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 Endings and Beginnings

In this odd week between the hoopla of the holidays and the modern-day demarcation between one year and the next, I’m given to both reflecting on the past year and planning for what I’d like the next one to contain. I also like to watch apocalyptic movies like “The Day After Tomorrow”* as I valiantly do my part to clear the cupboard of bread and cheese before the new year begins.

I approach the planning part of the equation much more gingerly than I did pre-fire and pre-pandemic. All the hope-filled planning in the world cannot account for an epic blaze or lockdowns that last months. Sometimes those cataclysmic events can serve a purpose, however. Just like the fire steered me to first write this weekly blog, and then later to write my first book, the pandemic steered me away from a focus on directing plays and being a VP in Arbonne to becoming a full-time writer. My third career, as I’m calling it.

I’m still messing around with what being a full-time writer entails. I joke that it’s the wardrobe of stretchy pants, warm sweaters, and fuzzy socks that are the true draw, but the truth is I just love spinning the stories and allowing the characters who belong to me to find their voice. I also believe if I don’t give them that agency, they will go to another writer who pays attention when they knock on the window and peer in. Finding my personal writing practice has been a big plus this year. Even if it means that I get up at a silly hour of the morning, damnit.

For the coming year, I plan to add a few more stories in my dark fantasy realm of Darkwood, but I’m more focused on a big launch of my Romance pen name (Stacey Christine). I did one paranormal romance short story under that pen name this year, adding to a collection that served as a fundraiser for homeless cats and kittens. I’m taking a deep breath and plunging into Sports Romance trilogy + novella with a bit of spice to start, and am seriously considering doing some Later in Life Small Town Romance as well later in the year. I know, there are so many little niches to discover. It took me by surprise, too. Like I didn’t know Sports Romance was actually a thing, but it’s all I’ve been reading this past week (with side dollops of non-fiction for my DAM book club, “River of the Gods,” by Candice Millard, and a fun re-read of “Christmas at the Cupcake Café,” by the always engaging Jenny Colgan.) Sports romance tends to be pretty racy. All those sweaty bodies in peak condition. Sports Romance is also written in first person present tense, two-character viewpoint for the most part. I prefer writing in third person past tense with multiple character viewpoints, so that’s going to be the first hurdle. I foresee I may need to pay a line editor as well as a proofreader to catch all the slips into past tense as I transition.

After spending a year and a half building out the Darkwood** characters and world, I’m ready for a change. There are a few of the characters from that series (mainly Gert) who are complaining about this break from their stories. I know that anthropomorphizing my make-believe people makes me sound as mad as a hatter,*** but that’s just a fiction writer’s mind for you. On some level, it’s always writing. I’ve come to accept it and go for long walks to soothe the turmoil having other little voices in my head creates.

My other big goal for the coming year is to train for a (oh my goodness, it feels scary to write this) half Iron Man that I plan to do in early fall 2024. The swimming is easy-peasy for me… but I don’t like running very much, and I’ve never biked a long distance. There’s just something in me that needs big goals, though. They get me going. I’ll start small, adding baby runs into my walks, and hopping on a stationary bike at the gym. They say you have to sort of build up your butt to withstand the miles… I don’t think spin classes are in my future, but never say never, right?

So, what do you have planned for the next year?

*This movie still holds up, except for the CGI wolves. And whatever happened to Emmy Rossum?

**The first book in my series, “The Traveller’s Tale,” will be FREE on Amazon in both the US and the UK on the 30th, 31st, and 1st. The 2nd book, “The Twins of Darkwood,” will be 99 cents during that time as well… so if you haven’t picked them up yet, now’s your chance!

***Mad as a Hatter is a saying from Victorian England. The hat-making trade used mercury to turn the fur of small animals, like rabbits, into felt for hats. The prolonged exposure caused the hatters to develop tremors, speech problems, emotional instability, and hallucinations.

Original Alice in Wonderland art is by John Tenniel

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.