Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Affair of the Vanilla Bean


So, if you've been following things on Facebook or Twitter, you know we've been on an ice cream making kick.

I made lavender ice cream. Danny made vanilla. Actually, he was intending to make cookies and cream, but this was the kind of seriously eggy, custardy, vanilla beany ice cream that we were loathe to put Oreos in to, so we didn't.

I ate it over nectarines. Danny ate it with chocolate sauce. It was perfection either way.

My lavender ice cream...well...it tasted like plant. Strongly like plant. I knew I was kind of generous with the tablespoon of dried petals I used to infuse the cream, but when your ice cream tastes of sweetened soap, there's a problem.

(Side note: I still like idea of lavender ice cream, but I think the addition of 1/2 of a vanilla bean and a serious decrease of petals, and a scant pinch of salt will give it a more rounded flavor. I'll letcha know how that goes.)

Anyway, we ate all the vanilla ice cream. I wanted more. I scraped away at our remaining vanilla bean (left over from infusing the sugar for my sister-in-law's bridal shower last year), stirred the cream over the stove, beat the eggs and superfine sugar, tempered the eggs, and returned everything to the pot, over medium heat, so the thing would simmer until "thick enough to coat a spoon."

I hate the phrase "thick enough to coat a spoon." Coat for how long? How thick? Winter coat? Spring jacket?

And then the thing separated on me. Suddenly, it looked like the illegitimate offspring of tapioca pudding and corn grits. I don't know why (I have my theories), but there is nothing in the recipe that told me to do anything differently.

Feeling like I'd just ruined the batch, I began to make plans to start over. This is a labor of love as well as the action born from desperation, because it was 90 degrees outside and standing over a hot stove, even with our freestanding A/C on, still isn't my idea of perfection.

I'd made a trip to Wal-Mart earlier in the day to restock on cream and whole milk. I'd looked for vanilla beans. There were none.

So I went to Albertsons, where I found a bottle with a single vanilla bean. It was $12.34. One bean.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't take it home and make the most expensive ice cream on the planet, especially since I had designs on two other batches, and I really didn't want to spend $37.02 on three batches of ice cream.

I went to Win-Co, to see if they had cheaper beans. They didn't. They had no beans.

I called Trader Joe's - no beans.

I drove up Beltline to Delta Highway to Market of Choice. In the spice aisle - one bean, $8.83(ish). Better. Kind of.

In bulk?

$2.25. Each.

I bought four.

They're not Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans. They were not cultivated by monks. They were not fertilized by fire berries. They were not shipped to the country cradled in a bed of silk.

But they're $2.25 each. I. Don't. Care.

P.S. I churned up the lumpy custard. It came out perfectly.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Us - Part III

Three years ago today, I married my best friend.

You'd think tickling his feet has gotten old by now, but it hasn't.

This year has been a wild ride. Danny worked overtime hours while completing a master's degree. I published and promoted one book while writing 92,000 of the most difficult words I've ever written.

Danny celebrated with me when my first book arrived, and a few days later, when a whole box of books followed. He made me laugh at the cover of the Large Print Edition, came to every book signing and event, helped set up and take down the books, poster, postcards, and punch bowl full of chocolates.

He was very, very angry when he read my worst book review. He beamed over my Publishers Weekly and Booklist reviews.

I got to go to Vermont with Danny and watch as he gained the respect of his classmates and professors during his masters residency. I pinned his masters hood in place, and saw him shake the dean's hand as he received his diploma.

I like the quiet moments best, though. Tea on Saturday mornings. Walks we take, hand in hand. Sitting on the couch, reading books with the windows open.

I like the funny bits that have become our own - the way grass makes us laugh, the way Danny eats cheese, the way I giggle over the phrase some say.

I like how Danny brings adventure into my life in ways I never thought would happen.

It hasn't been an easy year, but it's been a good one. I can't imagine what the next will hold.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writing lessons from Eclipse


Writing Lessons Inspired by the Undead and the Furry:

1.) Show, Don't Tell.

Yeah, Jacob says he's in love with Bella. We heard him. Several times, actually, the kid was a broken record. (And honestly, saying you'll love someone until their heart stops beating is...awkward.) But...how does he show it? Actively show it, not just repeat it over and over while inserting insults regarding her boyfriend?

Aside from a bracelet with a wolf charm, there's not much evidence. Dude, buy a vowel. Maybe the reason she's with him and not you is because you won't stop yapping about how you're right and he's wrong. Just saying.

2.) Unless your villain is really, really, interesting, we don't need to spend much time with him/her.

Pretty much, unless your villain is this guy...

...or this gal...

...just assume we're not all that emotionally or intellectually invested in this person. Sure, we respect that he/she needs to be there as a plot device, but given the choice we'd rather be hanging out with the main characters than with the army of baby vampires and their problems that mean less to us than what Alice picks to wear on any given occasion.

3. Be aware of your pacing.

Pretty much, you want lots of rising action, no matter what genre you're writing in. And when you reach your climax, the amount of time you spend in it should be directly proportionate to the amount of time you've spent building it up. So, if (for instance) you've been having issues with a certain redhead for three books/film installations, maybe dispatching her three minutes after she and the protagonist share the same screen is a bit quick. Just a little.

4. Establish your universe perimeters early and stick to them.

I may be missing something, but I don't remember Jasper having a southern accent in either of the two previous films. I don't remember references to a drawl in any of the books. But suddenly, he's so southern he sounds like he's auditioning for a role in True Blood.

Also - when Vampires die they shatter? I don't remember this. Did this happen earlier? Do they splinter? Are there shards?

Are they extra-flammable? Because Victoria seemed to catch fire real quick. The whole thing reminded me a little of the second Hellboy film, the way the Elves turned to ivory or alabaster or something after they died (I couldn't tell which, but it looked cool).

That's what I thought about when I watched Eclipse. What did you think?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Christians, Spec-Fic, and the Amish Issue


A good friend of mine sent me this link the other day, about why there isn't more Christian Speculative Fiction on the market, and why the Amish seem to be taking over the world.

Well, Christian bookstores, at least.

I thought it would be fun to blog about.

So let's take a look.

1.) Christian Bookstores don't carry much spec-fic/sci-fi/fantasy.

Sure, we know that the bookstores skew towards a female, and often older, demographic (hence the Precious Moments population). We know that spec-fic readers tend to be male. The two don't meet well. But even if you could get the spec-fic reading men into the bookstores, past the Testamints, and into the bookshelves, you still have a person standing in your way.

The person who buys the store's stock.

We're in a recession. We have been for a while. Though there are sure-bet spec-fic authors like Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker, stores are going to be less likely to pick up books by lesser known authors in a genre that doesn't sell much.

And it's not just Christian bookstores. Mainstreams booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart are going to buy what they think will sell well in their stores.


2.) "Everyone" is asking for more Spec-fic, though.

Keep in mind that, yes, spec-fic readers are very vocal, but one more thing - they know how to use their computers (this is not necessarily true of Amish Fiction readers. Just sayin'). Mike Duran's inside source (and if my hunch regarding the identity of that source is right, is a solid person to listen to) made the point that if Spec-fic really truly sold like gangbusters, publishers and book store buyers would sit up and pay attention. Really. But they're not. So my guess is that "everyone" isn't as many people as you'd think.


3.) Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker are the big fish in the spec-fic world.

True. BUT there are tons of other writers out there. Bill Myers is one of them; he'll also be keynoting this summer at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference in Canby. Jill Williamson's By Darkness Hid was not only Marcher Lord Press's biggest seller, but won the 2010 Christy Award in their Visionary category. Randy Ingermanson has several books out, Eric Wilson did a Vampire trilogy with Thomas Nelson Publishers, Stephen Lawhead released several fantasy books. The books are out there. You might have to order them, but they are in existence.

That said...

I have to be honest here. My husband has read a lot of spec-fic of the Michael Crighton, James Rollins, Matthew Reilly, Clive Cussler type. (By the way, how much should Clive Cussler be on Dancing With the Stars? Tons, that's how much. He can drive to the lot in his pink car. Sorry. Tangent.) He's also read some of the Christian releases.

And honestly? He usually likes the general market ones better.

There have been some exceptions, but he prefers the plotting in the general market releases. And rather than ignore the elephant in the room, I'm going to go out on a limb here, and accept that I may receive angry letters - there is some really, really good Christian Fiction out there, of many genres. But some of it is not so great. Just because a book is written from a Christian world-view doesn't mean that it's a worthy piece of art or entertainment. I'm sorry. it doesn't.

So. There you have it. I'm not pointing fingers or naming names, I'm just putting it out there.

4.) Historical Romance and Amish are what's selling.

The economy is bad. CBA readers, by and large, are looking for love stories, and they want them in long skirts. Gloves optional. Why Amish? Because it's safe. Because it's cozy. Because their world is simplified. Because our world isn't. Our world is scary and war-ridden and filled with gray areas that are difficult to wade through.

Also,the rest of us look impossibly hip next to the Amish. There are loads of reasons. I did find out recently that the Amish boom is plateauing, at least. Most publishing houses have filled their Amish Writer Quotas, and in an industry where platform is the new black, that means that either you're already in, or you get to do something else. A new sub-genre will get its turn in the spotlight shortly. In the past we've seen Chick-Lit, suspense, and Prairie Fiction do really well. We'll see what comes next.

5.) The popularity of Amish Fiction represents a Christian world-view shift.

This is an interesting idea. In this blog, Mike Duran posits (sorry, watching lots of Fringe these days) that Christians are veering away from material that contains elements of the supernatural, that they avoid the mysterious. Duran argues that the Bible, what with the fish taxi and the speaking snake (oh, and the speaking mule), and the angels and the prince of the air and the curses and the locusts and the food appearing on the ground and the visions and the prophecies food multiplying and the dead being raised (reanimation? Sorry, like I said, watching Fringe) and the RESURRECTION, scripture alone includes a lot of weird. We won't even talk about end-times prophecy.

My theory on the subject is that Christians, by and large, like their spiritually-oriented paranormal material to be served straight-up. By that, I mean they want it to stay within the covers of their Bible. Because outside of that, you've got a lot of tricky theological decisions about what kinds of weird are okay, and which are twisting spiritual truths incorrectly and not okay, or downright occultic.

It's true, though, that many believers like to skip over the weirder passages of Scripture. Other believers prefer to believe a lot of the stranger bits are literary devices. We live is a post-modern world that clings to science and reason and avoids or negates the inexplicable. To think that post-modernism hasn't crept into the church is unrealistic.

Now, to say that non-paranormal stories are bland and avoid mystery is unfair. To quote Proverbs 30:18-19, "There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden." Life is mysterious. Romance is mysterious.

There's a lot of thoughts there, not necessarily a lot of conclusions.

What do you think?