Thursday, March 29, 2007


'Twas a dark a stormy night--that's really the way it is in Texas tonight. Last night there were severe tornados to the north and west of us, and tonight we're under flash flood and thunderstorm alerts--"some may be severe" they say. That does a lot of things to your psyche. For a couple of days I've not been as upbeat and happy as I usually like to think I am, and I remember a psychiatrist whose wife said when barometric pressure fell their phone rang off the wall.
But I am also reminded of my friend Charles, 90 years old, who announced the other day that he had changed his attitude. I asked how he'd done that, and he said he'd had a talk with himself. I said I often had talks with myself and they were usually neither as effective or quick acting as his seemed to be. His reply? "I had a very intelligent listener." Today I'm wondering if my listener is not as intelligent!
Storms really bring two complications to my life: Scooby, my dog, and my computer. Scooby is terrified of storms. When I got him, an abused dog from the Humane Society, he literally went ballistic during storms. The first storm after I had him he hid under my desk and pawed at my legs until I had bruises. He's gotten better over the years (four now) and I think it's because he feels more secure. But he's really unhappy tonight, even bolted inside when I put his food outside--and he never overlooks food! Just now I explained he had to go potty before he came in for the night, but he went reluctantly--and only because I put a leash on him.
And then there's the computer. I'm terrified of losing it--partly because of the information stored on it and partly because it's such an integral part of my routine. I sit at my desk and work in the evenings, and I always have one ear listening for new emails. Without a computer, my days would be empty. I view that as sort of a deficiency confession and wonder if I should give up the computer for a week, as some people give up TV. I'm not ready for that, though, so I unplug and disconnect it every time I hear near thunder--I dismiss distant thunder--and then hook it all up again. A royal pain! But tonight I've gotten lots done--several writing projects--and I'll turn it off before I go to bed. And of couse I'll let poor Scooby in so he can sleep next to my bed.
So far we've had gentle rains, really good for gardens. But I keep moving some potted plants under cover that I think might suffer if we got a heavy rain--always a threat. So my pencil tree, cilantro, and new pot of chives are under the porch roof. My old pot of chives that comes up remarkably year after year is so hardy I never worry about it.
Tomorrow I must take my car in to see why the brakes groan when I back out of the driveway and then never make another noise all day. Nuisance, nuisance, nuisance.
I would say my outlook is not positive tonight, but it will be better tomorrow--even though storms are expected.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A powerful book

Reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time is like reading Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee--you keep waiting for the story with a happy ending, but it only gets worse and worse. I thought I knew about the Dust Storms--but my idea was simplistic. I had no idea about the wheat boom that preceded the storms, a boom that caused farmers, some of the suitcase type, to plow up the prairies to plant more and more wheat. When a wheat surplus caused them to stop planting, land lay exposed--and blew away with the winds of a great drought. I didn't know either about the dust pneumonia that killed so many people--and especially children. Dead cows, butchered, were found to have starved to death because their stomachs were full of dirt and couldn't process food. And the story got more and more grim for several years--yes, it finally got better, the storms abated, but the scars remain to this day. And whole towns disappeared, never to rise again. Timothy Egan focuses on a few towns, a few famlies to make the story come alive--and it really does. This is gripping reading, and I recommend it to everyone who lives in the West.
The book also speaks to the current concern for what man is doing to the environment. The Dust Bowl was man-made, proof that man's actions do indeed impact the universe. We ought to take it as a cautionary tale today--that global warming has happened before doesn't mean we can ignore it and go our merry way burning petroleum and increasing hothouse gases. I love the comment by one Congressman (whose name unfortunately I can't remember) that being a conservative doesn't mean you have to appear to be an idiot.
Now, I'm going from one happy note--the Dust Bowl--to another, reading more of The Omnivore's Dilemma which sent me to the range-fed livestock ranch. So far, the taste test isn't proving that a success, but I'll read what the book has to say about "organic" vegetables.
There is really a happier note--beside the fact that it's raining in Texas, at least my part--and that's that Jacob brought his mother for supper last night. At slightly over nine months, he's standing for a few seconds without holding on to anything and walking a good distance if you hold both his hands. He'll be running around before we know it. He is, as always, extraordinarily happy and cheerful. Now he has a new trick that drives his mom wild--he refuses to lie still while his diaper is changed, but twists and turns--and he's strong enough that it's a problem
Jordan and I began to plan a busy spring--Easter and then Jacob's dedicaton at the church on Mother's Day (followed by a luncheon at my house for all involved). And we even began to think about Christmas. Yeah, I plan ahead.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Of writers and agents--and spring

I sat on the porch tonight for a while, sipping a glass of wine and reading more of The Worst Hard Time. As one who writes a lot about the American West, I thought I knew the story of the Dust Bowl--but Tim Egan is opening my eyes to new facets of it. It's lovely to sit on the porch--the trees are about halfway green--some down the street seem filled out but the huge elm in front of my house still only has sparse leaves. It's an old tree, and periodically branches fall from it--mostly every time I leave town! I call the city, because it's in that easement between sidewalk and street, and I want to avoid huge tree trimming costs. But I always worry they'll just come and cut it down. The oak on the side of the front yard doesn't shed its old leaves until spring, but it has gotten rid of them now and sports new bright green leaves. And the redbud I planted two years ago has a few more blossoms this year, though they're already fading now. A bird--some kind of thrush I think, though I am not a "birder"--perched on one of my youpons, returning my look for a long time. Then, suddenly, he took off for the crape myrtles, which of course have not a leaf on them yet. It's fun, too, to watch the people who go by, most with dogs. One man came by tonight with a medium-sized black dog--the man walked with a funny forward lean, and I wondered if that was because of the dog on the leash. Would he stand more erect if he didn't have the dog or was he forever bent forward?
Someone once said to me that a relationship with a literary agent is worse than a marriage--and I believe it. My first agent was the man who first convinced me to write juvenile nonfiction about the West and whether he knew it or not launched me on a career that has given me "walking around" money over the years. He died before he should have, of cancer, and his wife took over--she oversaw the publication of my adult fiction but always said that she wasn't able to advance my career as much as she wanted. Then in the late '90s, she too died of cancer. Since then, I've danced with a lot of agents but married none of them. I am tired unto death of hearing them say that I write so well that they wish they could sell what I write. Which brings me to the mystery. I sent three chapters to an agent, a man I consider a colleague, maybe a friend, someone I respect as a good businessman. After long silence, he wrote that he had read it and worried over it, and his conclusion was that he liked it but didn't love it. It was too "genteel" for him. We mutually decided in emails that he wants hard-boiled, not an American cozy. I think I knew all along that the manuscript was wrong for him, but he was close and an easy contact for me.
I'm disappointed but not discouraged. I have a couple of acquaintances who write cozies, and I've written them to inquire about their agents. I'm moving on, determined to see Dead Space in print.
Tomorrow I'm going on a jaunt with my neighbor to a town about 30 miles away where a ranch has a butcher shop--boucherie, they call it--and sells grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, and poultry--no antibiotics, no hormones, and no crowded stinky feedlot. Plus eggs and cheese. Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma has made an impresson on me. One theory that made a lot of sense--cattle are the most efficient natural machines on the pasture. They were meant to eat the grass and fertilize it. They were not meant to eat grain (most cattle that are slaughtered from feedlots have diseased livers) and accumlulate huge piles of manure that we don't know what to do with. Once again, we've gotten the environment all wrong in the name of the dollar. Another thing I read--range-fed chicken is amisnomer. The chickens aren't allowed outside for the first few weeks, because they might "catch" something (or something catch them?)--then when the door is opened, they may be too timid to go. Even if they do, they are slaughtered a bare three or four weeks later. Michael Pollan, the author, is right--we can do a lot better with our food supply chain.
And I haven't even gotten to the vegetable meal yet, but Melanie tells me that the pesticides used to grow corn are polluting the surface water supply. Al Gore's "truth" is indeed inconvenient--but scary.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


One of the perks of being a press director, even at a very small academic press, is that you occasionally rub shoulders with really well known authors. No, I'm not about to give you a list of "Guess who I met in the elevator"--I knew a man who did that--but I will say that some are either full of themselves or oblivious. I've met one of the best known authors of Texas about ten times, and it's a new experience every time--he seems to look slightly over your left shoulder when you're introduced--but if I write him, he knows on paper who I am. But others, like John Graves, Larry L. King, and Elmer Kelton, are wonderful, warm and friendly. Now, I've talked to--and will meet--another friendly author. On the phone Timothy Egan was open, enthusiastic, humorous and sincere in turns, and very friendly. He doesn't brag about the fact that he's won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, an Oklahoma Book Award, and a Western Heritage (Wrangler) Award from the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame.
Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Time, which has also won the TCU Texas Book Award, to be presented on April 17 at a banquet. The book is a gripping tale of the people who stayed on the land during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. John Steinbeck made famous those who left--the "exodusters"--in The Grapes of Wrath, but Egan has gone back and talked to people who stayed--in West Texas and the Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle, eastern Colorado, and most of Kansas. These people are aging now, and Egan has done history a mighty work by capturing their stories while they're here to tell them. The result is a gripping book that you simply can't put down. I can't recommend it too highly--and I'm really looking forward to meeting Timothy Egan when he comes to Fort Worth. To give you an example of how unpretentious he is, when he returned my call, he said, "Hi, this is Timmy." Floored me for a minute--I couldn't think of who was calling me.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


This has been a family weekend--wonderful and tiring. I spent Saturday morning shopping and grabbed a quick, early nap before the Frisco Alters arrived. The minute they arrived the girls hooked up with the kids next door--Alex, 10 (to Maddie's 7) and Hunter, 7 (to Edie's 4)--they all seemed compatible and were in and out of both houses all weekend long. Saturday evening about seven I called the girls home for dinner and to say goodnight to their parents who were going out for a "date." We had hot dogs and beans and mac 'n cheese--oh, and pickles. Can't forget those because the girls love briney things like pickles and capers. We ate on the front porch, and then just sort of idled away the evening. Maddie got herself all ready for bed, announcing that 8:00 was their bedtime; Eden announced she was not going to bed until Mommy came home. So I put her on Mommy's bed with her toys, and Maddie went off to sleep--that lasted for ten minutes, and then Maddie announced she couldn't sleep. We had a series of episodes--a huge water spill, some roughhousing and a couple of battles, a near cat fight (fortunately the girls were at the other end of the house when the cat went into his rage). And I had to lay down some rules: dogs do not get on the bed in my house, and no inside volleyball practice is allowed. They were still up when their parents came home at almost eleven, but everyone slept late this morning.
We had a late breakfast--okay it was lunch, because Jamie had to bike and run, but we went to the Ol' South Pancake House, a Fort Worth institution. Then we went shopping, and I got a printer (I haven't had one in my office for space reasons but Jamie fixed that) and a new cordless phone. Jamie installed everything. Having a printer in my home office is a delight--I was going to the office on Saturday mornings just to print off emails and the office, when you're by yourself with no one around on the streets, is spooky. The new phone wasn't working well tonight, but I'm too tired to worry about it. I'll work with it tomorrow.
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting ready for Jordan's b'day taco buffet--by about 4:45 I announced that my back hurt, and I needed a glass of wine on the porch. People began to drift in, and we had a jolly evening. I had ordered taco meat from a great restaurant near us, intead of using those packages of seasoning mix (the difference is remarkable) and I offered garnishes of feta and cilantro and corn in addition to the usual. Everyone--sixteen people including the four kids--ate heartily, and most of us downed not one but two of the chocolate chunk brownies Jordan requested.
And then, Jamie, bless him, cleaned the kitchen. I kept telling him to leave it, it wasn't much, I could do it, and he needed to get his girls home because tomorrow is the first day of school after spring break. But he did it all--and truth be told, I was still tired, and I was more grateful than I can say. After everyone left I spent 15, maybe 20 minutes in the kitchen, not an hour. A hot shower, a quiet time at my desk, and I'm ready for bed, with wonderful memories to relive.
I have to attach to this a picture that Lisa sent me--it has nothing to do with me, my weekend, writing, any of the things I usually write about, but I thought she was so right on when she said, "Only in Texas"! These horses are tethered outside a Starbucks, presumably in Kingwood,, the Houston suburb where Colin and Lisa now live.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More on the food we eat

Caryl Elzinga left a comment on my last blog--for those of you who don't read comments--on the food supply chain, principally what happens to beef before it makes it to market. She didn't say where she is, and my attempt to post a return blog and to return her email were unsuccessful, but I did look her up on the web. She and her husband run Alderspring Ranch in Idaho, and they ship grass-fed meat and poultry across the country. (Living in Idaho where population is sparse, they can't afford Joel Salatin's luxury of refusing to ship meat.) But Caryl told me about two websites that will lead you to fresh, organic meat and produce wherever you live. They are and At eatwild, I found there is a supplier of grass-fed beef about forty miles from here--with a ten-pound minimum, they'll deliver (I'm thinking of collaborating with my neighbor). They have beef, lamb, pork, and poultry. I had less success with localharvest, only coming up with one farm in Texas--does that say something about Texas? I know we have a Farmer's Market in Fort Worth, but that may be a guarantee of freshness but not of lack of pesticides, etc. I intend to ask some questions next time I'm at Central Market--they sell organic California produce but it is three or four times the cost of regular California produce. But I'm still cogitating on all this.
Meantime, last night I went out and ate Mexican food with Jordan, Jacob, and Christian's sister, Julie. Now you know none of that is organic, and the beans reek from lard--but they are so good! And today I'm thinking, "Hmmmm--St. Patrick's Day. Corned beef and colcannon." So even though we may have pure thoughts, we don't always act on them--at least I don't.
St. Patrick's Day is Jordan's b'day, and she's asked for tacos on the porch Sunday night--her b'day request since she was four or five. This year, I'm through with those little packets of seasoning--there's a local restaurant that serves the best tacos I've ever had, garnished with really fresh greens and tomatoes, feta cheese (yep, none of that pre-packaged cheddar) and cilantro. So I called to order meat, explaining that I didn't want their tacos because they'd be stale by the time I served them. The manager understood, and when I said, "But your meat is so much better than those seasoning packets," he almost snapped, "Of course it is!" We're getting meat from Fuzzy's, and I'm serving feta, though Jordan says I have to have cheddar for traditionalists (this is always a make-your-own taco buffet). I suggested tonight that corn might be a good addition--I'd read that somewhere--and at first she was horrified, but then she said, "Yeah, try it." A local wonderful country Italian restaurant here, Nonna Tata, puts corn kernels in their green salad, and it's terrific--if a bit hard to eat. When I first mentioned corn, Jordan said, "Cooked?" I didn't tell her what a raw kernel of corn would be like!
Jordan got a splendiferous birthday present from Christian--a new Toyota Forerunner. She insisted on black (though I objected it shows dirt and is hot in the Texas summer). She said she'd always wanted black--and she has wanted a Forerunner since she first learned to drive. She's one happy camper tonight, and I'm happy for them.

Monday, March 12, 2007

New thoughts about what we eat

My neighbor Sue talks--a lot!--about a book that she said was life-changing. It changed the way she thinks about the food she puts in her body and in her children's bodies. Even listening to her, without reading the book, I decided I was eating too much red meat. I emailed the title to Melanie, because I know she's interested in such things, and she quickly wrote back that she owned the book. So the last time I was in Frisco I borrowed it. But it's languished on my desk--well, I had a Dick Francis and a J. A. Jance to read--but I had delved into a bit of it, and tonight I got farther into it, though I surely haven't come to grips with all of it. It's The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
After you read this book, if you do, you may want to swear off red meat--my neighbor, Jay, knowing nothing about the book, said he's given up red meat for Lent and hasn't missed it at all. But the book details what happens to a beef and what goes into its body in that short trip from pasture to feedlot to slaughterhouse. And it isn't pretty. I can't even begin to simplify it, but cattle are fed corn instead of grass--their natural food--so that they gain weight much faster than nature intended them to. And that causes all kinds of health problems--well over half the cattle slaughtered have diseased livers. Some die in the feed lot; all are fed antibiotics. The tale goes on and on.
Even organic doesn't really protect you, because there's now "industrial organic" as opposed to "agribusiness." Okay, "industrial organic" is better, but it's sure far from the practices of Joel Salatin, a self-described "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer" in Virginia who raises cattle, poultry, swine, rabbits, and turkey, and won't even ship his produce because to do so would be not serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism. He rotates his pastures--when the cattle move off, the chickens move in. Want his meat? You'll have to go to his Poky Place Farm to get it.
Pollan raises the whole issue of the misleading terms of organic and free range that lull many of us into thinking we're eating healthy. Know what free range chicken means? There's a door from the chickens' cage out onto the grass, but they're not allowed out there for a few weeks because they might catch something. When the door is opened, probably few venture out. And at the most a month later, they're slaughtered. Free range isn't what you and I thought.
OK. I'm not doing a good job of conveying the very complex material that Michael Pollan deals with. But he does a good job of it, in a readable manner, and I'm watching my diet from now on. Read the book!
And me? I want to go visit Joel Salatin.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Whoosh, what a day!

I decided tonight blogging is a great thing when you live alone--since you don't have someone to talk about your day with (okay, I could call my kids, but . . . ) you can blog. I remember the night after Jordan's wedding--we'd had four days of extended family (including the New York Alters whom we all love), wonderful fun and fellowship. The morning after the wedding I served breakfast to about twenty people (not the bride and groom!) and then, suddenly, everyone was gone. I wasn't blogging then, so didn't have that, but I told my friend Jeannie the next day that it was one of the few times I wished I was married, because I wanted someone to relive it all with. She, happily married, said, "You could have called me. It would have been easier than having a man around!"
Today is another such day though far less momentous than Jordan's wedding. But I got so much done that I feel so good about that I want to tell someone. Went to the grocery store and then the nursery--only going to buy cyclamen and fountain grass, I told myself. Too early for herbs--but the fountain grass isn't in yet, and there was a lovely array of herbs. So I came home with bright red cyclamen (it looks great in the planter boxes on either side of my front steps that my brother made for me), cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, and sage. Didn't buy oregano, thyme or chives, because those wintered over. Planted the new stuff, trimmed back the old, and scrubbed the winter dirt off the front porch--even washed a cushion cover and then struggled the cushion back into it. Of course tonight they're saying severe storms, so I had to put all the delicate new plants under the roofed part of the porch.
Then I came inside and worked on the chicken/tomatillo enchilada casserole I'll serve to guests tomorrow night, made a fruit salad for that meal, and cooked myself a "faux gourmet" meal--sauteed chicken breast with a sauce of chicken broth (I always buy the free range organic in a box, rarely use cubes anymore), red wine, and goat cheese. I had bought some baby beets with wonderful fresh greens attached, so I roasted the beets and cooked the greens. Megan keeps telling me that the way to avoid senility (do you suppose she's already worried?) is to eat dark, leafy greens. I love spinach, but I don't much like turnip greens or collards. Beet greens are good though. My mom used to serve them with vinegar, and as a child Jamie always ate them that way. I fixed them for him a few years ago, and he said, "I don't much like beets, Mom." How they change!
Did a little bit of writing on the Texas women this afternoon--Emily Morgan, the "Yellow Rose of Texas"--that story is a wonderful example of how Texans twist the truth the make a better story. The myth about her distracting Santa Anna at San Jacinto is just that--myth. But you'll have to read the book to find out the truth (or google her). Think next I'll do Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll, the two women who saved the Alamo and ended up at real odds over it. But tonight I have a new J. A. Jance novel, and I intend to spend the evening with it.
It's the night before the new, early daylight savings change--can't decide if I want to go to bed an hour earlier, sleep an hour later--or maybe both. I can tell it's spring because in the morning my nose is so stuffy I have to get up, even if I could sleep late!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

An early Spring

It's spring in Texas, which is one of our best times--only it's early. I always heard that March 15 was the date at which you could feel comfortable that there would be no more freezes. But here it is, March 8, and the Bradford pears and redbud are in gorgeous bloom, ground plants are sprouting up with new green growth, and my chives have sprung up again--they're amazing. I planted them years ago, and every year I cut them back and they grow again. I need to cut the rest of the remaining herbs--oregano and thyme--back, and maybe the sage, which has grown so leggy that I'm thinking of starting over again. Maybe if I cut it way back . . . . Friends are coming for dinner Sunday night and one said, "Oh, good, maybe it's front porch weather!" (which means I'd have to scrub all the furniture) but in truth it's to be cooler and rainy on Sunday. We'll see. But I think this weekend I'll buy fountain grass for a big pot in the corner of the porch and cyclamen for my planter boxes--too early for basil and parsley and cilantro. That freeze--or even a severe cold snap--might still come. Meantime, it's lovely to see the trees in bloom. And I'm sneezing all the time and waking up at 5 in the morning because my nose is so stuffy! But still, I love it that it turns light shortly after I get up at 6 a.m.--while I'm exercising I get to watch the sky turn purple and red and gold (that will end this weekend when early daylight savings kicks in) and I wake up in a more optimistic mood than I have for a while. Yeah, spring is great!
In the library the other day, among the current best-sellers offerings--a great addition to the coffee bar area--I found a new Dick Francis novel (Under Orders) with a 2006 copyright. I quit buying Dick Francis titles partly because I would buy them, get them home, and find I'd already read them and partly because I thought he quit writing after the death of his wife, who was almost a full partner in his writing. But here's Sid Halley, back in a new hair-raising horse-racing adventure. And I'm useless for anything else, because I'm reading the novel all the time. Need to finish it and move on with my life--but I also found a 2007 J. A. Jance novel, so I may be a vegetable for a long time to come. The book on Texas women languishes, though I've made a good start on it.
I had supper tonight with longtime friends at a small--literally, five tables inside, maybe three outside--country Italian restaurant. The "she" part of the couple I dined with was a student worker in my office I hate to thinkk how many years ago--and she probably does too. But even then she was a non-traditional or older student. She was a great worker, and she's gone on to a career in publishing and to a great community service record, and she makes me so proud I could bust. And I now love her husband as I do her, so it was good to visit with them--we don't do it often enough. I had pasta puttenesca that was great and chocolate mousse I couldn't finish, and they sent me home with some kind of pastry with a chocolate hazelnut filling--all in the fridge for another night.
I'm a happy camper.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cookbooks and memories

I guess I haven't posted a blog in a while--I had a devil of a time getting the user name and password right!
I had a great bit of news this week--my cookbook memoir, mentioned much earlier on this blog, will be published by State House Press, publisher of the line of children's biographies of Texans that I do. The cookbook has a long history--I started to write it with a friend, but she bowed out and told me I had enough to write on my own, which I found I did. (You'll have to buy the book to read the really funny story behind our collaboration and how it fell apart--we are still friends though!) I decided my life fell into four "cooking" periods: the very British meat-and-potatoes house in which I grew up; the two new cuisines I encountered when I married a Jewish man and moved to Texas; the "casserole years" of being a single parent; and the current stage of my life when I count cooking as my hobby and enjoy fixing semi-gourmet meals for friends and family. In fact, that's the title of the book: The Faux Gourmet. Writing it was pure fun, for I found memories tumbled one after another as I wrote. My kids contributed with, "Remember when you used to fix . . . ." But the manuscript languished for way too long in the hands of a prospective publisher--that little episode was the subject of a blog which earned me a lengthy rebuke from the publisher involved and made me think of Dorothy Parker's line: "If you be innocent, don't trouble to deny; But if you be guilty, then weep and wail and swear they lie."
Last fall I asked my editor at State House about it, and she said they would like to see it, had been wanting to do a cookbook. But, she cautioned, everything they do has to be historical because they are supported by a historical non-profit foundation. I assured her I'm old enough that my memories and recipes are historical.
The Faux Gourmet probably won't be published until the Spring of 2009, which leaves me lots of time to add the new recipes I've discovered since I first wrote it, like the chicken/tomatillo enchiladas that I'm itching to make. And it gives me another project in the works, always a welcome thing. And I'm collecting pictures for it--I have cute pictures of my children, very young, intently bent over the kitchen table making cookies. And now pictures of the grandchildren, like Morgan stirring a bowl of what looks like cake or cookie batter--she also has it all over her face.
Meantime, I'm busy working on that"small" book about Texas women, trying to highlight some of the lesser knowns. Who knows who Pamelia Mann was and what she did? Betty Graham? Texas has nourished a lot of strong women who dared to live beyond convention and generally, we've been good about honoring them.
Had a delightful weekend going with Jordan, Christian and Jacob to the second annual Chinese New Year's Party at Jamie and Mel's. Jamie brings decorations from Hong Kong, orders food from P.F.Chang's, and invites the neighborhood, including about fifty kids of all ages. It was fun but poor Jacob was a bit overwhelmed by all the people and noise. Jamie sent new pictures to my computer-driven rotating picture display but I can't display them on my blog. But here are new pictures of Sawyer and Ford, Morgan after a trip to the zoo, and Jacob with his oldest girl cousins, who certainly did love on him.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Writing mysteries

I spent a day and a half in Dallas for my brother's surgery and then to visit with Jamie and his family, which was delightful. And I spent a good deal of that time reading the mystery I'd started earlier. Now, tonight, at home, I've finished it, and I have more thoughts on mysteries. As I mentioned, this was a "hard" mystery as opposed to the "cozies" that I usually read and want to write. Lots of blood, gore, violent and imaginatively horrible deaths--people who kill without remorse. As I read, I kept wondering how the author could spin it out long enough to make it a good length--75,000 words an agent tells me. Well, she did it by one over-the-top incident after another, until I wanted to cry out for it to end. There were few subplots--just one, and when the main villain was finally killed in a bloody, fiery scene by the amazingly strong but untrained heroine, the book didn't end as it should have. It went on to have the guy from the subplot turn into a psychopath and try to kill her. It was too much. It stretched credibility. I want my mysteries to be stories that really could happen to ordinary people, not this fantastic combination of coincidence, violence, and sick if clever minds--plus an ordinary heroine who suddenly turns into a sort of gun-toting superwoman. When I started my mystery (so far no reaction from the agent) I wondered how I would spin it out to the required length. As it happened, it just worked, with subplots, more characters than I expected, and so on. But I don't think it was contrived--and that's my problem with the book I just finished. I am somehow reminded of the late Dorothy Johnson (author of "The Man Called Horse" for those that are old enough to remember that movie). She once wrote me, while she was working on a novel about New York City during WWII called The Unbombed (because they were always prepared for a bombing raid that never came) that she'd just found out that the man she thought was going to be the central figure of her story was instead going to be killed. Dorothy listened to her muse, and her muse talked to her as she wrote. I think that's a sign of good writing--your book changes and grows as you develop it, and you find yourself following paths you never intended. Your characters tell you where your novel is going. And that, maybe, lessens the dependence on coincidence and violence.
Meantime, here I am in need of a new project. Well, I have one--a small book on Texas women--but I haven't quite wrapped my mind about how to get into it, except to say that we all know the strong Texas women of contemporary times--Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson--but there are a lot of Texas women of history that we don't know much about. I know one day, suddenly, it will hit me, and I will dig into it.
Another meantime, and this a cooking note: I've been trying really hard to like Brussel sprouts. I remember my mom cooked them, and I think I did when the children were young because we used to call them "Russell" sprouts after my nephew. Twice I've tried a recipe that calls for them to be shredded, then roasted with olive oil and cheese. First I burned them to a fare-thee-well (it always made Russell laugh when I burned somethng to a fare-thee-well); then tonight I burned the outer ones, but the ones I rescued were too chewy. (I think maybe you aren't supposed to mix the cheese in before you roast them). They were a disappointment. I have found a recipe for cooking them with artichoke hearts, sour cream, and Parmesan that is really good. But I'm about to give up on Brussel sprouts--and they aren't cheap in the grocery either.