Have a Holly, Jelly Christmas

Christmas morning of 1917 was a time of excitement for Johnny Welles and his three older siblings.  In addition to celebrating the special day, a secret was brewing behind the scenes that would add to the festive holiday season and bring joy to the entire family.  In a passage leading up to the discovery of this secret, I wrote a portion for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, that included the special treat of apple jelly on pound cake served for Christmas breakfast.  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when writing the above-mentioned scene.

Collie’s Apple Jelly

3 lbs. tart apples (¼ underripe and ¾ ripe)

3 c water

2 T lemon juice, strained

3 c white sugar

This recipe doesn’t require an outside source of pectin because it uses tart apples which are higher in pectin.  Also, the slightly underripe apples further ensure a natural source of pectin.

Sort and wash the apples.  Remove the stems and blossom ends.  Do not pare or core the apples.  Cut them into small pieces.  Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil on high heat.  Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.  Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the apple pieces are soft.  Do not over boil or you’ll destroy the pectin, flavor, and color in the fruit.

Dampen a jelly bag and suspend over a clean bowl.  Ladle the cooked apples and liquid into the jelly bag and allow the juices to drip through on their own.  Pressing out the juice will result in cloudy jelly.  If a fruit press is used, pass the juice through a jelly bag to reduce cloudiness.

Pour the apple juice into a flat-bottomed pot.  Add the lemon juice and sugar.  Stir thoroughly.  Boil the mixture over high heat to eight degrees above the boiling point of water (this temperature depends on where you live in regards to sea level) or until the jelly sheets from a spoon.  Remove the jelly from the heat and quickly skim off the foam.

Immediately pour the jelly into hot, sterile jars.  Be sure to leave ¼ inch headspace.  Wipe the rims with a clean, damp paper towel.  Fit a canning lid into a ring and place on the jars of jelly.  Take care to level and tighten them properly.  Process the jars in a water bath canner.  The time required will depend on the altitude at which you live:

0 – 1000 ft. for five minutes

1001 – 6000 ft. for 10 minutes

Above 6000 ft. for 15 minutes

Remove the processed jars using canning tongs.  Allow the jars to cool on several layers of towels.  During this time, you’ll hear the lids pop indicating successful canning.  You can remove the rings for reuse once the lids pop and the jars cool.  Any lid that does not pop has not sealed properly.  These jars should be cooled and refrigerated for immediate use.  This recipe yields about four to five half-pint jars of golden sweet deliciousness.

Now it’s time for the confession portion of this post.  Thinking like a modern woman, I had Collie making the apple jelly a few days before she served it for Christmas.  In my world, one would simply go to the store for apples or pull them from the refrigerator where they waited patiently to be eaten or made into something delicious.  Refrigerators for home use weren’t invented until 1913, and I seriously doubt the Welles family would have had one by 1917.  They could have had a cellar, but I never mentioned this in the description of the house, and to do so for the sake of one scene would feel contrived.

Apples will last for six to eight weeks with refrigeration, but left on a counter, they will ripen ten times faster because enzymes are much more active at room temperature, and they will only last for a week or two.  More likely, Collie would have made the jelly during the months when apples were in season.  So while I made a small culinary mistake in my novel, fortunately I discovered it prior to publication.  As I’ve always said, the research begins with the author.  It will be easy to edit this scene by having Collie say she held back one jar to use on Christmas morning.

How I Cheated at NaNoWriMo and Won

how-i-cheated-at-nanowrimoA couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.

Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.

At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?

So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.

I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?

I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.

Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.

What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.

I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be.   Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.

Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.

Who is in Your Details?

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

Today’s post counts as two entries in The Weight of Words and one for Research Road. It also stresses the importance of thoroughly editing and researching your work as well as finding a good editor. We’ve all made mistakes. I have received tactful comments from followers pointing out errors I’ve made. It’s easy to correct a blog post even after the fact, but what about my novel? I don’t live in fear of discovering an error post publication…oh, wait—I do.

I can’t tell you how many times my mother has said, “What difference does it make if you’re not 100% accurate? The common reader won’t know if you’re right or wrong.” To which I explained that I would know. Then there is the historian or well-read person who may read my novel and nail me for incorrectly portrayed facts. I’m not talking about the creative license we employ when placing our fictional characters in real periods of history or an entire reimagining of historical events such as the Germans winning World War II. I’m talking about modern words and phrases ending up in the mouths of characters from an earlier century and inaccurately portrayed artifacts, architecture, places, etc. due to lazy research.

A book I finished recently had two such errors. The first was the spelling of the word carcase/carcass. About thirty years ago, I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Have His Carcase. It was part of a trio of Sayers’s books gifted to people who made a donation to the local PBS station. The announcer kept mispronouncing carcase the way one would say car case. How embarrassing. Years went by before I stumbled across the spelling carcass, which, by the way, is the only spelling Word recognizes as correct. I assumed it was another instance of American English vs. British English. What I discovered after reading several definitions for both spelling variations, is that carcase is the older, often consider archaic, of the two spellings although both are acceptable. Why is this important? The author of the aforementioned book used the word in the diary of a Carthusian monk from 1535, but she spelled it carcass. As soon as my eyes fell across the word, I was jolted out of the story to ponder whether the mistake was mine or hers. True, most people would have let it go, but for historical accuracy, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Small sidebar: When I checked writing forums for the correct spelling of carcase/carcass, Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel, Have His Carcase, was referenced at least once on every site as the example for the spelling carcase.

I was much less forgiving toward the second mistake. Another character, also from 1535, mentioned seeing a nine-branched menorah used in the second temple of Israel. Did you catch that? Talk about being shocked right out of the story. All my research on the subject verified what I already knew to be true: menorahs used in the temple of Israel have seven branches. The most reliable source of this information is the Bible. I don’t doubt that the candelabra people see the most and the one with which they are familiar is the nine-branched version known as a chanukkiah used in celebration of Chanukkah. The terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly. However, the two items are absolutely not the same thing.

My thoughts on the subject ranged from disappointment toward the author to wondering if the editor was too young to care about such facts or not interested in verifying them. Several years ago a self-published author gave the advice that you should research your history to the nth degree because your readers will trust that what you have written is true. That advice is what prompted me to research my own novel in minute detail. At one point, I had a fellow author/history buff tracing World War II troop movements to ensure I had placed my protagonist with a unit that had actually ended up in a battle I needed to feature.

Perhaps I sound like a fanatic. Even Andy Weir, author of The Martian, admitted to minor mistakes pointed out by other brilliant scientists, the type of knowledge the common reader wouldn’t possess. There may even be mistakes in my own novel. I sincerely hope someone catches them before it goes to printing. Still, I cannot stress enough that the writing and research of your work in progress begins with you. Beta readers and editors are essential to the process, but there is no excuse for a lazy author.

In closing, I’ll point to the title of this post as my final comment on the importance of using the correct words/phrases and conducting research. You’ve probably heard the devil is in the details and the older, slightly more common phrase, God is in the details. The first means that mistakes are usually made in the small details of a project. Usually it is a caution to pay attention to avoid failure. The second means that attention paid to small things has big rewards, or that details are important. Who is guiding your writing efforts?

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 14

Writer's Soul 14I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my writing, and I don’t mean in quantity. Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot of different things about what my writing is or isn’t.

It started last year around November when my novel was technically finished. There were a few minor points that needed to be re-researched (is that even a word), and I had a wonderful research librarian who I met at the Conneaut D-day Reenactment assisting me. The whole process was starting to bog me down. I began to hate it, resent it, and wanted to dig a deep hole in my back yard in which I could bury my book without any witnesses.

The holidays were coming, and since much of the preparation for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas fell to me, I really didn’t have anything left to give my writing. I didn’t want my writing to suffer, but I felt so guilty about setting it aside. After all, what kind of writer would I be if I wasn’t writing every single day? Good question.

While wrestling with this dilemma and wanting to be able to focus on all the fun that comes with the holidays, I ran into our pastor’s wife at the local grocery store. After the usual pleasantries, she asked after my novel. I told her what I’ve already mentioned above and concluded that I wish someone would give me the permission to quit for a little while. If I could just take a break, I knew I would go back to writing in January once I was refreshed.

She looked at me and said, “Heather, I give you permission to quit.”

Even now I laugh at how easy it was for someone else to grant me the grace I needed to give myself but was unable to. And guess what? I did go back to the writing and research in January as I promised myself I would. In fact, I attacked it with renewed vigor and produced better writing than I would have had I pressed myself to go on through November and December. What’s more, I enjoyed it!

So what’s the point of this blog post you may ask? It still scares me somewhat that I took off two months of much needed rest time. There are so many writing books, and I imagine books devoted to other forms of art, that will tell you to create every day without fail. Are these people right in tasking others in this way?

Yes and no. If I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. You have to find out what works for you. Thankfully, the day I returned to writing coincided with Chapter 11 of Heather Seller’s book, Page After Page. The writing exercises in this chapter were wonderful for getting me back on my rails. You’ll understand this better when you read the book which I highly recommend you do.

The funny thing was, while Chapter 11 worked for me, I recalled that before the holidays, Chapter 10 flipped me out. This is the beauty of the book. The next time I read it, Chapter 10 may be exactly what my writing needs. All this to say, don’t be afraid to embrace the bad (insert chosen art form here) because you may uncover a gem on the way to the good (insert chosen art form here).

In doing so, your creativity will flow and your art will come naturally. There are going to be different amounts of flow, and that’s to be expected. Don’t despair over these days even if they extend into weeks, months, or years. Begin again in small ways, flex your creative muscles, and build up to your peak performance like an athlete training for the Olympics. You will achieve gold.

Write Happy!

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