Friday, December 28, 2012

4 structural problems to consider, before worrying about petty grammatical and style issues

Once again one of those true-but-trite articles about writing style has flitted across my radar. Beginning and mid-level writers like to pass around articles like this, because the advice in them is concrete and easy to understand. Just pluck out all those nasty adverbs and to be verbs and you're a writer!

It's perfectly fine advice as it goes, but style isn't what sells a book.* Clean style might keep the agent or editor reading a little longer, but the gatekeepers of publishing are FAR more likely to take on a book with a strong story and 'meh' writing than the other way around.** How else do you explain James Patterson and Kathy Reichs? Their writing mechanics are functional at best, embarrassing much of the time. But they know how to put a plot together, and their copyeditors know how to clean up clunky sentences.

Examining and evaluating story structure is much more difficult to do. Here are four major structural problems I tend to see in unpublished manuscripts.

1. Motivation, lack of. What does your character want? Backstory is not motivation. Motivation is the reason you are telling this story through this character's POV. Something has happened to knock his world askew and he won't rest until he's resolved the problem. This could be a new problem or something that's been going on a long time and he just can't take it anymore. Even if your hero is going about his daily life for the first three chapters, unaware of the evil about to descend on him from above, we still need to see his daily stresses and wants and needs. Those stresses and wants and needs should not vaporize, either, once the Big Bad comes on the scene. The needs and wants of his daily life should become MORE important to him once his world is knocked askew; those are the things that give him depth and roundness and a reason to fight.

2. Cause and consequence, lack of. Your character's every action should have a motivation. And every action that he takes should have reasonable and believable consequences. Optimally, his actions will create new long-term complications. But don't make your character do things just because your plot says he must. Give him a plausible prod, a clue, a subplot that leads him to stumble upon the larger plot. Then play out the logical thread of events, even if it goes somewhere you didn't intend to go. Failing to show cause or consequence creates so-called "plot holes" where the audience knows something should have happened, but you didn't show it happening, so they lose trust in you as a storyteller.

3. Emotional development, lack of. Creating good characters is a tricky business. Some authors rely on physical description and backstory to denote character, and some readers respond best to that type of characterization. I tend to fall more into the method-acting style of character development, wherein I rely on dialogue/dialect, actions, and descriptions of business or body language to convey personality. But whichever method you use, your characters must go through a range of emotions, and ideally come out with a different worldview by the end of the plot. Maybe they fall in love, or learn to trust, or find a home. Maybe they lose their innocence, or man up, or realize the world is not as safe as they thought. But they must change, and you must show the events that lead to that change. It should be gradual, earned (cause), and believable (consequence).

4. Point, lack of. A plot is a series of events, but it is not a story. "The Moral of the Story" may sound like an antiquated phrase, because modern fiction is mostly written to entertain, not to teach. (Editors don't want preachy stories and readers don't want to be preached at.) Nevertheless, there has to be some payoff to the reader. The point, or payoff, comes when the hero a) resolves his conflict/gets what he wants/restores his world, and b) takes stock of how it has changed him. It's not enough just to come to the end of the plot. You have to show us what we learned along the way.


I'm not a big fan of how-to-write books, but one good title that discusses structural issues is Jack Bickham's The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). If you really want to improve your fiction, I recommend taking a persuasive writing class, the kind that teaches good old-fashioned rhetoric: narrative essay, procedural essay, argumentative essay. Most colleges require such a class for their incoming Freshmen. Most people have agonized memories of struggling through such classes, but these are your ABC's of structure, folks. If you can't craft a simple essay, you can't build a scene, much less a plot.

Beyond that, you could do worse than to take some literature survey classes or Poetry & Prose 101. Reading the classics and discussing why they work is a lot more useful than aping the current bestsellers.


*Not most mainstream fiction, anyway. Style can certainly help you but it isn't the deciding factor.

**This is not to say, if you have a good plot you can just let your mechanics slide. I really would not recommend it, particularly if you are an unpublished novelist. Reading sloppy text really is painful and will probably get your manuscript rejected after the first page. Just as in grade school: neatness counts.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

coconut sour cream cookies recipe

This is one of my mom's recipes. I have no idea where she got it, but it's been in the family at least three generations, maybe four. So there is nothing low-calorie, or low-fat, or low-carb, or remotely redeemingly healthy about this recipe. Those who attempt to healthify it will be flogged with a wet noodle.

Seriously, though, this is a HUGE recipe. It makes about 6 dozen cookies, which is perfect for making at Christmastime because they freeze pretty darn well and you can give them away. I have made half a batch on occasion, and that works pretty well, too. Two things that don't work: baking them in the summer –I once tried it and was rewarded with a gooey block of cookie that we had to keep in the fridge and scoop out with a spoon– and, trying to leave the coconut out of the recipe. Coconut has a lot of natural fat, and the sweetened shredded kind adds necessary sweetness and moisture to the recipe. This is a rich, cakelike cookie with a delicate flavor.

Grandma Rebecca's Coconut Sour Cream Cookies

Cream together:
1 cup butter, softened
2 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Stir together:
5 cups sifted flour (either sift before measuring, or fluff and scoop lightly into measuring cup)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt (may want to increase if using unsalted butter)

1 12-oz carton full-fat cultured sour cream (Daisy or Knutson brand--Land O'Lakes has starch fillers.)
1 packed cup sweetened shredded coconut, such as Angel Flake.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients in 3-4 stages, alternating with the sour cream, beating after each addition. Makes a very stiff, sticky dough. Stir in coconut with a stout spoon. Cover dough and chill 3-4 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375º F, and if necessary raise the oven rack to a slot just above center. An insulated aluminum cookie sheet is excellent for these, because they should not be browned. No need to grease cookie sheet, although a parchment liner is useful. 

Scoop out small balls of dough (about 1 in. diameter). The recipe says roll between palms but this dough is so sticky I usually just pat it into shape with a finger on the cookie sheet. Give them some space on the sheet; they will spread a bit.

The cookie balls can be dipped in more coconut before baking, in which case the coconut browns and gives a nice toasty crunch on top. I like them sprinkled with colored sugar.

Bake at 375º for 10-12 minutes or until the tops are just resilient to a touch, like little cakes. DO NOT BROWN. Remove promptly from the baking sheet to a cooling sheet of parchment, or other flat surface.

Cool the cookie sheet completely before mounting the next batch. When fully cool, cover tightly and store at cool room temperature. These are fine out of the oven, but are best on the second or third day. They can also be frozen in plastic baggies for a week or two with no harm done.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Five Christmas movies

I've considered doing a list like this for a long time, but I never had enough choices to pad it out. You gotta have at least five to make it work, and obviously I am going to have somewhat subversive tastes in Christmas movies. So here they are, in the order in which I first viewed them, not the order in which they were released.
  • Batman Returns – Michele Pfeiffer in a black latex catsuit against a backdrop of icy unfeeling Gotham City. Plus Danny DeVito snickering and shuffling across the screen, and Christopher Walken parodying himself. Plot and character development are irrelevant here; this is all about the avatars. Best line: "I don't know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel soooo much yummier."
  • The Ref – Dennis Leary is a cat burglar who botches his getaway and takes bickering marrieds Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey as his hostages. They are on the verge of divorce, and their couples therapy is going nowhere. Leary ends up refereeing their bitter arguments--and eventually the dynamics of the whole nasty family--at gunpoint. Very funny and very foul-mouthed, and of course the performances of the three master thespians are terrific. But probably my favorite part is Glynnis Johns (whom I last knew as the sweet-faced, soft-voiced Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins) playing the relentless, iron-fisted family matriarch. Best line is when Leary threatens to tie her to the back of a truck and she replies contemptuously, "You don't have the balls."
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight – This one is more nostalgia than anything. Geena Davis wasn't the first, nor the best, of the new wave of kick-ass heroines in the 90's--that honor goes to Linda Hamilton. Nevertheless this movie gets props for its mockery of the buddy format--with the buddy played by hapless, flapless, Samuel L. Jackson. Naturally, he gets most of the good lines, but his best moments are when he doesn't speak at all. Like when we think all is lost, but suddenly the opening lick of "Bad to the Bone" rips out and Jackson sits up, bloody but galvanized, in the front seat of his car. Or after the climax when he's driving through a hailstorm of flaming debris and the little girl shrieks, "Don't hit the cars!" and he gives her a look of utter WTF incredulity.
  • Die Hard – Mayhem, improbable stunts and witty rejoinders accompanied by multiple renditions of "Ode to Joy." I watched this again a couple weeks ago and I couldn't help noticing, it is oddly more feminist and multicultural than much of what has come out of Hollywood in the 30 years since. Best line: Although the "yippy-ki-yay" line has become something of a signature, it's a  throwaway in the context of the movie. My personal favorite is when Alan Rickman is on the phone listing the terrorist group members he (ostensibly) wants freed as part of his phony negotiation. The last one he lists is "Asian Dawn," which draws a perplexed look from Alexander Godunov. Rickman puts his hand over the phone and hisses, "I read about them in Newsweek."
  • Bell, Book, and Candle – The clothes. The Zodiac club. The mid-century Christmas decorations.  The magic. The clothes. The romance. Kim Novak's sleepy-eyed purr. And yes, the CLOTHES. The only thing I dislike about this movie is the ending. I keep wishing some bright young female director--Drew Barrymore, maybe--would remake it and change the ending so Gillian doesn't give up her powers for love. Best line: After Shep says "Magic In Mexico" sold like the Kinsey report, Gillian smirks and says she figures the author was just fed a lot of fake touristy stuff. Shep replies, "Maybe they did the same to Kinsey."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

beef stew or beef pot pie filling

This is the basic beef treatment I've been experimenting with. I think I finally got it where I want it. I've been making a stovetop stew with it, but it would also be a good filling for beef pot pie, with a lard crust or biscuits baked over the top. These are only approximate amounts, since I never measure.

Take a pound of beef chuck stew meat or arm roast with some fat on it. Place in heavy stock pot with enough water to half-cover meat. Mince up half an onion and throw in. Add a dollop of olive oil or butter if desired to enrich flavor. Add a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, about a quarter-cup of cooking sherry, and a couple cubes of beef bullion.

Season with 1 tsp. rosemary, 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp. white pepper, pinch of cayenne, plus salt & black pepper to taste. Cover tightly and simmer medium-low for two hours. You may want to remove meat after one hour, trim any bone or excess fat and cut into bite-sized pieces. Don't skim the broth! Beef fat is good for you.

After trimming out the meat, I usually add some beef broth/drippings from my freezer. Every time I make a roast, I either save the pan juices or make them into gravy; if there's gravy leftover I freeze that, too. When I make a stew or pot pie, I thaw one of those small tubs of gravy and add them to the pot. Roasted beef bones add wonderful richness and gelatin to the sauce. But that's just me bragging and you don't have to do it.

When meat is nicely tender, it's time to add vegetables. For stew typically I use 3-4 red potatoes, a couple of carrots, and frozen green peas because that's what I like with my beef gravy. Add the vegetables, with just enough additional water to let everything swim freely. Cook low, covered, for another 30-45 minutes until the potatoes are tender and the liquid is slightly reduced. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Make a slurry of cornstarch or arrowroot starch with cold water and stir rapidly into the simmering stew, to thicken. Once this is done it can be kept warm or reheated without harm. As long as it is stirred occasionally and not allowed to get too dry, it can continue to simmer for another hour or more; it will only improve in flavor and texture.

For a pot pie, just allow the vegetables to simmer for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the pie crust and preheat the oven, then dump the stew into a casserole dish and slap a crust on top. Bake according to crust requirements.

Other vegetable combinations could be used. Turnips and rutabaga are great with beef, and many people like celery. Or you could just dump in a bag of frozen mixed vegetables for a quick-and-dirty job.

A pound of stew meat, 3-4 cups diced red potatoes and a couple of carrots make four generous servings.



Saturday, November 24, 2012

post-turkey Italian noms, and eggplant

My husband has this wonderful cookbook called "Italy in Small Bites" which is full of appetizer/tapas-type recipes and I have yet to try a bad one out of it. After the obligatory Thanksgiving meal of beige food we were in the mood for something more interesting. So we hit the grocery store, spent an ungodly amount of money on delicacies, and came home to cook for four hours.

The Sparring Partner made three bruschetta-type toppings: black olive pesto, sausage and pecorino cheese crumble with basil, and sweet bell pepper mash. I made a spinach pie with lots of onion and parmesan cheese, and these amazing little toasted balls of eggplant mixed with breadcrumbs and more parmigiano-reggiano.

I only started sampling eggplant in the last few years, and while some of the dishes I've had were fairly uninteresting, a couple have knocked my socks off. The ratatouille recipe I've devised is pretty good, and our favorite Chinese restaurant has a wonderful stuffed eggplant appetizer that I've been known to hoard from my dining companions.

The eggplant veg-balls recipe is simple and easy to make: peel and dice an eggplant, salt it down and let it sit for 20-30 minutes, then sauté in olive oil until mushy. Mash up in a bowl with breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley and pepper. Make little balls on a broiler pan and singe it for five minutes. Tastes like a really high-level potato pancake, the kind you might get in a French restaurant alongside the foie gras.

The spinach pie was likewise very good, although I can't handle that much unrelenting onion/spinach texture and flavor. If I were to do that again, I'd put a sprinkling of the sausage-pecorino mixture in the filling before sealing it up: the spinach and sausage complement each other nicely. And the crust-recipe was first-rate; for a savory pie I think I like it even better than my old standard crust recipe.

For the record, I was very restrained in my Thanksgiving eating. I didn't overeat, didn't feel bloated the next day. But Friday I ate so much bread and cheese and pesto I literally gained three pounds overnight. When I sin, I make it count.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

aging gracefully

We were watching the trailer for "Skyfall" the other day. I love Judi Dench, and I especially love that she's played M for the last dozen years. But when I tried to express my admiration my tongue got tangled.

"I love her," I said. "I want to be Judy Davis when I grow up."

"You mean Judi Dench," said the Sparring Partner.

"Right. Sorry. I want to be Judi Dench when I'm post-menopausal."

"You kinda already--"

"I already am Judy Davis, mostly."

"Yeah. Impromptu Judy Davis. Not Naked Lunch Judy Davis."

"Right."


Here's the new theme music for Skyfall. Adele was a good choice for the mood, I think.

Monday, October 01, 2012

infestation

The other night I finished painting some masks and took my brushes and paint-daubled fingers into the bathroom to wash up. I flipped on the light switch with my elbow and there was a spider the size of a golf ball clinging to the wall between the sink and toilet.

"Gah!" I hollered. I hate spiders. They're cool and all, but I hate them in my house. The Sparring Partner had already warned me he'd found a couple big ones in the house; one in the bathroom and another in the kitchen.

"What's the matter?" the SP called from the living room.

"Come rescue me!"

"You spill paint on yourself?"

"No..."

"Oh, you found a little friend?" I heard his footsteps coming and moved out of the way to wash up in the kitchen.

He ducked into the bathroom. "Well hello, big boy!" he said, and a moment later came out with his hand loosely cupped. He went out the back door and deposited the garden spider in the garden.

"Thanks," I said.

"I rescued both of you," he pointed out, because he knows I'll kill them if it's left up to me. I've had a number of painful spider bites in my life.

This is looking to be a particularly infested year. We always see some in the fall, but this number and the size of them is creeping me out. This is an old house and I have a lot of fabric and boxes sitting around the perimeter of the rooms.

Just before I started writing this I put my bare foot down on the floor, preparatory to spinning my chair around, and something skittered under my arch. Sure enough, it was another of those brown spiders, this one only slightly smaller than the last, with a big tuft of sewing lint clinging to its back.

This one was not spared.

As soon as I finish this next shipment of costumes I'm going to break out the vacuum cleaner.

Monday, September 24, 2012

yay, neighbors

I sewed like a fiend all morning then stood up around noon, winced, popped my back, and staggered into the kitchen for lunch. Everything needed cleaning before I could cook. So I rinsed, wiped, and went to take the recycling out on the porch.

My office had been chill all morning, thanks to the brick house and the northern exposure. So I was surprised to find the day warm and sunny. I ambled down the drive to collect the yard waste cans, and spotted a fresh pile of branches the Sparring Partner had cut down on Sunday. I began to break them up and stuff them in the freshly emptied cans.

Next thing I know, the old lady across the street is shuffling my way, hailing me. "Can I talk to yooou?" she yodels, and not like, "I got something to tell you," but more like "I've got nobody else, will you listen to me?" so I say, "Sure."

I had met the woman a few times after I first moved in. She smoked like a chimney and had a salty, rollicking way of talking. For our first married Christmas she gave us a box of fudge that smelled like low-tar. But over the past few years she'd fallen a couple of times, broken both hips and had them replaced, and her son had moved it with her.

It was obvious, now, that her mind had severely deteriorated. She was just as cheery and talkative as ever, but there was a fragile quality to her posture and her speech was rambling vagaries. I nodded and made listening noises and stomped on branches to break them up.

"Oh honey!" she said. "Let me help you with that!" She started toward me.

"No, I got it."

"Oh, you're just a little thing, you shouldn't--"

"Just stay right there!" I told her in no uncertain terms. The last thing I needed was her trying to pick up a tree branch and pitching over in my yard. She probably weighed less than ninety pounds but that was too much for me to carry and I didn't want to talk to her son, period. He's creepy, frankly.

She seemed wounded. "Well, I didn't mean to..."

"I know, I appreciate it, but you're on my property and if you get hurt I'll be in trouble."

"Oh, I guess that's so." She stood there a minute longer. "Well, I guess I'd better be going."

"Ok, you take care." I looked across the street to make sure no cars were coming, and she shuffled back to her driveway. I saw her son leaning in the open garage door, hands in pockets, watching, so that was good.

She got inside safely, and I went back to picking up branches.

I was vaguely aware of a car coming up the street behind me, not too fast. A wolf whistle smacked me in the backside as the breeze of the vehicle brushed by.

I turned around fast, startled, but the pickup truck was already past, guy in a ball cap leaning on the window, looking straight ahead.

I decided I'd had enough fresh air and went back inside.

Friday, September 21, 2012

suffering fools--er, fans

I've been re-reading Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sunwhich is a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention, and a brilliant portrayal of the weirdness of fandom. I've read it several times, but here lately it jumped to the front of my brain, because I've been considering asking her for a jacket quote, and also because I may one day soon have to attend some cons and do some book promotion.

Now, I've done KC Planet Comicon five years straight, and I think I'm getting better at it. This year was especially satisfactory. I did well sales-wise, but more importantly, I kept myself on an even keel throughout the weekend. I was friendly and professional, I turned away the couple of creepies who might have gotten ugly, and I deflected the odd bits of ignorant criticism with firm, polite, factual responses.

This is an important exercise for me, because I have never been the most forbearing of persons. Earlier this week I managed to snap at just about everyone in my tai chi class, mostly because I was very very tired and not in good control of myself. Also because they were asking stupid questions, but mostly because I'd misplaced my velvet gloves that day.

You could say I've never been one to take criticism well. No one likes to have their mistakes pointed out, but the ones who really get my goat are the folks who insist I've got the facts wrong when I know perfectly well I haven't.

When I first ran "Sikeston" through Critters.org, several reviewers took it upon themselves to tell me that soda pop wasn't invented until the 1890's, which is hogwash. IIRC, at the time I did my research, both Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola were claiming to be the oldest surviving brand of soda pop in America, with a birth date of 1886 or so. And that was virtually the only hard data I could find in 2001. In the last decade the resurge of interest in Victoriana has spawned a wealth of new info about soda pop, and a quick Google search now shows that Vernor's Ginger Ale claims to be older than either--it was formulated in 1866. (mmm, ginger ale!)

But all of that is irrelevant, because carbonated beverages were sold by druggists from the late 1700's, and by the American Civil War "soft drinks" were widely bottled and distributed for sale outside of the pharmacy. It was not at all a stretch to have Trace buy a bottle of pop from a general store in 1880. The real question I struggled with was, what kind of a cap would it have? Cork, wax, wire, tin--some combination thereof?

But no so-called fan ever addresses that kind of question, because that would require actual knowledge of the subject matter. The average sci-fi fan tends to mistake their wealth of memorized trivia for actual knowledge, and they love to dredge up some half-remembered factoid, peripherally related to your work, and challenge you with it, only to prove their own intelligence.

I do not suffer this kind of fool lightly.

And that could be a problem, when I'm out trying to win fans and influence readers.

In Bimbos of the Death Sun, there's a scene in which the two guest authors--one famous, the other unknown--are doing signings at adjacent tables, and the so-called fans keep approaching with breathtakingly rude questions, criticisms, and outright insults.

"What's your agent's name and phone number?"

"Why did you end your book like that? I didn't think you should have done that."

"Is this a dirty book? The cover looks really raunchy."

"Will you sign this enormous stack of books so I can sell them off after you're dead?"

I'm reading it like one of those books that tell you how to prepare for an interview. Rehearsing diplomatic responses in my head:

"Amy Boggs--you can look her up on the Internet."

"Seemed like the thing to do at the time."

"It's as dirty as you want it to be..." (With a wink and a coy look.)

"..."

Still hoping I can get my husband to attend conventions with me. He's much more gracious than I am. Also funnier.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

some Harley Quinn dresses I have made

I was looking at my web traffic and noticed some friendly souls came by searching for a "Harley Quinn dress." Then I looked at Google and noticed only two of the dresses I've done showed up in the images search, and none of those recently! And I've done a few. So here they are:

Harley Quinn 50's cocktail/prom dress
Elise Archer a/k/a The Princess Bee in one of my original designs,
a 1950's style cocktail or prom dress.


Harley Quinn Mad Love red nightie negligee
Does this count as a dress? The infamous red nightie from "Mad Love."


Harley Quinn white formal dress gown
Harley Quinn's white formal gown, as designed by
the great Adam Hughes in his "Women of DC" Poster.

circus acrobat victorian steampunk harley quinn dress corset
The latest and greatest of my original Harley Quinn dress designs:
I call this one Steampunk Harley Quinn, or Circus Acrobat Harley Quinn Dress.

You can order custom-sized items like these through my Etsy shop. Thanks for stopping by!

Please do not repost pictures without proper attribution: "Costume by Holly Messinger."

Friday, September 14, 2012

a bird in the....

Last month my agent, Amy, called to say we'd had an offer on The Curse of Jacob Tracy. Two-book contract from one of the so-called Big Six publishers, average first-novel advance, etc. etc. I said, ok, cool, that's the first one, now what?

However, she still had submissions out with other editors, and as per industry etiquette she called them up to say, Hey, I need your answer on this. A couple editors asked for more time to review. I said, eh, sure, I'm not in a hurry--it was still possible we'd get a better offer, and frankly, I wasn't convinced that Offering Editor was the best person for me to work with on CJT, although I DID like the publisher. The Sparring Partner and I were fantasizing about getting cover quotes from Charlaine Harris.

But yesterday Amy called to tell me that Offering Editor had abruptly and unexpectedly "left publishing," (to be a belly dancer? raise kumquats? I didn't ask) and because we had not signed any contract, the offer with Big Publisher was now null.

And of course, the other editors who wanted more time shrugged their shoulders and said, "Eh... pass."

So we are back to square one, with slightly diminished prospects. Amy's still submitting to editors in the Flatiron building, although I think we've already cleared the biggest publishers. I personally suspect I need a British publisher on this project.

I also suspect--I have for the last couple of years--that I missed the optimal window in which to sell this bastard. Ten years ago, before the Steampunk explosion, my contact at Tor said she loved the book but wouldn't know how to market it. This year, another editor at the same house said she loved the book but she already had "too many Victorian series." And you gotta admit, once "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" has come and gone from a theater near you, the bloom is off the rose.

Le sigh. I spent yesterday afternoon lethargically drinking tea and feeling unloved. And understanding all the resentment for traditional publishing out there in the Interwebs.

I love you Amy! May the publishing gods rain down fiery vengeance on those who betrayed us!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

chocolate custard pudding

Modern food has suffered in the name of convenience. Ease of preparation and a demand for longer shelf-life has rendered our foods bland, textureless and devoid of nutrients.

One simple but sterling example is the simple custard. What we Americans call "pudding"--which generally comes packaged in single-serve plastic cups, full of corn syrup and starches--is the bastard cousin of what the Victorians called custard: a simple, elegant food of milk, dairy fat, and eggs, with a little sugar and flavoring; simple food for children and invalids, a mild dessert or nourishing, easy-to-eat meal. 

Creme brulée is the nearest thing most Americans have tasted to a classic custard, but even in fancy restaurants those desserts tend to be grainy and full of cornstarch, because real cream is perishable, expensive, and delicate to cook.

I have a basic chocolate pudding recipe, in a reprint of a vintage Hershey's cookbook from the 40's. It, too, uses cornstarch as thickener, but I've been playing with it, and I came up with something much yummier.

This custard tastes like gourmet ice cream. The egg and the use of half & half, rather than milk, make the difference. It is not very sweet; I like my chocolate desserts on the bitter side.

2 cups half-and-half, divided
1 large or jumbo egg
1/4 cup unsweeted cocoa powder
1/3-1/2 cup granulated sugar, to taste
2 Tbs cornstarch
pinch salt
2 Tbs butter
1 tbs vanilla
Optional: 2-3 Tbs of chopped bittersweet chocolate melted along with the cream will add extra richness and silky texture.


Whisk the egg with the cornstarch and about 1/2 cup of the half-and-half in a small bowl.

Place the remainder of the half-and-half in a medium saucepan, with the cocoa, sugar, and salt. Heat the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until very warm. Spoon out a 1/4 cup or so of the warm liquid into the egg mixture and whisk it together to temper the egg.

Whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan; keep stirring and cooking until it begins to boil. It will thicken very quickly after that. Pour off into a bowl; stir in the butter and vanilla.

Let cool slightly, press plastic over the top, and refrigerate. It will thicken further as it chills, but I like it while still slightly warm, especially on a cold night.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

obligatory dark knight rises costume report

I've had two inquiries in the last 24 hours from customers wanting a custom-made replica of the Catwoman costume worn by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, so I guess it's time for this post!

First off, I loved the way Selina Kyle was portrayed in the movie. I loved the way Anne Hathaway handled the character. I loved the costume: utilitarian (mostly), sexy, dramatic.

The design is fairly simple--a bodysuit with thigh-high boots and opera gloves, low-slung belt. I could knock off a quick and dirty duplicate in a week or so, and I probably will. Materials would cost me about $200, and labor is another $300 or so. Throw in boots, goggles, and belt parts, and I could make you a recognizable duplicate of the costume for about $600.

But then people start asking for a "movie accurate" costume, and the details get complicated in a hurry.

According to an interview with the costume designer, the bodysuit is actually two pieces, joined by a low-slung belt. The original fabric is "polyurethane coated Spandex with an embossed hexagonal pattern."

Here's a good close-up of the textured fabric:

Now kittens, I have seen similar textured fabrics on athletic wear, but I have yet to find anyone who sells it retail, and I've been searching for about a year. There is undoubtedly a factory in China that could make it for me, but a minimum order of the stuff would be about 500 yards, and probably a few thousand dollars. A one-woman independent contractor like myself has relatively limited resources.

Similarly, Selina's mask appears to be made out of cast rubber or heavy latex. I know there are some costume-makers out there who do casting, but I'm not one of them, and I don't have time or inclination to learn. Likewise with the goggles, which are probably injection-molded plastic.

I can *approximate* the look of the mask and goggles with other materials, at least to the point where they will look good in photos or at an appropriate comfort-zone of observation on the Con floor. But they won't have that plastic sheen and the functionality may not be exact. For instance, her goggles appear to be hinged just above the ears, and so far I haven't figured out a way to do that.

Of course, the level of exactitude you get depends partly upon how much you want to spend. The more time I spend on something, the more exactly I can reproduce it. This may mean several drafts of patterns and a lot of wasted materials. These things can double your costs. 

To make the absolute-best replica of this costume that I could personally do, with my available materials and skillsets, would cost around $1200, and take a few months to assemble. For that reason, I probably will not be doing any "movie accurate" replicas of this costume for the 2012 Halloween season. 

However, if you are interested in having a costume made for the the long-term and are willing to invest the time and money, please do contact me. My email is on the right sidebar.

Monday, August 13, 2012

no substitute for experience

I met with a new client on Friday, a woman with professional dance experience and a bit of sewing experience, as well. She did a lot of gushing over my work, remarked on the clean finishing inside and out, and claimed that I was "professional New York costumer's level." She asked where I had studied.

"I'm self-taught," I said. She didn't believe it. She thought I'd gone to KU's textile design school. "I know people who graduated from fashion design school who can't do this," she said, and I wholeheartedly believe her. I can pick up a debut novel and tell by the first chapter if it was written by an MFA graduate.

Frankly, I find it disturbing that the first question someone would ask an artist is, "Where did you study?" And I'm not singling out my client, because her innocent inquiry didn't bother me, but I see it on DeviantArt all the time. This morning I was looking at Merimask's latest creation and it's the first question anyone asked in the comments.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking education. But I don't think it's as significant to the artist's development as people want to think it is. I have always held that creative writing classes and how-to-write books are bad for beginning writers. My Sifu likes to say that the student's skill is not necessarily a reflection of the teacher. Mikhail Baryshnikov reportedly said in an interview that his teacher was "nothing special," but what he imported to Misha was the value of hard work.

I'm inclined to think that this populist fascination with degrees and certification is the trickle-down effect of corporate culture, where Human Resources only has time to examine the quantifiable, and success is only measured by the bottom line of the current quarter. In that environment, where you went to school is more important than what you did while there.

And of course in the creative fields, that where-did-you-study question is sometimes the only tangible there is. But I think there's another reason why casual admirers would ask it, and that's envy. 

On DeviantArt, every half-decent artist is bombarded with four predictable questions, "Where'd you learn to do that?" "How long did it take you?" "What tools did you use?" "Can you tell me how to do it?"

The answer to all four is comprehensive: "Pick up a tool, any tool of your choice that's appropriate to your medium, and do it yourself, for as long as it takes, until you get it right."

But nobody wants to hear that because it bursts the bubble. Everybody knows, deep down, that to get good at something you have to work at it, a lot, for a long time. But everybody hopes, semi-consciously, that they'll stumble upon the right word or trick or secret that will make everything fall into place. That can happen, but it's usually only after putting in years and years of work. And in my own experience, even some very good teaching can take a year or more to sink in, because it takes time and context to understand, to overcome the ego, to allow the truth to compost and seep through your own worldview until it's something you can use.

Last March I read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, which is about intuitive decision-making. On the surface, it seems to be about trusting the gut and making a decision in the first second or two, but that's a superficial reading that completely misses the point.

Through chapter after chapter, Gladwell trots out experts: military tacticians, art critics, professional food tasters, music producers, and marriage counsellors. He dissects all of their decision-making processes, and how those processes differ from the average untrained person's. His conclusion? 
The seasoned pro's 'gut reaction' is actually the cool clear voice of mastery. 

You don't get mastery from four years of college. You might, if you're lucky enough to have good teachers and an attentive attitude, get the tools necessary to pursue mastery on your own. But asking "where did you study?" is a bit of an insult, when you think about it, because it's the artist's drive and hard work that make the education useful.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about why there's no substitute for education.

Monday, August 06, 2012

turning the screws

So I had a talk with a potential editor today. Nice chat. Professional, insightful, clinical.

And now I'm freaking out. And I'm going to be freaking out for probably the next three days, because that's how long it takes these things to burn out of my system.

Just so you know... I'm at the stage where my agent is shopping around my novel. The manuscript is at a stage that we will tongue-in-cheek refer to as "finished." There are many stages of "finished" in the life of a book.

For instance, last fall I thought it was "finished" enough to send to agents. My agent read it, liked it, and thought it needed to be more "finished" before it could be sent to editors. I agreed, and in March we arrived at a new stage of "finished" which is now being circulated through New York. Now there's an acquiring editor who likes the book, but thinks it needs to be more "finished" to make it publishable. Assuming, of course, I can make changes to her satisfaction, she will then buy the "finished" manuscript and run it though the gauntlet of editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders who will eventually produce something "finished" enough to go to press.

Actually, writing all that out calms me somewhat. So did talking to my sister, who reminded me that this is how the biz works, that any editor I go with is going to want changes and I would be expected to make them if I wanted to sell the book.

And I let me be clear, here: I don't think the editor is necessarily wrong with the changes she wanted. In fact I think there was a lot of value in what she was telling me. And I know that a certain percentage of my readers are going to feel the same way. So how do I then revise to satisfy those readers without compromising the rest of the story/characters/intent? How do I know that just because this one editor thinks something needs adjustment, there isn't another editor who will think it's fine just as it is?

This is the part I hate about being a writer. The indecision, the second-guessing myself. You know what it's like? It's like being 13 years old and agonizing over "Does he like me? Was he talking about me? What did he say? What did that mean? What should I wear? Will this get his attention? Will he want to go out with me? What will we do when we go out? How do I let him know that I like him without being too trampy/slutty/pathetic/needy?" I hated that shit when I was a teenager and I hate feeling that way now.

I hate that the story has gone out to other editors and I won't have a chance to revise it again before they see it.

I hate that the last story in the novel is the weakest of the bunch and I don't know what to do about it.

And I hate the thought of rewriting on a 'maybe' because a story is like bread dough--you work it too much and it gets flat and tough.


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

priorities

Over dinner my husband asks what I did during the day.

"Cleaned a bit," I say cheerfully. "Did some kung fu practice. Wrote another scene."

"So the writing's still going good, then," he says.

"Oh gawd, yes," I almost moan. "It's like all the machinery is running–running smooth–spinning–" I make hand-cranking motions on either side of my head, because ironically enough, talking about writing is for me extremely geometric and tactile, rather than verbal. "Moving right along, thank god." I can't describe how fulfilling it is. "Only problem is, I got all these sewing orders pouring in, got this one I got to finish up and mail out by the end of the week."

"And you don't even care, do you?"

"Not the least little bit. No."

Monday, July 09, 2012

cowboys and pterodactyls

Inspiration can come from the oddest places.

Last weekend was my nephew's birthday. My parents brought him a book, one of those pseudo-documentary-style books about dragons. It was actually a pretty well-done variant on the subject for young readers, touching lightly on dragon mythology from cultures all over the world, mostly pointing toward how misunderstanding of dinosaur fossils gave rise to said mythology. But there were some minor references to cryptozoology, as well, particularly a little gem about the legendary article in the Tombstone Epigraph about two cowboys who may have shot a "Thunderbird" back in 1890.

So, of course I promptly went home and did a web search for the article. Apparently it's a well-known tidbit in Fortean circles. There's a well-written, thorough, and recent exploration of the mystery over at Strangemag.com which strongly suggests the whole thing is an urban myth, and of course in the digital age it's almost impossible to suss out--at least at my level of tech-savvy--what's authentic and what's merely mirrored.

The article in the Epigraph seems to be authentic enough; the nice people of Tombstone, Arizona who have a vested interest in promoting the history of the town have digitally scanned in a century's worth of back-issue newspapers, and the article is right there in the April 26, 1890 issue, page 3. Of course, fifty years earlier a major New York newspaper was bamboozling readers for months with stories of the great civilization found on the moon, so I can't put too much stock in the veracity of the story or the cowboys who reported the hunt.

Still, it's a wonderful image--a couple of cowboys encountering a giant flying lizard. I actually have a story planned for later in the Trace saga that was needing something right along those lines, and I didn't want to go with flying vampires or giant bats.

Et voilà.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

gay ken dolls in love: or, do you really need a book trailer?

It's a (blessedly) boring Sunday afternoon and I'm crawling the web reading about book trailers.

A book trailer, in case you don't know, is a bit of web video made to promote a book. Just like a movie trailer, but for... a book. Are they useful as a marketing tool? Probably not. Are they a waste of time and money? Almost certainly.... unless you just really enjoy doing this kind of thing--I have seen some very impressive amateur videos on YouTube. Will I ever make one? Probably not.

Nevertheless, some of my beta readers recently expressed excitement at the thought of such a video (they are flatteringly and unwaveringly certain that The Curse of Jacob Tracy is going to see daylight sometime... ever), and because I am a writer and endlessly narcissistic about my work, and also a little bit because it's fun and a way to feed the story-making machinery with images and moods, I have been sort of half-assed-structuring a trailer script in my head. Mostly, trying to distill the story down to two minutes, and conceive a way to tell it in a way that requires a minimum amount of money, time, and investment without looking incredibly stupid.

Which is why I greatly appreciate this video here:



Brilliant. Funny, clever, and just enough tongue-in-cheek that the crudeness of its execution adds to, rather than detracting from, its charm.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

omg, I've written a gothic with a male ingenue

Bumbling around links this morning and started reading about Joanna Russ' article about Modern Gothics, which does not appear to be available on the web in its entirety, but there are enough good blog posts about it to get the general idea, particularly this one here.

I actually have a whole library of 'modern gothics' from the very era she is describing, c. 1970, written by Barbara Michaels, who actually transcended the subgenre in many ways. Michaels has a feminist streak (her other nom de plume is Elizabeth Peters and her best-known books are the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Although she wrote a few 'typical' gothics with a bewildered, helpless protagonist, more often she tweaked the formula to feature heroines who were well-rounded, proactive and capable of standing up for themselves. Sometimes they were even male.

So I'm reading along happily and come across this quote from Russ:

The Modern Gothic is episodic; the heroine does nothing except worry; any necessary detective work is done by other persons, often the Super- Male. Whenever the Heroine acts [...] she bungles things badly. There is a period of terror, repeated sinister incidents, ominous dialogue spoken by various characters, and then the sudden revelation of who's who and what's what.[...]Most striking about these novels is the combination of intrigue, crime and danger with the Heroine's complete passivity. Unconscious foci of intrigue, passion, and crime, these young women (none of whom are over thirty) wander through all sorts of threatening forces of which they are intuitively, but never intellectually, aware.

Aha! So that's what was bugging me about early versions of Curious Weather! I was writing a gothic with Trace in the ingenue's role! I kind of knew it ("intuitively," you might say), but it helps to have it defined so clearly because now I know what symptoms to watch for. The passiveness, the fascinating/threatening mentor, the undercurrent of sexuality...

There's even the trope of "Girl meets House" in Curious Weather--Trace is constantly aware of being out of his element, in a house more luxurious than he is used to, and a house that happens to be packed to the rafters full of spirits and sinister entities, at that.

Honestly, I'm a little bewildered how I internalized by all these classic gothic elements. They must be awfully deeply ingrained in the genre consciousness, because never read Rebecca, or Jane Eyre, or any of the classics. So how did I come by this cache of clichés?

Having realized the formula, however, I'm somewhat reassured by it. It gives me a framework I can understand and subvert when necessary. For one thing, in this rewrite there are two ingenues--Trace, and Miss Fairweather herself, as shown through the flashbacks of her diaries. Trace is actually more passive than Miss Fairweather, at least in the beginning, but it is a deliberate passiveness. Because he is the stronger, more patient of the two, he can afford to watch and wait.

Miss Fairweather plays the heroine in her flashbacks--although in her naiveté she sees her niece as the innocent one--and in classic gothic fashion she finds herself choosing between two attentive and attractive men. Of course, she chooses the wrong one. In the present-day storyline, Trace becomes the embodiment of her Super-Male, and she resents him for it. She has the knowledge and ambition to save herself, but not the resources.

Neither of them is the type to watch and wait forever, though. Unfortunately, when they act in this story, they *do* bungle things. Miss Fairweather does something horrible in the flashbacks, Trace makes a big mistake in the main storyline. Of course this story is the opening act of the book, so I hope they will still learn and grow by the end of the plot arc. And of course they both are working frantically to learn as much as possible and best the other; neither is blind to the dangers the other poses and they have a known, common outside enemy to rally against.

My agent told me that Gothics were coming back into vogue in publishing circles, so I hope this one will be well-placed to ride the trend. Thank you, Barbara Michaels.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

three ways to improve the internet

1. Eliminate anonymity. Make people liable for what they say and do. And don't tell me it infringes on your privacy; the marketers and the government are already tracking everything you do; don't kid yourself about that.

2. Remove "Comments" sections from news articles, particularly on the so-called "respectable" sites. Letters to the editor are a time-honored tradition, but snide remarks from every Tom, Dick and Harry with a keyboard only serve to distract. Let people employ their first-amendment rights on their own forum. Employ ruthless moderation and provide trackback links to worthy dissenting viewpoints.

3. Stop reposting other people's snotty propaganda on social networking sites. It's simplistic, it's annoying, and it helps nothing. People who agree with you will just stroke your ego. People who don't, will raise your blood pressure. Any sentiment that can be expressed in a bumper-sticker is probably over-simplified anyway.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Chess Countess rocks my Queen of Spades corset


This is the divine Chess Countess in my Queen of Spades corset. I can't get over how striking and fabulous she looks. Go listen to her music, the girl's got pipes!


Friday, June 01, 2012

apportments and telekinesis


He felt a shiver in the air, a tickle along the sensitive under-belly of his gift. The clock on the mantel began to chime noon, followed a beat later by the tall floor clock in the hall. Something moved in the corner of his vision, he heard a faint clank and scrape behind him, and when he turned back toward the round table, there was the silver dinner-tray, with a chill moist handprint rapidly evanescing from its lid.
He reached out quickly with his gift, but it was trickier than grabbing for an elbow and he was clumsy at it. The spirit flinched away and faded into the ether.
“Wait,” he said. “Hang on, I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
No response—but no fleeing, either. It was shy of him, but curious and eager to please. The impression he got of it was female, timid, but not the sense of chaos many lost souls had. This one had sense, and awareness.
He lifted the cover on the tray and found a nice cold-beef sandwich, coffee, creamed corn, and a rice pudding with raisins.
“I don’t suppose I could get some more of that cherry pie?” he said aloud. “That was mighty good, yesterday.”
There was a kind of shiver, and Trace heard something go chink on the table near his hand. He looked down and found a small salver, bearing a doily, a fork, and a gilt-edged china plate with a big red oozing slice of pie plunk in the middle of it. Rivulets of ice cream ran down the ruby peaks.
Apportments and telekinesis, she’d said she meant to test him on. He thought there was no harm in studying aforehand.
He broke a bit off the pie crust and popped it in his mouth. “Mmm-hmm… that sure is fine, miss. You do all this cookin yourself?”
The question seemed to amuse her. He felt a shimmer of laughter.
“No? You got help? How many servants does she have in this house?”
That subject seemed to be taboo. His skin chilled with reflected fear, and the spirit started to retreat.
“Aw, hang on there, I didn’t mean nothin by it. Wonder if you could do one last thing for me, ‘fore you go.” Trace walked to the cabinet where the cigar case lay, opened it and took one off the top. “I haven’t had one of these in months,” he explained aloud, “an’ ordinarily I wouldn’t help myself to what was layin around just because nobody was watchin.” The cigar cutter was heavy and sliced cleanly through the tapered end of the smoke. “But her worship made it clear I was to make myself at home here, and I know she didn’t stock these for her own pleasure.” Trace glanced over his shoulder, to where he sensed the spirit hovering. “Come on, honey, I bet you can light this without any trouble, can’t you?”
There was a hesitation, a drawing-together of the air. And then a shimmer, like heat-waves off the desert floor, only at eye level and directly in front of him. The shimmer tightened, brightened, and a hot blue flame, no bigger than the tip of his finger, popped into sight less than a foot in front of his nose.
It was uncanny, and Trace felt a prickle of real nervous sweat along his hairline, but he leaned forward, wrapped his lips around the cigar, and drew in a single puff of air. The cigar lit instantly, all the way around, like a magic trick. The hot smoke that filled his throat seemed to be tinged with frost needles. He pulled away from the blue flame and it vanished. He took another, longer draw, and it was all fine, rich tobacco.
Trace exhaled in satisfaction. “Good girl.”

Thursday, May 31, 2012

the rooms in my head

Drew some sketches today. This is the first floor of Miss Fairweather's house and a detail of the library, since so much of the action takes place there.



The library image is rotated 90º since I tend to see it that way in my mind--in most scenes they are standing near the fireplace or the round table in the middle.



I'll probably do the second and third floors at some point, and I definitely need to do the laboratory.


Monday, May 14, 2012

pushing dirt


It's amazing how many poisonous plants are used as common suburban ornamentals. It's a good thing most suburbanites have no concept of eating out of their yards these days or they'd all be poisoned.

I've been putting off buying plants because there was so much work yet to do in the yard, but I knew the spring was getting on past the point that I needed to get my herbs in the ground, and yesterday was Mother's Day, so my spouse wanted to go fetch a houseplant for his mother anyway, so I caved in at the nursery and bought a handful of items off my "witch's garden" list.

Hence the reference to poisonous plants. Yesterday I planted wormwood and wolfsbane. No foolin'. The wormwood is politely called "Artemisia" and has pretty, soft, featherduster arms in shades of silvery-blue-green. I recognize it from when my mom used to grow it; it fills up sunny beds rather nicely. The wolfsbane, a/k/a monkshood, a/k/a Aconitum, is tall and slightly spiky with a dark green-purplish cast. It should send up some lovely flowers later this summer if I don't manage to kill it.

In all honesty, me and plants have never been a sure bet. I wouldn't say I have black thumbs, but.... I'm not the most attentive and conscientious gardener out there. I do all right with herbs, probably because they're related to cooking, which is something I can be attentive about, and I seem able to keep hostas and ferns alive, although I'm still learning how much water they need outdoors in a hot Kansas summer.

I also want to get some foxglove (digitalis) and something called black snake which comes in pretty purple shades, but that will probably wait until next year. As far as herbs go, I bought two varieties of basil, now potted and positioned on the sunny west side of the house, where there's a gap in the trees for maybe a whole five hours of sunlight. Also took a chance on cilantro again; the last attempt was a dismal failure. I think it needs more shade, but that's part of the reason I put all the herbs in pots this year--so I can better control their water, sun, and bunny access.

The rosemary and lavender I did not pot. I want them to go in the ground, in the back yard where they can go crazy (and ideally keep the bugs away), but I'm not sure they'll have enough sun near the house.

Furthermore–and this is why I'd been putting off buying plants–I'm not yet sure what shape the back yard is going to take. The Sparring Partner and I agree we'd like to get rid of as much grass as possible. In a perfect world we'd just build a massive covered deck over the whole yard, but obviously that ain't gonna happen in the foreseeable future. In the meantime I'll settle for channelling the rain runoff and keeping the mosquitoes under control.

The ground is in terrible shape back there––a layer of clay laid over by acres of oak leaves that I keep pushing around. Couple of huge oak trees dropping acorns everywhere, and redbud trees on all sides. It's a constant battle to cut down/pull out all the tiny little volunteer trees each year. Furthermore the drainage is terrible for pretty much the whole block. It's terrifically flat, except for the shallow depressions in the back third of our yard that collect rainwater and mosquitos every summer.

Finally, despite the oak trees, there's a long bare patch of yard that gets hot, direct sunlight from about 3 p.m. to about 7 p.m. The ground gets baked, the grass don't grow, it isn't the most welcoming area. It doesn't get enough sun, for long enough, to let me put in a vegetable garden. Plus, we need to keep that part open for kung fu practice. Can't swing a seven-foot staff indoors, you know.

So the long-term plan is to make more of a Zen-garden arrangement.

The SP has been collecting brick and rock for years, and the accumulation accelerated after I got there. We got a fair amount of brick from my parents' old house, and he brings home pavers from house remodels, slabs of river rock, beautiful round rocks. Plus we have a large cairn of the limestone slabs that are common to the area.

I have plans to pave most of the 10x20 foot area nearest the house, and install some of the insect-repelling plants, especially the lavender and rosemary, since they are good companion plants and I love their scents. But it's a long stop-and-go job, since I have no money and I'm making it up as I go along.

I'm looking at ways to give the yard more vertical dimension: herb spirals, tree mounds, an elevated water feature/island, etc. We have a plastic tub for a small fish-pond, and I want to partially sink it into the ground and then build up a rock wall around it. I also want to create some gravel streambeds and possibly a gravel "pond," that will actually hold and channel water when we do get rain. Gravel is cheap, but digging the paths is going to be interesting, what with all the tree roots.

I spend about six hours yesterday digging out rose of sharon, cutting back creeper vines, and moving rocks around. Boy did I sleep good last night. I still need to go out there today and put the lavender and rosemary in the ground, and probably will dig out some more roots near the house. There's a long way to go, but I like the work.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Arkham City Catwoman costume

Finally finished this baby. It was a labor of love, let me tell you. This was a custom commission for a client, and lucky for me she was plenty flexible about when she needed it done, because like all great undertakings, it always needs more time than you have allotted for it. I should have kept better track of my hours, but knowing how much time I actually spent on it would probably just make me depressed. The goggles and the hood alone took a week.

Arkham City Catwoman costume bodysuit. Heavy matte spandex and snakeskin print spandex.

Arkham City Catwoman goggles and hood.


Gloves. Duh.
Extra details.
Soon I hope to have full-length cosplay shots from the client. She's planning a group photoshoot and I am desperately eager to see this on a person.

Some FAQ of interest:
1. Yes, I can make one for you, however my supply of snakeskin fabric is limited and I may substitute something else (equally cool!) in future. Price is $700 +shipping as of May, 2012. I need at least 6 weeks work time before your event. Do not email me and ask for a "simpler" or "cheaper" version--it makes me very cranky. The seriously interested can get the details in my Etsy shop.

2. I am not selling the pieces (hood, goggles, gloves) separately at this time.

3. I do not have a pattern available at this time.

4. I cannot and will not advise you on how to make your own costume or give tips on how I did it. Because I derive my income from making costumes, it is not in my best interest to give away the ideas and techniques that took me weeks of trial and error to establish. I do occasionally create tutorials which you can find on the sidebar to the right. Thanks for understanding.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

spiritual warfare

Trace spent much of the morning away from the house. It was easier to think that way, and he had a lot to ponder.
Miss Fairweather had handed over a lot of information last night, far more than she’d surrendered in the previous six months. He rather thought most of it was true, even. But with the exception of the detail about her niece, she hadn’t told him much more than he’d deduced for himself. And even if the bit about the niece was true, it didn’t account for certain other things he’d observed, like her strange bouts of illness, and her reluctance to venture out of her house. And he remembered something else from the trance—Trace had cut the line between Mereck and himself, but he had sensed a tether on Miss Fairweather, as well. Despite her protestations that she had no psychic powers, despite her verbal exclusion of herself as one of his protégés, despite the late Herr Kieler’s observation that she didn’t not bear the master’s “mark,” there was apparently something about her that Mereck deemed worth watching. There was clearly more she hadn’t yet told him. Which was typical of her.
Trace dropped in at Jameson’s and wrote a quick reply to Boz’s note—quick in the sense that it was short. He spent a good half-hour struggling with what he wanted to say and what he couldn’t. In the end he settled for the bare facts. “Back in St. Louis. Trip no trouble. Lots of book-learning ahead—likely to be quiet for a while—Trace.” Jameson, of course, was in a talkative mood and hastened to share all the latest town gossip, but Trace had lost his taste for who was working where, who was drunk, in jail, or keeping a ladybird.
He needed another source of information, he thought, listening to Jameson prattle on. Someone who knew something about Miss Fairweather’s past, or Mereck’s. He couldn’t imagine hunting down a phantom Russian, couldn’t even suppose Mereck was the man’s real name, given he seemed to spend much of his time in a travelling show. Miss Fairweather might be easier to track, but she was from England, which wasn’t exactly the next county over, and she’d already told him her nearest kin was dead. Even supposing she had any connections left, they were unlikely to know of her occultist actitivies, much less consent to discuss them with a stranger.
As for the people they had in common—Mereck’s victims—all those Trace had met were mad, dead, murderous, or some combination thereof. He remembered that dead whore down in Sikeston, poor mad Lisette, who had been much like Trace while she lived—a powerful medium, strong in her faith, and uneasy about reconciling the two. Mereck had played on her fears, set her beliefs against her desires until her mind gave way, and then abandoned her to commit the ultimate sin. Trace wondered if her entrapment in the spirit world was due to the tragic circumstances of her death, or a curious effect of her power, or a curse from God for taking her own life, or a final trap laid by Mereck—to keep her in servitude to him even after death. Her spirit had certainly been eager to whore itself to a new master; it had killed a man in an effort to show Trace what a good servant she could be.
Trace had come a long way away from his conviction that his power was a curse laid on him by God. He had stopped fearing it, for the most part; he no longer felt as if every spectral visitor was sent to torment him or tempt him into Hell. But he still shied from the idea of taking spirit familiars, especially the murdering kind.
And yet… Miss Fairweather had regular contact with the spirit world. She apparently had a house full of spirits who helped her—or helped him, at any rate. Some of them might be willing to spy for him, but he doubted the kitchen maid was privy to Miss Fairweather’s dark plans, far less a match for her sinister manservant.
He needed someone stronger. Someone… more like mad Lisette.
The thought was chilling… and intriguing. And slightly maddening, that he was thinking of enlisting the spirits of the dead in a war of espionage.

Friday, May 04, 2012

thank you mistress, may I have another?

Trying to write this morning. Very difficult finding Trace's mood/voice at the beginning of Curious Weather--one of the problems I always had with this story. He's back in Miss Fairweather's house, trying to learn from her, and of course she immediately cuts him off at the knees.

Learning is by nature a submissive process. I'm one of the worst people I know when it comes to submitting to authority and yet I yield to my Sifu every time. I'm more humble before him than anyone else in my life. And it's not because he requires it, it's because I know I won't learn if I don't.

But it feels tremendously tricky to pull off that same submissiveness of Trace before Miss Fairweather without completely emasculating him. Trace is the hero, a grown man and we've already seen him be quite the badass, so I'm worried about making him put up with this mean little woman's crap.

Further complications ensue from the point of view. Trace is by nature a watcher, a doer, and while this makes him a reliable narrator, in her presence, her personality is so dominating that his tends to get lost.

Maybe I'm overthinking it. There are plenty of fantasy stories that involve the hero learning his chops, but those are almost always a young person learning from an elder. How to keep the balance? How to let Trace assert his own power? Once I get the ghost action rolling, it should be easier, but right now I'm flailing. Ach, soggy writing muscles.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How to know when you're talking down to your readers, and what to do about it

"Don't talk down to your audience."

I've seen this advice in many, many books about writing fiction, but I haven't been able to find much about how to diagnose when you're doing it, or how to stop.

The issue came up in my writer's group. I suggested that a manuscript was "talking down" to the reader, and the rest of the room agreed, but we couldn't quite define the qualities that gave us that impression. And the writer understandably wanted to know what she was doing wrong.

There are a few reasons why a writer might unconsciously talk down to her audience:

Monday, April 02, 2012

movies of the week

You know how sometimes you know a movie is going to be bad but you have to watch it anyway just to get it out of your system? I downed three of those in the last 24 hours.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth)--Benedict Cummerbranch and Firth were the only two who didn't seem to be sleepwalking in this somnambulant spy thriller. Ultra-stylish, limping along on flashbacks, mistakes obfuscation for suspense.

Anonymous--Vanessa Redgrave and Jolie Richardson play Queen Elizabeth I as a childish, neurotic cougar. Bunch of other men conspire around her to no effect. And there's some slop about the power of words and the glory of artistic expression.

A Dangerous Method--less melodramatic than the trailer would have you believe, which is all to the good, but the restraint of the writing, acting, and directing leaves me with a tepid feeling of frustration--not exactly the afterglow you want from a movie in which at least three main characters advocate freedom of thought and sexuality as vehicles to mental health.

I feel so repressed right now I may have to flush my brain with some Michael Bay to recover balance.

goat cheese vinaigrette vegetable dip

This is a tangy, savory dip I made up. It's especially suited to raw vegetables.


1/2 brick of cream cheese,
1 small package (3 oz) goat cheese
2 Tbs mayo
juice 1/2 lemon
salt & pepper
1-2 tsps Penzey's French Vinagrette dressing mix*
extra pinch of both rosemary and thyme (optional--I like the piney flavor of the rosemary with the lemon)
dash cayenne

Allow cheeses to reach room temp. Blend together cheeses and mayo. Add salt, pepper and herbs. Add lemon juice and stir well. Keep cool.


*this vinagrette mix includes salt, pepper, sugar, rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion, scallions. Using the real thing fresh would probably be even better!

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Blink," the IAT, the Hunger Games

I'm reading "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. I find it profoundly insightful and thought-provoking, partly because I am a self-obsessed creature and love to relate everything psychological and sociological to yours truly.

"Blink" is about how our underlying prejudices affect our decision-making processes, for better or for worse. Chapter Three talks about how we associate visual appearances, such as race and gender, with intangible traits, such as beauty, goodness, valor, intelligence, etc. One of the illustrative examples Gladwell uses is the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The IAT is the kind of thing that makes educated white Americans squirm. We KNOW that we're all supposed to treat everyone equally, but unless you have your head up your ass, you also know that you're bombarded, day-in/day-out, with subtly denigrating impressions of black Americans, especially black men. And if you have any self-awareness at all, you feel it changing you. I know I do.

I grew up in an almost completely white environment. My neighborhood was all-white. When I started first grade there was one Vietnamese girl in my class; the first black kid joined us in the fourth grade. And I didn't think anything about any of it--positive or negative. My parents were naturally egalitarian, without making a big deal about it. Once I heard the old man next door say "nigger" and when I asked my mom about it, she told me what it meant and added, nice people didn't use it––her stock response for any profanity or blasphemy. There was no political message, ergo I never got a sense of other races being "other," if that makes any sense.

I don't think learned there was a "difference" between black and white people until I was in college and started to learn about political correctness. (Some would probably call this white privilege, and I suppose it is, but can you blame a fish for not noticing it's wet?) Suddenly there was a lot of talk about what it "meant" to be black and "sensitivity" toward blacks. And that made me extra "sensitive," too––suddenly I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, where before my natural tendency was to adapt my speech and mannerisms to the person I was speaking with. We all do it, it's called code switching, but suddenly I worried it was the wrong thing to do.

In college I started to notice myself becoming wary around young black men. Not because they were black, but because they were young men (hooray for rape awareness!), and more aggressive than the white guys in our tiny college. Black and Latino guys hit on me all the time. White guys were intimidated by me. My sister later told me it was the same for her--apparently the women in my family tend to have attitude, and black guys can handle that better than the white boys--or so she was told by an admirer.

===============

Years ago, before Trace and Boz, I wrote a story featuring a sort of love-triangle, but not in the competitive sense--three friends, two of whom were involved romantically, and another man who was their comrade-in-arms and shared a special bond with each, independent of the others. There was a save-the-world plot, and there was the romantic subplot (much like Harry, Hermione, and Ron). But the "third wheel" in my story happened to be a black man. And one of my beta readers took it upon herself to tear down the whole story and the whole character as a racist stereotype, "the black character who has nothing to do except worry about the white folk's problems."

I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. Someone actually had to explain to me about the Mammy archetype in old Hollywood movies. I had never been exposed to it, so it certainly wasn't an influencing factor in the characters I constructed. I still call bullshit on that reader's critique. If the character had been white, she might have legitimately said that the character wasn't given enough to do in that particular volume (he had a much bigger role in the first and third installments), but because he was described as black she took the cheap shot. #jealousbitch.

As my Chinese kung-fu master once said to the homeless black guy who asked him for money, "How do you know I'm a racist? You just met me."

===============

I saw this thing on Jezebel today about bigoted idiots complaining about The Hunger Games movie and the casting of black actors in certain roles. Haven't read the books myself, but the trailer caught at my heartstrings. When I caught a glimpse of the tiny big-eyed girl playing the character I now know is Rue, tears sprang to my eyes, because I knew right away that tiny beautiful girl was going to die a horrible unjust death in the name of Plot Point.

I knew, because that's exactly the kind of thing I'd do to my characters.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

seafood congee

There's a place called Blue Koi in Kansas City, a sort of upscale pan-Asian cuisine place. A friend introduced me to it a couple of years ago and I recently persuaded my husband to go back and try it with me. Yesterday was our third visit in as many months. It's a bit pricey by Chinese-cook standards but in my opinion, the freshness and well-designed quality of the food is well worth it.

The weekend special was seafood congee with shrimp rolls on the side, and oh my, was it good. Rich, flavorful, briny, perfectly textured except a couple pieces of chewy calamari. The shrimp and lobster and scallops were all melt-in your mouth tender, and there was a generous amount of fish in the mix. The shrimp rolls––minced shrimp rolled in narrow phyllo straws and flash-fried––were dipped in a hot/sweet sauce that complemented them perfectly. I'm actually not the world's biggest shrimp lover but the spices and seasonings in Southwest Asian cuisine really bring out its best qualities.

While lunching, we overheard the owner talking to a couple of young men at the next table. One guy apparently had little experience with Asian foods, asked a lot of questions and finally settled on soup with fried tofu in it, instead of plain tofu. The owner gently explained that fried tofu was not a good idea for soup, texture-wise. The patron sort of cluelessly insisted it was ok. The owner took their order and went away. A few minutes later the waiter came back and reiterated what the owner had tried to explain: tofu soaks up liquid; fried tofu would just get soggy and turn to glue in the soup. The patron graciously gave in.

I had to respect that––the house considering the textures and end-quality of its food, the gentle insistence, not that the patron was wrong, but the education, the assertion of, "Trust us, we'll give you the best dining experience."

My husband had the roast duck with a gentle sauce and a big bowl of rice. Normally this dish is served with a sort of pickled carrot salad and roast peanuts. The Sparring Partner asked for another vegetable instead, and got pickled cucumber––chilled, thinly sliced, lighty dressed in vinegar and sugar for a tangy-sweet flavor. It was very good with the rich duck.

"The food in this place is a lot higher-level than I thought it was," my husband said.

"I agree," I said. "It's a lot higher level than you thought it was."