Thursday, March 30, 2006

Honeysuckle, pirates, and magic wands

Well, spring has sprung (and may be almost gone) in this corner of the world; the honeysuckle on the front gate has exploded into bloom, perfuming the front walkway and drifting into the house -- heavenly! Along the lake, the peach blossoms are fading already, the wild onions are heavy with their strange, bulblike flowers, and the dewberry vines are rife with delicate five-petal blooms, wreathing the low bushes where the boat-tailed grackles strut their stuff. And the wisteria -- I went to the voodoo pew on the north side of the lake today, a roof of pale purple wisteria and a bench that looks like a thousand little crawdads. I just sat there for twenty minutes, breathing in that southern scent. If I didn't know what was around the corner (already, it will be in the high eighties next week), spring would be my favorite season here.

The garden has had some setbacks, unfortunately. A blight has flattened my poor lettuce -- except for a few brave plantlets -- and although four or five plump red strawberries are ready to go, the broccoli and turnips aren't faring so well. Harlequin bugs have turned the greens into lace. They're beautiful bugs, gaily painted orange and yellow and black, but heck on cruciferous vegetables.

And I've been writing again, falling into that dreamland I love so much. It has been a bit more challenging to reach it lately, with all of the 'businessy' details of the writing life. And today I mainly did pre-writing work, a.k.a. 'research' -- which for me means expensive trips to the bookstore. I'm reading about pirates right now, which is a fascinating subject; isn't writing amazing? You can go just about anywhere in your daydreams; and with your magic wand (pen, pencil or laptop) you can bring your dream world to life.

And I'm meeting lots of new writers -- both in my mystery class and in everyday life. It's so exciting, watching the spark of possibility light up in someone's eyes. I can always tell when someone has the fire inside, and yesterday, I had a lovely, lingering lunch with a soon-to-be novelist. Great fun! We all have stories to tell; sometimes it just takes courage to let them come out.

Hope your writing is going well... I'm off to fall into the pages of a book now! (Pre-writing work. Honest!) ;)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Newfoundland (a.k.a. "The Rock")

So here we are, five weeks from my book launch. There are about forty things I should be doing -- a conservative estimate, really -- and how am I spending my time?

Why, googling Newfoundland, of course!

Specifically, Pool's Island, which was really the inspiration for Murder on the Rocks; most of the family names in the book hail from that small lump of rock in Bonavista Bay. Why? Because my family is from there. The scenery is raw and beautiful, the people are wonderful, and the accents are wonderful -- they've got this whole Irish-Scottish-English brogue thing going on, and they tend to drop h's and add them in unusual places. Makes it hard for transplants like me to understand. And words like 'yaffle' -- which in case you were wondering, means "an armload of dried fish." (Really.)

The reason for all this Newfoundland nostalgia? My grandma called yesterday -- both she and my grandfather come from that little corner of the world, and (lucky me) it was to my grandparents' house that my parents shipped me in the summers. It was in my grandma's summer kitchen that I learned to love steamed puddings with Lyle's Golden Syrup, lattice-topped berry pies and British Cadbury bars. And the sea, and wild blueberries, fields of lupines and iris, moon jellies, icebergs like fairy castles on the horizon... (If you want to see some photos of the tiny little island where I spent those magical summers, I found some here.)

Well, as usual, after the talk turned to that gorgeous hunk of granite off the coast of Canada, it turned, inevitably, to food.

Specifically Fish and Brewis, which my grandma plans to cook up any day now and is a concoction I will never, ever, eat. (For me, it's up there with sweetbreads.)

It's classic Newfoundland fare, but after spending a long afternoon swatting hundreds of fat flies off of (and onto) the salted fish my grandparents were drying on what I think is called a fish flake in the back yard, somehow, I never got interested in it. For the intrepid among you, though, here's a recipe. Please hold the flies.

Fish And Brewis


1 lb salt cod
2 hardbread or hardtack cakes (a.k.a. Purity biscuits, which you can order from Downhomer if you really want to)
1 c salt pork; diced


"Fish and brewis (pronounced "brews") is one of the oldest traditional dishes of Newfoundland. ... The fish in Fish and Brewis is salt cod and the brewis is made from hardtack or hardbread, which is available everywhere in Newfoundland and in specialized grocery stores across Canada. The dish is always sprinkled with scrunchions, crisp fried bits of salt pork. Fisherman's Brewis is sometimes the same as Fish and Brewis, but often the fish and bread are chopped while hot and mixed together, or fresh cod is used instead of salt cod."

Cut cod into serving-size pieces. Soak cod and hardbread separately in cold water for 8 hours or overnight. Drain fish. In saucepan, cover fish with cold water. Heat to boiling and boil gently for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender; drain.
Meanwhile, in skillet, fry salt pork until golden. Brain bread and place in saucepan, cover with salted water and bring to a full boil. Drain immediately and serve with fish on warm plates. Sprinkle with scrunchions.

SOURCE: The Thirties chapter in A Century of Canadian Home Cooking

I'll probably be waxing nostagic about Newfoundland again soon, so check back for more. The great photo, by the way, is of some fishing stages in Salvage Harbour, Salvage, Newfoundland. Even the place names are great; I promise I'll post more soon!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Spring Break Curse

I love camping -- waking up in the chilly morning to hot coffee and fresh breezes, the sound of leaves pattering on the top of the tent, the glow of embers and the tang of wood smoke as you close your eyes at night. So I was looking forward to last weekend's trip to Goose Island, which I visited eight years ago. "Nothing but wooded, sand-free campsites," I told my sand-phobic husband, who reluctantly agreed to go. You see, any vacation in March is risky -- because of the Spring Break Curse. If febrile convulsions or antibiotic-resistant infections are going to hit, it's always in March, when we're out of town -- but it was only a two-day trip, and not a flushed little face in sight, so I was sure we were in the clear.

Well, the first problem was that by the time we got there, all the tree-lined, sand-free sites were gone, and the only campsite left looked like a beach in an oak grove. And was also a twenty-yard walk from the road. (If you're a backpacker, you're probably rolling your eyes, but you can't imagine the amount of gear that goes along with two young kids.) Still, everything got set up, we enjoyed a quick hot dog dinner and a trip to the fishing pier (sting rays everywhere, blinking their dark eyes), and returned to the tent convinced we were in the clear. Until 4 a.m., when my daughter woke me up to announce that she had thrown up. Twice. (Once on her brother.)

We're back now, thank God. The beach was lovely, but I'm going to be doing laundry for a week. And if I start talking March vacations again next year, somebody please slap me.

In the meantime, the garden is coming along -- we got a surprise cold snap and some rain this week, which perked everything up -- today I'm replacing some of the Texas Betony in the front yard this week, and adding some Four-Nerve Daisy. They're tough natives that can handle the searing summers here. The purple lantana is mounded with flowers now and the daffodils are just about played out, but the columbine is unfurling its delicate yellow fairy flowers. And my fridge is overflowing with broccoli from my veggie garden -- have to soak the florets first, though, to get rid of the aphids! (The lettuce is divine, too, but I'd better hurry up and get my tomatoes in.)

And since summer's right around the corner here, I'm hearing the call of Maine. I'm setting up my travel schedule now... looking forward to the cool breezes off the sea, the heady aroma of beach roses, the blueberries like dusty gems on the ground... I always regret that we don't have a proper kitchen up there where I can whip up fresh muffins, but maybe someday! I'll be up there at the end of August... feel free to drop me a line!

On a more literary note, the signing and appearance schedule is filling up for the next few months here; I'll be updating the web site in the next week or two, but in the meantime, to see where I'll be, you can click here. Also, just got a tip that a great review is coming up in Library Journal; when I've got it in my hot little hands, I'll post it!

Hope your gardens -- and notebooks -- are overflowing. More soon!

Friday, March 03, 2006


I was weeding the henbit out from the poppies this morning -- the little frilly weeds are so thick that the long, pale green poppy plants are thin and spindly, drooping over even after I pulled the offending henbit bunches -- and thought how similar those persistent little green weeds are to the ones that grow fast and furious in most writers' heads. Those editing weeds -- if we don't watch out, they'll choke off our idea seedlings!

I know a ton of writers -- once you start writing, they just pop up everywhere -- and there's one common issue that crops up among those who are digging into their first books. The problem? Their self-editing (nasty henbit bunches) gets in the way of letting their ideas sprout and grow to any size. They sow a plot seed, but do nothing about those nasty weed thoughts ("Why are you doing this?" "This is awful, no one will want to read this," "You'll never finish this book!") and finally give up when their ideas seem to wither. Eventually, when they get up the courage, they sow another garden, only to be overcome by weeds again, and then another, and another....

In the end, they have nothing to show for their hard work but plot after plot of weeds... discarded manuscripts that never got a chance to see the light, or get a drink of water.

So what is a writer to do?

1) Weed out the bad thoughts. You can write them down and put them in a jar, make a mental 'circular file' for them, whatever. Don't let them stop you from moving ahead.

2) Give your idea seedlings regular infusions of light and water. Keep writing, keep letting those ideas grow, keep thinking about them -- and have faith in yourself, and in the process. A regular writing time in a regular place is a huge help -- you'll learn that no matter what critical thoughts your inner editor sends up, you'll persist and do it anyway.

3) Give yourself permission to let those editorial thoughts back in -- and do a rewrite -- but only when the manuscript is FINISHED. Even if it doesn't turn out to be the best novel ever written, it will have a huge advantage over all your other seedlings -- it will be DONE. And you will know that you can do it again.

So, those are my gardener's tips for the day. And as I was writing this, I just got news from my publicist... a review came in for Murder on the Rocks... and there's a comparison in there that just makes all the pain and agony of writing worthwhile! If you're curious, it's at

Anyway, it's a gorgeous day out there, so get gardening! And remember, give your ideas lots of water, light, and space... and send those weedy thoughts packing!