On Keeping Resolutions and Those Trader Joes Bagged Salads

We are only a few days into 2023, and it feels like Christmas was a hundred years ago. My husband and I took down the tree two days after Christmas and packed everything back into storage. We were both ready to start a new year.

I mentioned before that I’ve decided on a couple of big goals for this year. One is to get my pen name (Stacey Christine) up and moving with a fun sweet sports romance trilogy. I took a nice long break after keeping my promise and getting all of the Tales of Darkwood books published in a year. Here’s the latest one, it clocked in at 107,000 words. I am very proud of it.

I started back writing on January 1st, and now ten days later, I’m nearly done with the set-up prequel, so if any of you are romance readers, let me know. I’ll need 2-3 beta readers checking my work for gaps in the story, or if something doesn’t work next week. The novella will be around 30k words, or 120 pages. I’ll also be starting a newsletter specifically for Romance next month, so let me know if you’d like to get on it. I’ll have deals for Romance books in it, a link to get this first novella, and good recommendations along with snippets from the trilogy as it progresses. Will Megs fall in love with Zach the buff triathlete, or with Jeb, her high school sweetheart, who she hasn’t spoken to in ten years because of a terrible mistake?

I have to say writing a contemporary romance is… easier than writing the dark fantasy. Mostly because I can say someone pulls up to a stoplight, and you all know what I’m talking about. As opposed to say, the rabbit holes I’d disappear down when mentioning something as innocent as a bakery in a medieval town. In order to describe it properly, so you’d feel that you were there, and wanting to be as historically accurate as possible, I’d find myself googling what the interior of a 1450s bakery really looked like, and how the oven worked, what sort of tools they used, how long did it take the bread to bake and were the ovens inside or outside, and if they sold the things on the premises, or did they have delivery boys, and did they keep their own goats and chickens or were those things purchased… you see how it can get a bit more… involved.

The other reason I’m finding the words flowing easily is that a Romance genre by definition must end happily, so it becomes rather fun to write. I mean… every one of the five books in the Darkwood series ends on a “happily for now” note. But it is medieval times, and the source material is Grimms, so really, how happy could it be?

I will say my Darkwood characters, Gert in particular, are SCREAMING at me about this. Gert wants her own story, and the quicker the better. She’s a pill, that one. And I will get back to the Darkwood after I finish the trilogy of Sweet Sports Romance. The Darkwood turned out to be a place rich with stories. I plan on twisting The Three Little Pigs, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid. Let me cut you off as you shake a finger at me and say that those are NOT Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Yes, I am aware that Little Mermaid is a Hans Christian Andersen story, and that Aladdin comes from a far older, really wild Middle Eastern tale. In fact, I just learned by reading a book for book club that it was actually the British explorer Sir Richard Burton who translated the Arabian Nights into English. As a person, Burton left much (much!) to be desired, and he never found the source of the Nile, but he did know 29 languages, and a did a great job in bringing us the Arabian Nights. He also brought us the Kama Sutra in case that’s more to your taste.

My other big goal is going into training for a half Ironman. Which, you know, involves running, which I haven’t done in a long time (roughly 30 years) and biking, which I did for a brief time about twelve years ago. In other words, yours truly has been doing things outside her comfort zone. I did a five-mile walk/run today. It went okay. I will maintain high hopes while I ignore my disgruntled feet.

I’ve also been watching what I eat now that we’ve started a new year. It is much easier to run if you weigh less, just saying. I have to put a plug in for Trader Joes’s bagged salads. There are a couple that I’ve been eating for a long time, but two new ones have recently cropped up and I cannot get enough of them. The first is the Dill-icious one, which, I kid you not, is a riff on Dill Pickles, and has potato chips for the crunch in it. I love a good dill pickle, and when my son recommended it, I had to give it a try. High marks. The other one is even better, the Elote Chopped salad. It is SO GOOD. It has little cornbread crumbles, and a little bit of Cotija cheese to go with all the chopped veggies and the tasty dressing.

I am a bit fussed about how much plastic they use to package up these salads but grab them when you can. My understanding is that they are a seasonal item.

How are your resolutions going? Let me know in the comments and let me know if you’d be willing to be a Beta reader for my initial foray into Sweet Sports Romance. I’ll be choosing those folks by the end of this week.

On Family Visits and Zucchini Boats

First off, how is it possible we are near the end of December already? And that the year is 2022?

I still feel stuck somewhere back in 2019. If I were writing this as a SciFi thriller, it would turn into one of those altered reality loops, so we could all go back and have a long do-over without the corona virus and other poxy things.

The actual present isn’t bad at all, even though the feeling of being flung into a hyper-speed reality still floats in the background. This week brought our youngest son and his partner to stay with us for a week. It’s been really fun hanging out with them, and seeing a bit more of our oldest son and his wife as well. I like these older versions of our kids a lot. They’re lovely people.

They buy their own presents now, instead of needing me to take them shopping for others. I’ll admit to loving what they pick out now but miss the sweetness of holding their hands as we shop for Dad’s presents. Time has tumbled forward and now I take my 93-year-old Mom shopping for her presents at the mall. There were lots of kids visiting Santa and people enjoying the glitz at the Northpark Mall here in Dallas. The place is high on the glam scale. The decorations and displays are worth going to see if you’re in the neighborhood. I enjoyed the 12 Days of Christmas a lot, and there are puppeteers as well.

Shopping with Mom is a very slow process, a far remove from the normal way I execute my chores during the holiday time. She walks with a cane, so we stopped and rested often. But she knew what store she wanted to go to, and where she was going to find things. She had fun, which was the important thing for me. It was rather nice to slow down, and people watch, and listen to Mom comment on the latest styles. She was quite the fashionable lady in her day, and has a good eye to the balance of color and form. She was quite taken with a pink sequined outfit, but I couldn’t convince her to try one on.

Another great thing about having family here is that they bring their friends over, and we get to cook for large numbers of people. I miss doing that. We used to be one of the homes all the kids would congregate in back in the high school days and we’d make burgers and brownies for them. I just love listening to them chat with each other. I also like that the probability is high that my husband will make pasta from scratch on these occasions. Win/win.

These adult versions of our kids also bring along their own recipes and cook for us. We’re trying to balance our usual feasting and baking as we lead into the holiday with a few healthy meals that are heavy on the veggies. This one is for Zucchini Boats. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

ZUCCHINI BOATS (Taylor Willis, recipe)

Feeds 4-6 people

6-8 large zucchini – cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the middle with a spoon. Seasoned with salt and pepper. (Save the insides)
1 large onion chopped
1 box of mushrooms (optional)
Package of ground turkey
Pasta sauce – 1 jar or can
Oregano, Thyme, or Zaatar spice to taste.
Shredded Cheese mix, about a cup.

Bake the zucchini hollowed side up on a baking sheet. Spritz them with a bit of olive oil and bake at 400 for 15 minutes. They should look a bit crispy when they are done.

Meanwhile, saute mushrooms dry, or with a bit of olive oil, if you wish. Add chopped onion to your pan and cook until translucent. Then add in the ground turkey and brown. Add back in the zucchini insides, chopped. Cook until they are done, pour in the pasta sauce and use spice as you like it.

Stuff the boats with your mix, then top with the cheese and broil until cheese is melted. Serve with a side salad.

On Managing Expectations and Anise Cookies

The final book in my wonderful (if I do say so myself) dark fantasy series published Monday. I got lovely applause and cheerful “well-done’s” from my FB friends, and beautiful flowers from my husband. A few sales, too.

“Tales of Darkwood” is a thing I am proud of writing, and chuffed that I completed it in a year. But… I expected to feel a bubbly joy in this culmination of it. It was hard work. I gave it bits of my soul and lots of my time and money.

I felt heartbroken instead. A huge gasp of “now what?” No celebratory feelings at all. You know those images and videos of marathon runners staggering to the end of the race, crawling to get to the finish? They don’t look joyful either. Just determined. Or perhaps crazy. I identify with them today, the day after release. And I know why.

I failed to manage my expectations. There were no balloons or parades for completing the series. It’s just… done. I wanted more of a huzzah, glasses raised, cake, and a gift bag to take home.

As I’ve gotten older, managing expectations has taken on greater urgency. I don’t do well with the emotional hangover being crushed by disappointment leaves behind. “Live and let live” is an iteration of managing expectations. Or perhaps a hearty “Oh well!” when things don’t live up to my hopes. But sometimes the shock of the disappointment wins and then you’re depressed and cry and feel awful.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in varying degrees. The meal that took hours to make, but just doesn’t taste good. The gift you thought would bring someone true happiness, but instead simply just gets a polite thank you. The restaurant that had five stars, but you had a one-star experience. The bored/rude/inept clerk at the store where you’re about to spend hundreds of dollars who acts like they don’t see you. The child that doesn’t call.

Sometimes I do a good job of managing my disappointment. I bake, read a book, swim, go for a walk, drink too much coffee. I gave up drinking many years ago, so that’s out. I’ve found talking to others feels a lot like dumping my emotional burden on top of them, so that’s not an option anymore, either.

Sometimes I’m going to feel sad, lonely, and less-than for a while… until it goes away. Listen, if you’ve got any coping mechanisms for this, please let me know. ‘Tis the season for multiple, possibly massive disappointments, after all. The holidays can feel like one big field of landmines for many of us, so walk carefully as you ho-ho-ho your way these next few weeks. Someone’s heart may be bruised, or close to breaking. I know I’m going to do my best to be patient and kind. Even in holiday traffic.

Luckily, baking has a spark of magic in it. I am always heartened when I mix disparate, boring ingredients together and put them in the oven… because what comes out is nearly always an aromatic bundle of love and deliciousness that I can share with others. I’m not quite sure when feeding people became my love language, but it surely is now. Right up there with telling a good story or helping an actor discover how very good they are at their chosen craft.

In that vein, here’s our family recipe for soft Anise cookies… it’s not your normal Christmas cookie… anise is a bit of an acquired taste, unless you already like black licorice, then this is the cookie for you. Anise tastes of darkness, sort of the Krampus version of a Christmas cookie. It’s fantastic with coffee. This is a half-recipe, and it still makes about 4 dozen cookies. I apologize in advance for the vague instructions. I learned this one in my aunt’s kitchen in Kingston, Iowa. My family tends to cook by how things look or smell or feel as opposed to actual measurements.

My rolling pin was made by my great-grandfather, but you can find them online, or use finding one as an excuse to go visit Germany.

SOFT ANISE COOKIES by Helen Brown (my aunt)

Beat 4 eggs for about 10 minutes with a hand mixer, then add in slowly as you continue to beat:
1 dram of Anise extract (it’s roughly ¾ of a teaspoon, but I do a bit more)
1 heaping tablespoon baking powder
1 scant tablespoon oleo (I use Nature’s Own, bc I cannot deal with Oleo, margarine, or Crisco.)
1 pound powdered sugar

This will make a nice batter, like cake batter. Then add in (you’ll need to hand mix at this point, or you’ll kill your mixer) 4 cups of flour… about… it depends on the size of the eggs you use but you want a dough you can roll out. It will look like cookie dough should (I warned you about how I learned this recipe, ha.)

Roll out dough on floured surface, about ½ inch thick and print cookies. As you go, put them on lightly floured cookie sheets. Continue until dough is all printed.

Let them dry on a table for 3-12 hours. This will allow the print you put on them to stay when they bake.

Lightly grease cookie sheets. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes or so, just until the bottoms are light golden brown. The tops will stay pale. They will puff up and stay that way.

This version is intended to stay soft. There are others that omit the bit of fat that this one uses. If you do that, you’ll get a jawbreaker, biscotti-type of cookie, but it’s just as tasty in its Krampus-like way.

On Apple Cake and Book 5 of 5

Day-old Apple cake* plays a huge role in my “Tales of Darkwood” series, especially in the final book that publishes this coming Monday. I only thought it fair that I find a good recipe for apple cake to share with you. Here it is: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/361695413829270678/

Book 5, titled “Blood to Bind” turned out to be a fantastic yarn. I’m going to go out on a limb and say publicly that I’m thrilled with it, as well as happy with the whole series. Completing an entire five-book series, along with a hefty novella prequel in a single year (well, okay, it took a year and a half to noodle them out and write them all, but they all published in 2022) took a lot of effort. Not to mention learning how to be a publisher, creating my publishing imprint, and then figuring out marketing. If you haven’t started them yet, this is the link to my author page. https://www.amazon.com/Stacey-Upton-Bracey/e/B07NZDGRPJ You could get all 5 books for someone for Christmas for less than $25 on kindle… just a suggestion.

“The Traveller’s Tale” is the FIS (First in Series—see how I can sling the acronyms? Lol.)

I’ll let you in on a secret: It nearly did me in. Especially this last book. I imagined it was going to be a 75k page book but turned out to be about 110k. It’s good though. A page-turner that wraps up multiple story lines in an entertaining way. My Beta readers claim it’s their favorite one. I trust them.

I stayed sane by talking to friends, going for walks, and swimming. Coffee also played a big part in keeping me going. I wrote nearly daily, at least 2,000 words a day (about 8 pages of book). Towards the end, I was writing about 8k a day (32 pages) to get it done in time. I’ve found I do my best writing in the morning, so I started getting up early, around 4am to get ‘er done. Not that I like that answer to “what is my writing practice,” but it’s what works for me.

I do love writing, though. Pretty sure my current pace of at least 6 full-length books + some shorts per year is something I can keep up.

This coming year will bring some changes. I have a pen name I introduced in an anthology this year, alongside the dark fantasy series. Stacey Christine writes Romance. I’m currently torn between writing Paranormal Romance or Sports Romance (Clean or Spicy?) or Small Town Second Chance Romance. What do you like to read? Email me back here and let me know. Please share any good titles you think I should read in those genres too!

That’s it for now—enjoy your apple cake! “The Seasoned Mom” has good recipes.
*Being that this is a darkish sort of tale… the apple cake in the story might be poisoned…