Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Few Things

First, an update on the Dear Author situation. The people have taken down the documents that listed authors' real names and addresses. I thank them for doing the right thing.

Second, I'd like to start having a weekly Guest Blogger. If you're an author or a singer who'd like to blog about writing or singing, please leave me a comment, along with some way to contact you. I think it could be a fun way to spice up the blog, so you don't have to listen to me all the time.

Third, I'd like to give a shout-out to a cool new blog, It's My Turn to Talk, run by Allison Knight. On it, she posts questions and answers from characters in books. It's not the same-old, same-old, and worth a look.

Fourth, we're gearing up for Labor Day Weekend. I'm going to be unable to attend the Sept. 1 singing in PA at Maidencreek--my back isn't well enough for me to do a 200-mile round trip in my car in one day. I'm rather unhappy about it, but that's the way it is. Instead, we'll host my daughter's boyfriend from New Orleans, celebrate her birthday, and help get her ready to leave on Monday for seven weeks in Egypt. (She's an Egyptology doctoral student and will be on a dig.) She won't be in the USA for her actual birthday, so we plan to have some fun before she goes, including attending a neighborhood block party and eating tons of really good ice cream. In this household, we are all ice cream fanatics.

Fifth, two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Louisiana Gulf coast, the Mississippi Gulf coast, and some of the Alabama Gulf coast (and a little of the Texas and Florida Gulf, too). Please remember those who died, and those who lost everything. And please say a prayer for those in the Midwest and Texas, who still struggle with the terrible flooding this summer has brought.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Who Are These *&^%$ People?

I've learned that a blog I thought was owned by people who champion authors, Dear Author, has posted details of the bankruptcy proceedings for Triskelion Publishing.

A brief explanation: Triskelion filed Chapter 7 earlier this summer. They went down holding the rights to one of my books, and the rights of at least a hundred other authors's books. I'm one of the luckier ones--I didn't lose any royalties, because they never published my book. The court papers list all the authors as creditors, and of course legal documents list everyone's names and addresses.

Why does all this matter?

Triskelion published erotic romance as well as other fiction genres. A lot of people who write erotic romance use pseudonyms. Some of them have a lot to lose if their real identity is revealed. Yet that's what Dear Author has done--it has posted court documents with everyone's names and addresses.

Court documents are public record, yes. But what was to be gained by posting all the creditors in the suit? Some of the "outed" erotic romance authors are extremely upset. None of us expected to have our names and home addresses posted on a very popular blog. Indeed, authors in general take steps to keep home addresses off the internet and out of the hands (we hope) of the crazies.

These women purport to be on the side of the angels when it comes to authors. And yet, they do this most damaging thing to authors who have already been hurt once by Trisk's bankruptcy.

These people, as far as I can determine, are at best thoughtless, at worst, cruel. I have nothing but contempt for them. The Triskelion authors have been hosed twice by these women's actions.

They're coming off my list of recommended links.

Shaking my head in disgust,


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Still Hurting

The back and hip are still hurting, though not as badly as earlier in the week. But what distresses me more is that I've gotten exactly no writing done for nearly a week.

But, with the level of pain when I sit and walk around still fairly high, I'll probably take it easy again today, lying on the couch with a book. I have to admit, I'm getting lots of reading done. I discovered a new suspense author (new to me), Michele Martinez (The Finishing School). I read a new-to-me suspense author whom I won't read again (Wendy Corsi Staub--good storyteller, but I don't like her female characters at all). I'm over halfway through the biography of Warren Zevon (I'm a Zevon fan, but boy, is the book ever depressing and sad!). I finished my first Nora Roberts, which I enjoyed (Northern Lights). I also remember finishing at least one other book, early in the week. I've done so much reading that I can't remember all the books.

When I'm in pain, sick, or grief-stricken, my favorite escape is to read. Reading makes my pains go far, far away, and always has. No matter what's bothering me, reading distracts me from my pains and sorrows. I have to admit, singing, as much as I love it, comes in second to reading for its ability to spirit me away, but it's a close second.

Which reminds me--I received my Hopewell CDs from Bobby Watkins in the mail. I'll probably listen to them later, and will post about them after I have.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Writing and Physical Pain

I've had a difficult time the past couple of days, ever since the back spasms began on Sunday night. It literally hurts to sit at my desk and do... anything. Standing and lying down eases the pain (as does a mild narcotic I resort to when pain makes me desperate, and I've been rather desperate the past 48 hours).

I have fibromyalgia, so my body often throws me curve balls. I've learned to roll with the punches, to mix my metaphors horribly. But sometimes the pain gets to such a level that I can't concentrate. Like many people, a lot of my problems stem from all the hours I sit.

So, I exercise mildly and stretch a lot and deliberately schedule breaks, even when I'm feeling all right. But when things are rough, I have to improvise.

So, today I'm going to try reclining on the couch with my old laptop and see whether I can make any progress on a couple of stories I need to work on. I need to make progress, so I'm determined to accomplish something beyond lying around, reading Nora Roberts. (Not that I mind lying around and reading books, not at all!)

Another day, I'll post stretching exercises on this blog for the desk-bound to use that will keep your body happy (well, happier). In fact, I'm considering creating a workshop on how to write long hours, yet keep your body in good working order, especially when you have a chronic illness or work long hours on top of your writing career.

But today's not the day. Wish me luck on getting some work done.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bean Pie

The cooler temps and rain today have put me in a cooking mood, and one of my favorite comfort foods is some combination of pinto beans and corn bread. Nothing like hot, buttery corn bread with hot pinto beans on top, and don't spare the pot likker!

I came up with this variation years ago when brainstorming vegetarian recipes. It whips up quickly enough for a work night, and is cheap, hearty, healthy, and filling. You can use canned beans, as I often do, or you can plan ahead and make your beans from scratch. I rarely plan meals far enough ahead to cook dried beans, so I make do with canned. If you have an excess of cooked-from-scratch pintos, they freeze well.

You can also substitute refried beans for the whole pintos.

Bean Pie

Serves 2 - 4, depending on side dishes and hunger level of eaters

Approximately 1 cup yellow corn meal
Water and salt as needed
(optional) 1 tablespoon mild-tasting oil
Enough cooked pinto beans/refried beans to fill the pie plate - about 1 1/2 15 oz.-cans (drain off some of the liquid if you're using canned pinto beans)
Spices as desired
Shredded cheese (we like a Mexican/cheddar mixture)

1. Combine corn meal with a few dashes of salt and enough water (and the oil, if you're using it) to bind the meal together.
2. Oil or nonstick-spray a pie pan before pressing corn meal mixture to the bottom and sides of the pie plate.
3. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately eight-ten minutes, until it looks a little dry and crusty.
4. While the shell is baking, heat pinto beans on stove top/in microwave until piping hot. Mix in any spices you might like (chili powder, etc.)
5. Put beans into cooked corn meal pie shell. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top, using whatever amount pleases you.
6. Bake pie at 400 until cheese melts. (Will only be six-eight minutes.)
7. Cut into quarters and serve. Hot greens with pepper vinegar or a salad make this a complete meal, nutritionally-speaking.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Family and Home

I recently blogged about writers and themes, and said that my recurring themes as a writer involve home and family, often dysfunctional ones. I've returned from a quick visit to see my parents, and find that I must write what follows. It is intensely personal, so if that disturbs you, perhaps you should stop reading here.

I've sung 413, The Loved Ones, many times. I believe Hugh McGraw often leads it, telling us to sing a second verse that substitutes "mother" for "father" in the lyrics. But never did that song truly affect me, until recently.

My parents are very old--my mother turned 88 yesterday. Both are sick, with my father being the worse off of the two of them. The lyrics to 413 have been running in my head for months, but especially during the past few weeks. The line, "His footsteps are feeble, once fearless and bold," brings tears I never knew I had.

For a long time, my parents and I were estranged. The reasons why don't matter. What matters is that God has permitted them a long life, long enough for me to come around to what's most important, to a resolution. During the past few years, all the strife of the past has become irrelevant. I feel blessed to have had my parents in my life for so many years, happy ones or no. I thank the Lord that He has melted this stubborn, frozen heart of mine.

That heart feels like it's breaking as I write these lines, and tears are flowing. As a family, we're not always good at saying what we really feel. Right now, I know that I must print this blog entry and mail it to my parents, so they can understand how much I love them, and how much I want to be with them, and how much I hope I will see them both again, and soon.

Mom and Dad, thank you for everything. I celebrate who you are, and am truly grateful for everything you've done and everything I've become. I love you so much.

Your daughter Sharon

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What Makes a Page-Turner?

A page-turner is a book/story that is so full of dramatic tension, we keep turning the pages in hopes of discovering the ending/result. The ideal page-turner keeps us up past our bedtimes or compels us to pick the book up at every possible opportunity to read it. All suspense stories, of course, must have that compelling, page-turning quality to be successful, but did you realize that all writing must have a certain amount of it to work?

Even nonfiction books (I mean the ones aimed at popular audiences, not academic tomes, though good writing doesn't hurt such books) must have a compelling, page-turning aspect. In essence, a popular nonfiction book usually must present its material in a story-like way to draw us in. For example, Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" is presented as a story that allows the reader to discover, along with Groopman, what makes for good diagnosis, how we know that it's good, and how and why doctors fail to diagnose correctly. Stories of patients are interwoven with Groopman's own personal experiences as a doctor-in-training, as a teacher of doctors-in-training, and as the parent of a sick child.

All fiction must have the page-turning quality also, not just suspense or action or other dramatic books. Even romantic comedy must be a page-turner to keep us reading. (In fact, I submit that creating and sustaining dramatic tension in a "light" book is more difficult than when one is writing suspense. A romance always has to end with a "happily ever after" ending, to be a romance by definition, and this eliminates some tension because the reader knows part of the outcome.) A fine example of compelling writing in a romantic comedy is Susan Elizabeth Phillips's "It Had to be You."

I recently finished the book, and while reading the climactic scene, found myself literally vibrating with tension while I read the outcome of a football game. Yes, a football game. I admit to loving pro football, and can't think of many finer things to watch than my favorite team (the New England Patriots) pulling out a win in the final seconds of a game, so perhaps I'm a little biased in finding a football game description compelling. But that's only a small part of my raptness while reading the scene.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who might decide to read the book, which is one of the best romances--and all-around best darned stories--I've ever read. It had me nearly sobbing with tension, something perhaps only six books in my entire life have done. But I have to explain what makes this book a real page-turner, so SPOILER ALERT!

I am simplifying the scene to an extreme degree, so rich are the layers in this story. Trust me, it's a whole lot better than I'll make it sound. I'm leaving out a lot of the emotional complications so that I don't end up writing this post all day long.

Phoebe the heroine, the person who will own the team permanently only if they win the AFC Championship because of her estranged father's condition in his will, has been taken hostage by a crazed man who blames the team's head coach, Dan, for his son's death. Dan and Phoebe love each other, but also believe that the other doesn't love them back. (Phillips is a master at creating what's called "the black moment" in romance stories. I don't have the space to list all the factors that have gone into this particular black moment.)

Dan has been told by the madman that, if the team doesn't lose, he'll kill Phoebe. Dan is the kind of man who would never, ever throw a game--but does so, for Phoebe, even though he thinks he'll never have her. The choice breaks his heart either way. Phoebe, though it causes her great physical pain, escapes from the man, who's been holding her in a sub-basement of the stadium. When she manages to make it to the team's sidelines, after she and Dan briefly connect, both confessing that they love each other--a difficult thing for these particular characters to do--the team is down by ten points. She explains to the team why Dan had been coaching them to lose, and tells them they have to win. At this point, we're at the two-minute warning in the final quarter of the game. Still with me?

Phillips, obviously a huge fan of football, narrates a believable final two minutes in which the team takes big risks, scoring two touchdowns, the second one as the clock runs out, to win the AFC championship.

What makes this work, besides the "ticking clock" dramatic tool Phillips uses to create suspense in the scene's climax, is that almost every character in the book has something riding on the outcome of the game, and I do mean nearly every single character! While for Phoebe and Dan, it's literally life and death, other characters have a huge stake as well. Not only that, as readers we find the hero and heroine so believable, so pure in their love for each other, and yet so human, that we can't help being caught up in their story.

So, the elements of a page-turner? Some dramatic device like the ticking clock, a richly-layered plot without easy resolution, and characters with such depth and heart that we love them, truly love them, and want them to succeed.

If only it were that easy to implement in our writing!


Friday, August 10, 2007

Relocating for Singing

I've wanted to move south for singing for at least twelve years, probably more. At times my feelings have torn me in two. In the early years, I remember sitting on planes bound for home (Boston), tears in my eyes because I had to leave. On top of that, I'm married to a non-singer who doesn't like Sacred Harp music, and who's also never been keen on living in the deep south.

If I were single, my decision would have been made long ago. I'd have moved, probably to the Atlanta area so I could find a job. But I'm not single.

Understand, I love my husband deeply, and his happiness is important to me. But for years we've been in a stalemate: he doesn't want to live where I want to live.

Also, our daughter in grad school needs us to live where we are for several more years so that she has a (free) place to live, and we want to help her, of course. We all do lots of things to help our kids, because we love them.

Despite all this, I think my husband and I have found a location, when we finally move, that works for both of us--the Austin area. He'll have the resources he needs for an interesting, pleasant retirement, and I'll have enough regular singing to make me content. Plus, we both will enjoy the lack of snow!

However, it continues to grieve me that I wouldn't be singing on a regular basis with my friends in Georgia. Nor does it look like we'll have enough money in retirement for me to travel frequently (at least once a month) to GA, though I could be wrong about that. And Austin's not that close to GA. In fact, it's roughly fifty miles farther from the Carrollton area than from where we live now, near Philadelphia. That's two long days of driving to arrive at, say, Wilson's Chapel, Holly Springs, or Hopewell at Ephesus. So I continue to have mixed feelings.

If you're a singer who has relocated for singing, especially those with non-singing spouses or partners, I'd love your comments on how you did it, and whether you're happy you relocated. Please feel free to respond.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Writers and Themes

A few years ago at a writing workshop, the presenter (I believe it was the marvelous author Barbara Samuel) stressed that, as writers, we come back to the same themes over and over in our stories. We need to figure out what those themes are in order to find our voices. Knowing our core themes also helps us write new stories.

I remember becoming astonished that my core themes in my longer works all have to do with family. Questions like, what defines a family? How do we create our own families when our birth families cause us serious pain? How do we get past old wounds?

At COVER ME's core is the reconciliation between Sunny and her hippie parents, whom she deliberately shut out of her life after one final action on their part that she couldn't forgive. The alienation from her parents drives Sunny's desperate need to be a perfect mother to her daughter Libbie, and makes her hold tightly to her best friend Dulcie (Sunny is an only child). If you read the story, you may think that Sunny's "straw" is not a big deal. But rarely are we objective about our families.

CM also touches on the families we create from friends, from those who give us unconditional love that, perhaps, our parents didn't--or couldn't, because they were trapped in the horrible dysfunction they experienced as children.

ALICE IN BOOGIELAND, an unpublished novel of mine set in the seventies, also deals with alienation from birth families--but the core dysfunction in ALICE is much darker, though partially played for laughs. In this book, written before COVER ME, Alice has a birth-family younger sister whom she does her best to protect, and whom she loves like no one else. Alice works hard to create her own family, because, when she arrives in Boston, she is deeply and fundamentally alone.

The sisters theme reappears in one of my current works-in-progress (or WIPs), tentatively titled SHIRLEY GOODNESS AND MERCY. In it, two very different sisters who can't stand each other, and who come from a family that is perhaps the darkest one I've ever written, must reconcile in order to reach a common goal--and to achieve a kind of peace between them.

In fact, the thirst for connection drives just about every story I write, even though the plots and characters differ.

If you're a writer, take some time to explore what your recurring core themes are. Try to find the common threads among your stories. It will make you a better storyteller.

If you're a reader, consider which novels and authors are your favorites, and why. I'm betting you'll find core themes in the books you like to read.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

My Version of Hoppin' John

I love black-eyed peas. Actually, I've never met a bean or a pea I didn't like.

When we were in Austin, we stayed in one of those extended-stay hotels that has a fridge, microwave, etc., so we wouldn't have to eat in restaurants all the time. In the local HEB (grocery store), I found cans in the vegetable aisle containing a mixture called "Hoppin' John." I wish I could remember the brand, but it was one I'd never seen before. We certainly don't have access to the brand in southern NJ, far as I can tell.

I'd always thought Hoppin' John required some form of meat, but the mixture in the can was vegetarian. As I'm not a big meat-eater and love rice and beans for dinner, the canned stuff appealed to me. I bought a couple cans, some ninety-second microwaveable rice from Uncle Ben's (the Brown and Wild Rice mixture, scrumptious and highly recommended!), and heated both separately back at the hotel. Then I served the rice with the Hoppin' John on top of it. My husband, the meat-eater in the family, had some as a side dish. He thought it was pretty good. I thought it was great!

Determined to replicate the Hoppin' John in the can, here's what I recently came up with. My daughter, a vegetarian who is not wild about black-eyed peas (she loves other beans, though), pronounced it "okay." She doesn't care for the smoky flavor that the Uncle Ben's Brown and Wild Rice mixture has. I think the smoky flavoring in the rice makes up for not having some kind of sausage or smoked meat in the dish.

Here's my version of Vegetarian Hoppin' John. Make it and judge for yourself.

Sharona's Vegetarian Hoppin' John

2 cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed (can use approx. 3 1/2 cups of dried beans you've cooked)
3 cans stewed tomatoes, including juices (or 3 large fresh tomatoes, chopped)
3 cloves diced fresh garlic, or 1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 small can diced green chilis
1 Tbs. ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 medium onion, finely chopped (optional)

Mix drained, rinsed peas with all other ingredients in a non-metallic pot (use glass or nonstick surface pot because of acidity). Cook over high heat, stirring often, until mixture begins to bubble. Then turn down heat so that the mixture simmers for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve over your choice of rice. I think it adds to the flavor to serve it over the variety of Uncle Ben's microwaveable pouch rice I used (I recommend only the Brown and Wild rice kind, no other), but you can experiment if you wish.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Back from Austin - Post #2

This post could be subtitled, "The Kindness of Strangers." Read on...

On Saturday of our trip, I met a friend in Rockdale, where we ate lunch. When we finished and I asked for the check, we discovered that our restaurant tab had been rather mysteriously paid for. (My friend swears she had nothing to do with it. I thought it might have been her because she suggested eating at the place when we met up in the Super Wal-Mart parking lot.)

So, someone paid for her lunch, my lunch, and some takeout for my husband! I have absolutely no clue who might have done this, because no one knew we were going to eat at this particular place till we walked in. The nearest I can figure, a singer was there whom I didn't see, and they decided to treat us. Otherwise, it had to have been a complete stranger. The waitress grinned and wouldn't tell us who it was.

In any case, isn't it wonderful that this happened?

If you're ever in Rockdale, Texas, on Route 79 on the west end of town, check out the food at the Taqueria Banda. It's mighty tasty and affordable--and, who knows? Someone might pay for your meal.

Whoever you are in Rockdale, I thank you. God bless!


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back from Austin - Post #1

We arrived home from Austin on Tuesday night the 31st, my birthday as it turned out. I'm still madly trying to catch up from vacation! Being a writer is about so much more than the writing--updating web sites (and blogs), announcement groups, promotional tasks, answering work-related email, and so on.

(Speaking of promotional, if you're interested, feel free to stop by my chat tonight, August 2, at Author Island, 9 to 10 Eastern time.)

We arrived at Austin-Bergstrom Airport late on Tuesday the 24th, and didn't get to bed until 1 AM local time. Wednesday we were both pooped when we dragged ourselves to a nearby Denny's for a late breakfast. Still, we saw a friend and ran errands we needed to do, and I attended the Austin Wednesday night singing. I drove there in a horrendous rainstorm, very nervous that I would never find the place. But I did (although I arrived a few minutes late), and I had a wonderful, wonderful time singing from the Cooper Book. I also enjoyed seeing folks I've sung with before--Gaylon Powell and his parents, and Leon Ballinger. I met so many new friends, and felt so welcomed I was nearly overwhelmed. The singing was first-rate! And I actually managed to find the alto lines in a few of the songs.

Thursday, we spent some time with a buyer's agent, looking at homes in the towns north of the city. Found at least one we would love to buy now. But various personal reasons are going to keep us in NJ for a while longer--we're not exactly sure how long--but my husband and I agreed that the Austin area is where we'll move to after NJ. I am so happy about it!

Friday, I spent much of the day with a writer friend who used to live five minutes from me here in NJ, while my husband read and explored the UT library online.

On Saturday, I drove to Rockdale to meet another writer friend who lives near Wheeler, TX, for lunch and a visit, which was way too short for both our tastes. We had an interesting experience happen at the Tex-Mex place we ate--but I'm going to leave you with a cliffhanger. I'll tell you what happened in my next Austin post!