Sunday, October 16, 2016

Autumn Leaves, October Rain, and Nightmares...

Right off the bat let me say that usually our Portland Octobers are pretty nice. The rains don't usually start until toward the end of the month, after which they don't stop until along about April. I italicized rains because rain is a constant fact of life around here for six months of the year, so much so that when the sun comes out people run around in shorts and sit on sidewalks drinking coffee and sunbathe wherever they can find a non-soggy piece of lawneven if the temps are below freezing.

This October is not nice. We've had enough rain that the leaves on the sidewalks and trails are soggy. No taking a walk in order to kick your way through drifts of crisp, rustling leaves, which I remember as one of the best things about autumn.

Except for once.

I was fifteen and we had recently moved to a middle-sized town in southern Idaho. The library was only a half mile or so from our house, and I made frequent use of it. Even better, it had a good collection of science fiction books, my then-favorite genre.

It was the middle of October and I was taking the long way home from the library because the temperature was mild, the wind was blowing fallen leaves across the streets and sidewalks, and the nearly full moon was playing peek-a-boo behind fast-moving clouds. Although there were streetlights at the intersections, the blocks were long and mostly dark. Deserted. I might have been the only person alive that night.

I am not one who jumps at shadows. I'm more likely to try to discover its source than to be afraid of a strange noise in the night, and ghost stories do not frighten me. About the only things that really scare me are lightning storms and having a tree fall on my housethat's happened twice and folk wisdom says events happen in threes...

One of the books I'd returned to the library that night was John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. For some reason it had scared me, way more than any of Lovecraft's stories or Poe's or Shirley Jackson's. The triffids were plant creatures that ingested meat. Any kind of meat. And they were prone to making the source of the meat dead before they ate it. When they moved they made a clicking, rustling noise.

Just like those dry leaves rattling across the sidewalk.

I was terrified.

I did not run screaming, but I certainly walked very fast, flinching at every click, knock, bump, thud, rustle, and creak. I was never so glad to see our porch light as I was that night. For weeks afterward, I woke in the night, sure I'd heard a triffid outside my window.

In the many years since then, I've reread that book a couple of times and seen the movies (one true to the story, one not). And I have to admit, triffids still scare me. So maybe it's a good thing our sidewalk leaves here in Portland are soggy.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Small Towns and Parades...

I like the dynamics of small towns, the way everyone minds everyone else's business, where secrets are hard to keep, but there's always someone who'll help out when you need it. 

Hillsboro, OR, 4th of July Parade
Most of all I like the small town festivals--most have them, of one sort or another--Pioneer Days, the Harvest Festival, a Fourth of July Social, the May Fest, or any of a hundred other reasons to celebrate. They often involved old fashioned parades, with tractors and fire engines and decorated farm wagons carrying the local May Queen or the members of the Ladies Sewing Circle or the officers of a fraternal organization. And always there are the proud veterans of wars past and present in full dress uniform, marching tall and proud, saluted and cheered by their neighbors who line the streets all along the route. 

But automobiles are killing small towns. It's taken more than a century, but it's happening. When anyone can drive to the nearest Costco in a couple of hours, the sixty-year-old family-owned grocery or hardware store just can't compete. Although the small town I lived in for thirteen years is still viable, Main Street just isn't what it was when I was there. I remember a jewelry store, a bookstore/gift shop, a newsstand that sold comic books, paperbacks, cigarettes and candy, two banks, a department store and an appliance store. I'm sure there were others, but those are the ones I could put a name to, if asked. Oh, yes, there was a movie theatre, but it was transformed into a church while I still lived there, a victim of television, not the automobile.

Now some of the storefronts are empty, and the rest house smaller enterprises. For the big items like furniture and appliances folks can drive to a city a bit over an hour away, or to the Walmart across the river (in another town, another state). That small town is now more of a bedroom community than a real town, because people go elsewhere to shop. To play, to dine, to see their doctor, dentist, whatever. I really hope there are still a few small towns left, perhaps less conveniently close to a shopping mall or a big-box retailer. Or just more stubborn. 

Some small towns have deliberately re-purposed themselves as tourist destinations. There is a charming pseudo-Swiss village in the Cascade Mountains, a bit over an hour east of Seattle. A fun place to visit. In Oregon's Willamette Valley is a small town that fifteen years ago had more empty storefronts than full. Today is it a thriving wine center, with tasting rooms in what seems like every third storefront, as well as in the old, long-abandoned depot, and several nice restaurants ;along the main street. But those small towns are exceptions. On a recent trip to Yellowstone, we passed through several deserted settlements, with old grain elevators or saloons slowly decaying into ruin. I remember most of them--perhaps not thriving, but living towns or villages--from the first time I traveled that route, a long time ago. People lived in them, shopped in them, went to church and school there.

On this most recent trip I counted the warning signs along the highway: NO SERVICES FOR 57 MILES. The mileage to the next gas station varied, but I counted five signs in an 850-mile journey. Even in the open, sparsely populated deserts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, there used to be gas stations in those small settlements, with restrooms and usually snacks, soft drinks, and sometimes even a small lunch counter. Now the traveler has to plan ahead, to hope for a highway department rest area, to bring snacks for those long stretches between caf├ęs.

It's sad. Something lost, perhaps never to be regained.

A couple of my books are about small towns. Yes, I confess to having shown mostly the good sides of them, and I don't apologize. If you want to look at darkness and despair, watch the news. The world needs more Pollyannas, and I am unashamedly one. Solomon'sDecision and Improbable Solution are both set in small towns that are perfect candidates for decay and eventual disappearance, but the people in them aren't ready to give up. They are very different stories, and the towns aren't much alike, except that they are small, a bit off the beaten track, and handling their potential demises very differently. I wish those stories could be true for small towns everywhere.

Don't you?


Monday, August 15, 2016

Vicarious travels and a surplus of zucchini...

Writers cheat. They write about places they've never been, using maps, photographs, travelers' accounts, Google Earth and tour books to help them set the stage on which their characters play out the stories.

Well, actually, that's not cheating. It's really difficult to visit first century Gaul or fourteenth century China or Regency England in person. We have to depend upon contemporary accounts, like Marco Polo's Book of the Marvels of the World, Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Jane Austen's superb novels, upon archaeological studies, historical accounts, diaries, and a whole bunch of other sources. We are simply decorating the stages on which our characters act, and we do our best to get it right.

I had never been to Florence, Italy, when I wrote FlorentineEnchantment, or to London and Paris when I wrote Undercover Cavaliere. I relied a lot on photos on the Web, on maps and, in the latter case, also on an 1881 Baedeker, which showed me how to get my characters from London to Paris and where they could stay when they got there.

The great thing about writing historical fiction is that as long as you stick to documentable facts, no one can argue, because they weren't there either. The awful thing about writing historical fiction is that you can't make up your own maps of well-known places, or put important structures where they weren't, or change the path of a river. As sure as you do, someone is going to come along and say--publically and probably very loudly--"Hey, you've got that wrong!"

Fortunately, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence hasn't changed much since 1817, at least not so far as I could discover. Yes, the original David was moved indoors when they noticed how much air pollution was damaging it, but there's a good replica in the same place. Since the story requires that particular sculpture in that exact location, I was safe. But still, there was a niggle of doubt. Had I got it right? Did I have the Piazza right? So high on my list when I finally made it to Florence was checking the piazza where the replica David stands. To my delight, it looked exactly like my mental image.

How about the narrow Parisian streets around Gare du Est? I never got any chiding letters from readers, but I still worried. When I finally got to Paris a couple of years ago, I spent an afternoon visiting some of the places where I'd set scenes. It was a great relief to see that I hadn't made any really awful errors.

But still... I wasn't in Paris in 1885, in London or Florence during the Regency Period, in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1872, or in any of those other places where I've set stories. I'm eternally grateful to libraries (both public and historical), to all the people who've worked to put old magazines and journals online, to contribute to places like Project Gutenberg whence old books can be downloaded, to the Library of Congress for making old maps available. These and many other sources are available to writers who want to make sure their scenes are convincing, the sets upon which their characters act out their stories are authentic to the time.

So I guess we writers don't really cheat. We research, imagine, create, describe, and hope we've done so convincingly. And we have a really good time doing it.

Traditionally I ended my newsletters with a recipe, and when a good one comes along, I'll continue doing that. A while back I ran across a simple and delicious way to use zucchini, something available in surplus this time of the year. Best thing about it is that it's a good last-minute addition to a meal, and it also works nicely with other summer squash.

Zucchini Slaw
2 cu (more or less) Zucchini, julienned (you can also use a coarse grater)
2-3 scallions, julienned (or thin-sliced sweet onions)
1 red pepper or carrot, julienned
1/2 cu white vinegar
1/2 cu sugar
2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
Poppy seeds (optional)
Toss thoroughly, and serve within about 15 minutes.
Comments welcome. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A toe in the water...

Actually, it was a lot more than a toe, and the water was icy.

Before I tell you about my adventure, I have to say that I'm not a good swimmer, I do not like to put my face in the water, and falling into a river scares the dickens out of me.

So why on earth did I agree when Mike suggested I join a bunch of old friends on a whitewater raft trip on the River of No Return? The River of No Return? The very name sent shudders up my spine, even though I knew it meant simply that once a boat had floated downriver, there was no getting it back upriver. Too many rapids, too steep a gradient, too much wilderness. And no roads, not along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which was where the raft trip was to go. It's wilderness, preserved by governmental mandate.

For eight months after I sent in my deposit, I worked at convincing myself I wasn't totally insane, that I'd survive the trip, and even enjoy it. My son, who'd done a whitewater raft trip down an Oregon river, told me I'd probably never get wet, (He lied.) some of my friends assured me I'd love it, but others told me I was crazy to consider five nights in a tent in the wilderness. Sleeping on the ground, at that. (They were all correct.)

We'd been on the river less than an hour when I got wet the first time. And for the next five days, I was mostly wet from our morning launch until I changed into dry clothes in my tent in the late afternoon. I slathered on sunscreen every couple of hours, and still got browner by the day. I became clever at finding bushes/logs,/trees to hide behind (no, there are no convenient porta-potties in the wilderness). And I had a wonderful time.

There were twenty-three of us, including seven youngsters between ten and fourteen. Everyone was friendly, fun, just plain nice. Our guides (all seven of them) were experienced rivermen, superb cooks, and really nice guys. They took excellent care of us and fed us really, really well. They even pitched and took down our tents for us, which undoubtedly saved a lot of time, as well as making sleeping under a nylon dome in the wilderness a lot less daunting.

We saw wildlife: lots of birds; many, many bugs (some of which bit); a few snakes (Including one rattler); small critters which sometimes looked like chipmunks; Rocky Mountain Goats; and a Black Bear (which wasn't black, but sort of cinnamon colored). We saw small planes skimming the mountaintops, because the only way in to the remaining ranches (grandfathered when the area was declared a wilderness) is by air, but never heard a jet or saw a contrail until we neared the confluence of the Middle Fork with the main Salmon River.

There is no internet access in the wilderness. Nobody could text or email, make phone calls, or even play solitaire (unless he bought a deck of real playing cards, and I never saw any). We spent our evenings conversing, and mostly went to bed early because it gets really dark in the wilderness. And that meant that the night sky was fantastic. We forget, sometimes, how many stars we can see, because our city lights make all but the brightest invisible.

 Here are the best of my photos. Click on each on for a short explanation.

 A final note: my short paranormal Regency romance, Florentine Enchantment, will be released on 12 August. Read a short sample.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Little Chocolate, a Little Weird...

Keep Portland Weird.

I see that a lot, mostly on bumper stickers, but also here and there on signs, in windows, and on t-shirts.

Portlanders pride themselves of being a little out of step with the rest of the world. But we really aren't, or not as much as some would like to be. Yes, we have our Wesen population, but mostly they keep to themselves. And yes, Portland is supposed to be where twenty-somethings go to retire, but only if they are tech-gazillionaires.

It rains eight months of the year in Portland, but the good news is that it rarely freezes. When it does, it does so with a vengeance, though, especially coupled with rain. Snow is even more rare, although a snowstorm did drop a couple of feet just before Christmas a few years back. The whole town came to a dead halt, and a lot of folks were without power. But mostly, our winter rains are chilly, drizzly, and unrelenting.

The first winter I lived here, I was amazed to walk out of my office on a sunny January day (the temp was still below freezing) and see people sitting at sidewalk tables having lunch, mostly in their shirtsleeves. A few hardy--shirtless--souls were tossing a Frisbee in Waterfront Park. Now that was weird! Or so I believed then. Now it's just ordinary.

We've had a couple of heat waves already this year (global warming, everyone says). Both times, for three or four days, the daytime temps reached the mid-nineties (degrees Fahrenheit). Sun worshippers headed for the fountains, the rivers, the hills. The rest of us huddled inside our houses, shades drawn and air conditioners going at full blast. I had to shade my snow peas or they'd have cooked (and stopped bearing). When the forecast called for a week of showers and low temps, a, lot of us celebrated. That much sunshine, that much heat--it's just not natural.

But we can't control the weather, so those of us who work to keep Portland weird use other means. There's the Naked Bike Ride (honest!); the Belmont Goats (who were dispossessed of their home on Belmont St. so now they live out a ways from the downtown core, but they are still here and well loved); and the world's smallest park (492 sq in/0.292 m2), which is reputed to house the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland.

We recycle with enthusiasm, because it's part of our lives. Fast food restaurants offer three or four bins in which to sort your hamburger wrapping, ketchup cup, straw and compostable soft drink cup. Yard debris (55 gallon/208 liter) bins are picked up weekly (we put our organic kitchen waste in them along with lawn clippings), but garbage cans only every other week. Urban gardening is big, and raised vegetable beds are beginning to replace front lawns all over town.

So what's weird about that? Maybe nothing, but I do know that in my admittedly infrequent travels, I've never seen so many tomato plants replacing landscape shrubs elsewhere.

The weirdest thing I've seen recently? Yesterday, on a nearby corner, in front of a building housing a strip joint, a Mom-and-Pop grocery and a recreational marijuana dispensary, I saw a young man wearing a tasteful tweed jacket, a white shirt, a colorful tie and dressy slacks. And bright red, patent-leather shoes. I found myself wondering why anyone would wear a jacket, tie and creased slacks on a balmy Sunday evening in June. Like I said. Weird.

My recipe recommendation this month is a chocolate cake for one: I made it with peanut butter instead of Nutella, and it was quite tasty. I didn't want to figure out how many calories were in it, because I made it for my own private birthday cake. It's not weird.

Last, but hopefully not least, I've got a new short Regency coming out in August. Florentine Enchantment. I'll tell you more next month.

Until then, read a book, eat chocolate, be a little weird.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Hiking, Listening and Leeks

I went on a hike the other day.

I do that now and then, but usually I don't crow about it, because I'm not a vigorous hiker. I like level trails, cool weather, interesting scenery along the way, and not a lot of sweat. If the destination is pretty, that's a bonus, but as with so much of life, it's the journey, not the destination, that matters. After all, I might hike an hour or two, but I'm not usually going to spend that much time admiring the view at the destination, because I've either got to retrace my steps, or go nearly as far as I've come to get back to the starting point.

My hike the other day was not level (800-odd feet in less than a mile, up and then back down those 800 feet on the return--that's about 250 meters in a bit over a kilometer up and down). It got pretty warm before I made it back to my car, and I was damp with sweat. The scenery along the way was interesting, though. Plants. A waterfall. A Stellar's Jay, several bugs, a snake, and an unidentifiable, quickly moving critter that was bigger than a chipmunk but smaller than a squirrel. My kids called them "run-runs" because they usually scurried too fast to be identified.

The Columbia Gorge, just east of Portland, is a great place to hike, to see waterfalls, and to observe nature. It was carved through basalt and other hard stuff by a series of immense floods at the end of the last ice age that left souvenirs all along their route, like those rocks I talked about last month. They carved right through mountains, leaving steep cliffs. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, more than ninety streams descend abruptly in often spectacular waterfalls. If you are interested, there are some lovely photos here.

The trails in the Gorge are not exactly level, and some of them are really challenging. The one I took is considered a moderate hike. Short, not impossibly steep, and with a waterfall to enjoy about halfway to the viewpoint at the top. There are around a dozen switchbacks, places where one can rest a moment while pretending to admire the scenery, and even a couple of benches on which to be honest about resting.

What I liked best, next to the flowers, of course, was the sound. Most of the time I could hear the waterfall splashing its way down the cliffs, the intermittent breeze rustling the leaves, and an occasional jay venting his irritation at someone. Since I-84 runs along the river, there was always the background roar of traffic, but somehow it was easy to ignore because the sounds of nature were right there, in my face (and my ears). When I did meet people, they were friendly, exchanging a word or two in passing (mostly they passed me), and going on their way. As I did, because we were all there to enjoy our hikes, not to socialize.

Perhaps I'll try a longer, or steeper trail next time. Or not. There are lots of choices in the Gorge, ranging from really easy to difficult (for the young and fit, but impossible for me, I think), and a bunch of them lead to or by waterfalls. In the meantime, I'm going to be working on building up some uphill muscles in my legs. It was embarrassing how often I had to stop and rest.

But remember, rests are as much part of the journey as walking.

This whole thing began as my "Now-and-Again, Low-Calorie newsletter." So yes, I have a recipe for you. Since my leeks are about ready to harvest, I've been looking for new ways to fix them. But first, here's my old standby, a recipe that's easy to tailor to however many will be there for dinner.

Caramelized Leeks

Remove the dark green tops and the root end of however many leeks you want to cook (1 or 2 per person, depending on what else is for dinner). Split lengthwise and rinse to get out any soil that's lurking between layers. Slice crosswise into finger-width pieces. Melt butter or heat good olive oil in a skillet, add the leek pieces and sprinkle them with a little salt (it helps with the caramelization). Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are brown and caramelized. That takes 20 to 30 minutes, but it'll be worth the wait.

I've served these alone because I really like the taste, but this morning I ran across a recipe where you serve them with pasta. Gonna try that one soon.

On 4 June I'll be appearing as a guest on Samantha Ann King's blog. My topic is "Deleted Scenes" and I'll be talking about why I sometimes take a perfectly good scene out of a book. Drop by on 4 June and say hello.

I'm on Facebook too. Love to see you there.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Digging Up Stuff

I've been moving rocks this past month. Digging them from under iris and rhody roots, unearthing them from under blue fescue gone amok. Making new piles and wondering what to do with them all.

Back when we bought this house, I decided to get rid of the lawn—I have a philosophical prejudice against lawns because they consume fertilizer, water and time and are boring. Shrubs and flowers are prettier, can be way lees work, and are easy to ignore for weeks at a time (mostly...).. So I had the sod removed and hauled away and planted rhododendrons and day lilies and hostas and ferns and two wisteria

(I've already told you how they tricked me—they need monthly pruning, starting right now).

Anyhow, the rocks. My house is on the edge of a "lenticular gravel bar" left by the Missoula Floods that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. Big floods that carved the Columbia Gorge and reshaped the topography of much of eastern Washington and the northern Willamette Valley. Each time I planted one of the twenty-seven rhodies I began with, I dug up rocks. In fact, I couldn't use a shovel to dig with; it took a 1-1/2-inch thick, pointed iron bar, because I was digging in gravel, with a little soil holding it together.

Those rocks, I thought, would make lovely borders for the rhodies, keeping out weeds and saving me having to lay down bark mulch. And they did, until plant debris and ants and other natural processes built up a layer of soil and compost on top of them, making a lovely home for weeds. Now, twenty-odd years later, the rocks are mostly buried. So I'm moving them out, to give the plants' roots more room, because some of my rhodies have died for lack of water—it runs right off the compacted rocks—from overcrowding—I got carried away when I planted them because I forgot that shrubs get bigger—and from several hot summers in a row—a pine tree just outside my lot that shaded three rhodies was cut down and now all three are gone, victims of too much sun.

But about the rocks. It's hard to resist looking at them as I dig them up. I've found granite that had to have come from Montana, piggy-backing on ice floes or tumbling in the floodwaters. Pitted black basalt that probably began its journey in the Columbia Plateau, a shard or two of limestone from somewhere east of here, and even some really pretty, nearly transparent quartz pebbles. Sometimes I wish I knew more geology, so I could know what each rock is and where it probably came from, but mostly I just enjoy knowing they've traveled a long way to end up in my garden.

I've finished planting my vegetables. In addition to all the onion-relatives that have been growing all winter, and the snow peas that are now nearly a foot tall, I have five tomato plants (two cherry, three big ones), and two different kinds of squash. Some nasturtium seeds are in the ground, but I haven't seen any sprouts yet. I hope they do grow. The leaves and flowers are both delicious.

And speaking of delicious, no I haven't forgotten to include a recipe. But this month it's really an ingredient suggestion instead of a full-blown recipe. Pea tips and pea sprouts. I'd heard about them a few years ago, but had never tried them until this spring when my snow peas needed thinning. They're quite tasty in salads, and they are good stir-fried too. So if you have some pea plants you can spare, Google "pea tips" and you'll find a whole bunch of ways you can use them. They may also be available in your local farmers market.

Last but not least, I have a new (short) book out. Common Ground is about an heir to a marquessate, who'd rather dig up old ruins than participate in the ton's social rituals, a young woman whose guardians insist that the study of Roman mosaics is unsuitable for a lady, and a duck-chasing dog whose antics open all sorts of possibilities for two unconventional—and lonely—young people. (ISBN 978-1-60174-214-8, $2.99; now at Amazon and KOBO.

Now, I'm heading out to dig up more rocks.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gardens, Recipes and eBooks

So my over-winter Alliums are doing well and my Walla Walla sweets are in the ground, and now I have to decide what else I will plant. After all, I should raise something besides onions and their relatives (i.e., shallots, garlic, leeks).

Tomatoes, of course. Can't have summer without tomatoes. Little, sweet ones, big, tangy red ones. To me summer smells like tomatoes, warm from the sun, so juicy that the drips leave stains on my shirt when I bite into them. And snow peas. They are in the ground too, but after two weeks I can't see a single emerging shoot. Perhaps it was too cold and too wet to plant them yet. But I couldn't wait. The sooner I plant the snow peas, the sooner I can eat them.

Do you get the idea that I love to eat? Oh yeah! And I love to cook almost as much.
Perhaps you read mysteries when you're eating alone. Or romances. I do, but even more frequently, I read cookbooks. Especially the ones with pretty photos. Of course, I rarely try any of the recipes, but it's fun to see what interesting ingredients people combine. Balsamic vinegar on ice cream (I did try that and it was good, after I'd caramelized the vinegar). Krispy-Kreme bread Pudding (just reading the recipe gives me a sugar high). Jellied Cole slaw (made it once, but was underwhelmed). Anything that starts with a can of soup (some sound good, but all that salt...).
I've become an adventurous cook, often inventing as I go along. So far I have not had to toss anything out, but I admit that some of my inventions have been less than tasty. Others, though, have warranted a note-to-self to repeat. Like the caramelized yams I did the other night. I'd already cooked the thick yam slices to almost-tender. A half teaspoon of butter, melted in a small skillet, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and a teaspoon of brown sugar, and plunk the yam slices on top over medium heat. Cook until slightly browned and a little crusty on the edge, turn over and repeat. Delicious, low cal, healthy, and super easy.

But this began with my garden, and it should end there. One more thing I plan to plant is nasturtiums. Volunteers from ones I planted about five years ago keep springing up, but they've all reverted to yellow, and I like the red and maroon ones too (the photo shows them the first year I planted them). They look so pretty in a salad. Yes, nasturtiums are edible. The flowers add color and a bite to salads, the buds  can be used like fresh capers or pickled, the leaves are great salad greens and a good substitute for watercress in sandwiches (buttered white bread with the crusts cut off and cut into dainty triangles, if you want to be traditional). And of course, nasturtiums add brilliant color to my vegetable garden. I can hardly wait.

I guess I should mention that in April I'll have a new Regency short story coming from Uncial Press. Common Ground is about a young woman with an untraditional ambition, a young man who'd rather not be heir to a title, and a duck-chasing dog. It's available for preorder now, at Amazon and elsewhere.

So...tell me about your garden. Or about your culinary adventures.