Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Sweetest Thing

I was at the bank a few days before Christmas and I saw this cute little boy in my daughter's elementary school class. He's six and missing several front teeth and darling. Love that little boy. He came up and hugged my leg. His granddad looked at me askance until I explained the connection. Then Cutie-boy said, "And you're the lady who wrote me the note!"

It's true. I'd written Cutie a thank you note back in October. He had helped our family by chance at a fair, spending a few hours passing out balloons to kids. It was fun work, but that kid really worked! Hours he and my daughter raced to catch every passing child and hand a balloon. They covered that fair in latex, bless their hearts.

So, a week or so later I was writing thank yous to various deserving folks, and I whipped up a quick note for Cutie and dropped it for him at the school then thought no more of it.

But he did. In fact, it made him beam. His grandma mentioned it to me a month ago, then his mom did a few weeks later, and now Cutie himself. It mattered to him.

Weird, and surprising.

A while back I read an article in my ANWA group's monthly newsletter. It was written by the highly talented and strikingly gorgeous Donna Hatch (get to know her if you like a good, juicy, clean romance!) Her suggestion was that all of us writers should pause and use our writing for good, to improve the world around us. Me, I'm not into writing stuff that really "matters" so I almost skipped the rest of the article, but it was Donna's so I read on.

In fact, she didn't suggest only writing "uplifting" or "heartwarming" stories. (Whew, not that I'm against what is uplifting, praiseworthy, or of good report, in general.) Instead, she suggested that we use our writing, which is our gift, our talent, to serve someone else at least once a day. Write a kind note, write a friendly email, send an encouraging comment even if only on facebook. Something along those lines, although those may not be her exact ideas.

That article rolled around in my mind for a few months, and now, with Cutie's reaction, I realized just how valuable the "gift" of writing can be. It can change a little one's happiness level! It can make a little boy run up and hug your leg in the bank because he knows you appreciate him.

Now isn't that a sweet thing?

Back to my old standby Robert Frost poem "Maple," but with a twist: "Send some dear ones some words and see what happens."

Now, for the candy portion of this post. Is it actually possible I ate too much candy over Christmas? Is it possible that sweet stuff doesn't even sound appealing? Pink cookies made from a strawberry cake mix and then rolled in coconut. That was a new favorite binge. Or the *entire pan* of homemade caramels might have tipped me over the edge. Or the *full pound* of Lindt dark chocolate truffles. It could have been caused by the 600 cookies I made and sampled for my brother in law's wedding. Or the slush from Eegee's. Now there's a heavenly treat. Eegee's. Worth a trip to Tucson, Arizona, alone!

Mmm. Sweet, frosty slush with real fruit chunks in it. Light, snowy, delicious. Hey, condolences to my snowbound friends in parts north-flung, places Robert Frost would write about with apple trees and fall leaves and wooden fences. But here in Arizona, this is the time of year we can at last venture out of doors without protective clothing. I shall always love December as the crowning time of year.

Drink a big styrofoam cup of lemon Eegee's to that!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Idaho Spud Bars...and Priorities

Have you ever noticed that in making hash browns a little pepper goes a long way? Unlike in a white sauce, where you need twice as much pepper as you'd think to even get a little taste of it. I wonder why. Maybe the milk in the white sauce just cancels out the peppery flavor. Potatoes, on the other hand, enhance it. They're like a perfect canvas for a lot of other flavors, including cheeeeese.

Did you hear about that study? There's some kind of endorphin thing that's released in the brain, a chemical that creates a sense of well-being. Of COURSE chocolate triggers it, but not as much as cheese.

One time I was talking with my friend Emily, a.k.a. Super* Homemaker. She told me she'd been pressure canning meat that day. When I asked why, she said it was to make room in her freezer for more important things, like cheese.

I couldn't fault her for that excellent reasoning.

Back to potatoes. They're like candy in a way. In fact, there's even a potato-inspired candy bar. They're kind of hard to find in stores, so not everyone has tried The Idaho Spud Bar. I'm not sure everyone should. It's a big, taupe colored marshmallow covered with a good waxy chocolate (love that waxy chocolate a la Little Debbie) and crispy flaked coconut. But when you bite in, it's, uh, a lot of marshmallow.

Me, I can take it. Give me more of those. 

*More about Super Homemaker. She makes homemade tortillas. With Kindergarteners. She baked a huge loaf of bread for every staff member at the whole school for Christmas. The list goes on. Sigh. She's inspiring.

But she's not busy writing a novel. Those of us busy writing a novel have to prioritize it. We cannot let details like "deep cleaning" get in our way. We have to shove every bit of filing into a cardboard box to be filed "later." Mine has been waiting now for 18 months--since the day I started writing this novel. All filing must languish there until this novel is in the hands of an agent or editor.

I cannot, simply cannot, pull my shampoo carpet-er (as my sister terms it) out of the cleaning closet and fire it up, no matter how much the carpet under the table needs it, or how bad the "high traffic areas" in my house are getting.

I have just decided to let the weeds in the back yard grow. So what. Who cares. (Other than the kids who are tired of getting "stickers" in their socks? I just throw those socks away.)

I am writing the novel. I have to focus. I have to push it ahead of those other things.

Not ahead of everything. The kids' meals matter. The husband's job (which I campaigned for relentlessly for three months) matters. The laundry has to matter, even if I don't want it to. I can't afford to risk the suffocation that might ensue. My sister in law is convinced her most likely risk of accidental death is by laundry suffocation. I concur. So, even though I must prioritize the novel, I cannot risk death for it. Seriously. It's not that important. Much as there are days I'd like to think so.

But I don't have time to try new recipes. I'm not going to whip out my cookbook and become Super Homemaker and attempt the Spudnut recipe that's been afflicting my curiosity for months and months. Spudnut? It's the recipe for doughnuts that includes mashed potatoes. I know they're good because there was a Pete's Spudnut Drive In in Logan, Utah, when I was a kid. That's a strong recipe--something good enough to build a whole restaurant around.

Pete's is gone, but a Mr. Spudnut lives on, somewhere in cyberspace.

I guess I need to get back to my point. A little pepper goes a long way in potatoes. A little prioritizing can go a long way toward getting to a writing goal. Five minutes of writing is five minutes of writing. One afternoon a week is still an afternoon of writing done. We don't have to completely shut out all the other things in our lives, but we do have to make time for the accomplishment of the goal. If I want to write a novel, if I want to finish a novel, I have to make the time for it. If not, I'll just spend another day frittering away my time wiping down fingerprints or flipping through cookbooks.

And isn't "fritter" another term for potatoes of some kind? Not my most focused blog, but it's a holiday week. We're all a little scattered. Happy joy to all you all. And many caramels and candies all week long!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caramel is Sticky...Stories Should be Too

I just spent the day wrapping homemade caramels. I love them. I love them so much that if I were forced to choose between caramels or chocolate only forevermore...I'd pick homemade caramel.

I'd like to just sit here with a pan of it and a butter knife and watch the George C. Scott version of "A Christmas Carol" every night from now until Christmas. Mmmm. Probably heaven tastes like this. (The recipe for my caramels is in Delicious Conversation, which, as it happens, is NOT out of print. Shazam. Kinda suprising, eh?) (The ones pictured are on a yummy looking sisters-cooking blog. They look just like mine, but I think they actually have to stir theirs and use a candy thermometer, which would be waaaaaay too complex for me to achieve. Bless them for their supreme domesticity.)

Caramels should have a degree of stickiness to be truly delicious. If not, they're, what? Werther's Originals? Which are fine, but they're not caramels. Just think of the skiff of butter puddling at the edge of the pan, the way the caramel melts in your mouth, sticks slightly to your fingers as you lift another square of it to your lips, the way it makes upper and lower jaws cling and work a little harder to chew its brown-sugary deliciousness.

And like homemade caramel, a story's plot needs to be sticky. Unlike homemade caramel, though the stickier the better. If a plot lacks stickiness, it just won't hold attention. I guess stickiness is what I'm calling conflict. Again. This is the hobby horse I keep on a-ridin'. Get that story conflicted, folks!

The more often as a reader has to ask, "Oh my gosh. How's he going to get out of *that* situation?" the better. The worse the problem, the more the stickiness, the more compelling the story.

I guess what made me think of this was last week I finally picked up Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. *Spoiler Alert.* It's been out for a while, but I'm making my way through the book stack beside my bed slowly. I about choked partway through when things got absolutely as sticky as possible for the main character, Robert Langdon. In fact, that know-it-all protagonist croaked. Yup. Up and died. It was the ultimate in "Oh my goshes." The very worst case scenario of "How's he going to get out of this-es." Seriously, how can he fix the dilemma of being dead?

Dan Brown took the conflict to the max there, and I salute him.

Now, if only I had been rooting for Robert Langdon a little more due to his being remotely empathetic...

I'm still slogging through the edit of my own little novel. It may not be epic like Brown's work, and it may not be taking itself all that seriously, but this week I rolled up on this passage where I totally missed an opportunity to make things sticky for my main character. I mean, dropped the ball of stickiness and let it roll away in the dust and get all unsticky.

Shame on me.

So, I went back and rewrote the chapter where my guy accidentally witnessed a murder. Then I had to throw in consequences for that, which added all new layers of stickiness, and possibly made me shake out three subplots that were going *nowhere* and even might have refocused the remainder of the book. Ha ha--I hope.

Still, the point is, when stickiness happens, it's good. It makes the character work at maximum capacity. It makes the reader worry. It helps the writer focus the story.

And it tastes good. Like caramel. Please, step back and let me get at that pan of gooey joy I haven't wrapped yet. They're mine. Happy, happy Christmastime.