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Saturday, December 29, 2012

On the subject of food - Entertaining 80s style

It has been four days since Christmas Day and it seems like I am still cleaning up. Not that I grudge it. I adore Christmas and the opportunity to share the day with my family. This year was extra special because my eldest son announced his engagement on Christmas day...the best Christmas present we could have asked for.

With no extras living at home these days, it falls to DH and myself to work our way through the left overs. Turkey? Ham or...Turkey and Ham? There is cake, mince pies, shortbread biscuits. We could withstand a siege and none of this is doing my future "mother of the bridegroom" figure any good whatsoever.  

Christmas lunch is (generally) at our house. The baton was handed on from my mother many years ago. Everyone pitches in to help with the food...#2 son made the soup, my mother the trimmings for the pudding, #1 son contributed a side dish and my brother and family provide the "nibbles". The result is we all roll away from the table, which I love decorating. The silverware comes out and my best crockery and glasses.

The Christmas lunch table with Alison's nice things 
When it comes to  Christmas Day, I am reminded of a documentary on the Queen (of England). In preparation for the imminent visit of Someone Important, her Maj was throwing a little "Welcome to England" dinner. As she strolled the dining room where battalions of footmen in white gloves were painstakingly laying a table that resembled the landing deck of an aircraft carrier for a multi course dinner party, Her Maj remarked casually, "When one entertains, one does like to get one's nice things out." I feel like that about Christmas Day. It is the one day of the year when my "nice things" come out. Mercifully I do not have to contemplate a 10 course dinner for 50 people or I really would be still washing up.

The Queen's "nice things"

I inherited my dinner set off my grandmother. It came with 24 dinner plates. Obviously my grandmother used to entertain on a scale commensurate with Her Maj. Her many weddings contributed to my stock of "nice things".  A set of 12 fish knives and forks for example. Who uses fish knives and forks these days?

When I was a young bride (back in the 1980s), we entertained often and formally. Weddings in those days generally entailed a good haul of Cristal D'Arque glassware (none of it matching) and Strachan "silverware".  An obligatory fondue set was also de rigeur as a wedding present and I recall a couple of dinner parties which were entirely fondue...starting with the cheese entree, the meat main course and the chocolate dessert. The fondue set (mission brown pottery) still lives in a cupboard in the hope it will one day see a resurgence in fashion. And yes, the fish knives and forks would get the occasional airing.

The Women's Weekly produced two wonderful "Dinner Party" cook books (available on eBay for under $5). Not only were the dishes "doable" but they were set out in whole menus. As we all had the same set of books, our dinner parties had a certain sameness about them (Frozen Grapes featured at quite a few dinner parties).

We spent days in preparation for our dinner parties. Trips to the market were obligatory to  ensure we had just the right ingredients and cheeses (for afters). Dress was formal (in some cases with my former flat mates - black tie).  Guests were carefully selected for compatibility and interest. Seating plans were meticulously calculated and rigidly adhered to. No one seemed to be allergic to anything and the word "low fat" was not even considered ... gluten and butter and cream reigned supreme. A typical "menu" for 4 people from Dinner Party Cookbook #1:

  • Smoked Trout Pate
  • Steaks with Brandy Cream Sauce
  • Vegetable Platter (with buttered lemon sauce)
  • Minted Cucumber Salad
  • Cherry Rum Cake (topped with cream)

No one seems to give "dinner parties" any more. Are we all too busy? I rather miss those elegant, interesting evenings, planning the perfect menu, the trips to the market, the days of preparation, laying the perfect table and the endless cleaning up afterwards (well maybe I don't miss that bit).

Entertaining these days is so much more casual. We still have friends "over for tea" but the menu tends to be more quick and easy - pastas, curries and roasts, eaten off my every day crockery. In fact I love nothing more than a crowd of people around my table... a lasagna and a huge salad in the middle of the table. Everyone eating, talking and happy.

But at least I have Christmas and an opportunity to "get my nice things out"...

Do you have any memories of entertaining in days gone by?

Friday, December 21, 2012

A brush with history - MR. EVELYN'S ROMAN CHRISTMAS

In honour of the season, one of Ms. Stuart's historical stories from the seventeenth century - Diarist John Evelyn and a Roman Christmas.

While Samuel Pepys is well known to you for his diaries, the diarist  John Evelyn may be less familiar.  

John Evelyn's Diaries
Evelyn was born in 1620 and died in 1707. His diaries cover the great events of the period, such as the death of Cromwell, the Restoration, the Great Fire, the Monmouth Rebellion. It is no surprise that he and Pepys were great friends and references to Pepys frequently occur in his diaries.

Like Pepys his career took off following the Restoration and he was a founder member of the Royal Society.  During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, beginning 28 October 1664, Evelyn served as one of four Commissioners for taking Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen and for the Care and Treatment of Prisoners of WarHe had a great interest in horticulture and was a prolific writer on gardens and matters arboreal. His interest in urban design led him to submit plans for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire and interestingly he wrote the first known treatise on urban pollution:  Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated).

John Evelyn as a young man
As a young man, John Evelyn found himself embroiled in the English Civil War (1642-1648). He served for a short time in the Royalist Army but finding warfare not to his taste, he went abroad to avoid any further involvement. In Italy he studied anatomy and in 1644 visited the English College in Rome where priests were trained for service in England.  

On Christmas Eve 1644 he writes: 
            “...I went not to bed, by reason I was desirous to see the many extraordinary ceremonyes performed then in their Churches, as midnight  Masses and Sermons; so I did nothing all this night except go for church to church with admiration at the multitude of sceanes; and pageantry which the Friers had with all the industry and craft set out to catch the devout women and superstitious sort of people with, who never part with them without droping some money in a vessell set on purpose: But especially observable was the pupetry in the Church of the Minerva, representing the nativity etc.: Thence I went and heard a sermon at the Appolinaire by which time it was morning.
            On Christmas Day, his holyness saying Masse, the Artillery at St. Angelo went off; and all this day was exposed the Cradle of our Lord...”

His diaries contain many references to Christmas over the years, but of them all this is an unusual insight into a celebration of Christmas unknown in England at the time.
In honour of Mr. Evelyn, a seventeenth century Christmas recipe...SUGARPLUMS


Take your apricocks or pearplums, & let them boile one walme in as much clarified sugar as will cover them, so let them lie infused in an earthen pan three days, then take out your fruits, & boile your syrupe againe, when you have thus used them three times then put half a pound of drie sugar into your syrupe, & so let it boile till it comes to a very thick syrup, wherein let your fruits boile leysurelie 3 or 4 walmes, then take them foorth of the syrup, then plant them on a lettice of rods or wyer, & so put them into yor stewe, & every second day turne them & when they be through dry you may box them & keep them all the year; before you set them to drying you must wash them in a litlle warme water, when they are half drie you must dust a little sugar upon them throw a fine Lawne.
-- Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, 1604 (from 
Gode Cookery website)


Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Writers often refer to their books as "book babies". Throughout the long gestation from the germ of an idea to the book in the hand, we nurture and dream about our story. The characters come to life, we put them in danger, we rescue them and in our mind's eye we journey with them.

I have written before about "The Mind's Eye" and the challenge of finding just the right title and just the right cover (On TITLES AND COVERS)...the name and the face of your new book baby. It took SECRETS IN TIME a little while to find the right title and I have been waiting with baited breath for the cover. Would it be dashing cavaliers or hospital corridors...?

I am blessed with a publisher who likes to make sure her authors are happy with the covers and the discussion between us about what constitutes a good cover was fascinating.  I remember Stephanie Laurens saying that a great cover reaches out and grabs the reader from the other side of Walmart. In the digital age, a great cover has to stand out as nothing more than a thumbnail. This means the soft focus covers would just blur into insignificance and so I have a wonderful, romantic gold confection for what is, probably, my first 100% unashamedly romantic story.

SECRETS IN TIME will be out on April 1, 2013. For more information about how I came to write this story, see my recent Next Big Thing post which is available HERE.

And from 21-31 December, Lyrical Press has GATHER THE BONES on sale for 75% of the retail price.  Click HERE to go directly to the site.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Thank  you, Ms. James. The success of your Fifty Shades series has set a new standard in publishing for we struggling writers to aspire to. Now it seems that every publisher wants “hot”, “hotter” or “hottest”. Fantastic news for those who are comfortable writing in that genre and I cheerfully wave and smile at my wonderful writer friends who write in that genre (and much better books than Fifty Shades!). Go for it girls…now is your time.

However not all of us are comfortable either writing or reading about endless ways to get the jiggly bits to connect. Page after page of complex choreography and new and exciting ways to describe the aforesaid jiggly bits.  The human body is a beautiful creation but personally, I find it much more alluring with clothes on, just as I find the slow build to a deserving coming together of two people so much more interesting than jumping each others’ bones the first minute they meet.  It’s what goes on with that big muscle between the ears that fascinates me as a writer (and a reader).

Let me just say I don’t write 'inspirational' stories. My characters do make it into the bedroom and I don’t close the door (or at least not all the way). As one reviewer said of my book,  BY THE SWORD “… is not the rip off your clothes and run through the sprinklers naked kind…” but for the characters it is a hard won and deserved consummation of a deep and abiding love for each other. As that same reviewer said “…It is slow and builds…All this adds to the reality…”

Have we forgotten how wonderful sexual tension can be? That gradual move from initial attraction, the increased heart rate as the object of desire enters the room, the brush of a finger... In the Keira Knightly film of “Pride and Prejudice”, Darcy assists Elizabeth into a carriage, as he turns and walks away the camera moves to his hand…the hand that has just touched hers and you see his fingers curl and flex. That’s all-- a simple gesture,  that would be missed by a casual onlooker, gives such an insight into his feelings. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!

The other day I introduced my 16 year old niece to one of my all time favourite films, WITNESS with Harrison Ford. This is a flawed film in some ways but when it comes to 'sexual tension', the following scene does it for me every time. You can cut the tension between them with a knife. Their clothes stay on at all times…they almost come together…


At the risk of spoilers.  Witness is not a romance, it’s primarily a thriller with a love story. There is no HEA for for them as a couple (but certainly the promise of a HEA for her). He says at one point “If we had made love last night either I would have to stay or you would have to leave” .  He can never belong to her world (of the Amish) just as she could never belong to his (tough Philadelphia street cop) but oh, for those few short days they are together, the air crackles and as the film builds to a crescendo they do come together in what has to be the most passionate kiss of all film making time as their yearning for each other reaches a climax...and how they yearn...

The director made a decision before the release of the film to delete the next  scene and we, the viewers, are left to our imaginations as to what follows the kiss… AND IT WORKS. It doesn’t matter that we don’t see the 'rumpy pumpy', what has carried us through the story is the growing attraction between these two characters and it is entirely satisfying.

So where are these stories in today's post Fifty Shades world?  
Surely not every reader wants hot and spicy?
Or am I wrong? Am I swimming against a tide or will the tide turn and the reading (and publishing) world will bore of the choreography of jiggly bits and return to stories that stir the imagination rather than any other part of the anatomy?

My personal feelings on the subject.... ;-)
Readers of the world...UNITE (without touching!)...and tell me what you think about the current trend to hot and spicy?

Maybe I will leave the final word to Ellen de Generes... "They do what with a spatula...?"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NANO fail? Not really...

At the start of Nanowrimo I announced I would be partaking in the "Chocolate Frog Challenge" - one chocolate frog would perish for every 5000 words written.

At the end of Nano three frogs lived to tell the tale of an apparent Nano fail... Or is it?

The surviving frogs...

On Day 1 of Nano, I sat down with a premise, a couple of characters, a bit of a world build and an opening chapter. I could have frozen there and then but I stuffed the internal editor into a box with a brick on the lid and let the creativity go. A whole new world began to unfold for me as new characters jumped on to the page and  Singapore in 1910, almost unrecognisable from the modern, bustling city state, began to emerge.

Harriet World
It was inevitable that I had to pause now and then for research. As the characters came alive, I needed to know the city they were moving around. A fruitless search for a contemporaneous street map of Singapore ensued and I had to make do with a modern map and bits and pieces of older maps...and my own memory. I lived in Singapore for three years in the early "noughties" and as I dug through my notes and photographs, it was almost as if I had been subliminally challenging this un-yet-thought-about story. The result is a "Harriet World" on my cupboard door.

Then there was Scrivener...if I have not extolled the virtues of the love of my life, then that is probably a post for another day. I wrote directly into Scrivener, scene by scene, using a different colour label for the POV of my protagonists so I now have a lovely long colourful list of scenes. I set up character cards for each character as they entered stage left, grouping them in folders according to where they fitted. I have a folder labelled "Corpses".

Likewise the research - every little tit bit of research got squirrelled away in the Research and Locations folders and the best thing of all is that if there should be more Harriet books, I can save the information as a template and move it from book to book, adding to it as I go. I LOVE Scrivener.

I stalled at 37,000 words with maybe 5 or 6 scenes left to go before "The End". Why? I hit the last week of November and it was like hitting a brick wall. What is it with the last week of November? It's as if everyone wants to cram everything in to it, in the anticipation of December being busy. I had work, I had late meetings, I had daytime meetings, I had social events...I had no time to write...and so the 30 November rolled around leaving Harriet Rough Draft #1 unfinished so tantalisingly close to the denouement (but thanks to the magic of Scrivener there are cards with the concepts for the last few scenes scribbled on them so I wouldn't forget what came next).

Nano fail? Absolutely not! It was never really about writing 50,000 words or finishing a book - I already knew I could do that. What I have proved to myself...

  • I have most of the rough draft for a book I thought I would never have the courage to write;
  • I proved I could write a mystery while remaining a "pantser";
  • I have established a world that is just screaming for some more stories to be written;
  • I proved I COULD write the rough draft to a story in just 30 days!
What's more, I have characters I love, a setting that is just speaking to me and a fierce desire to finish Harriet #1 and move on to Harriet #2....

So thank you Nanowrimo, I will probably be back next year.

The author in Harriet mode...the Pith helmet arrived at the start of Nano

 PS The remaining frogs were put out of their misery on the completion of Nanowrimo