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 My New Release and Medieval Research

Book 4 of my Darkwood series publishes Sept 29th! I am super excited about this one, “Starcrossed of Darkwood.” As with all the Darkwood books, a fairy tale is twisted. This one is a favorite of mine, Rapunzel. I always felt a little bad for the witch in the story. After all, the husband stole lettuce from her garden… although I suppose demanding a first-born child was excessive for the transgression. Then there’s the part where the witch pushes the prince out of the tower, blinding him on the thorns below… okay, maybe she isn’t that sympathetic after all. But the girl in the tower is, and I thought (as I am wont to do) … what if… she decided going back to the tower was the better choice for her?

This outing in the series follows three women as their fates intertwine. You need to at least read “The Traveller’s Tale” before you read this one. While I do a good job of reminding my wonderful readers about certain plot points, you will miss a lot if you don’t know the backstory of the Travellers and the curse that’s been placed upon them. All my books are only $4.99 in kindle, so you won’t break the bank.

In celebration of this book, which was a bit of a bear to write, I’ve put “The Twins of Darkwood” on sale for .99 cents for the first five days of publication.

I also added a fun bit in this book as an homage to the book series that began my love of fantasy. I specifically placed two references to “The Lord of the Rings” in the book. If you find them, email me at my author address: staceyuptonbracey@eatwriteplay.com I’ll have a little gift for you until supplies run out.

I mentioned this one was a bit of a struggle to write. Not particularly with content, but I was interrupted a lot (by choice) directing back-to-back plays, new play rewrites, and a bit of teaching. I’ve discovered I cannot serve two creative masters. If you’re in my cast, or in my class, you’re getting 100% of me. Same goes for writing when I’m in that groove. I try to put the very best of myself into my books. Starcrossed is also longer than the previous books, coming in at about 109K words as opposed to about 75-80k words (words are writer talk, I know… in pages, 1k words = 4 pages of book.) At the end of my process to get it done on time and out to my Beta readers for their always insightful notes, I was averaging 8k words a day, or 32 pages of book per day, and then still doing the rest of my life. It was a lot. But as I said, I am super happy with the result. My Beta readers said things like, “I couldn’t put it down,” and “Best one yet!” Makes my heart happy. I promise I am a good writer, so if you haven’t ventured into the Darkwood, give “The Traveller’s Tale” a try.

I started book 5 this week. The main part of this series will have been completed and published in 15 months, from the first “what if” to the finish. Five full books and a 30k novella. Not bad for my first foray into series writing.

Book 5 will be my most intensive (by far) for research, as a chunk of it takes place on a medieval Caravel, which was a marvel of a ship created by the Portuguese in 1450, just in time for my novel. It was fast, could tack against the wind, and allowed the Spice Trade to flourish.

I know nothing about ships or sailing (although I watched the entirety of “Black Sails,” which I wholeheartedly recommend.) You just need to get through the gratuitous smut of the first few episodes and let the characters settle. I might watch it again. It takes place a little later than my books, but the basic sailing things are there. Avast mates!

I started writing book five three days ago. Here is a partial list of my look-up history:

Saint who walled herself in on purpose (an anchorite)

Vlad the Impaler

How did letters travel without messengers?

Were messenger birds used in Medieval Times (sources say mostly yes)

Can ships carry a trebuchet (which is by far my favorite Medieval weapon)

Carrack Ships (too big, I went with the smaller Caravel)

Where did sailors sleep on the ship?

How did caravels steer (hint, not a wheel)

Best dates to curse someone

Poisons made from natural things

Can drinking blood prolong life (jury is out)

Various iterations of “Beauty and the Beast” (the retelling I am using for this book)

Medieval healing and surgery

What do nuns eat in Medieval times (mostly vegetarian)

Could Medieval nuns marry (yes)

Legends of the Three Fates

Legends of Sirens and Mermaids

What was Chania harbor like in medieval times

The Spice Route–Land and Sea

As you can tell, lots of exciting things to write about in this next one. It’s mostly outlined, as I’ve known for quite some time where this one was headed and how things end up. For my loose ends, I have 2-3 more novellas I’ll pack into a single collection of a book, and then a duology with my wonderful characters Aisha and Malik in the spring of next year.

So, come on and visit the Darkwood with me. You’ll be glad you did! You can find all the books on Amazon, in both paperback and ebook, and I am in KU as well. Go here to check out the 5-star series–> https://www.amazon.com/Stacey-Upton-Bracey/e/B07NZDGRPJ

On Drive-Thru Carwashes and Completion Blues

White soap suds streaming down the side of the windows, preventing any view of the outside world. The sinister slap of long cloths sliding over the hood of the car like a giant squid trying to devour it. Brushes attacking the sides of the car. Jets of water streaming all around, your car turned into a submersible. Gusts of air blasting down onto your vehicle, and then finally, daylight ahead.

Ah, the drive-thru car wash.

While it is fun being driven through a car wash as a passenger, I discovered this week that it’s like a visit to the tower of terror when I’m the one trying to line up my car wheels with the track that will pull me through. Sullen men wave you forward (honestly, I don’t blame them, it looks like a steamy, horrible job) and then their hand flies up for you to stop. Then you have to put your car in neutral.

I didn’t know how to get to neutral right away, so I nearly killed the guy guiding me in. I completely deserved the nasty look he gave me. Then, at the end of it, I wasn’t sure when to put the car in drive again, so the car tracking behind me came perilously close to ripping off the back bumper of my car.

Is a clean car really worth all the aggravation?

I used to enjoy going to the car dealership (Sewell in Dallas) where they offer free car washes for as long as you own a car purchased from them. They have a nice waiting area with one of those coffee machines that can produce hot chocolate as well, and if you time it right, fresh cookies. I got out of the habit during Covid lockdown, and it’s a bit of a drive.

So I gird my courage to the sticking point* and brave the dreaded drive-thru thing, instead. It’s a part of adulting I could do without.

In other news, after four 12-hour days in a row of final edits, I finished the 4th book in my “Tales of Darkwood” dark fantasy/twisted fairy tale series yesterday, on schedule thank you very much, and passed it off to my wonderful proofreader. It’s a chonky book, clocking in at 109,000 words, give or take. My other books have been around 80,000. These characters (it’s a spin on Rapunzel) had a lot to say. I am happy with the book, and love my cover. It’s taken a lot longer to write this one than the others in the series, as I directed two plays, resumed my role as a theatre critic, saw Mom and Dad through a long hospital stay, and published a fun little Mermaid Paranormal Romance short as well as did a polish on my play during the space of writing it. So instead of my normal two to three month writing process, this one took me four and a half months. That’s a long time to be immersed in another world, even one as interesting as 1450s Stuttgart, Germany, where magic still floats on the edge of reality.

Rather than elation at completing another book, which you’d expect, I felt glum. I missed my quirky, difficult characters this morning. I’d planned to start straightaway on book 5 today.. instead, I walked around the mall for exercise and people watching (too hot for a long walk outside), talked to friends, checked in on others, and ate a giant bowl of popcorn while watching a silly movie. That sent me into a carb coma, from which I awoke on the couch two hours later, with the movie long finished, with creases on the side of my face.

It’s my form of going on a bender, I suppose. It might have been self-care, but my choice of food was a little… not in the self-care category. The popcorn was loaded with salt, paprika, and parmesan cheese.

Not so bad, all told, I suppose. Right?

I’ll start the next book tomorrow. Lord knows what carb-laden mourning I’ll do when I finish that one, which should wrap up the entire series. Pasta Carbonara, perhaps, with a side of fresh Italian bread, slathered in butter… well, now that I’m writing that down, it sounds pretty good. Motivating, even.

What is your go-to when you need a break from your work?

*bonus points for anyone who knows what this quote is from.

On Rebuilding and Writing a Book

The five-year anniversary of The Fire passed without much comment a few days ago. If FB hadn’t reminded me with its “on this day” feature, I would have missed it. That’s a good sign. Five years removed from the blaze that ate everything we owned, we’re still standing. Still moving forward. Resilient.

I don’t wish the dire crucible that creates resilience on anyone. But if you are experiencing one—and they can take so many different forms—I can stand as your hope that someday, your upending won’t be all-consuming. That you’ll be defined in different terms other than the daily effort of putting one foot in front of the other on the climb out of disaster.

It seems impossible that five years have passed. The first was a blur as we navigated the changes that encompassed internal feelings, our faith, and general replacing of stuff. The kindness and generosity of friends and family got us through that. You know who you are. Utter strangers stepped in to help in that first year too, even if it was simply sitting us down in the employee lounge with a cup of coffee when we were in the midst of overwhelm.

It restored my faith in humanity. And I started writing. Perhaps first out of a weird survivor’s guilt, that since being saved from death, I needed to make something of my life. Thus compelled, I challenged myself by writing a book, something that utterly terrified me. That’s how “On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything” came to be.

It was well-received, and I’ve gotten messages that it’s helped folks through their own crises. That feels good. You can order it here: https://www.amazon.com/Rescue-Dogs-Losing-Everything-Uncovering-ebook/dp/B07P1GHW7L

I got to donate a bunch of money to animal rescues and shelters from the proceeds too. That’s ongoing, by the way. The cool thing about writing a book—and the disturbing part of it, too—is that once it’s written, its out there. No turning back.

This past May, I reached a point where I wanted to try on a new career as an author/publisher. Evidentially terrifying myself by doing new things has become a habit. I took a class in YA (Young Adult) writing. Being an inveterate rule-follower, I always feel better after I’ve taken a class in something. Legitimized.

I wrote a YA dark fantasy book, which is my personal reading jam. Other people whose jam is also dark fantasy liked it. So I wrote another in the same world. Then a prequel novella to use as a free book for folks who either read my book or joined my author newsletter that goes out monthly. I’m finishing up the third in the Darkwood series this week. There are at least two more books to go that I’ll finish this year.

Some days it’s torture, but most of the time I love my new job.

 Being an Indy writer/publisher stretched me and continues to do so. I joined groups to help me wrap my head around the craft of putting little black words on white pieces of paper while also doing the jobs of a publisher and publicity person. Actual creation of new words takes about three hours daily to hit my sweet spot of 2,000 good words—that’s about eight pages of book. I write a book in a couple months, with another month for making it better and, you know, grammatically correct with the commas in all the right places. I spend two hours a day learning to get better at the skills I need to be successful. Such as Ads on Amazon and FB. Oy. My head may explode. Implementing the marketing and publicity takes another two or three hours daily. It’s not a little part-time hobby.

For those of you who think that self-publishing is a “lesser” route than going for traditionally published books by one of the big five publishing houses, I hear you. I was secretly in that camp myself until last May. While there are some absolutely terrible self-published books, there are also millions that are great. There are good reasons to self-publish. The income is better, by a lot. You control the look of the book, from the cover to the interior formatting and front and back matter. Getting your book in the hands of readers is in your control.

Traditionally published books (if they take your book, which is a long shot) take between 2-4 years to be published. And they dole the advances out over that time. Can’t feed your family on a $5,000 advance stretched out over 2-4 years. And at the end of all of that, the author is still doing most of the marketing and publicity work themselves unless they are a “biggie” like a John Grisham or a Steven King. There are new folks that make it work, which is fantastic. I’m a voracious reader, and the more books I have to choose from, the happier I am.

Resuming this weekly blog is part of my renewed determination to make a real go of this writing thing. I want it to be the career that gives back to the world. That sounds grandiose, but this is what I know for sure: Books saved my life as a lonely child, and sinking into a good book remains a refuge for me on tough days, or when the world becomes too loud. I’ve got to believe I’m not alone.

My goal is to write forty to sixty excellent books in this next decade.

That’s a solid bookshelf. I’m seeing it in my head right now. The next book in the Darkwood series comes out Thursday March 10th. It’s the 2nd in the Darkwood series but can be read on its own with no issues. You can read it for free on KU, or order it from Amazon in paperback or eBook here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09NH45625

So, that’s what The Fire sparked, five years ago. Those themes we see in fiction, of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, or in nature when new growth springs out of a terrible forest fire… they can be real in your life too.

Take a look at my author page. Come join me on the journey. I’d love to have you along.

Just click this https://www.subscribepage.com/m2f4a3 or scan the code below for access to my author page and get the free book that comes with it.