January 2009

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31 Jan The Skies of February

Here’s my stargazing schedule for the coming month:

February 3rd: the gibbous moon will pass north of the Pleiades, eclipsing (well, the real term is occulting) some of the brightest stars. The dark side of the moon will cover the stars first, and then they will reappear from the moon’s bright side. Pretty cool.

February 9th: the full moon, called the Snow Moon. On that same night, there’ll be a penumbral lunar eclipse, which means the moon will pass through the edge of the Earth’s shadow. Truth be told, you won’t really see anything, but why not watch and imagine?

February 24th: Comet Lulin, a unique two-tailed comet, will reach its peak of brightness. Lulin was discovered in July 2007, and is named for the Lu-lin Observatory on Mt. Front Lu-Lin in Taiwan.

February 27th: the crescent moon and the bright planet Venus will be only a degree and a half apart. I am going to try to take a picture of this. I managed a fair picture of the “sad face” moon-Venus-Jupiter conjunction on December 2nd:

Conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter, December 2, 2008

The crescent of the moon is a little blurry, but as the Broadcasting Legend™ says, 252,000 miles is a pretty long focal length for our little backyard camera. One day I’m going to buy the adapters and gadgets I need to attach the camera to my telescope. Although I don’t really want my stargazing to get too professional. What I love about it the most is the mystery and the history—the sense of millenia of people looking up at the sky and seeing the same things.

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28 Jan Flat Stanley and the Ice Storm

flatstanleyliliesI am going on adventures with Flat Stanley for a very special little girl (you know who you are). Last night we had one of our every-few-years-whether-we-need-them-or-not ice storms, and so of course Flat Stanley had to go out and explore. He found a mass of tiger lily plants with their leaves curled up like tangles of green-and-gold ribbons, spangled with ice.

Fortunately the sun is out and the ice is melting. I’m going to have popcorn for lunch and think up more fun things for Flat Stanley to do. Any ideas?

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27 Jan Freezing Drizzle

The temperature’s just at freezing and dropping, and it’s spitting rain. The doggies come in with little semi-solid icy beads on their coats. They do not approve. Neither do I.

A good day to stay inside, drink coffee, and write. I’ve had a couple of crazy-ish days (crazy in a good way, which I’ll expand on, I hope, in a few days) and I need some time to be alone and sink into the past.

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24 Jan Dreaming

The other night I saw the last scene of my book in a dream. No, really. It was bizarre. I wasn’t acting as one of the characters—I was just hanging in space, observing. (Although come to think of it, I may indeed have been acting as one of the characters.) It was more or less like the ending I’d written, but not quite.

The truly startling thing is that I remembered it, word for word, when I woke up. I wrote it down right away (I keep a flashlight, pencil and notebook beside my bed, having lost far too many middle-of-the-night ideas and dream revelations in the past) and in the morning rewrote the end of the book. The changes are small but, for me, important.

Anybody else dream parts of their writing?

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22 Jan Sixteenth-Century Chicken

Yesterday I posted a recipe I used to bake chicken in the here and now. Just for fun, here’s a recipe the cooks in Barbara’s kitchen might have used for a somewhat similar dish.

A Ferrarese court kitchen in the sixteenth century, from Libro Novo by Cristoforo di Messisbugo

Take parcelly, Sauge, Isoppe, Rose Mary, and tyme, and breke hit bitwen thi hondes, and stoppe the Capon there-with;
Colour hym with Safferon, and couche him in a erthen potte, or of brasse, and ley splentes underneth and al about the sides, that the Capon touche no thinge of the potte;
Strawe good herbes in the potte, and put thereto a pottel of the best wyn that thou may gete, and none other licour; hele the potte with a close led, and stoppe hit aboute with dogh or bater, that no eier come oute;
And set hit on the faire charcole, and lete it seeth easly and longe till hit be ynowe.
And if hit be an erthen potte, then set hit on the fire whan thou takest hit downe, and lete hit not touche the grounde for breking;
And whan the hete is ouer past, take oute the Capon with a prik;
Then make a sirippe of wyne, Reysons of corance, sugur and safferon, And boile hit a litull; medel pouder of Ginger with a litul of the same wyn, and do thereto;
Then do awey the fatte of the sewe of the Capon, And do the Siryppe to the sewe, and powre hit on the capon, and serue it forth.

I love the language. “Couch him in an earthen pot.” “The best wine that thou may get.” This actually sounds pretty good, once one puzzles out the directions.

Recipe for “Capons Stwed” courtesy Cariadoc’s Miscellany.

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21 Jan No-Soup Chicken Breasts

Last night for some reason I wanted to bake chicken breasts. Usually I sear them quickly on top of the stove and finish them in the oven, and very good they are, too, but variety is the spice of life. My challenge was a) I didn’t have any gloppy canned “cream of” soup, and b) I didn’t want to spoil my beautiful chicken breasts with gloppy canned “cream of” soup anyway. So I played a riff on a baked dip recipe I love and made these. They are just as easy as the canned soup variety and so much better. Really.

I don’t measure in a conventional sense unless I’m baking. So bear with me here.

Start by pre-heating your oven to 375.

Mix together:

Artichoke hearts. I used canned ones (drained, of course). Frozen would work, too. Maybe ten or twelve. Chopped up, not too finely.

Mayonnaise. It does have to be the real thing. Lowfat and fat-free mayonnaise separates in a particularly nasty way when you try to cook with it. I used about half a cup.

Parmesan cheese, grated or shredded, in about the same amount as the mayonnaise.

Canned chopped jalapenos. A couple of tablespoons. This is kind of a to-taste thing. You can leave them out entirely if you don’t like jalapenos.

This will look like cole slaw when you’re done with it.

Rub a baking dish with olive oil. Salt and pepper your chicken breasts (I had two, because there are two of us. You may have one, or four, or twelve. Adjust the sauce ingredients proportionally) and arrange them in the dish. Cover them with the artichoke-parmesan-mayonnaise mixture. Make sure all the meat surface is covered because that’s what keeps the meat beautifully moist. Sprinkle with a little hot Hungarian paprika if you’re feeling crazy. Bake for about thirty minutes. This may vary a bit depending on how many breasts you’ve got in there. They’re done when there’s no pink left in the middle.

Serve with egg noodles (what I used last night, because the Broadcasting Legend™ is particularly partial to noodles), rice, or pasta—farfalle would be good.

These were delicious, quick, and so much better than the canned-soup variety. Sorry, Campbell’s.

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19 Jan Beginning with One Step

Pedometer, January 19, 2008I have a new project: 10,000 steps. People who are supposed to know such things say it’s a Good Thing to walk 10,000 steps a day. So I bought a pedometer and tried it. Well, as you can see, so far today I’m a total washout. And this includes our regular walk with the doggies! Clearly I’m going to have to walk two or three times a day with the dogs (cue sound of two beagles baying with joy) or something.

As a side note, I made the Broadcasting Legend™’s day when he walked into my office and saw me shooting pictures of my own hip. He’s still laughing.

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18 Jan Solitude

I love Walden. When I had to read it for a high school class I hated it. The war between the ants? Oh, please. But later, at my own pace and for my own pleasure, I read it again—and again and again and again—and the intensity of Thoreau’s transcendentalism and love of solitude always delights and refreshes me.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.

A (wo)man thinking or working is always alone.

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15 Jan Suicide (No, I’m Not Considering It)

One of the fascinating aspects of writing historical fiction is the never-ending struggle to keep your word choice consistent with your time period, while avoiding distracting “Olde Englysshe” constructions. My trusty sidekick in this battle is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Take the word “suicide.” Two characters in my book are suspected suicides. However, the word “suicide” itself was not recorded until 1651, about a hundred years after the time of my story. For other words or phrases I could use, I read documents of the time, and mused over Hamlet and the discussions of Ophelia’s death—the Shakespeare Search Engine is another way of checking word usage (in English, anyway) in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Words. I do love words.

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14 Jan Six Things That Make Me Happy

Tagged again! This time, it’s Bryn Greenwood’s doing. I really have to learn to run faster. Heh.

All right. Six things that make me happy.

  1. My first cup of coffee in the morning. Strong strong coffee with milk. It’s not really lattè because the milk isn’t steamed or foamed, but I call it lattè anyway. So report me to the lattè police.
  2. Taking a siesta after lunch. Piling into bed with both doggies and the Broadcasting Legend™ if he’s not on the road and drowsing deliciously through Everyday Italian and Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network.
  3. Hugs from little children.
  4. Going to church. Singing For All the Saints or one of the other great processionals as the scrubbed acolytes (more little children) and the choir stream into the sanctuary, and almost crying as the sopranos launch into the high, soaring descant on the last verse of the hymn.
  5. Flower scents. Real flowers, not perfumes or oils. Lilies of the valley, lilacs, old-fashioned clove pinks. Our English roses—Jude the Obscure, Eglantyne, Winchester Cathedral.
  6. Standing in the back yard and looking up at the sky. Picking out the constellations I learned when I was a little girl at the lake. Trying to work my mind around the inconceivable distances.
  7. Opening a thick, tantalizing new book to the first page.
  8. Reading Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Oh wait. That’s eight. And I haven’t even gotten to chocolate.

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13 Jan Revisions

Revisions finished! O frabjous day, callooh callay! It’s fascinating how a few words, or a line, or a paragraph, can completely change the tone and meaning of a scene. So not huge amounts of rewriting. Just a little snicker-snack here and there with my vorpal blade of mimsiness. Or something.

I really like the changes. Now I need to let them rest for a few days, then re-read.

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12 Jan The Wolf Moon

The Wolf MoonLast night the moon was full—the Wolf Moon, as January’s full moon is called. The moon was also at its perigee, the point in its orbit when it is closest to the Earth, and therefore had good reason to look especially huge and majestic—the largest moon of 2009—as it rose over our back fence and the old-fashioned weathervane on our neighbor’s shed.

According to National Geographic, “Native Americans and medieval Europeans named January’s full moon after the howling of hungry wolves lamenting the midwinter paucity of food.” I wonder if there are moon names in Ferrarese history. Just what I need—another bit of lore to fascinate me. How I ever got a whole book done is a mystery, when there’s so much enticing research to follow. (Scribbles “names of full moons in Ferrara?” in research journal for later.)

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11 Jan Barbara’s Little Office

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, once owned by Barbara of Austria, Duchess of Ferrara
This is a reproduction of a book that Barbara of Austria actually owned and used. It’s the Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis, or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isn’t it beautiful? The original would have been hand-lettered, with the illuminations hand-painted. I look at it and imagine her holding it, turning the pages, saying the prayers.

I want to find a way to work this book into Barbara’s story somehow. Perhaps in the second book. In the first book she’s more concerned with a copy of I Modi, which is a different sort of book entirely.

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10 Jan And Speaking of Seven, Seven Writing Tricks

Here are seven things that keep me going, day by day, hour by hour. It’s a tough world out there in Hopeful Publishing Land and we all need a little help sometimes.

  1. Writing about what I wish I were writing. I just start tip-tapping, stream-of-consciousness style, about what I wish I could write and all of a sudden I realize—surprise!—I can write it. I want to write it. I probably am writing it.
  2. Taking a shower. I always have great ideas in the shower. As a bonus, I get extra-clean. Sometimes I get wrinkly.
  3. Walking while talking to myself. Or maybe it’s talking to myself while walking. In either case I take one of the dogs so I can pretend I’m talking to the dog.
  4. Cleaning. The grittier, dirtier, and more mindless, the better. I think, “I could be writing instead of doing this.” Pretty soon I am.
  5. My writing talisman. It’s a chunk of llanite from the Llano Uplift. Yours could be a lucky hat, a statuette, special pen, a piece of jewelry, an artifact from a historical era. The more you associate it with your writing, the more it will encourage your writing. Really.
  6. Plants. Fill your writing space with as many plants as you can fit in. They clean the air, and cleaner air means a clearer head. You can talk to them, too, if you don’t have a dog. Even if you do have a dog.
  7. Laughter. Find something that will always make you laugh. I like Cute Overload. Laugh good and hard, until your belly hurts. It truly loosens up all those impacted words you’ve been wanting to write but haven’t been able to.

What are your writing tricks? Enquiring minds want to know!

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09 Jan Seven Things

I appear to have been tagged by Alex Moore, young adult fantasy writer and cat person. That means I have to tell you seven things about myself that you probably didn’t already know. And that aren’t too dull. Heh.

  1. I was my high school’s Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow. Really. No, really.
  2. I ended up as a vice president of a radio network. They didn’t have a Radio Network Executive of Tomorrow contest.
  3. My childhood beagle’s name was Tuesday’s Prince Charles. We called him Charlie.
  4. A few years ago I slipped on some ice (ice in Dallas, I know, that’s why I wasn’t expecting it) and smashed my left kneecap to smithereens. The orthopedic surgeon said I’d never kneel down to play jacks again. He meant it as a joke but I learned to play jacks just so I could prove him wrong. (I did.)
  5. I am the first cousin thirteen times removed of Bessie Blount, Henry VIII’s first mistress.
  6. I once dressed up as a manuscript for a Halloween party—I stapled typed pages all over jeans and a t-shirt, and made myself a tall headdress with flowing streamers of stapled-together pages. People really did try to read me.
  7. When I was young and foolish I lived at the corner of Bourbon Street and Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. Oh, lordy, it was such a great place to be young and foolish.
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07 Jan Lists

I love to make lists. I live and die by my daily lists—I have a little gadget on my Vista sidebar where I can make a list with checkboxes, and check things off as the day progresses. Another holdover from my corporate days, I suppose, when I kept comprehensive lists of things to do on yellow legal pads, crossing off and dating things as they were done and saving the pads when they were full, just in case. Those pads came in handy sometimes.

This is just a list of things I’m thinking about at the moment.

  • Christmas decorations are put away, all safe in their beds, for next year.
  • No stargazing for the past few nights—it’s been cold, cloudy and rainy. I miss it.
  • Revisions of Duchess are proceeding apace. Some really good stuff is happening, I think.
  • I’m re-reading The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge. It started to call to me after I wrote up my post about Goudge being part of my fantasy writers group. What an extraordinary book.
  • Time to start thinking about this summer’s garden. Also to order a new rose bush from David Austin Roses. We have a spot where an ancient Peace rose gave up the ghost last summer.
  • Did I mention that revisions are going really well?
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06 Jan The Cumulative Advantage

Skip over the headine about Justin Timberlake. This is a brilliant, meaty article about success (or non-success) in writing and other “cultural industries,” and how it’s a) unpredictable, no matter how much you know about your business, and b) highly dependent on social influence.

“The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called ‘cumulative advantage,’ or the ‘rich get richer’ effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory.”

Hat tip to Shrinking Violet Promotions! And all the more reason to just write what you love best.

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05 Jan A Real Monday at Last

After two holiday weeks (and I do love the holidays, but still) of not knowing for certain what day it was at any given moment, I am now firmly anchored again. It’s Monday. As Pippa sings in Mr. Browning’s famous poem/play Pippa Passes, “God’s in his heaven—all’s right with the world.”

I think I need to put together a fantasy writers group of men, too. Robert Browning, of course. Algernon Charles Swinburne (swoon). E.F. Benson, author of the glorious Lucia books. Who else?

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03 Jan Writing Sages

Some people have fantasy football. I have a fantasy writers’ group—writing sages who have touched me deeply and who I look to as mentors and models. I’ve never met any of these women in the flesh, but I have met their hearts and minds through the words they put down on paper, and each one inspires me in a unique way. Here they are:

  • Dorothy Dunnett, the incomparable, creator of Francis Crawford of Lymond
  • Rumer Godden, whose luminous In This House of Brede is one of my favorite books of all time
  • Elizabeth Goudge, who wrote with shining grace of England past and present, the countryside, the houses, the families
  • Angela Thirkell, wry and dry and funny and pointed, who makes me long to be a duke’s prosaic daughter
  • Gladys Taber, countrywoman, animal lover, home cook and chronicler of wonderful Stillmeadow
  • Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century English anchoress and mystic, visionary and eternal optimist

A list like this is revealing—clearly I am a romantic, a bit of an Anglophile, a devotée of history and a lover of nature. If you could choose from every writer since the beginning of time, who would be in your imaginary writers’ group?

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02 Jan The Tale of an Almond

I am working on intensifying the emotion in my story—giving it more fire and concentration and a more satisfying emotional resolution (there, see? I worked the word “resolution” into my post even though I’m not telling anybody my real resolutions, no sirreebob) in the end. It’s an interesting exercise. I’m finding that one way to show emotion is to show a contradiction between what a character says and what he does.

a story in every almondPerhaps he is shelling an almond at the end of a meal. A simple enough action. But he does it with the greatest of care, making sure the shell breaks into perfectly even pieces. While he does that, he is responding to another character’s conversation in an apparently casual manner. But the way he shells the almond is anything but casual, and the disconnect between what he is saying and what he is doing, to me at least, creates emotion. Conflict. Suspense. Yesterday at the party I was watching people, watching for disconnects. They can be astonishingly revealing.

Is there anything in the world more fascinating and—well, just plain fun—than writing stories? Well, possibly one or two things. Sometimes. Heh. But storytelling is definitely top-three.