway.  Buy the bigger jar.

Also, be prepared for sticky rainbow fingers.

I made a couple small adjustments to the recipe.  I only had salted butter, so I used that, and decreased the amount of added salt.  I added a little extra flour (about a quarter cup) because the dough was just too sticky–my kitchen was very warm–and the texture is still amazing.

I used the stand mixer method and I included the optional almond extract and my house smelled so damn good while they were baking!


Other happy things this week?

Catie Rhodes‘ book Forever Road: fun start to an urban fantasy story, and hey the first taste is free!  She has a really strong narrative voice.

The Bridge podcast, which will hopefully be putting out a new episode sometime soon.  And which I will be talking about sometime also soon for Speculative Chic.

Cookies, More Cookies, and a Ghost

This past weekend, some writerly friends and I had a nice little writing retreat.  Or an extended slumber party, depending on how you judge such things. (We had two course cookie dinners….)

There were excellent chewy, salty, immensely chocolatey chocolate chip cookies provided by Barbara Webb, which barely made it to baked stage.  I estimate maybe 80 percent of the dough disappeared while in cookie ball form.

I made shortbread, two types!  One, a bizarre little nutmeg-flavored one that I snagged from the book Small Batch Baking.  They’re sweet and oddly savory and the first one you eat makes you go, huh, that’s strange.  The second one you eat makes you think, hey, I could eat more of these.  They’re definitely more-ish.

The other shortbread I made is a cobbled-together monster that I keep experimenting with in an attempt to get a truly chocolatey shortbread.  This involves melting semi-sweet chocolate into a fairly standard shortbread recipe, then grating in dark chocolate until it’s nearly dusty with chocolate.  Then I taste it*, and it… tastes like butter and flour, so I usually start chopping some more dark chocolate into jagged little bits to wedge into the dough also.  It’s kind of a mess.  Then I roll the dough out, cut it into diamonds or stars or rounds (the basic cookie cutters that are always accessible in my kitchen, unlike the fancy holiday ones which involve standing on a step stool), and cross my fingers.

The problem with chocolate cookies is that I always find it hard to tell when they’re done.  Easy to burn them.  And with these, I don’t even know how strong the chocolate flavor will turn out until they’ve had time to cool.  The despair of shortbread cookies: they’re one of the few that do not taste good warm.

These came out all right, but I think next time I’m going to plan ahead and actually buy some cocoa nibs.  And maybe trade out some of the flour for cocoa….

Anyway, full of sugar and with two chapters of the novel revised and rewritten, I headed for home.

I stopped in Sedalia, MO for a salad, and apparently picked up a ghost who wanted to go to KS.  A very strange moment.

I got into my car, hit the ignition, and all my electrical panels ran amok for long enough to make me think, I do not want to have my car break down in Sedalia!  Then it all stopped, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I started off, and… the airbag sensor in the passenger seat triggered itself and said, oh, you have a passenger.  Airbag on.  Then the passenger seatbelt light came on and persistently stayed on, blinking and complaining that I was endangering my passenger by not ensuring they were belted in.

The passenger seat, of course, was empty.  Or looked that way.

Finally, to make the car happy, and remove the blinking red light from my peripheral vision, I pulled over at a gas station.  I belted in my invisible passenger.  The car was happy.

I drove home, and at a stoplight in Lawrence, suddenly the airbag sensor shut off.  I unbelted the passenger seat–still empty or empty again!–and this time the passenger seatbelt light stayed off.  So, I guess the ghost got out at that point.

Either way, it was a polite passenger, and didn’t object to me playing the radio very loudly. or cussing at traffic that refused to behave.

It makes sense, I suppose.  We hear all about the ghostly hitchhikers that end their rides with terror or death–the women in white who steer drivers into accidents, or send them to deserted ruins of homes way off the main path, leaving their chauffeur shaken.  But that can’t be all of the ghostly passengers.  Just the percentage we hear about.  The scary percentage we whisper about.  Maybe there are just some travelers who want to keep touristing around post death.  Inspecting our license plates and peering through windows at our splayed open maps for hints of our destinations and hopping a ride.  Silent companions who are just going the same way we are.

I’m still going to take my car into the mechanics to make sure the system isn’t gummed up.  I might or might not believe in ghosts, but I definitely believe in car repair.

Have a story snippet!  Still drafty, but kind of fun.

Despite her best attempts, Silene failed to convince either of her siblings of the need to flee. Delphine obsessed on the risk—that Harrow would catch them and make their lives worse—and Calyx preached, wait, wait at least until Aceline returned from the Ride. There was no point in seeking sanctuary if she weren’t there to grant it. And Calyx dismissed the young prince as if he’d never been healed, as if he were still the political non-entity he’d been since summersick struck him down.

So instead of arguing further, Silene retreated to her quarters—the small chambers near the gardens—and avoided everyone, only sneaking out to find food. She kept her dree ability tightly leashed, afraid of touching that raging presence again.

The air in the palace tasted sour and brittle to her now, like wet metal, and she couldn’t forget that there was this horrible… thing somewhere impossibly far and near at the same time. Like a mass of rats, united in hunger, slowly scratching through the walls, while the denizens of the palace walked about unaware.

Silene didn’t want to be a rat’s sweetmeat.

*I know, raw flour!  The danger!  I just can’t break myself of the habit of testing the cookie batter.  Even if the last bag of flour I bought came with a boxed warning on the paper–FLOUR IS RAW!!!!  YOU’RE GONNA DIIIIIIIE IF YOU EAT ME!!!  (I paraphrase.)

Pastelitos! Or an excuse to eat puff pastry.

Though I live in the midwest now, reasonably content, I grew up in South Miami, surrounded by Cuban food.  And every now and then I miss it sharply and terribly.

So the good thing is that we live in a global economy and I can get Cuban foods and ingredients even though I live pretty much in a non-Cuban society.  Kansas has a large hispanic population, but it’s not Cuban-hispanic.  And there is a difference, right down to the languages.  About like British English vs. American.

This took me a long time to get over when I kept going to hispanic food stores out here and wanting “galletas” and being directed to row after row of cookies.  No, I kept trying to explain.  That’s not what a galleta is to me.  But finally, it dawned on me that I could just hunt up a Cuban foods store and hey, have galletasunsweetened hexagonal thick crackers with an appealingly sandy texturedelivered to me.  As well as Cuban sugar cookies which are called torticas, thank you, not galletas…. Life improved.

And then I realized I could order guava paste. I don’t do it all the time.  In fact, it’s a once a year thing.  I cave.  I order a bunch of guava paste, buy multiple boxes of puff pastry, and settle down to make pastelitos– puff pastry sandwiching a filling of tart guava and cream cheese. 

It’s more assembly than actual baking/cooking, and my god there is nothing in the world as sticky as guava paste.  Which is… probably my least favorite sensation in the world.  Sticky.

So making them is always an exercise in slicing guava, peeling the guava paste from the knife, laying down the guava slice, running to the sink to wash my hands.  And doing it all over again until the guava paste is all sliced up.

Worth it, though for the way my friends and family greet the results.

That’s my Monday.

Currently reading: NK Jemisin’s The Stone Sky

Currently listening to: The Bridge podcast for my Speculative Chic 2018 Resolution

Cookies as a Healthy Hobby, no really.

So my day job (which I enjoy) involves sitting in front of a computer for 8 to 8 and a half hours.  Then I come home and write books in front of a computer for another couple of, few, several (pick one) hours.  I have an occasional job through Odyssey Critique Service which involves me sitting in front of the computer.  And then there are the other things that arise–reading Alpha stories for the teen workshop, communicating and brainstorming with distant friends, social media, what have you.  Basically, my life is like that fortune cookie game, except instead of ending every sentence with “in bed”, you end it with “in front of the computer”.

The result of this time spent before the screen is not surprising.  I have borked my neck and back.  Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how often I get up and walk around during a work day/writing session/etc., I’m still sitting in front of the computer for the vast majority of my hours.

So I’m trying to make sure I spend time doing other things.  I’m cutting back on book writing hours, which bites, but are the only hours I can actually control.  And how much work can I get done when my neck and back are spasming anyway?  Not a lot, let me tell you.

I’m working out the damage I’ve done with PT and stretching and all that jazz, but that leaves me in this weird limbo.  Right now, I can’t shift over a few hours to “exercise” because my body can’t handle it.  Gentle walking is about as good as it gets.

But I’m determined to stay active.  Right now, that comes down to two hobbies: gardening and… cookies.

Nonsensical as it sounds, there’s a lot of exercise involved in cookie baking.  You can’t sit while you make cookies.  There’s bending and stirring and stretching and going up and down step stools to reach ingredients and crouching to dig out the tools I need, (at least in my crowded to capacity kitchen), as well as the inevitable clean up.  A batch of cookies can keep me moving on my feet for an hour or more.

And in the end, there are cookies and a house that smells delicious.

Tonight’s cookies are the Triple Oatmeal cookies from Stella Parks’ BraveTart, which is a delightful book to read for those of you who like reading cookbooks.  I loved her Honey-Roasted Peanut Butter cookies, which I made last time, but this recipe may be a miss.  It’s too sweet for my tastes.  Oh well, the hobby is in the baking, not the eating.

Since I can’t give the internet at large my surplus of cookies, I’ll give you a writing cookie instead: a snippet from the novel (working title: Ring of Stones) that I’m revising.

Ferrus Loth shrugged off his heavy boarskin coat as he entered the Cavenner family lodge. It might be spring but that didn’t mean much when ice still sailed the river swells, blown by a brisk wind. Once inside the lodge, the heavy door pressed shut behind him, the wind’s complaint cut off. He left his damp coat draped across two stag’s heads lining the stone walls, and moved on, boots thudding softly against thick-laid rugs, some new woven and plush, others so old and delicate that laying them on the floor was a quiet declaration of status.
Behind him, the lodge majordomo, Lugh Casteil, complained about Ferrus’s imprompto coat rack, but Ferrus’s feeling was that if you hung antlered heads in an entryway, you had to expect people to leave their coats and hats and scarves there.