Perils of Holiday Pie Baking: 8th Time’s the Charm

Mom's apple pie

Mom’s apple pie

Growing up in a family of six children, there were two occasions when the apple pie had to be perfect: when we all gathered to eat on Thanksgiving, and then again on Christmas Day.

And you couldn’t fool around with the ingredients on those hallowed family occasions, the pie had to be made with the exact same recipe my mother learned as a young Foreign Service wife more than fifty years ago.

This year, when pie duty fell to me for the first time, I naively thought, What a great opportunity to learn how to make Mom’s apple pie. My two teenage sons love the fruity pastry and here was a chance to learn  the beloved family recipe directly from the source.

Applesauce pie. Not exactly what I was going for.

Applesauce pie. Not exactly what I was going for.

One Saturday morning, my 13-year-old son, who loves to bake, and I drove over to my Mom’s house and got down to business. My son took notes and I took pictures and it turned out to be a great bonding experience for three generations of our family. The pies were delicious, of course, and we devoured them after dinner.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, I decided a few practice runs were in order—just to make sure the holiday pie would be as good as Mom’s.

I’ve never been interested in baking, but there was something calming and surprisingly satisfying about making my own dough, rolling it out, and assembling the pie. It wasn’t unlike the feeling that comes over me when my writing is going well.

That first trial run, my crust turned out a little hard, but I figured I’d perfect it the next time. And I did, more or less. The second time, the pie crust was pretty good, flaky with just the right crispness, but the apples had turned to applesauce. All of the experts had an opinion: maybe I’d used the wrong kind of apples (I hadn’t), maybe I’d used too few apples (possibly).

The next three tries ended up the same—more applesauce pie. By the fifth try, my failed attempts at apple pie had completely turned the boys off the dessert they’d loved since they were toddlers. But I refused to give up. I’d come home from the day job and roll up my sleeves to roll out some dough. I was determined to perfect that darn apple pie if it was the last thing I did. No flaky, fruity pastry was going to beat me.

In some ways, I thought as I concocted the sixth or seventh pie, the endeavor wasn’t unlike writing a book. You have to constantly tweak the ingredients until you come up with the best possible result.

"The Monster" apple pie

“The Monster” apple pie

Buy an oven thermometer, said my BFF/Beta Reader/Amateur Gourmet Chef, your temperature must be off. It wasn’t, at least not too badly.

Pile on tons of apples, said my sister. That resulted in a pie my BBF called The Monster. As it happens, The Monster turned out OK, but it looked ridiculous and some of the apples were under cooked.

Desperate for a good outcome, I went to Mom’s house on Thanksgiving morning to make the pies under her watchful eye. She used more flour and apples than I did. And the pies, of course, turned out great.

With Thanksgiving done, I now had Christmas to worry about look forward to. After tweaking the recipe the way I’d seen Mom do it at Thanksgiving, my eighth attempt finally, finally yielded decent results. The pie wasn’t perfect, but the crust was fine and the apples weren’t mushy.

So I’m all ready for Christmas Day. Sort of. My sister just texted me that she’d be happy to make the apple pies this holiday. I think I’ll try a one more apple pie test run before I text her back. I’d never turn over the writing of my books to anyone else. But pie is another story…

Happy Holidays everyone!

Love,
Diana

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Dealing with the Walking Dead

I’m going to put this out there. I am not a nice person. I can be pretty ruthless. When I no longer have use for someone, I have no problem throwing him out.

Sherlock idiot

Giphy.com

 

If I don’t like something that happens, I can easily tuck it away so that I forget it ever occurred. And if somebody says something that doesn’t make sense, I readily say “That’s stupid!”

Such is the life of a writer.

Oh, you thought I was talking about real life? Did you forget this is a blog about writing? Silly!

Let me first say, I’m a Capricorn. We Capricorns are known for being loyal to a fault…until you cross us. Still, I’m inordinately proud of the progress I’ve made in being able to disassociate myself from something that is no longer working in my manuscript. It isn’t easy. Writers become attached to their words in ways that are incomprehensible to most people.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this. Writing a book is like pregnancy, and can take just as long (or longer!). Sometimes, it can be just as painful. There’s this surge of joy when you come up with a new idea for a story, much like the feeling you get when you first discover you are pregnant. Your mind starts racing, you picture scenes and plotlines, characters and settings, you decorate and embellish the story in your mind’s eye just as you plan out the nursery for your new bundle of joy.

As you go through your book “pregnancy”, your baby gives you growing pains. Suddenly, a scene isn’t working and you have the worst case of indigestion. What do you do?

Your first course of action is to medicate with a handful of M&M’s, which are always at hand for any serious writer. M&M’s make everything better, at least temporarily. Then, you attack the offending scene with gusto, working and reworking it until it makes sense. Unfortunately, sometimes the reworking serves only to suck the life out of the scene completely. If that is the case, you chop it out. Cut off its head. Put it in solitary confinement in a file marked “Save for later” that you hopefully will remember you created when you realize that the scene actually DOES work, just not where you had it. Maybe it belongs in a different story entirely. Maybe it will never get used. Still, it’s there, waiting for that moment when you recognize its value.

Yet for every discomfort, for every pang you get as your “baby” grows, there is a moment of sheer joy, that feeling a mother gets when she holds her child for the first time. It’s that thrill you get when you laugh out loud when you’re writing a scene. The tear you get in your eye when everything seems hopeless for your characters’ happily ever after. The rush you get at the possibilities for your story’s success, because you know, you just KNOW, you got it right.

Here’s the thing. Writing is hard. It’s a solitary job with lots of rejection. Life often gets in the way. Hardly anybody writes their first book and sells a million copies of it. Practice makes perfect…or at least, perfect enough that an editor wants to buy it.

And here’s another truth…if you stop writing, you get rusty. I’m learning that firsthand these days. My writing has hit a dry patch. My baby has stopped growing, and there’s that fear of miscarriage, that the manuscript I’m working on will never reach its full potential. What I find, though, whenever I return to the story, is that it is just sleeping. Sometimes it takes a little while to wake it up, but eventually, it springs back to life.

I never, ever discard anything I write. That isn’t ego talking. It’s common sense, and yes, attachment. Just as I couldn’t discard one of my own children, so I couldn’t discard even a paragraph that isn’t working out the way I want it to. At every conference I’ve ever attended, one of the key speakers has referred to that first offending manuscript, the one that didn’t sell, that nobody wanted, that sits in a drawer at home as a reminder of how far the author has come. Because if you keep writing, you will get better at it. Your first book isn’t going to be as good as your fifth, or even your second.

I have a huge graveyard of unused writing, waiting to be resurrected when its usefulness is clear. It will be the Zombie Apocalypse of (Jaye Marie) Rome.

*********

How do you deal with wayward words?

 

Jaye

 

 

 

Engaging the senses in your writing

I was talking with my eleven year old son the other day and he was explaining in great detail about these people who I later learned are from the fictional online gaming world of Wizard 101. This isn’t the first time he’s done it, either. Both my kids regularly refer to characters from TV shows or electronic games as though they’re real. It drives both me and my husband crazy.

But then I started thinking that isn’t this what writers look for when we craft our stories? We want the characters to feel so real to the reader that they could be someone you know—or would like to know. Or could imagine falling in love with. Who doesn’t want to get that little catch in your gut like the heroine does when the hero gives her a smoldering glance?

How do you write to fully engage your reader?

Here are some examples of how to use your five senses to bring your reader into the story. These excerpts are from the partially edited second book in my Tangled Hearts series, Forever In My Heart, which will be coming out soon.

Sight

Vicky bit into a forkful of baked ziti and reveled in the divine combination of garlic, basil, tomatoes, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses along with the slight bite of red pepper.

Taste

Back in the main room, Maggie poured his coffee, and he took it along with a cinnamon bun to his usual table by the window. Slathering the top with butter, he took a huge bite into a sticky explosion of brown sugar laced dough.

Sight and Smell

Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. A few strands escaped and curled against her neck. She smelled like berries, apples, and cinnamon and he had to fight the urge to reach out and see if she tasted as good.

Touch

He reached out and touched her arm. A spark jumped between them. She must have felt it, too, because she jolted. All these years and his blood still heated up being near her.

Sound

Surprised, she cried out and acted on pure instinct—or stupidity. She elbowed him in the gut. He grunted a moment before the gun clanked to the gun. She attempted to step aside, but her assailant grabbed her arm and punched her in the jaw. It wasn’t a strong punch, but it caused her to gasp for breath. Grabbing the cake carrier, she swiveled and smashed him in the head. He yelped and fell, swearing when he hit the hard ground.

 

In case you can’t tell, there are lots of food references in Forever In My Heart. I leveraged my Italian background in my story and enjoyed creating what I hope are scenes that make the reader imagine being inside Vicky’s café or at least make you crave something decadent. 🙂

Cinnamon buns anyone?

While writing this post, I did realize I shy away describing sounds in my story. It’s given me a renewed energy look for ways to go into more depth as I continue with my edits.

What tips do you have to engage your reader in the story?

Maria

Heroes of Romance

He’s the male protagonist, or sometimes the antagonist. The heroine’s romantic interest. The hero in a romance story. And like an ice cream cone, he comes in all kinds of scrumptious flavors for us to lick…uh, em…well, enjoy.

Yet like cream is to ice cream, certain core archetypes can be found in our romance heroes.

I’m beginning a new series and have been thinking long and hard about the types of heroes I enjoy reading and writing about. My MMA series, Worth the Fight, features tough, hardcore, Alpha men. Big brutes. Fighters. But what I love about creating a series is that you can decide which archetype fits your voice, your characters, your stories. And then, you can flavor them any which way you want. BTW—I like my ice cream drizzled in sweet, mouthwatering hotness. Hot caramel. Hot fudge. You name it. But be forewarned, my new series might not feature the Alphas you are expecting…they might not be an Alphas at all. 😉

Gosh, I’m such a tease!

Here is my compilation of the core heroic archetypes in romance, as well as books that I think best exemplify each type. Please comment on your favorite(s) and books you’ve enjoyed. Based on the descriptions below, I bet you can figure out my favorites. Or maybe even the direction my new series is headed in.

Enjoy!

Michele

***

This is the oneThe Alpha Male
He’s tough. Overbearing. Headstrong. Dangerous. And we love him in spite of it all. The Alpha hero is arguably the most popular hero archetype. He’s a powerhouse at the top of his game and nothing can stand in his way. Confrontation is his bed-partner. A heroine’s naughty fantasy, even the feistiest are susceptible to his rugged charm. He comes in a variety of shapes and forms: Company CEO’s, MMA fighters, cops and military figures.

My recent favorites: SWAT officer Ben Harris in Uncommon Passion by Anne Calhoun; Horse in Reaper’s Property by Joanna Wylde; Alex Fuentes in Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

The Beta Guy
He’s hot, sexy and nice. The kind of guy you’d marry. He tends to be successful in business, highly intelligent and down-to-earth. He won’t dodge confrontation but usually finds a better way to resolve it other than a slug fest.

My all-time favorite: Ian Mackenzie in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

The Wounded Soul th2GG2TFN9
Mr. Tall, Dark, and Brooding. He doesn’t have much to say, but his manner positively screams “tormented”. His past is troubled and has shaped who he is today. Only the love of a good woman can heal him and make him whole again.

My favorite: Navy SEAL lieutenant Tom Paoletti in The Unsung Hero by Suzanne Brockmann

The Jokester
Sharp. Quick witted. Out for a bit of fun. He often snubs social norms and rules, or pokes fun at them. He’s a hard catch, never letting himself get too close for comfort. Most times, his behavior is a smokescreen for a deeper, hidden pain within.

My favorite: Rupert Carsington in Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase.

The Man-Whore
Sex on legs. He’s hot-as-sin and knows it. So do his many women, though none of them are in his life for long. It doesn’t matter—he leaves them smiling. He’s dangerous like that, might even be addicting. Though his heart remains aloof, even when his body is balls deep. He’s searching for the right woman to make him complete, both in bed and within his own damaged psyche.

My favorite: No one does man-whore like Anne Stuart! Try Francis Rohan, le Comte de Giverney in Ruthless.

The Protector
He’s on a higher mission in life, a higher calling where he must protect what is his, through fighting or corporate takeovers or downright domineering actions. He tends to have a police or military background, and is trained in weaponry. More often than naught, he saves the heroine in some way.

My favorite: John Medina in All the Queen’s Men by Linda Howard

thGW0DPBNKThe Anti-hero
A shadowing figure, mysterious and subtle. Domineering, overbearing, and dangerous like the Alpha hero except he isn’t obvious about it or as proud of it. He will dominate any confrontation. He inhabits the fringes of society and lives by his own set of outlaw rules. He’s the perfect synthesis of an Alpha Hero, a Wounded Soul, and The Man-Whore.

My favorites: Aleksei “The Siberian” Sevasyan in The Professional by Kresley Cole. Hands-down the hottest anti-hero figure I’ve read in years. Seriously.

Good Cover Design—Part 1

example Katharine Ashe's My Lady, My Lord

example Katharine Ashe’s My Lady, My Lord

Given the surge of self-publishing in recent years, more and more authors are taking their covers into their own hands. Whether you purchase a graphics program and learn the skills to do it yourself, or hire a professional book designer like me, the fact is, the author has far more control than ever before. With that control, however, also comes the burden of getting it right. Never fear, by keeping in mind a few basic principles, you, or you in conjunction with your designer, will be able to create a cover that helps you sell. Today’s post will focus on Genre, Keeping it Simple, and Instant Readability.

[Before we get started, please note that I am not distinguishing here between self-pubbed examples and traditionally published ones in this post. I use the author’s name for simplicity, and my focus is simply Good Design. In some cases, yes, the design decisions were made by the authors, in others, kudos go to the publisher’s design (and perhaps marketing) departments.]

Genre: Reader’s don’t just need a HEA in a romance, first they’ve got to know it IS a romance, and better yet, what sub-genre of romance it is. Just like it’s okay to try something a little different to garner attention (see the cover I did with Katharine Ashe for My Lady, My Lord with it’s unusual grayscale image)—at the same time you must give readers what they expect. Typical in historicals, we used an embracing couple, added more hair, period clothing, and of course, some swashy type. Your setting is a big key to depicting genre. Think Marie Force’s The Fatal Series. She fades a nighttime cityscape and a couple together, with a dark feel: obviously a romantic suspense. Bella Andre uses a couple and setting in a similar way in The Sullivans series—yet through color and choice of art, the feel is completely different. Voila, a contemporary romance. Small town contemporaries, often show a couple posed on quaint main street or square, likewise, the backdrop for a western will use lush fields, a charming barn, or a dusty landscape. Likely, you know what the conventions and expectations of your genre are—but if you need a visual reminder go to an online book retailer and pull up a specific genre via keywords or the authors you are most similar to for comparison.
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Food good enough to write about

I was raised in an Italian household where food was the focal point of family gatherings. Anyone who came to my house was offered something to eat, and you got looked at strangely if you didn’t want anything. “What? How can you not be hungry?” or “Just try a little piece of this.” Not that we forced anyone to eat, but usually the tantalizing smells got to you and you found yourself eating without even realizing it.

So it wasn’t a surprise when writing UNTANGLE MY HEART that my heroine was also of Italian descent. Rather than a catering business like my family had, the DiFrancesco’s owned a pizzeria and later, a trattoria. All the DiFrancesco men and women can cook. Mama Carmen’s specialty is lasagna and canolis. Kate’s is shrimp & pasta marinara and biscotti. Her baby brother, Vinnie, makes a mouth-watering veal parm. Mr. D is all about the pizza. Sister Vicky is the baker of the family and makes a to-die-for Italian cream cake (my personal fav). Oldest bro, Nick, makes veal marsala that could make you swoon!

There were certain foods you ate on certain days and for certain holidays. At Easter, there are breads, pies, cookies you only get at that time of year. Eating them is extra special because you know you’ll go an entire year before indulging in them again. The same goes for Christmas Eve and the Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity or Feast of the Seven Fishes).

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, which we did not celebrate in my house growing up. I didn’t have corned beef until I was an adult. Now, my husband makes it and I like it (although I’ll skip the cabbage). And I certainly won’t refuse Irish soda bread or a hot toddy!
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Writing is Personal

Have you ever read a book and wondered how much of it is actually an account of the author’s own life?

I had a discussion with my eighth grader tonight about To Kill A Mockingbird, and she talked about how certain aspects of Harper Lee’s novel came directly from the author’s life. Scout is believed to be based on Harper Lee herself, and Dill is based on her neighbor, the one and only Truman Capote.

Naturally, as writers, we put a lot of our personal experience or viewpoints into our work. How can we not? There is no way we can separate ourselves so completely, mentally and emotionally, from what we create. Any writing instructor, agent, or editor will tell you…write what you know.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that we are writing our own lives, unless, of course, we tell you it is so.

There are people who believe this to be the case. More than once, I’ve seen that “wink, wink, nudge,nudge” look in someone’s eye when I say I write romance. I’m telling you right now…it’s called fiction for a reason, people! And I have a really healthy imagination.

File:1876. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.djvu

(photo in the public domain)

Certainly, I am present in my writing. My viewpoints, the important themes in my life, my values, all have their place in what I write. I think I would find it hard to write something that was completely antithetical to my way of living. Could Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls without drawing on his experiences as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War? Would Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer have felt so authentic if the author didn’t draw from his childhood to write the book? The task of a writer is figuring out how, and when (or even if) to present that bit of themselves through the eyes of the characters in the novel.

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The Dreaded Sagging Middle

I wanted to blog about a topic many writers—including myself—dread. It’s the sagging middle. And I’m not talking about out waistlines. I’ll save that weight loss discussion for another day. I’m thinking of the middle chapters of our books. The part of our story that loses its drive, its enthusiasm, and well…its umph.

frustrated writer

Others call this midbook burnout. But whatever you call it, the result can be disastrous for both new and established writers. We start out strong. We picture our hero and heroine in our mind with vivid clarity. We know what they look like as well as their initial goals and motivations. We craft wonderful beginning chapters and maybe even strong endings. Then something happens mid-way through. The essence of the story gets lost. The conflict is too simple or too complicated. We sit at the computer for hours in frustration and write little. We decide the writing process is too hard and we even think about giving up.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The good news is there is a way to work through our frustrations. Here are the four tips that I find most helpful:

Flesh out character development scenes

 My favorite book on craft for writers is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. He breaks down the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. He calls step six “Tests, Allies and Enemies.” I’ve found this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in the middle of my book. By testing your hero and having him make allies and enemies you are allowing for great character development. You can learn a lot about a hero’s character by the friends and enemies he makes. Romances are all about the character growth of both the hero and heroine. So flesh out these scenes.

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On Milestones

Milestone: A significant event or point in development

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a milestone birthday. I met this particular milestone with less than my usual enthusiasm, and it got me thinking.

I’ve had many milestones in my life, from relationships, to career opportunities, to giving birth, and even getting published. How have those events changed me and influenced the person I’ve become? How have they made me feel about myself, and how have they changed the way others view me?

Then, of course, being a writer, I imposed those questions upon the poor, unsuspecting characters in my books. Suckers!

Milestones tend to be thought of as positive, life-changing events that give a person the impetus to be bigger, better, stronger, richer (both monetarily, and in their souls). I love when an action or reaction to a milestone is different than what you would expect it to be.

Heroine #1 earns her college degree after years of putting herself through school, and now has the world at her fingertips! The possibilities are endless! The only way to go is up! Her optimism knows no bounds! She lives in a world of exclamation points!

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Housekeeping and Editing…Two Challenging Tasks!

I admit I’m not much of a housekeeper. I know mothers that excel at having a well-kept home. I’ve stopped by to drop my kids off at scheduled play dates or even unexpectedly to sell Girl Scout cookies and have been invited into homes that are often tidy and beautiful. I do clean, but more often than not, there are toys strewn about, and my office/playroom is well…just plain messy.

MessyDesk

One rainy afternoon, I was mumbling under my breath while cleaning out closets when my hubby walked in and said, “What’s the big deal? Think of it as cleaning up your manuscript after the first draft.” I dropped the trash bag stuffed with kids’ clothes intended for Goodwill, and looked up at him in shock. As an engineer and introvert, he’s definitely on the quiet side, but sometimes he blurts out very helpful and insightful things. I started thinking and came to the conclusion he was totally on point.

So what do cleaning the house and editing your book really have in common? It turns out to be a whole lot.

Read the entire manuscript in one sitting

Get the feel for the story. Resist marking the pages and making notes in the margins. Just read for the content. This will reveal overwriting, sections that need more explanation, or unfinished plot points. It’s similar to walking through the house and noting what needs to be cleaned, which closets need to be organized, and how big of a task you have ahead of you.
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