January 24, 2021 • No Comments
While tea is essential in all months, winter highlights its restorative properties. And with tea comes biscuits—spirits and stomachs need a boost in the twilight hours of the afternoon.
This is a savory shortbread recipe that’s been in my family for at least three generations–I don’t know its origins, but it was a frequent flyer at my grandmother’s table. It typically appeared at Christmas, but it’s good all year around. I made it recently and was reminded why I liked it so much—it pairs well with a strong English Breakfast style tea without being lost or overwhelming the flavor of the tea. In other words, this shortbread has personality.
A note on the cheese: MacLaren’s Imperial Sharp Cheddar is an iconic Canadian grocery item. In fact, there is an early version of the container in the Canadian Museum of History. For substitutions, keep in mind that it’s very sharp and stiffer than a true cream-cheese style product. The internet recommends Black Creek Sharp Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese as an alternative, but I’ve never tried it myself. If you do, please let me know how it turns out.
- ½ pound McLaren’s Imperial Cheese
- ½ pound butter
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Mix ingredients either by hand or in a food processor and knead slightly until it can be formed into a roll and sliced. Make a ball from each slice and press with a fork. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 250 F for an hour (or until the bottom browns a bit). Cool on a rack before storing in a tin.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
July 3, 2020 • No Comments
Every so often I come across a reference to something that sends my brain scurrying down a rabbit hole. As a fantasy writer, I particularly love twists on everyday items that could otherwise slide into an ordinary social landscape. Food is a favorite, because we all encounter it on a daily basis and there are oh, so many possibilities.
Imagine yourself at a feast—maybe a good ol’ grimdark medieval banquet with dogs under the table chewing on Bob’s remains (what the guests haven’t already eaten). Or, perhaps you’re attending a prettier version of the above at the Sun King’s court, or even a Victorian soiree with champagne on ice and … someone serves a platter of fish, prized for its hallucinogenic properties. Chaos ensues.
Apparently, this is a thing. Several species of fish contain hallucinogenic toxins. The best known is Salema porgy (Sarpa salpa), a type of sea bream. Whether or not diners experience an effect from Salema may depend on the season or the diet of the fish—certain microalgae and also Posidonia oceanica, a kind of seagrass, is thought to contribute to toxins building up in the fish’s flesh (particularly the head). The delirious trip lasts for days.
Salema is found in the Mediterranean and East Atlantic, ranging from Great Britain down to South Africa. It is known in Arabic countries as “the fish that makes dreams.” Romans apparently organized entire banquets around getting stoned on Salema. I pity the slaves who had to clean up afterward but there is an excellent story scene there somewhere.
Sadly, although I have a good many historical cookbooks, I found no reference to preparing Salema porgy in Roman times. However, a search of the internet suggests grilled with salsa verde.
Thanks to Annie Spratt for sharing their work on Unsplash.
June 26, 2020 • No Comments
There are many for whom eating their peas is hardly a moment for celebration. What we need to change our eating habits is a princess as a garden pea brand ambassador.
When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France (1533), she brought a love of fresh petit pois (shelled peas) with her. This was a somewhat novel vegetable—most knew only the coarser field peas. Those were similar to chickpeas or split peas and dried or sometimes ground into flour. Wheat flour existed at the time, but was more expensive.
Once peas arrived on the scene, their history reads like the gourmet column of a society magazine. All the cool kids served peas.
Louis XIV, France’s famous Sun King, received a hamper of green peas from Genoa in 1660. They were then dramatically shelled and presented to the court in tiny dishes. The pea craze persisted well into the 1690s. Mme de Maintenon and Mme de Sevigné both reported a craze for securing a taste of the first harvest.
Edible pod peas (pois mange-tout) are reported to have arrived somewhat earlier from Holland during the time of Louis’s grandfather. Sadly, snow peas do not seem to have created such a splash.
In England, green peas came into fashion during the reign of Charles II, who probably ate them in France before the Restoration. As late as 1769, shoppers reportedly paid enormous sums for peas at Covent Garden Market, although other sources report the vegetable becoming common earlier in the century.
One other kind of pea—the lovely flowering sweet pea—is worth mentioning. Beyond its presence in our gardens, its claim to fame is as a favorite subject of Father Gregory Mendel. Mendel lived in Moravia and was three years younger than Queen Victoria. His work on genetics benefited from the sweet pea’s easily distinguished inherited characteristics.
One might ask what Mendel has to do with food fashion, and the answer is not much. However, royalty and peas do intersect when it comes to genetic consequences. Mendel’s work with peas was instrumental in understanding hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder that plagued Victoria’s descendants.
June 22, 2020 • No Comments
Synchronicity is an odd thing. I’ve always been interested in astrology, tarot, earth religions, feminism, and folklore. They have a lot to say about how the psyche works and–especially for followers of Joseph Campbell–how stories function. After all, reality is the tales we tell ourselves.
As an author, this subject is an important wellspring. Hence my interest in dreams and symbols and imagery that crosses cultures and the boundaries of time. I investigate these subjects, drift away, and come back like a migratory creature on the way to an unexplained destination. Maybe I’m ready for the next layer of information. Maybe I just like sparkly crystals. However, sometimes odd synchronicities happen.
I signed up for a 3-session course on Jungian psychology and alchemy from the Embassy of the Free Mind. With those two subjects combined, how could I not? I’ve attended two sessions so far, and the course addresses the stages of alchemy from a psychological perspective. In a very small nutshell, our personal growth follows the stages of death and rebirth and coming into wisdom through inner work. I love the international nature of the experience (yay for Zoom) and the wide-ranging references to mythology and culture. To be clear, there is no physical chemistry involved. It’s all dreamwork and navel-gazing, but right at this moment in time–after fire, plague, and TP shortages–it’s powerful. We’ve been forced to sit and think about things, and here is a chance to use that introspection. What’s working? What’s the source of unhappiness? How can we be more whole?
At the same time, completely randomly, I picked a DVD off the shelf that had sat there for years unwatched. I got a copy of The Hero’s Two Journeys on a Black Friday sale some time ago but never found the time to play it. I wanted something for a blog review so picked it off the TBR pile. It’s Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talking about story structure. Surprise, surprise, the map of the inner journey (particularly Vogler’s analysis using Joseph Campbell’s work) closely parallels the alchemical path. That tidbit was a huge “whoah!” for me, especially when it showed up in such random fashion.
Apparently, I need to pay attention here. Just as a confirmation, I pulled a card from the Wildwood Tarot and got the Nine of Stones (tradition). Part of the meaning is “reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice. The ability to relate to ancient knowledge and pass on the lessons of ancestral memory and ritual.”
I’ve got some thinking to do.
June 21, 2020 • No Comments
For those days when life requires comfort food, I give you this recipe for the best cheese scones ever. It’s light and tasty and goes with soup, salad, or a ploughman’s lunch.
Heat oven to 425 F and grease a baking tray or two (I usually double the batch).
. 2 cups flour
. 1 tsp baking powder
. 1 tsp cream of tartar
. 1/2 tsp sea salt
. 1 tsp dried chervil (oregano would probably work, too)
Work in so it’s not clumpy:
. 1/3 cup minced parsley
. 1/3 cup minced fresh dill
Cut in 1/4 cup of soft butter until it’s like fine breadcrumbs. Then add:
. 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Make a well in the center and pour in:
. 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup heavy cream.
Start with a half cup of liquid and mix with a wooden spoon until all the dry ingredients are absorbed. Add more liquid if it seems too dry. Turn onto a floured board and knead just enough to make the dough elastic. Pat into a round about an inch thick and cut into rounds with a cookie cutter until all the dough is used up. If you prefer, rolling the dough into snakes will make pretty good bread sticks for dipping into hummus or tzatziki.
Brush the tops of the scones with a little milk, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the tops are golden. Cool on a wire rack.
Don’t be shy about doubling or tripling the recipe – these are perfect for taking to the office, making care packages for friends, or freezing in smaller amounts. They can also be split and toasted in a toaster oven. I like them with avocado and sliced tomato with a pinch of carrot and beet sauerkraut. In another mood, they’re great with a tart currant jelly.
June 20, 2020 • No Comments
This first appeared in my newsletter, May 24/20
In strange worlds different from the Very Strange World we currently inhabit, work on the Hellion House series continues. I’d like to take this moment to address the notion that the series contains zombies. In a word, no. The forest beyond the walls of Londria contain many strange creatures, but not the walking dead. There are the Unseen, which are scruffy flesh eaters with shockingly bad social skills, but they are very much alive.
Then what are the Unseen and where do they come from? Can they be taught to use a napkin? Do they vote for a particular party? Those, dear reader, are the story questions of Leopard Ascending, the Hellion House installment currently under construction.
In the meantime, I’d like to offer some general advice for those occasions when one does have a zombie on one’s impeccably-gloved hands.
- For hostesses short a guest to make up the correct numbers at table, the recently-deceased might be pressed into discreet service, given sufficient repair. Of course, no one wants to admit that it was necessary to summon the dead to their party—it smacks of disinterest on the part of the living. As a precaution, instruct the footmen serving the meal to politely but firmly decline the revenant’s insistent request for brains.
- For committee work, whether charitable or in commerce, it is commonplace to send a proxy when it becomes impossible to manage every meeting. Many do send the dead for this purpose. If you have long suspected there were no signs of life amongst your fellow board members, now you know why.
- As a post-script to the above, employing zombies in any capacity is optimal where there is plenty of fresh air and discreet staff prepared for unusual emergencies. More than once, a garden party guest has been quickly disposed of among the rhododendrons, much to the gratitude of the greenery. Imagination and flexibility are key. So are a shovel and quick lime.
- Finally, while the care and feeding of the dead requires human brains, please do so sparingly. There appears to be a general shortage.
June 14, 2020 • No Comments
Happy book birthday to Flicker, a prequel novella in the Crown of Fae series.
Wait? Why release a prequel halfway through the series? Well, I wanted to tell a story about Fliss, Ronan’s charming little sister and how she met Laren, the dashing water fae. She’s been a supporting character until now deserved a tale of her own. And, that largely happened.
What I wasn’t expecting was that these were TEENAGERS. Whether I liked it or not, my characters were crazy, wrong-headed, adorable, and insane—rather like most of us are at that age. As a result, this book has action galore, school problems, scary teachers, and a dash of sweet romance. This makes it more YA than the rest of the series, but (I think) in a fun way.
What was intended as a short story became a novella. In amongst all that youthful drama, I was able to set up some characters and circumstances that shape the next few books. Keep an eye on that enchanted bird. There might even be a clue to an Easter egg buried in one of the books already out.
For those who’ve read the books so far, the timeline between Flicker and Shimmer is as follows (no real spoilers here):
- In the prequel, Fliss is thirteen.
- The Shades arrived a hundred years before.
- The battle of Ildaran Falls, after which many of the fae fled Faery, was twenty years before.
- After the events of Flicker, Laren joins the older dragons in some of their exploits, becoming friends with Ronan. Ronan and Fliss, however, don’t see much of each other until Shimmer, where she is a fully adult fae.
- Ronan’s journey begins in Faery, but when Shimmer begins, he’s been in the human realms for some time. Since time runs differently in the human and fae worlds—and wherever else he might have been—It’s difficult to measure exactly how many years pass between the two stories, but to Ronan’s perception it is centuries.
And handsome Telkoram? Why yes, we will see him again.
For more about Flicker and to read an excerpt, click here.
Or simply buy it here.
April 27, 2020 • 2 Comments
I started planning the series some time ago, as good worldbuilding (at least for me) needs time to mature. I wanted something that was a little more fantasy and less strictly Victorian than my previous steampunk books, mostly to provide scope for adventure.
I have a fascination with how people live under threat, whether that’s in gated cities or under strict social regulation. Crime doesn’t take a holiday just because everything else is turned on its head. Even dire circumstances, we still manage to form hierarchies, establish ceremonies, build a system and then cheat it. It’s the phenomenon that launched much of reality TV.
When I wrote the Baskerville Affair, I found inspiration in a map that marked the boundaries of various utility companies. This time, I went back to a 1572 map of London and then took a left turn. What if history had gone on as per normal until the Elizabethans, and then…well, science was in a different place back then. What we now regard as fact was mixed up with alchemy, astrology, and theoretical systems we don’t use in the lab these days. Burning witches at the stake was fine entertainment. What better time to unleash something that transmogrified the world?
Fast forward to my characters’ era, in what would have been Victorian London. Cities everywhere are fortified physically and by magic to protect the populace from the wilderness—now occupied by monsters. Airships and river boats are a necessary means of travel, because going by land is suicide. Agriculture is a harrowing endeavour, with private armies and mages on tap. There are dragons, huge wildcats, and the ever-hungry Unseen. Probably Nessie. Undoubtedly trolls. (Please note, there are no zombies, as they are smelly and prone to leaving their body parts in inconvenient places.)
However, because people are people, there are also Society events, fashion, slums, politics, crime, detectives, murder, whorehouses, gentleman’s clubs and newspapers. But civilization comes at a terrible price, as our protagonists discover.
And then there’s the River Rats, and astronomy, and the tarot, but more on that later.
Image by Comfreak on Pixabay
March 9, 2020 • No Comments
Consider setting versus worldbuilding. According to Novelist and screen writer Chuck Wendig, when we say worldbuilding “We’re talking about the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — world building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.”
That means there is work to do on your story. The basic place to start is forming a clear picture of your setting. Chances are, it is a real place or it is similar to a real place that can be investigated.
If you’re writing about a real time and place, research the history of your setting up to the time period you’re working with. Your characters will know the history–at least the recent history–of their world, so you need to as well.
- One question you might ask is who founded your location? Why?
- Does that matter to your story (for instance, what would the old prime-time soap opera Dallas be without the oil industry)?
- Think about taking your story and putting it someplace really different. How much of it would work? What would you have to change? What does that say about your choice of time and place?
Writers with a contemporary setting need to do as much or even more research. People live in the city you’re writing about, and they’re not a homogeneous group.
- Different parts of an existing town have different characteristics.
- Different groups of people have different hangouts, different language, different food, dress, etc.
PRO TIP: Climate is important and often a defining characteristic of a region. However, don’t assume. Most of the world thinks of Canada as snow country. Victoria, where I live, has palm trees and rarely more than a few days of snow a year.
You might want to make a story bible, which is a collection of facts, documents, ideas, and everything else about your story world. This is a lifesaver if you’re doing a series.
Here are some tools:
An article on How to use Scrivener for Worldbuilding
An amazing customizable template from Sarah Perlmutter
The type of information you collect and how you collect it will depend entirely on your story and working methods. The only important thing is that you keep the relevant information in a way you can access quickly. Start collecting information before it becomes unwieldy. The time when I normally decide I want a story bible is long past the time when it would be convenient to start one.
Other, more entertaining ways to deal with research:
- Youtube videos about places
- Blogs about visiting places
- Pinterest for pictures of places
Of course, the very best option is to visit a location. Taste the food. Smell the air. Feel the dryness or humidity, and whether the atmosphere is high and clear or soft and sea level. Look at the flowers. Fall in the mud (speaking personally). Find out what is the same and different from the place you live.