Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Retreating to Write

When life gets busy, a writer's thoughts can turn to getting away from it all. Finding a quiet room somewhere with a desk, a chair, a light, and a bed. One that won't break the bank. Maybe even one where simple meals are delivered a couple of times a day. No phone, no laundry, no Internet.

In such a setting, I dream of being super productive. Writing furiously for days on end, broken only by a daily long walk and a nap. Completing the last 100 pages of the work in progress. Doing an entire edit. Starting a new idea. Crafting a short story start to finish.

In reality, as Aine Greaney points out in
Writer with a Day Job, there's often a few hours or a day at the beginning of adjusting, of settling in. Still, I think I'm gearing up for carving out some time. Aine recommends the Wellspring House in Western Massachusetts (whose room is pictured here), a retreat house for writers and artists. Or perhaps my friend Deb's beach house is empty for a weekend. Anywhere away from home where I can have more than 5 hours of uninterrupted time would be superb.

There are established artist retreats where scholarship winners can stay for weeks, even months. MacDowell in NewHampshire. The Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oregon Writers Colony. Dorland Mountain in California. They are competitive to get into with a long application lead time, though, plus then you need to be able to take the time off work to actually work there.

Possibilities for the future, sure.
For now? Which weekend in the fall can I just claim?

And how about you? What kind of writing retreat works the best? Have you found a good one?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Mother's Birthday

I can't be with my mother, Marilyn Ruth Flaherty Maxwell Muller on her 86th birthday tomorrow, so I thought I'd write a brief biography of her, instead, so you all can know what an awesome woman she is.

Marilyn Flaherty
was a shy girl who grew up in Piedmont, California, a hilly small town across the bay from San Francisco. Already a third-generation Californian, she went sailing in the bay and in the Pacific with her father, roller-skated down steep hills, and put on gloves and a hat to go shopping in the city with her mother and younger sister.

As an undergraduate in history at the University of California, Berkeley, she met my father at a sorority dance. He was a shy Army recruit
enrolled in Italian classes. They dated, fell in love, and wrote letters several times a week during the years he was stationed elsewhere in the States and then in the far reaches of India during the war. When he returned, they were married (see her guest post about her first car).

According t
o both of them, they talked ahead of time through all their plans for being a couple and being parents. They gave birth to four children, all less than two years apart (I'm #3). Mommy participated in a playgroup cooperative associated with a local college. She was home with us until we were in high school, and was a devoted Girl Scout leader (Leader of the Year in 1963) and Cub Scout den mother for my younger brother.

Our home was filled with books of all kinds. Mommy loved to read mysteries and my first Agatha Christie reads were her books. As a child when I couldn't sleep, I would sometimes make my way back into the living room where she sat reading, and if I was lucky (or if she chose to let me, more likely) I'd get some cherished time reading my own book next to her.

My mother
was always creative. She made a puppet theater for us by painting a refrigerator box, sewing and mounting a curtain, and fabricating puppets out of old socks, buttons, paint, and fabric. She sewed intricate ballet costumes for my two older sisters and me every spring, four per girl, and taught the other mothers the patterns. She took a cake-decorating class and made roses (roses!) out of frosting. She sewed most of our clothes and knit us sweaters.

She also paid attention to our nutrition. Although she never really enjoyed cooking apart from baking, we always had balanced meals. She read Adele Davis and tossed things like dried milk into the Bisquik to give it more protein.

On our annual two-week camping vacations in the Sierras, she taught us about birds and plants. We'd lie on our backs at night in an open area with her and learn about the stars (yes, using the Rey book). She let us run loose within certain boundaries on vacation, making sure we checked in (with a code word - "I'm going to visit Mrs. McGillicuddy") when we headed off to the bathrooms. At home I could go off anywhere on my bike as long as I stayed within a certain square of blocks. We were self-sufficient at home, too. We kids made our own breakfasts and lunches as soon as we went to school. She wasn't into short-order prep for four picky eaters.

In their fifties my parents divorced. Both of them remarried happily. My stepfather Fred Muller and my mother moved north out of the LA smog to Ventura, California, where they spent many sweet years together. They'd drive the few hours to Las Vegas and take advantage of the many senior discounts on food and lodging. They'd gamble a little for a few days and then drive home. Mommy took up quilting, making numerous beautiful quilts for her children and grandchildren. She won awards at the County Fair and made some good friends in her quilt group, Stitch and Bitch. She and Fred played games every afternoon: Scrabble, cribbage, cards. (I didn't beat her at Scrabble until I was 50...)

My father had passed away by then, and Fred was a perfect step-grandfather to my sons.
Mommy was and still is a devoted grandmother, suitably admiring and indulgent. She now has many great-grandchildren. All of her grandchildren and great-grands (as of 2007) and all but my brother are pictured at left.

Fred passed away from Alzheimers several years ago, and my mother no longer quilts. She's still a superstar with words, though, and loves to read her beloved Dick Francis.

Happy Birthday, Mommy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Murder in the Mansion

Last year I toured the historic Crane Estate mansion and grounds as I was beginning to write Murder on the Bluffs. I wanted the murder to take place somewhere on the vast grounds of the estate. I took pictures and lots of notes.

Mr. Crane was a plumbing magnate who spared no costs to build this summer retreat from the oppressive midwestern heat of Chicago. Parts of it remin
d me of the opulence of Hearst Castle on the opposite coast.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to score a slot in the "Hot and Cold" tour, which takes place in the back halls and stairways of the mansion, the realm of the maids and butlers. It was fascinating. We explored the pantries, the trunk room, the furnace area (hot), the rooftop, the ventilation system (cold), and much more. We traversed a hidden spiral staircase. We peeked into the old lift used to bring wood upstairs for fireplaces and checked out the dumbwaiter in a pantry the size of a small apartment.

Boy, did I come away with ideas. What if a body was stuffed in a trunk in the cellar? How about if Lauren was lured into the safe, a green-felt lined room used to store the considerable silver collection? Once the heavy door swung shut and the combination twirled, she'd have no way to call for help.

The antique elevator looked intriguing and dangerous with its door that resembled a jail cell door. That wood lift, with its pulleys, ropes, and rotting infrastructure. And the slanted concrete slab that coal used to slide down. Oooh.

I have changed the name of the estate in my book. Public places don't usually appreciate having fictional murders or assaults taking place on their properties, even if only in a book. Still, I think I might have material in surfeit for the climax scene I'll be working on tomorrow.

What's your favorite real or imagined site for murder and mayhem?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How I Write

One gentle reader of this blog asked to hear about my writing process, so here goes.

As much as I wish I were disciplined enough to write every day, I am not and so I don't. But on Fridays, my non-work day, I write. I don't schedule doctor or massage appointments, I don't clean or shop, I don't leave the house. I just write. I can also write on cross-continental flights, occasionally in the passenger seat of a long car trip, and sometimes on weekends.

When I'm at home, I sit in my lovely upstairs office and write at a desktop computer (sometimes with my helper, Birdie). When I'm traveling, I usually write on my trusty lightweight netbook, the one with the 9-hour battery life. I have, though, been able to write quite well in other locations with a good pen and a nice white pad of lined paper.

On Fridays I try to write steadily from early morning until I run out of steam, which is usually early afternoon, taking breaks only to stretch, grab a snack, or throw a load of laundry on the line. When I'm writing a first draft, I read over the last scene I wrote and then I try to write at least 1000 new words. Some days I get even more on the page.

What about when I don't know what's happening in the story? I'm not one for plotting or outlining, particularly. At times I sit down and have NO IDEA what's next in the book. But the old adage about "butt in the chair, fingers on the keyboard" is completely true. So I start typing. Sometimes I type "I don't know what to write today. I don't know what's next. I want to bring Irene's son Joey into the action..." and then I have an idea about what happened to a character and off I go. It works every time. Really? Really.

But what about distractions? The Internet is a biggie. It's too tempting to just check that email, or do a little research about this or that. So I simply don't open a browser on the desktop system. Instead I leave the netbook downstairs and use that for email. If I need to check a fact in the book, I type [CHECK THIS] so I can find it later, after the creative surge is over, and follow up then. It seems very important not to let myself interrupt the muse when she's flowing.

Other distractions include a nice sunny day and the view from my office windows. Or bringing pen and paper to the beach and finding myself listening to the waves and fellow beachgoers' conversations instead.

What about you? Where do you write, and how do you keep at it?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Groundnut Stew and Other Delicacies

I'm pleased to welcome fellow author Patricia Deuson as guest blogger today. We discovered we have a common past: living all over West Africa. As has, too, my amateur sleuth, Lauren Rousseau. Pat's first mystery, SUPERIOR LONGING, the first Neva Moore mystery, will be out September 15 on Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, and other e-book venues.

Food creates memories. Time spent with family and friends. Those special dinners in or out. Picnics. Holiday feasts. For those who lived for a time in a country not their own, vivid memories can be evoked by a dish once shared with friends abroad. Groundnut stew* is this kind of dish for those who spent time in West Africa .

What are groundnuts? Thought to have originated in Western Africa, the most common groundnut is the peanut, but while all peanuts are ground nuts, not all groundnuts are peanuts.** When I lived in West Africa peanuts were the groundnut of choice. Sold in bags and bottles, sweet or very spicy, in sauces of amazing heat, as groundnut butter, boiled groundnuts, fried groundnuts, green groundnuts, groundnut oil, they were found in soups, stews, salads, snacks, and sandwiches.

So what is Groundnut stew? It’s a spicy, hearty dish of whatever vegetable is on hand, chopped or diced and ready for the pot: carrots, onion, yams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter or summer squash, chickpeas, okra, garlic, eggplant, hot peppers, sweet peppers, or cabbage, and spices. Spices! Ginger, cayenne, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric all of which came from the marché, sold in twists of paper. And of course peanuts, pounded to a paste with a large wooden mortar and pestle.

Ground nut stew, like traditional dishes everywhere, has as many recipes as cooks and they add what vegetables they have on hand. If there is chicken or goat handy it is cut into small pieces and added or it canbe strictly vegetarian if meat is not available.

Groundnut stew can readily be turned into a soup with the addition of broth or juice. In West Africa either chicken or vegetarian bouillon cubes are used. Whether eaten as soup or stew, it might well be served with Fufu.***

What is Fufu? It's a dumpling made by boiling cassava, yam, plantain, millet, or rice, then pounding it into a glutinous mass in a mortar and pestle. The same mortar and pestle used to pound the peanuts one day and the millet the next. It is a ubiquitous, essential cooking tool.

[Edith's note: you can also use corn flour, and a Togolese friend of mine used to approximate fufu by combining Cream of Wheat with masa farina. It's really just polenta by any other name. And a perfect vehicle for a sauce.]

So here are some recipes for Groundnut Stew, one for FuFu, and a music video that will bring back the sound of West Africa to anyone who was lucky enough to live there.

* Groundnut stew recipes



** Groundnuts


*** Fufu recipe




This post was brought to you by the folks at Cooks Inn Cooking School, whose further adventures (some of which lead to murder) can be found in SUPERIOR LONGING, the first Neva Moore mystery, written by Patricia Deuson, published by Echelon Press and available from 9/15/11 until the end of time in most fine ebook formats such as Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and Omnilit and maybe others no one told me about. SUPERIOR LONGING has its own blog and Facebook page as well: http://superiorlonging.blogspot.com/ and http://goo.gl/AfIVM. Go visit them!