Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Write What You Know

© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
People tell fiction writers to “Write What You Know.” This works for maybe your first five stories. After that, you need to do research.

The classics of fiction are mostly a mystery to me. Once in a while I decide I need to raise myself “above my raisings,” so I get a library copy of something archaic and boring and immerse myself in a little literary stew. The stage doesn’t last long. Like my diets.

One of my characters suffered through the same literary self-abuse, deciding to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in an attempt to impress his librarian wife. Of course, for him to accomplish that, I needed to read the book.

I called the local library. This was before you could request books online and find them on a special shelf with your name on it. I love that feature. I want my grocery store to operate that way, and I want both places to have a drive-through. I can’t decide if that makes me sound incredibly lazy or incredibly efficient. (Butt out. I’ll be the judge of that.)

Me: “Do you have a copy of Ulysses?”
Librarian: “Ulysses?”
Me: “Yes, by James Joyce.”
Librarian: Silence. “You say that was Grant?”
Me: “No, not Ulysses S. Grant. Ulysses by James Joyce.”
Librarian: “One moment.” Silence. Crickets. “Would that be in fiction?”

For the same novel (as yet unpublished—and stop rubbing it in) a character decided to try to save her marriage (i.e. change her husband) by reading one of the Dr. Phil books. So I found a copy of Relationship Rescue and slogged through it. Don’t get me wrong. I purely love Dr. Phil. But if he had to work through his own checklists and therapy exercises even he would simply divorce the jerk and try his luck with the next person.

So, as a writer, my education is ongoing and wide-ranging. Ask me anything.

Better yet, read my stories. Please.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Angels Among Us

I have angel figurines in my home: cute cherubs, faceless collectible angels, even a “forgetful” angel with a necklace of car keys and glasses on her nose and head. These were all gifts, usually given for special days. (Why did Denise give me the forgetful angel? I don’t remember.) Our Christmas tree never felt right until we got rid of the gaudy lighted star John chose and replaced it with my choice of a beautiful, lace-bedecked angel with, for some reason a wand. The treetop angel is as much like the one I grew up throwing tinsel at as I could find. As long as I’m happy, right?

And then there are the real angels. In the Bible, when an angel shows up, it’s always a male. And scary. The first thing out of his mouth is “Be not afraid.” Jesus, the Son of God, walked the earth and people flocked to see him. Angels show up and everyone cowers in terror.

Yet we persist in wearing doll-faced angel pins and dressing our daughters in winged white costumes for the annual Christmas pageant. As my daughter sometimes accuses me when I’m telling a funny—and always true!—story, never let the facts get in the way.

A friend of mine is comfortable only with the truth. He never passes on an email without checking the facts. He backs up his religious beliefs with Scripture, both chapter and verse.

Cute little cherubs with dried flower wreaths have no place in his world.

I’m more flexible. Pretty angels given when someone knows you’re going through a rough patch? Great! Silly angels with three pencils stuck in their hair? Perfect! A dollar store snow globe angel given by a grandchild? Best. Gift. Ever. 

I love my little angel figurines. But if one of those big, scary angels ever shows up bearing a message from God, I’ll be down there on the floor, cringing and petrified, with everyone else.

You can bet your wings on it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Worst Christmas Present Ever

Recently during a book launch interview (more on this next time) on Facebook, I was asked what was my worst Christmas present ever.

“That's easy,” I responded. “I grew up in a family of eight kids with no money, so we kids all traded names and bought for one other person. The year I was about fourteen, my twelve-year-old brother Russell’s gift to me was a fluorescent orange hunting hat, complete with ear flaps. That was one of the few gifts I got that year and I was not pleased…”

True story. He thought it was hysterically funny and I was a bit ticked off. Somewhere there is photographic evidence of me in a hot pink quilted robe and a fluorescent orange hunting hat. My parents took about twelve pictures of me in eighteen years, and that, of course, was one of them.

My other gifts that year were a skirt and a wool sweater. Mom, excited to have afforded real wool, wanted to be there when I tried them on. Thank God she was, because as soon as I pulled the sweater on I felt as if a million ants were biting me from waist to neck. I began a crazy ants-in-the-pants dance, slapping at my arms and trunk, yelling, “Something’s biting me all over!” Mom yanked the sweater over my head and saved me from a million biting—fibers.

The wall unit my brother made.

Merry Christmas to me.

Years later, when my brother became a master carpenter, he made me a gorgeous, gigantic toy box for my kids, big enough for them to get inside and play in. “This is to make up for the hunting hat,” he said. More recently, he made a wall unit worthy of a mansion. I think with the family discount we might have paid for the materials. I think we’re even.

Recently Costco had a display of colorful worsted wool socks. Hmm, I thought. They might be the solution to my nighttime freezing-feet problem. Could I have outgrown my wool allergy? I held the socks against my wrist. No reaction. Then I held them to my neck—and immediately commenced my ants-in-the-pants dance. My shoulders still hunch from the memory.

Hey, Russell, think you could find me some orange hunter’s socks?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fussy Recipes

If I'm not using one of my slow cookers,
I'm using one of my cast-iron pots.
People often ask me for my recipes. Then they tell me, “Yeah, I’m never going to make that. Your recipes are so fussy!” They’re content to enjoy the dish once and maybe never again, unless I make it for them. I don’t understand that attitude. If it tastes good, why not put the effort into it?
I follow America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) slow-cooker recipe for “Old Fashioned Chicken Noodle Soup.” You don’t start with hatching an egg and raising it into a chicken, but very nearly. (Kind of like reading Michener’s Hawaii, where the novel begins at the dawn of time with the creation of the islands and eventually gets to the part where something actually happens.) The recipe includes browning chicken thighs, wrapping the breast in foil so it’ll cook more slowly, pre-cooking veggies, throwing things into the slow-cooker, eventually deboning the meat, and cooking the noodles separately. It’s not your fix-it-and-forget-it style recipe. 
And people love the results.
I have a few recipes that meet the “5 Ingredient” limit many people insist on. They’re fine. But oh, that noodle soup! So good you’ll slap your granny!
Sometimes, while viewing an episode of ATK, even I marvel at the lengths to which they will go to add flavor, texture, crust, a little dash of something at the end of the cooking to “brighten” the taste. I watch pots and pans and dishes and utensils pile up at an alarming rate, knowing my kitchen help is limited to a man who loads the dishwasher because he thinks I toss the dishes in from across the room. He doesn’t wash dishes by hand because the sink is exactly the depth that makes his back ache. This is my father’s excuse also, and he’s shorter than I am. Do they teach this in man school?
So I watch the entire episode, dish piles and all, and enjoy it immensely. And sometimes even I say, “Yeah, I’m never going to make that.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Smell Ya Later

I’m not just eco-friendly, I’m heading toward an affair. I told John we no longer have trash—I just wash everything and put it in the garage, and he hauls it to the recycling center. A cloth bag full of other cloth grocery bags lives in my car’s trunk so they’re ready when I am. I usually cook, so there aren’t lots of take-out foam trays and frozen food packages in my trash. I don’t own a Keurig so I’m not heaping landfills with little empty pods. (Yes, I used to own a Tassimo, which is basically the same thing but with impossible-to-find pods. Shut up.)

My worst problem with the eco-pal thing? Cleaning sprays. When my house is clean I want it to smell clean. Not like cat pee (ammonia) or my mother’s laundry room (bleach) or Easter eggs (vinegar). Nice. Pleasant. Clean. Actually, I want my house to smell clean even when it isn’t, but it usually smells like whatever I last cooked. And I don’t want to spend a fortune on those specialty cleaners. Surely I can find something home-made, right?

I’ve tried different mixtures as far back as my hippie-wannabe days when I had a vague dream of living a Mother Earth News lifestyle, only without the animal stink or touching the wormy ground. Recently I tried an internet recipe, a half vinegar/half water combo. The house smelled so bad I left, making an unnecessary trip in my car, burning gas I didn’t need to. (Yes, I could have taken a walk. You’re not helping.)

I mentioned my problem to strangers at a jewelry-shopping party and one of them had a solution. Essential oils. She gave me the types, ratios, and where to find them. I bought them, mixed the solution, and cleaned my kitchen. It doesn’t smell like heavy cleaners, my husband isn’t coughing from bleach in the air, there’s just a light, pleasant, clean scent. Eureka!

So here’s my gift to you, from the stranger who gave it to me. I call it:
All-Purpose Cleaner That Won’t Make You Cough Or Run You Out of Your Own House With Its Stench:

1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
30 drops lavender essential oil
15 drops rosemary essential oil
Mix in a spray bottle, spray and wipe.

You’re welcome.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dead to Me

The ice cream maker is dead to me.

Yes, I, Valerie Norris, gave up on an appliance that takes something simple—ice cream—and turns it into an Olympic marathon event, with pre-freezing, measuring, mixing in a mixer, mixing/freezing in the ice cream freezer, then adding flavors and freezing it to actual ice cream consistency.
I know, it’s not like me to quit when it comes to preparing food. I’m the same person friends tell, “I love your cooking but your recipes are too much work.” The same person who starts the Thanksgiving gravy the day before by oven-roasting turkey thighs, then simmering them on the stovetop, then straining the liquid, etc. It’s a recipe so involved it has a legacy of burns and knife cuts that don’t heal for months. Why do I keep making it? The gravy is amazing. You could eat it like soup. 

So why did I give up on the ice cream maker? Because I keep producing ice cream the consistency of a home-cranked snow cone. Crunch crunch. The ice cream was better when the machine was new, but over the years it lost what was apparently the magic high speed that produced creamy ice cream.

Oh, I tried. I spent a long weekend giving the ice cream maker a second chance, a third and a fourth. I pre-froze buckets deep in the recesses of two different freezers. I tweaked the recipe. I let the ice cream machine run an extra ten minutes.

t still resulted in ice cream the consistency of melted, re-frozen, freezer-burned iced milk that crunched in my mouth.

But I haven’t completely given up. My daughter has an ice cream attachment for her Kitchen Aid mixer, and I’m going to borrow it and try again. Again with the freezing, mixing, mixing/freezing, adding flavors and then final freezing. Because this time it might be great.

If not, I’ll really give up. Really. Trust me.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

5 Cool Things about Numbered Lists

I love lists. I write out one nearly every morning to give structure to my day. I seldom get to the end of a list at day’s end, but by golly there I am the next morning, sitting down and making another list—and drinking coffee and procrastinating starting to actually work at checking things off.
I keep lists of items I need to shop for, too, because once I get to Target or Walmart or Bed, Bath and Everything Else I tend to get lost in aisles of things I don’t need. (Ooh! Socks that moisturize your feet in bed! Oh, look! Cocktail glasses—I’ve gotten by without any for my entire life but I need them now. And there, hats!) Clearly, I need a list. And blinders.

Numbered lists are a huge selling tool—just check out magazines in the grocery check-out lanes:
10 Beauty Secrets from stuff you normally let go stale in the pantry
12 Weeknight Recipes Your Kids Will Hate But Hey, You Cooked So They Should Shut Up and Eat
21 Ways to Waste Time and Money with Crap You Never Should Have Bought In the First Place
The teasers happen on Facebook, too. You’re just a click away from fascinating subjects:
The 15 Worst Misspelled Tattoos
5 Foods that will make you fat, ugly and smell bad
30 sweepstakes that will never award prizes but will give your FB and email info to hundreds of spammers

So, back to the title of this post. What are five cool things about numbered lists?
1. Numbered lists give you an idea of what you’re getting into. Amid 200 ideas for sprucing up your home or spicing up your sex life, there must be something that will actually spruce or spice, right? (A hint: No.)
2. Numbered to-do lists give you the abundant satisfaction of crossing off items. If you’re a numbered list geek.
3. Number 3, number 3. Umm--

Okay, THREE cool things about numbered lists.

3. You can make them any length you want.