Shhhh!

Sharon Ashwood
March 7, 2012  •  No Comments

Are libraries what they used to be?

Opinions abound. I’m not a librarian, but I am a patron and an author so I find myself listening with intense interest. And it’s not just the tax dollars/budget part of the discussion I take note of. It’s the very nature of libraries that’s fascinating to me.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit the New York Public Library and say hello to the famous lions. All the little collections want to grow up to be this marvel. It’s more than a collection of books; it’s a breathtaking monument, a gallery of historical treasures, and a repository of knowledge so vast it’s breathtaking. NYCPL is far more than our typical definition of a place to go borrow books. Like New York itself, it’s a destination.

On the other end of the spectrum were my childhood libraries. Way back then, the Edmonton Public Library children’s section had a little petting zoo with doves, rabbits, and guinea pigs. As a kid without pets, I was there every weekend for my bunny fix. The outing was always as a family, and everyone walked out with a stack of reading material. I think this is one reason why I became a great reader—some households did the mall or the skating rink, we did books and that little collection of furry friends.

My school library was no less important. The school was an open plan, the library at the centre. Any assemblies—whether for singing carols or holding parades or (for some reason I can’t recall) rolling giant string balls around—happened in and around the shelves of books. It was at the middle of everything. Okay, so these childhood libraries weren’t New York, but they were every bit as significant in their own way. They reflected and formed a huge part of my school years.

The thing is, libraries aren’t just books, or ebooks, or DVDs, or whatever else we decide to loan. Done right, they’re an expression of the community they serve. Some will be an expression of civic pride. Some will be a place for kids to play. Others, like the one across the street from my workplace, will be a place where office workers like me can catch a breath on their noon hour. Everything moves faster in that branch, like the whole building is caught up in the downtown bustle. And let’s not forget the collections springing up on-line. Where we go, so too go our libraries.

So I wonder when folks say these institutions aren’t what they used to be. Of course they aren’t, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We change. They change to mirror us. It’s up to us, as a community, what we see. Our responsibility is to ensure they reflect our values.


Apocalypse maybe

Sharon Ashwood
February 22, 2012  •  No Comments

Okay, so if 2012 is the last year of the Mayan calendar, does it necessarily mean the end of the world? Or just that it was time for whomever did the stationery order to jot a reminder note to get the next year’s pre-Columbian Daytimer?

Society at large seems invested in doomsday scenarios, from young adult readers to the homeless guy on the corner who says We’d Better Be Good Or Else in an assortment of badly garbled Biblical quotations. Whether it’s zombies, Divine Wrath, or a socio-economic meltdown, we’re perversely fascinated. At times, I’d almost say eager to end it all. Why?

My own personal theory is that most of us work better with a due date. We need consequences. The notion of responsible living for its own sake pales beside the idea that we need to buy organic or the world will end. We must live peacefully with our neighbours or we’ll blow up the world. If we don’t cut greenhouse gasses, we’ll all drown in the rising ocean. It seems to take the threat of a catastrophe to get us moving in the right direction.

And then there are those who, for whatever reason, simply want to depress us. Books and movies remind us that we are bad, bad people who will go all Lord of the Flies at the slightest provocation. Just head out to the Boxing Day sales if you want proof. This Fun With Nihilism mindset seems to be big with teens, and (in my experience) the end of the world is the ultimate expression of the hopelessness attendant on approximately 87% of a teen’s waking life. Most of us get over it. As one gets older, the struggle for survival loses its romantic patina bigtime.

And then there are the devotees of big explosions. End of the world movies usually involve something going bang. I put this down to the frustrated psyche of male directors, who turn these moments into glowing, perhaps radioactive, examples of pseudo-erotic cinematography.
I think the end of the world is what we make of it. Or, perhaps a better phrase is the end of the world is what we need it to be. Motivation? A macrocosm to our microcosm? Relief? Maybe just an end to the story?

I personally like to think of the Creator-as-potter scenario. The universe will get squished back into a blob of potential and thrown back on the wheel to be crafted into something new and beautiful. The big mystery is what sort of vessel it will turn out to be.


Rose Coloured Glasses

Sharon Ashwood
February 15, 2012  •  1 Comment

As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’m sure the set dressers have been at work. Outside my window, the sky is blue with white fluffy fleecies and the harbour is as still as glass. The goody table here at work is piled with sugary treats. The only thing lacking is stock characters from a romantic comedy doing a swooning grapple over the copy machine. (Just as well. The stupid thing breaks down often enough as it is.)

Being a writer is all about looking at the world through a lens of possibility. Adventure, mystery, and romance can happen at any moment. It’s our joy and curse to see it hovering within the veil of possibilities.

· What if the courier delivers the wrong package—the one meant for the exotic zoo?
· What if the deli down the street is the info drop for foreign spies?
· What if the ugly cactus in the boardroom has a hidden camera?
· What if the photocopier goes for a whole week without breaking down? Nah, fiction only goes so far.

large-rose-colored-glasses-on-beach

But looking at the world in terms of potential has applications far beyond novel-writing. It applies directly to our own lives. Daydreaming is one of the best ways to figure out what we want. Ever given yourself permission to imagine driving a race car? Running a Fortune 500 company? People who write those self-help books (you know the ones) say that creative visualization is half the journey toward success.

In utterly practical ways, seeing the possible forms the basis of every successful compromise. In business and legal terms, how do you mediate an agreement without a little imagination? What about invention? Product development? Thinking outside the box is all about potential. It got us things like cooking fires and indoor plumbing. And, occasionally, someone worth turning into our Valentine. It takes imagination to see those hidden qualities.

So when you’re looking at the world through a creative lens, it’s not just possible novels you’re uncovering, it’s the basis for every advance (and quite a few gaffes) our civilization has made. For those looking for meaning beyond overpriced roses and impractical lingerie, consider Valentine’s Day a celebration of the possible. Those rose-coloured glasses might cloud our vision, but they also make us look toward the horizon.

Or into the chocolate box. Sometimes the best possibilities are right in front of us.
XXOO


Let There Be Light!

Sharon Ashwood
February 8, 2012  •  No Comments

There are early signs of spring in the air. The TV schedules are a mess, the renewed sunlight allows me to see how badly my place needs cleaning, and everyone but me is heading off for Mexico or Hawaii. Plus, there are (simultaneously) Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s and Easter paraphernalia in the stores. Perhaps they should amalgamate and introduce a beer-swilling Irish rabbit delivering chocolate hearts. It would save time.

Anyway, spring and deadlines are coming apace. I’m in the throes of a final push through to the end of a first draft, which tends to make me ignore the real world. Entire months disappear. It messes with my internal calendar, so this time I’m making an effort to notice what’s going on outside. I don’t want to look up from the computer to realize it’s Halloween again.

Last Friday, I saw the first snowdrops in the front yard:

snowdrops

The only reason I saw them is that it’s now light enough to come and go from the office in daylight. That makes a huge difference for me; when it’s dark at the end of the day I find it hard to get anything accomplished in the evening. Give me sunshine, and I can go for hours more.
Another sign of the season – the first announcements for the summer music festivals. Right now lying on a sunny lawn listening to a good band sounds pretty appealing.

hellebore

This will be purple hellebore someday soon. It makes me think of the spring clothes I’ve seen coming into the stores—pastels seem to be big, especially a deep lavender shade. Pretty in moderation.

And, of course, there are birds. The birch tree outside my kitchen window was covered in little grey finches (?) yesterday. I’m not a birder, so I don’t know exactly what they were, but they were looking for a bug lunch on their way through. It’s migration season, and that always makes me restless, too.
The best thing about early spring is the forward sense of optimism it brings. It’s impossible not to feel a twinge of new energy, and that’s vital when one is working on long-haul projects. I might even make it to the end of my draft on time!


Speed writing

Sharon Ashwood
February 1, 2012  •  No Comments

In this era of work hard, play hard, it’s not surprising that authors would be required to write hard. Not that writing isn’t hard already, but the current marketplace would like us to produce works every few months. This means writing faster, hopefully without producing the literary equivalent of undercooked porridge.
underwood5small
Since deadlines have put me in the writing-faster zone this spring, I’ve given this some thought. In my opinion, one writes as fast as one writes. However, a person can make sure no time gets wasted putting energy into the wrong place at the wrong time. Here are a few techniques that help my process:

1. I planned my timetable. It took me a while to figure out that I can’t write faster, or at all, unless I sit down and do it. If you’re like me, unless that time is blocked off in the calendar, it won’t happen.
2. One must be kind but firm with children, spouse, Facebook, parents, and the dog that great artists must not be distracted. I give in to the cat, because the cat always wins. I just surrender and get the adoration session over with so I can move on.
3. It helps to know what I’m writing about. If I start the chapter with at least a few notes to get going, I skip the whole blank screen stare-fest. This is one of the few writing tasks that actually can be accomplished away from the keyboard. I think about what’s going to happen, what conflicts need to be there, and how it advances character development. Once I started doing this, I was pleasantly surprised how much meatier my chapters were even on the first draft.
4. I gave myself permission to put in “xxx” instead of spending half an hour on Google looking stuff up. I save the surfing until last, once my brain is fried, and then go back and fill in the missed bits.
5. This is the big one for me: just finish the first draft. I plough through it with abandon. I promise myself no one will read this version until I have time to fix it. I give myself a word count and slap down those words every day until I reach the end. The draft is awful, disgusting, horrible and painful to reread, but if I have something to work with, I can edit a book fairly quickly. I can’t edit what’s not there.
6. There is a saying that writers should not be afraid to “murder their darlings.” In my experience, I go down this violent path if I spend too much time fussing with details too early in the drafting stage. Gustav Flaubert could spend a day searching for just the right word for his Madame Bovary, but that’s a waste of time until I know what scenes I actually need in the finished product. This is a hard lesson to learn, and I have spent days polishing chapters I eventually had to throw out because they didn’t fit the final structure of the book. The moral of the story is: fine tune last.

Like so many examples of “good writing advice,” I am sure mileage varies. However, I managed to write a book, give it three edit passes, and turn in a manuscript in just over three months. I don’t think I could keep that pace up forever, but it’s good to know it’s possible.


You are what you read

Sharon Ashwood
January 25, 2012  •  No Comments

It’s a long story, but a mildew incident recently forced the disposal of a cupboard full of magazines in my house. As I reviewed the titles of the masses of periodicals I was forced to throw out, it really made me think about how magazines say something about the subscribers. Mostly, how different titles describe different phases in one’s life.

I had to put out years and years of the old Victoria magazine (in my opinion, the old ones were better than the new version), Tournaments Illuminated, a complete series of a small publication I worked on once upon a time, and a whole lot of writing magazines. I did manage to save a huge stack of sheet music.

When I got through the unpleasant mildew business, I reviewed my current magazine rack. It says a lot about who I am.

First, there’s the writerly stuff: Romantic Times, Romance Writers Report, and Publisher’s Weekly. Fellow authors will recognize those titles, and so will a lot of avid readers.

Then there is Maclean’s, which is a bit like Time or Newsweek, but with a Canadian focus. It’s my weekly dose of in-depth news. Otherwise, I pretty much rely on the morning radio to keep me abreast of the world’s goings-on.

Then I read Chatelaine for the women’s perspective–and possibly because it was always in the house growing up. I think it’s a connection with my childhood while at the same time having some really good recipes. Kind of a twofer.

And then there are the wish fulfillment magazines. Two minutes to a sexier you. Gorge your way to the perfect body. Tips and secrets to being the confident businesswoman you know you can be. Etcetera.

Yes, there are always a few of those around for the combo of reproach and hope, a powerful mix in any female’s life.

So there I am: a reader and writer, somebody who tries to be alert to the world at large, but who loves home and comfort, and has the same insecurities and dreams as every other woman. It’s all there in my magazine rack, along with the TV guide.

What’s in yours?


January update

Sharon Ashwood
January 17, 2012  •  No Comments

kitchen1

January has been a bit disorganized for me.

However, I did finally get some stuff checked off the list. Kitchen wallpaper removal and paint job is done. The last bit was replacing the heater, so now everything is working, clean, and toasty-warm:

Demon Lord of Kitty Badness inspects the work:

cat
I really have enjoyed the finished product. I was puttering in the kitchen over the weekend, which let me see the results in daylight (we’re still at the point of the year when I’m coming and going in the dark). I like the gentle, sunny yellow. I also don’t miss the trailing bits of paper where the paper was parting company with the walls.

Now that I had a working kitchen again, I finally did my Christmas baking, although it was on January 14 (this is the outcome of the recipe for Dundee Cake I posted a few weeks ago):

cakeAnd I submitted a manuscript—book one of my new Nocturne series. I still don’t know the title or release date, but this is the one I was working on during Nanowrimo. Of course, I’m now charging ahead frantically on the next manuscript, before #1 comes hurtling back to eat my writing time. You might say it’s business as usual, working, writing, sleeping and keeping up with the odd bit of trash TV, but there are times when routine is welcome.


A little extra Christmas chaos

Sharon Ashwood
December 28, 2011  •  No Comments

So, I make a lot of plans for my holidays. I’m no different than most people—I procrastinate tasks for “when I’m off” and always think there is more time than there actually is.

This year was no exception, although I quite sensibly (I thought) confined most of my ambitions to revising one manuscript and starting another. Oh, and there was a fat file of contest entries I had to judge, Christmas stuff, and a bunch of appointments I’d made for my theoretically “free” time. I made a chart just to ensure I paced myself properly. This year, I was going to be organized and maximize my days off.

And then the gods laughed. I live in a 1911 house that’s had a lot of renos and renters before I got here. Most seemed to have a casual attitude to wiring and mildew and no decorating taste, but the place was affordable.

Back in the summer, I’d booked a guy to strip my kitchen wallpaper and paint. This is the final phase of a kitchen update that has been going on forever, each stage taking place as money and time allowed. I’d already put in a new stove, lights, a stainless steel backsplash and shelving. This is the last of it—not a huge job, but a very fiddly one involving a lot of repairs and who-knows-what’s-behind-that surfaces.

Of course, I’d booked the painter in the summer but schedules are never what you think. I had to back out, then he got delayed and, well, it was months later. But he had a few days free, if I wanted him to come December 27, right in the middle of holiday chaos. With a sigh I gave up on my holiday timetable and figured I may as well get while the getting was good and start 2012 with the project finished.

Here is a picture of the kitchen in its present state: the counter and floor is okay, but the baseboards have almost no paint left and the wallpaper is torn and water stained. I think it was intended for a bedroom, not anyplace where water and food were around.

Here is a picture of my living room, with all the kitchen stuff piled in it. I’m not living here, I’m burrowing in a heap of possessions!


JingleVamp Special Order Hero

Sharon Ashwood
December 21, 2011  •  2 Comments

x-posted from Lori Devoti’s 30 days of Vampires

In answer to the age-old question, authors DO have their sources for characters. I get mine through mail order.

I’ve owned the Dark Hero, Vampire Edition 3.2, for a few years now. He came in a box, all minty fresh with that new hero gleam in his eye. Of course there were limitations. Dark wash only. Do not leave in direct sunlight. I had to get a separate unit, the Djinn Slave 4.0, for household use. However, I have to say I have been a fully satisfied customer.

Of course, all equipment subjected to heavy use eventually needs replacement—and believe me, the 3.2 saw a lot of action since he came out of the carton. He’s held up well, but his cape is getting a bit threadbare and the poor dear gets stuck in the brood cycle more often than is good for him. I’ve had to call the manufacturer’s help desk to unlock the “furrowed brow” setting three times now. So, when I was browsing through the catalogue to see if their new line of minotaur was available yet, my attention was caught by a coupon offer for the JingleVamp Special Edition.

I confess, the notion of a vampire with a “ho, ho, ho” plug-in was vaguely disturbing. I wasn’t sure about the reindeer antlers, either, but I figured what the heck. It would make a change from the usual sort of holiday decoration. So, I placed an order.

darakantlers2The thing I didn’t realize was that, unlike the full-priced Dark Heroes, JingleVamp came unassembled and that the instructions were in the non-language universal to children’s toys and cheap furniture. Soon my living room floor was covered in an explosion of sardonic laughs, sultry glances, and sparkly white fangs as I unpacked and sorted and tried to make sense of the diagrams. Fortunately, there was more information enclosed in a separate envelope:

Hello, and welcome to your new JingleVamp! Here are a few pointers to make sure you fully enjoy your new purchase:

1. Note JingleVamp must be rebooted when changing “naughty” and “nice” settings.
2. When recharging, do not plug JingleVamp into the same circuit as your Christmas tree. Spontaneous carolling may result, overriding your Dark Hero’s patented Sinister Velvet® laugh cycle.
3. Exercise caution when using JingleVamp near pine boughs, holly sprigs, pine trees, or other pointy wooden objects.
4. JingleVamp may consume eggnog while set to “party animal.” Caution: Glassware recommended. Paper cartons will leak if bitten.
5. Do not engage JingleVamp in reindeer games without permission of local wildlife authorities.
6. Your JingleVamp will not pull a sleigh, no matter how nicely you ask.
7. Note that Dark Hero units cannot be set to “shopping” mode prior to noon, December 24. “Wrap” mode defaults to intermittent setting. “Write cards” mode is automatically disabled. Contact manufacturer for override instructions.
8. Shopping list plug-in sold separately. Unit is supplied with only “black negligee” and “toaster” options.
9. If you wish to disassemble unit, use stake provided.

Thank you for purchasing the JingleVamp Special Edition! We hope you enjoy your new Dark Hero’s version of Christmas Cheer.

Merry Fangmas to All!


Dundee Cake

Sharon Ashwood
December 14, 2011  •  No Comments

I’ve been trying to get into a Christmas mood. Helpfully, the good folks at my day job have been heaping the goody table with all manner of Bad4U food. This is absolutely part of the whole holiday tradition, and I salute their determined efforts to send us all into a sugar coma guaranteed to last until at least March.

It reminds me how much food is part of the festivities. Christmas as a kid used to start in mid-November, when my mom began marinating ingredients in a bath of rum for days and days before baking and wrapping fruitcake. It “aged” in the refrigerator until Twelfth Night, when it would come out of its tin foil coat to fill the room with a sweet, alcoholic scent. Since that was my Dad’s birthday, it doubled as his birthday dessert. I have indelible memories of snow and candied fruit, wrapping paper and pipe tobacco. I also recall if one of those cakes fell on your foot, it could break bones.

dundee2jpg1

Cream 6 ounces of butter (about ¾ cup) of butter with an equal amount of brown sugar until fluffy. Beat in 4 eggs one at a time, then fold in 8 ounces (about a cup) of flour, ¼ cup of ground almonds and a pinch of salt and mix well. Stir in ¾ cup sultana raisins, ½ cup currants, ¼ cup chopped peel, ¼ cup glace cherries (chopped) and the juice and grated rind of an orange and a lemon.

Grease an 8 inch cake tin and line it with baking paper, then spoon in the mixture. Smooth the top and hollow it very slightly, then decorate with whole blanched almonds. Bake for two hours at 300 F and don’t open the oven for the first 30 minutes. Watch toward the end to make sure it isn’t browning too much and cover with foil if necessary. Once completely cool, the cake can be wrapped and stored in an airtight tin for weeks.

Variations of this recipe date back to eighteenth century Scotland.


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