Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eggnog Bread and Mashed Potato Candy


Last year we tried a different brand of eggnog. Somehow it ended up at the back of the fridge and not discovered until the middle of January. The eggnog was still good and the date hadn’t expired yet but we didn’t want to drink it. This recipe came in handy not only for the leftover eggnog, but for some glazed fruit left from the fruitcake recipe.

Eggnog Bread

1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup hard margarine or butter, melted
1 ½ cups commercial eggnog any brand

3 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup glazed mixed fruit

Beat sugar and egg together in a large bowl. Add margarine, then eggnog. Mix well.
Sift flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg over eggnog mixture. Stir just to moisten.
Mix in nuts and fruit.
Turn into a greased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.
Bake at 350 degree for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 20 minutes before removing to finish cooling on a wire rack.
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This next recipe is fun! You won't believe it's really made from mashed potatoes. Granted, it doesn't use much, but with the coconut macaroon base and thick chocolate topping, it tastes like a candy bar.


Mashed Potato Candy

1/2 cup mashed potatoes
1 tbsp hard margarine or butter, softened

1 tsp vanilla
1/4 salt

3 cups icing (confectioner’s) sugar
2 ½ cups medium unsweetened coconut

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 tbsp hard margarine or butter

Stir potatoes, first margarine portion, vanilla and salt in a large bowl.
Mix in icing sugar and coconut.
Press firmly in a greased 8x8x2 inch pan. (May also be lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil for easy removal before cutting especially if your pan has a non-stick coating.)
Melt chocolate chips and 2nd portion of margarine in medium saucepan on low, stirring often. Spread on top of squares.
Chill for 1 hour. Cut into 50 squares. (Removes from pan easily for cutting if parchment paper used.)
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Leftovers

I used to be a strict follower of recipes and their lists of ingredients. If I didn’t have one little item I passed it over. Then I discovered the art of substitution, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but since I’m the only person in our house that semi likes to cook, no one complains.

However in the nature of fairness, honesty, and perhaps a better recipe option, here’s the real recipe that inspired my version.

Here’s how I made it.

Christmas Leftover Casserole
Leftover turkey
Leftover Gravy
Leftover Stuffing or Dressing
Leftover Potatoes
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat over to 350 F. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Put leftover turkey in baking dish. Cover with leftover gravy (thinned out a little – add a little chicken broth). Top with leftover dressing. Spread leftover mashed potatoes over dressing. Top with cheese.

Bake in over until heated through. Uncover and cook a few minutes longer.

(I may have even tossed in leftover peas and carrots with the turkey.)

The following recipe comes from my Aunt Alma. It’s one of my family’s favorites. It is, however, one of those recipes that was not copied down from an authentic recipe book but given verbally by an awesome cook.

Creamed Chicken (or Creamed Leftover Turkey, which doesn’t sound as good)

2 cups cooked chicken (or leftover turkey)
1 can of cream of chicken soup
½ cup of sour cream
½ cup Milk (or maybe ¼ cup) You get to decide on the consistency.
Dash of Pepper
A Few Peas (we use frozen and about a hand full)
1 ¼ cups of grated Cheddar cheese
Half your favorite biscuit recipe (we use Bisquick)

Heat to boil (on stove) soup, milk, sour cream, pepper, and some frozen peas. Put in a baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese, heat in oven until bubbles. Cover with ½ recipe of your favorite biscuit rolled thin in squares. Bake about 20 minutes at 350 F.

The secret ingredient in both recipes is the cheese. Cheese makes anything taste good.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Plum Pudding - (which has no plums and is not a pudding)

If there is anything more elusive than plum pudding, I am deeply concerned for mankind.
It began its confusion in the 1420s, in England (where else?) when it was used to preserve meat.
In Medieval Europe, it was not possible to feed livestock over the winter, so they slaughtered them all and then wondered what to do with them. Enter Plum Pudding, which in those days (or any other days) did not include plums. Furthermore, it was not a pudding and never was.
On a tangent: I have always wondered where they got new livestock from, in Spring, if they killed all the livestock in Fall. I think they tucked a few away and lied about it.
Did you know that it was the introduction of the lowly turnip that saved the livestock from a nasty end every Fall. They were fed turnips and nothing but turnips all winter. By February, the slaughter house probably was tempting after all.
But. Back to the main confusion:
The medieval folk were not happy about being accused of introducing plum pudding (or turnips) so they left a message that it was actually the Romans’ fault - them and their stupid pottage which later became known as pudding. But it never was pudding and still no one had thought to throw in whatever rotting plums were on their way to the compost pit, which was not actually a compost pit, but more on the line of a place to keep stinky garbage to feed to the pigs.
Now plum pudding in Roman times (we will leave Christmas out of it until Elizabethan times who also did not use plums in what was not a pudding), but really a mince pie. (No wonder nobody speaks Latin anymore. Even Romans didn’t know what most of it meant - certainly not the word for pudding, which was called pottage because it was a mince pie).
Let us try to make sense of the Mediaval connection. Romans started supper with fruit and spices mixed with their vegetables and meat, (which was going bad) i.e. mince pie without the pastry. Since nobody liked the Romans, Medieval folk put in dried fruits and custard with the meat and wrapped it all in pastry - but didn’t think to name it mince pie. Nor did the Romans. Hence, not only that which is not a pudding and has no plums is actually related to Creme Brule and sippets, which were used to sop up gravy, but were fancier than sops. Don’t ask me how, but that’s the way it is. It’s in the Book!
Take a pause and have some wassail. This only gets worse.
Stirred custard and sippets make a fool, a contemporary of plum pudding, which still was not a pudding. May I quote? “Some early custard tarts are only unlike plum pudding in that they were held together with pastry, not crumbs or meal. Malaches whyte, another kind of pastry, has a filling of eggs, bread crumbs and butter, but no plums. So a fully developed recipe for plum pudding could be developed from the above list of various possible ancestors by recombinations.” The writer goes on to say, “There is no need to say there could have been other ancestors; only that there need not have been any.”
You aren’t counting on a recipe are you?
By the time of Elizabeth I, prunes were added. This was so popular, it was called plum pottage (which has no plums and is not a pudding either). By the 1700s, the vegetables were dropped from the mince pie and plum potage became plum pudding - which it isn’t by any means. Besides, by this time, it would be more use as a cannon-ball than a dessert. I have always suspected the name for this heavy non-pudding was derived from the Latin word ‘Plumbum’, which means lead. And certainly, I have never met a plum pudding that wasn’t at least as heavy as lead. Also, it was served at harvest time, not Christmas.
This non-plum, non-pudding just can’t help being screwed up can it?
By Victorian times, smart mothers distracted everyone from asking what’s in it by saying it could only be served with holly on top. Now you know how kids are pretty hard to fool (sippets and custard remember?) So Victorian mothers put a six pence in the pudding and anyone who got it would have good luck for the next year - provided they didn’t break their teeth on it. The luck thing didn’t work, but the kids were so busy arguing over the sixpence, they didn’t think about asking what was in the plum pudding, which was not a pudding and had no plums.
I would give you a recipe but I am scared to. Besides, now there is a dispute over whether it is best made in cheesecloth or a basin. If you are halfway smart, you’ll buy one.
Pour yourself a stiff drink and keep the brandy you haven’t drunk while trying to make sense of all this. Pour the remaining brandy (if any) over the plum pudding, which is not etc and set fire to it.
Look, I know it makes no sense to set dessert on fire, but after all this history, you will want to set it on fire being as you can’t set fire to a blog.
However, since this week’s aim is to provide a recipe, or tell everyone where to hide the rest of the turkey, I will give you TWO, count ‘em, two recipes for what to do when the fire goes out.
You can serve this non-existent dessert with Hard Sauce, or Seafoam sauce.

Hard Sauce:
½ cup butter
½ cup whipping cream
1 cup sugar
boil slowly but don’t scald until it looks good (the recipe doesn’t say how long)
add 1 teaspoon vanilla
There are dozens of good recipes for hard sauce around, and I’d look for one if I were you

Sea Foam:
2 tablespoons butter (marg)
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
½ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
cream butter, sugar and flour together
add water and egg yolk and cook in double boiler until think
remove, cool
add beaten egg white and vanilla

There, now with luck, you will have forgotten all about the evils of Plum Pudding (which has no plums and is not a pudding) and that you barely made it through Grade 12 Latin and either buy a plum pudding or serve lemon pie.

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Have a great year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Leftover Recipes for Turkey and Cranberries






I make this recipe anytime I have leftover turkey and my family and I think it's yummy. Enjoy!



Baked Curried Turkey and Rice

1 cup (250 ml) long grain rice, raw
1 medium onion, chopped
1/3 cup (75 ml) butter or margarine
2 tbsp. (25 ml) curry powder
3 cups (750 ml) cooked turkey, diced
2 1/2 cups (625 ml) turkey or chicken broth
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C)

Saute rice and onion in melted butter, stirring often until rice turns pale yellow. Blend in curry powder and saute for two minutes longer. Stir in turkey, broth and salt. Spoon mixture into a greased 2 quart casserole dish.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until liquid is aborbed and rice is fluffy. Remove from oven and serve immediately. Serves four.

Notes: If you like garlic you can add a minced clove or two when sauteing the onion and rice. One can of chicken broth and a can of water is equal to about 2 1/2 cups (625 ml). I find that this usually needs a little more than 25 minutes to completely cook the rice.









This second recipe is a pretty cranberry red and very festive looking. And it uses up the leftover cranberry sauce you don't know what to do with!


Christmas Salad

1 pkg. raspberry jello dissolved in 1 cup hot water. Add 1/2 cup cold water. Allow to thicken a bit.

Fold in one mandarin orange cut in pieces, 1/2 cup pineapple chunks (I like tidbits because they're smaller), 2 cups cranberry sauce, and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional).

Mix until all ingredients are evenly distributed. Chill until firm.

Enjoy your Christmas dinner and the leftovers. Don't forget to enter our contest by commenting and leaving us your email address (use at and dot in your email).We Chicks are celebrating our first anniversary by giving a basket of prizes to one lucky commenter. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
From Jana and Lou (guarding her Christmas presents)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holiday Wassail

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.


I'm not really a recipe sort of person, leastwise the sort of recipes one longs to share with others, or others covet to learn. I am, however, fond of old folklore, traditions and the like, and love those elements of the winter season. As such, I thought I'd share a classic recipe for wassail, should any irate wassailers come to your door with bowls in hand.


Ingredients
6 small Fuji apples, cored
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
72 ounces ale
750 ml Madeira
10 whole cloves
10 whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick, 2-inches long
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, separated

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Put the apples into an 8 by 8-inch glass baking dish. Spoon the brown sugar into the center of each apple, dividing the sugar evenly among them. Pour the water into the bottom of the dish and bake until tender, about 45 minutes.

Pour the ale and Madeira into a large slow cooker. Put the cloves, allspice, and cinnamon into a small muslin bag or cheesecloth, tied with kitchen twine, and add to the slow cooker along with the ginger and nutmeg. Set the slow cooker to medium heat and bring the mixture to at least 120 degrees F. Do not boil.

Add the egg whites to a medium bowl and using a hand mixer, beat until stiff peaks form. Put the egg yolks into a separate bowl and beat until lightened in color and frothy, approximately 2 minutes. Add the egg whites to the yolks and using the hand mixer, beat, just until combined. Slowly add 4 to 6 ounces of the alcohol mixture from the slow cooker to the egg mixture to bring to temperature, beating with the hand mixer on low speed. Return this mixture to the slow cooker and whisk to combine.

Add the apples and the liquid from the baking dish to the wassail and stir to combine. Ladle into cups and serve.

Recipe courtesy the awesome Alton Brown

Wæs þu hæl!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"

The yearning to spend the Christmas season with family and loved ones has been recorded in many songs and stories. Yet, sometimes it isn’t possible to “be home,” and especially when it happens for the first time, there is often a struggle to find the familiar in a strange setting.

In this excerpt from my novel, Heather is eighteen, a Canadian student attending university in England in 1957, and she has never before been away from home at Christmas. Her friend and travel companion, Shelley, has contacted a relative who invited both girls to spend Christmas at her home in the English countryside.


The train trip from London took less than an hour, and on the way they watched the landscape roll swiftly by. It was brownish green. Pleasant, but not white. Part of the adventure, Heather reminded herself. An elderly woman with iron grey hair waited on the station platform. As they stepped down from their compartment, each lugging a large suitcase, she approached without hesitation.

“You must be Shelley?” she asked, with a twinkle in her eye. “You look Canadian.”

“Aunt Margaret, this is my friend, Heather.”

“How do you do, Miss Williams.” Heather felt the grip of a strong, calloused hand.
“You may call me Aunt Margaret, too.”

She led the way to the lane at the side of the station. “I hope you don’t mind a short walk. I don’t have a motorcar, because I don’t go anywhere that I can’t get to on my bicycle. Of course, I don’t carry large suitcases with me. I could get my neighbour, Arthur, to come round with his dray to get them later.” She didn’t stop for an answer.

Shelley and Heather looked at each other, shrugged, shifted hands on their suitcase handles, and followed along. “How far is it?” Shelley asked.

“Just over this little hill. My cottage is on the main road.”

They arrived at Williams Cottage, breathing heavily after struggling to keep up with the seventy-year old legs of Aunt Margaret. The narrow lane that could be mistaken for a bike path was, in fact, the main road. They had seen one other person. An elderly man riding a bicycle had raised his hat, with a hearty “Good afternoon, Margaret. I see your company has arrived,” as he overtook the strange little cavalcade.

“My other neighbour, George.” Margaret said, holding the gate open.

“This cottage is picturesque!” Heather said. Margaret had showed them to their room, then left to put on the kettle for tea.

“It’s homey,” Shelley said, looking around the room. “I’m sure we’ll get all the rest we need for four days.” She ran her hand over the bed covering, a thick quilt with an embroidered top sheet over it.

“And I’m ready for it.” Heather dug in her suitcase for her slippers.

Their feeling of tranquility persisted as they visited with Shelley’s great-aunt, telling her about their travels, the university, and news of Shelley’s family in Canada. She served generous portions of buttered bread, cold meat, and fruit preserves, accompanied by strong, hot tea. Light was fading when they rose to wash up the dishes. Margaret lit a lamp with a large candle in it and placed it on the table.

“Oh, I do have electricity,” she said, when she saw their surprised expressions. “But I try to save wherever I can. And it is my Christmas tradition to use candlelight.”

As soon as the dishes were put away, Margaret said to her visitors. “I am an early riser, so I go to bed early. But you are welcome to sit up as late as you please. I sleep like a log, so I won’t hear you. Goodnight, dearies.”

Heather and Shelley decided to turn in early as well, not sure what there was to do in a room illuminated by a candle. They awoke early in the morning to the sound of pans banging in the pantry, and the clink of dishes being placed on the table.

“Welcome to the house of England’s earliest riser,” Shelley muttered from her side of the bed. She drew the quilt up over her head, but at that moment there was a tap at the door.

Aunt Margaret’s voice broke cheerily through the gloom, “I brought your tea. And some fresh scones. I’ll have breakfast ready in a jiffy.”

Heather chuckled. “What will your mother say when you tell her you were served tea in bed?”

“She’d probably say I deserve being wakened so early, after all the late nights and sleep-ins I’ve had in my life up to now. Good thing we went to bed when she did.”

“And I was out like a ... out like the light we didn’t have to turn out.”

After the tea and scones, they put housecoats over their pyjamas and ventured out to the warm kitchen for the rest of their full English breakfast. Heather and Shelley looked at each other in alarm when Margaret produced a list of chores that she said might give them something to do. Some items on the list seemed to have been left over from spring cleaning – all the furniture was to be moved out from the walls of the sitting room so she could mop behind, and then it all had to be put back in place. There was some Christmas baking on the list, and some decorations to put up in the sitting room as well. Since it was now only two days before Christmas, these were more appealing tasks. However, they cheerfully took on the whole list, and found themselves singing Christmas carols while they worked.

Later, while they sat together for their evening meal, it struck Heather that there were probably few variations in Margaret’s routine. It was what she had been born into and, since she had never married, had no reason to change.

“Aunt Margaret, will you be putting up a tree?” Shelley asked as they sipped their tea, and ate the bread that was slathered with butter and topped with cheese that had appeared for today’s version of the meal.

“I hadn’t planned ... that is, I don’t usually bother.” The expression on Margaret’s face was a mixture of defiance and forlorn regret. “I’m usually alone, you know.”

It had never occurred to either Shelley or Heather that they might have to celebrate Christmas, far from their families for the first time, without a Christmas tree to decorate and enjoy. Shelley seemed determined to address this as quickly as possible.

“Where would you get a tree around here? Does anybody sell them?”

“Oh, no. If you want a tree, you have to go to the village office for a permit, and then you can cut one down from William’s Forest, which is two miles over on the other side of the village. But you must get the permit two weeks before Christmas. The office isn’t even open now.” She furrowed her brow.

“Did you say William’s Forest? Does it, or did it, belong to your family?” Shelley sounded hopeful that she might have found a way around the rules.

“No, no. It was William Buckley who farmed the land, and so naturally it was known as William’s forest. He planted fir trees nearly a hundred years ago, and there are still young saplings taking root every year. They only allow a few to be cut. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t think there is any way we can get a tree. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it.” Margaret sounded dismayed.

“Heather, did you notice the trees along the road yesterday?” Shelley wasn’t letting this one go without a struggle. “Weren’t they fir trees?”

“I can’t remember exactly. I know there were some tall ones of some kind, but we only need a little tree. Is it allowed? To cut trees down along a public road?” She looked at Margaret.

“Oh, no. Of course not.” Margaret shook her head vigorously.

“What if no one saw us,” Shelley said.

That evening after it was completely dark, and Margaret had lit the candle in the lamp, Shelley came into the sitting room with their coats. “Heather, let’s go for a walk. It’s such a nice evening, it will be good for us. Aunt Margaret, would you have a hatchet that we could take along with us?”

“Shelley!” Heather couldn’t believe her ears.

“Yes, dear, I have a hatchet. And you’ll need a torch – to see where you’re going.”

Margaret emerged from the back entry, woollen cap on her head and warm jacket buttoned up. She carried a hatchet and an object that Heather recognised as a flashlight. She handed them to Shelley, then stooped by the front door to put on her outside shoes, then pulled on a pair of mittens. “Let’s go,” she said.

Stifling giggles, Heather and Shelley slipped out the door behind Margaret. They strolled along the road until they reached a spot where there were no houses nearby. There was nobody else about, but at that moment a vehicle flashed its headlamps some distance away. “Get down,” Shelley said. She turned off the light and crouched in the sloping ditch by the side of the road. Heather and Margaret followed suit. After the small automobile passed by, they stood up again.

“I think there is a small tree right here beside us,” Shelley announced.

They gathered around and felt the branches and in the uncertain torchlight tried to judge its height. “I think it would do. Stand back while I give it a whack.”

The first blow of the hatchet glanced off the slender trunk. Heather grabbed hold to steady the little tree. The next time Shelley’s swing met the mark perfectly. The tree was neatly severed, close to ground level. Shelley scuffed her shoes around the spot, attempting to hide the little stump that remained.

“Okay,” she said. “Now we just have to get back without being seen.”

No one else stirred in the darkness, window shades were drawn in the few houses they passed on the way back to the cottage, and no vehicles with headlamps 5travelled the road. They even entered by the back door to avoid the possibility that anyone wandering by might witness the unusual sight of three skulking figures, variously clutching instruments of criminal intent and the booty of the expedition, a small tree no taller than any of then, but not easy to hide just the same.

“Decorations!” Shelley said, breathless with excitement. The offending tree was leaning in the back entry, out of sight. “What can we use to decorate the tree?”

“Well, you won’t be surprised that I don’t have many,” Margaret said with a smile. “I do have a small box of ornaments that I was left when Mother passed on. We used to have a tree when I was a child. Lit with candles. But I don’t think we’ll do that,” she said hastily.

“We can make paper chains from coloured paper or newspaper,” Heather suggested. “And snowflakes, cut from white notepaper. It’ll be cool.”

So they gathered up odds and ends, and mixed up flour and water paste. Margaret found a piece of cardboard, and drew the shape of a star. Being the tallest, Shelley had the honour of attaching it to the top branch, its crowning glory.

Feeling quite exhilarated, they stood around their creation. Heather picked up a flat needle that had fallen off the tree, rubbed it between her fingers and sniffed. She examined the branches. “This doesn’t look like any fir tree I’ve ever seen. The needles are flat and the branches are droopy,” she said.

Margaret peered at the tree, indistinct in the dimly lit room. “It’s a yew tree” she said. “It is an evergreen, but you’re right. It’s not a fir.”

“Definitely not a spruce or pine,” Shelley said. “It’s not exactly what we went looking for, but it is a Christmas tree.”

The candle flickered, and suddenly the little tree seemed to glow. “It’s perfect,” Heather said. They sat in silence, watching light dance on the cardboard star and the paper chains that had transformed their Christmas.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

The Last Wish

From my house to yours - a very Merry Christmas :)

******************

The Last Wish - Janet S. Corcoran

I wasn’t sure which stung my eyes more, the sharp ice flakes swirling in the crisp winter air or the tears I tried not to cry. Both made my attempt at retracing my footsteps near impossible. The bitter wind mocked me by blowing snow over what path I had carved. I should never have left the comfort of the manor on such a fool’s errand.

With mistletoe still bundled in cloth next to my breast, I pulled my cloak more tightly around me and tried to cover my hands to protect them from the cold. My skirts soaked up the dampness of the wet sticky snow and slowed my progress. The grey light of day dimmed and my heart broke at a missed opportunity.

A gust of wind whipped the breath from my lips and forced me to pull the hood of my cloak over my head. What light I had imagined had vanished when I pulled the wool from my eyes. I knew nothing of my surroundings. Neither cottage lamp nor shadowed outline would guide me to safety. I was well and truly lost and could only keep going in the direction I believed to be true. If I stopped, I would die.

My lips twitched, but not from the cold or fear. A smile became a chuckle, which led to the giggles. I stepped high; my gait reflecting my mirth as wave after wave of laughter erupted from my body. I could die on the night I had planned to ask for life.

"The lady finds this amusing?"

I jumped at the sight of the black horse standing directly in my way and tipped my head up to see my husband staring down at me. I flew into his arms before he could fully dismount, sending us both tumbling into the ever-increasing snow bank. I kissed his cheeks. His rough-stubble chin. His lips.

He set me from him. "I would be better appreciative of this attention while in the warmth of our bed. Shall I ask what errand has sent you out in a snow storm?"

A chill shivered through me, most likely from the cold.

"What manner of magic do you seek on this the longest, and coldest, night of the year?"

"None." Even in the dim light I could see his disbelief. I scrambled to my feet. "I simply became lost after visiting the healing woman."

He rose and reached for the reins of his horse. "I have just come from there."

The lie froze on my tongue. The healing woman, known far and wide for her tinctures and tonics, did not know the meaning of discretion. "I had to try."

His hands were warm through the folds of my cloak as he gripped my waist and sat me upon his horse. "Not for me, you didn’t." He settled behind me, his warmth enveloping me, and nudged his horse into a slow walk.

The same discussion, the same conclusion, year after year, did not stop me from voicing my desire yet again. "I want a child."

"It’s not for a lack of trying, Ellyn. But if a child is not in our future, so be it. You can’t conjure one up from spells and wishes." His arm snaked tightly around my waist and his lips brushed my temple.

"The healing woman is convinced – "

"She’s been convinced every year and every year you go to the standing stones with the same result. Heartache."

I glanced over my shoulder. "You’ve known of my pilgrimages?"

"I am not a stupid man. And I never thought you were a foolish woman, until tonight. You could have died trying to get back to the manor."
We rode in silence. I had promised myself this would be the last year of trekking out to the farthest field to beg the pagan gods for a miracle. My husband did not believe in the magic of the stones and he had grown impatient with my obsession. My faith had diminished over the years, as well. The time to accept a childless life had come.

The horse slowed and I pulled my hood from my head, surprised to find not the well-lit inner courtyard of our manor house, but the same grey, bleak surroundings and a dark mass towering over us.

The standing stones.

I glanced down at my husband, now standing with arms outstretched to help me dismount. "Why are we here?"

"I know how much this means to you."

He remained with the horse while I plodded to the center of the circle of stones, determined to be quick in thanks for his tolerance. I fished out the mistletoe from the inner folds of my cloak. Carefully, so as not to touch the plant with my hands, I laid it upon the ground. The waxy green leaves, bright against the white of snow, renewed my hope. I sank to my knees. The cold seeped through the layers of cloth, but I closed my eyes and prayed one last time for the gift of a child.

"Are you finished?"

The snow had muffled his approach and I struggled to stand. But he dropped to his knees and laid a hand upon my arm. He opened his cloak and extracted a cloth bundle.

Not mistletoe, I thought. Fascinated, I watched him pull the folds away to reveal a chunk of pie. My eyes widened at the significance of his gift.

He held the pie to my lips and recited, "Refuse mince pie, bad luck will follow.
First bite’s wish upon the morrow."

I made my wish and wondered if he did the same when he took a bite. Huddled together at the base of the stone, we finished the pie and dusted the crumbs from our cloaks. With my hand in his, we rose and left the circle of stones.

"What if it doesn’t work?"

Big hands, rough with the day’s labor, cupped my face; his thumbs traced my lips. "I love you, Ellyn. With or without children, I will love you longer than all the longest nights, deeper than this mountain of snow, and brighter than the star that dares to shine on such a grey and stormy night. You’re the only magic I need."

I looked up and there, peeping through a hole in the clouds, a star twinkled down at us. Then I looked into my husband’s eyes, dark with passion. I was a fortunate woman and I counted my blessings. With a fistful of cloak, I tugged him closer until his lips were nearly upon mine.

"You wished upon that star, didn’t you?"

"Perhaps." I kissed him before he could protest too loudly. One last wish on a snowy winter night.

************************************************

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Shepherd


I started this story in Dec 2008 and completed it this year. It is my 2009 Gift of Writing to my fellow Saskatchwan Romance Writers.

The concept of this story came when I thought of miracles happening to people who don't have loved ones to share the Christmas season.

***
The Shepherd by Anita Mae Draper

“Maybe I won’t feel a thing,” Sarah whispered. Entombed in a world of white, whirling snow, she leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. Just minutes ago she’d turned off the ignition to her Ford Focus after it slid down an embankment into a snow-filled ditch. Already the bitter cold filled the interior of her small car.

It was a fitting end on this Christmas Eve. Exactly four years ago, she’d fallen into a world of living hell and now, finally, it looked like her dark time was ending and peace, blessed peace, awaited.

The howling wind rocked the Focus. Sarah closed her eyes. Maybe she could fall sleep before her body numbed from the freezing cold. Her mind skipped back over the past years of misery to a time of laughter with Mike and their kids. Memories of their last Christmas together swirled in her head much like the snow danced around her vehicle. They’d been so happy. The kids had coerced them into opening a gift each before they left for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. She’d cried when she opened the twin’s badly-wrapped package and seen the locket with their similar photos. Within minutes, Mike had fastened it at her nape.

Sarah breathed in the frigid air. It hit the back of her throat and she coughed in protest. The movement jiggled the locket nestled against her skin. More memories assailed her. They’d sang carols on the way to the service, at the service, and on the way home. At least until the car hit the patch of black ice and suddenly, they were going sideways on the wrong side of the highway while large white lights bore down on them. Sarah screamed, waited for the impact of fifty thousand pounds of metal and glass to plow into them once again. Her never-ending nightmare.

Rap, rap, rap. Metal groaned in the thundering silence and a tempestuous wind blew over her. Her eyes flew open. She gasped as frigid air blew in from the open door and clamped onto her eyeballs. Tears flooded her eyes, lessened the pain.

“Are you okay, lady?”

She shrieked.

“Are you hurt?”

Sarah stared at the man. Only his eyes were visible through the balaclava that covered his skin.

“I-I’m o-k-kay,” she chattered.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here,” he shouted in her ear.

He helped her move cautiously as if aware of her numb limbs. A roar reached her ears overpowering the howling wind and she noticed a huge farm tractor idling several feet away. But the man didn’t lead her to the cab. Instead, he guided her behind it to a looming trailer. “It’s the best I can do under the circumstances,” he yelled above the noise. He pulled open a small door and practically pushed her inside. “At least you’ll be warmer in here. Hang on and we’ll be home, soon.”

The door creaked and clanged behind her.

Sarah stilled. She couldn’t see a thing. She blinked. Yup, her eyes were open but blackness surrounded her. And, something else. Something or someone shared the space with her. She sucked in a breath and gagged.

The tractor roared and lurched forward.

Off balance, Sarah fell sideways against a mound of...something. It baa’d and moved. “Eek!” It shot away and she dropped to the straw-covered floor. The scent of manure assailed her. Stuck in a trailer with a bunch of smelly sheep. Could it get any worse? An image of sitting in her cold car flashed. Yes. Yes, it could. She sat, waited and listened to the animal sounds on the other side of the trailer. Apparently, the sheep were just as wary of her as she was of them.

When the tractor stopped a few minutes later, Sarah stood waiting by the door. It opened but she had to jump back as a sheep sprung in the opening along with the wind and cold. The door slammed shut behind it. The tractor chugged on and the same scenario was repeated over the next couple hours. After a while, Sarah sank into a front corner and ignored the sounds around her.

“Lady!”

Someone shook her shoulder. Sarah became aware of the man beside her.

“I’d carry you in but I don’t think we’d fit through the door.” He helped her through the small opening into the raging wind where specks of ice hurled at her face. She turned into his shoulder. He lifted her, ignored her protests, and carried her the twenty feet to the stairs. At the top, he put her down before a heavy wood door. A flick of the latch and warmth flooded out to greet her.

“Make yourself comfy and I’ll be back soon.”

His soothing words were a relief. Fine by her. She didn’t want to socialize, just wallow in the heat. But a glance around the room nudged her brain into action. This couldn’t be right. Every table and shelf surface held nativity sets. Different sizes. Different sets. Different sheep. Sheep? Yup, sheep were everywhere
Sarah hobbled to the nearest chair and dropped into it, dazed. Maybe she had died in her car, after all. Long minutes passed while she sat there, unmoving before she became aware of the man’s entrance from another room.

“I’m Jake Edwards by the way and here, this should warm you up.” He offered her a steaming mug.

Sarah took it and thanked him. He wore a woolen sweater with a Christmas motif which would have seemed ludicrous on any other man but somehow it suited him. He smiled with his eyes, laugh lines crinkling at the corners. His whole package oozed comfort.

“Sarah Wheeler. Where am I?”

He sank onto the close end of the sofa. “This is my home, The Manger.”

“The Manger?” she scoffed.

“Yes, The Manger. I’m a shepherd. The storm caught me by surprise and I was out gathering the last of my flock when I saw your car.” He gestured to her and winced. “Sorry.”

She glanced down. Her clothes were decorated with bits of golden straw and brown smudges. “Eeewh!”

Shards of long frozen ice chipped off Sarah’s heart when he threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh.


The End

***

It's Christmas Eve and I'm busy with family today but I'll stop by later on.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win a fabulous gift basket in the Prairie Chicks Anniversary Contest. Comment every day for an even better chance to win, but don’t forget to use ‘dot’ and ‘at’ in your e-mail address to fool those E-mail spammers.

From our house to yours, have a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Anita Mae Draper.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

His Family

“Tell us the story, Daddy,” pleaded Emma.

Ella chimed in, “Tell us. Tell us.”

Stefan Dalakis glanced down at his four year old twin daughters. Each one had a strangle hold on a leg. He pretended to try and shake them loose.

“Daddy!” Little arms wrapped tighter around his legs as they giggled and shrieked.

“You don’t want to hear that old story. It’s Christmas Eve. A time for Christmas stories.”

“No! The other story.” Emma let go long enough to tug on his pant leg. “Please? Please?”

“With sugar on top?” Ella gave him her special look, the one calculated to break the most stubborn soul.

He feigned indecisiveness for a few seconds before relenting. “Okay, here’s the deal. I’ll tell you the story if you are in bed in the next five minutes.”

He trailed after the ensuing whirl of pink pajamas and chatter as they circled the eight-foot Christmas tree one more time. Waited while they brushed their teeth, their dolls’ teeth, their hair, and their dolls’ hair. When they were finished they all climbed onto Ella’s purple draped bed and he tucked one little sugar charged princess in on each side.

He remembered a time when the idea of family and children had turned his guts to water, given him unspeakable nightmares, and made him question everything he knew to be true.

Demon hunters didn’t have lives. They didn’t have families. They existed to annihilate evil. End of story.

He looked down as Emma’s pudgy finger traced over the brilliant colors of the dragon inked onto his forearm. He had found a way to be both family man and hunter.

He smiled and started the story. “So there she was, watching that old movie, the one that always makes her cry.”

“In the café,” added Ella as she scratched her cheek. “By herself.” She pressed her head against his shoulder and he got a whiff of her little girl shampoo.

He nodded then pressed a kiss on top of her blond curls. “All by herself.”

“Cuz she was sad.” Emma patted his cheek wanting her fair share of attention. He kissed her curls too.

“Yes, she was.” He paused, waited for them to look up. “So I tossed the ring box down on the table and I said-“

“And you said, ‘Hey, you forgot this.’” Ella finished for him.

Emma piped up, “And she said, ‘No, I didn’t.’” And she shook one chubby finger.

“Hey, who’s telling this story?” He tried for stern. They were suitably unimpressed judging by the giggles.

“You are, Daddy.”

He grinned as he continued, “Then she said, ‘Don’t, Stefan.’ And I said, ‘Don’t what? Ask you to marry me? Too late. I already did.’”

“And she said, ‘I don’t wanna marry you.’” Ella shook her head sending curls flying.

“Cuz, you’re trouble,” added Emma.

Which had him thinking they’d already heard this story from someone else today. “Something like that. Bottom line, she said no and then she got up and left me sitting there.”

“All by yourself,” said a sympathetic sounding Ella.

“With a broken heart,” offered Emma who looked appropriately somber.

“That’s right.” It had been the bleakest moment of his life.

“Back she came back!” they announced all smiles again.

“Yes, she did.”

He glanced up at the woman leaning against the doorframe of girls’ bedroom and his heart squeezed. And because he wasn’t stupid or neglectful, he offered up a prayer of thanks. Then he slipped in a very important detail of his own. “Because she couldn’t live without me.”

Anna Watson-Dalakis rolled her eyes as she tossed a tea towel at his head. “Really.” She crossed her arms and raised a brow. “That’s an interesting way of putting it.”

“Mommy! Mommy!” Emma and Ella bounced up and down on their knees while they waited for Anna to settle in at the end of the bed.

“I do remember a certain someone demanding I marry him.” She smoothed a hand over Emma’s cheek and tucked a stray strand of hair behind Ella’s ear. “Before he came to his senses and realized he needed to act like a gentleman and ask nicely.”

Those ocean blue eyes met his and he drowned for the millionth time. Her lips curved up into a smile and distracted him so she could get her fingers near the soles of his feet and then two tiny princesses launched themselves at him. Two minutes later those same princesses switched to chanting, “Kiss, Kiss.”

He was only too happy to oblige. His lips met hers and before he knew it Anna was batting him on the back of the head. He backed up, laughed and nodded in the direction of two little girls clapping their hands. “It’s their fault.”

“Uh huh.” Anna clapped her hands. “Bedtime.”

“Definitely bedtime.” He held up a hand to stop the protest. “Santa can’t come if you’re awake.”

Finally the light went out. The girls had chosen Ella’s bed tonight and were snuggled in and whispering.

“Good night, girls,” he warned as he shut the door and followed his wife down the stairs.

Anna turned on the bottom stair. “What do you think they’re planning?”

“I don’t care as long as it involves being asleep within the next ten minutes.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Because then I’m taking my gorgeous wife to bed and unwrapping my Christmas present early.”

“Is that before or after you put together the dollhouse?”

“Yes.”

*
The Chicks are running our first ever contest to celebrate our first ever anniversary. The contest runs from December 20 until January 2, 2010 and the winner will receive a fabulous gift basket from the Chicks. The more comments you leave the better chance you have of winning. Don’t forget to leave us your email address using ‘at’ and ‘dot’ to fool the evil trolls.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Tradition or: Who gets the Drumbone?

Christmas begins for me with a memory of walking in fresh snow on a dark, snapping cold midnight. Fat snowflakes are falling and the colors of the stained glass window seem to glow.

My sons know I love to attend the Christmas Eve midnight service, so there is always one or more of them ready to go with me.

The oldest once upset his Sunday School teacher once by insisting God was like an egg. (Actually, his explanation made a lot of sense). He has gone from being the kid with the most excuses why he shouldn’t go to Sunday School to a father who listens to those same excuses. He is the one who usually goes with me. If he isn’t available, one of the others will graciously make the supreme sacrifice.

But back to our Christmas service. As we sing “Yea Lord we greet thee/born this happy morning”, Christmas is officially under way. I find it a very moving hymn and it is during its singing that I find joy - and remember all the things I have to do before breakfast.

Mother-in-law and I have both always made a fruit salad for breakfast Christmas morning. Our recipes were different, so now that she is gone, I have used her recipe to kind of keep her with us. I usually make sweet buns I carefully arrange in a tree shape and ice to resemble (vaguely) a Christmas tree. Nobody notices or cares actually. They are on their way back to bed.

Middle Son was the one to wake everyone else up at 2 am, 3 am, 4 am, 5 am and many times in between. Provided one of the others hasn’t thrown him out the window into a snow bank, we usually all staggered into the livingroom around 6. I don’t remember why. He had always opened his present by then anyway.

Try to get him up now! Maybe a Corvette with a big red bow, parked in the driveway might help him to wake up, but I doubt it. The others are in various forms of stunned and propped up on the couch by 10 am and we open the stockings. This is when the sons get, not candy, but items useful in the kitchen or garage, and, well a whole lot of gummy bears. Then the presents.

I was horrified one year when my Dad gave Mom a set of sink fittings. Now, a screwdriver or an electric drill are the very thing for me.

Our parents didn’t give us cars and we haven’t given any of our’s cars. Besides, the price of a hockey helmet is more than twice the cost of my first car. Thank goodness they are gainfully employed or we would never get any new hockey equipment.
While everyone else rejoins the snoring competition, I haul the turkey to the sink and wash around its neck and/or behind its ears. Hey, I am tired too! I wrench its little wings to fold behind where its head used to be (feeling cruel), slop on much margarine (feeling unhealthy) and sprinkle it with salt, pepper and nutmeg. (Yes nutmeg. Try it.)

I ignore all the rules and put some water in the roasting pan, cover the turkey with foil (by now in the roasting pan too, resting in all its glory on a cake rack) and set it and (usually) forget it. I peel sweet potatoes (which only I will eat), turnips (which only husband and I will eat) and forget to put the stuffing in the oven, having already forgotten to put it in the turkey.

By then, all are stirring all over the house and I desperately want to go back to bed, but one must be Christmassy and joyful and lively. It is not good hostessing to go back to bed and leave the guests to fend for themselves. But I do.

Husband eventually wakes me to querulously ask why the turkey is making noise and does it need to come out of the oven. Since it has only been in there half an hour, I doubt it needs to come out and I think the noise bit was to make sure I woke up. Okay. Okay. I get up, set the table and find a spot to slump while the turkey does turkey stuff in the warmth of the Christmas glow or whatever.

Eventually, it is found to have been cooked for the last three hours and have sunk in despair into many, many pieces or it is still bleeding. Both results can be attained by cooking it at the same temperature for the same length of time. (Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of turkeys).

Now, just like the good old days, everyone manouevres around the kitchen ‘helping’ by getting in everyone else’s way and the Great Turkey Argument begins. In my day, the man of the house always dismembered, that is carved, the turkey. Husband won’t. No son will. I definitely will not do it! But I do.

The Christmas dinner heads for the ancient argument over who gets the ‘drum bones’ as we call them and who gets the couch.

Yet another tradition has been upheld in its entirety - including forgetting to serve the dressing.

P.S. Due to shift work, Christmas in our house will also be observed on a pre-fought-over day or days sometime in late December. Its tradition tradition, tradition.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Winners from Kate Austin's Guest Blog...

Congratulations Vince and Karyn! You two lucky winners each get to choose a Kate Austin book. Check out her website for a list and then e-mail her at kate at kateaustin dot ca.

And just a reminder - our Prairie Chicks Contest is up and running. Leave a comment over the next two weeks (the more you comment, the better chance you have of winning) with your e-mail address (using 'dots' and 'ats'). Some lucky reader will win a gift basket full of goodies from The Chicks.

The Perfect Christmas




Ted frowned at the turkey on the cutting board. “Is the meat supposed to be that color?” He sniffed the air. “And what’s that weird smell? It’s kind of like Old Spice mixed with shoe polish.”

Sally gave him “the look”, the one developed and honed through years of practice, the one that told Ted he was being a complete yutz.

“You’re hallucinating, Ted. There’s no smell.” She leaned over to look at the turkey. “It does look a little pink, doesn’t it? Maybe we should pop it back into the oven for awhile.”

Ted contemplated further discussion of the objectionable smell, and then thought better of it. His normally unflappable wife had morphed into a stressed out bundle of nerves. This was the first Christmas since her mother’s passing, the first Christmas she'd planned all by herself. Her family was coming for Christmas dinner and Sally wanted everything perfect. Ted lifted the turkey back into the roaster and heaved it into the oven, his arms trembling under the weight.

“Was this thing a sumo wrestler in a previous life? How much does it weigh?” He adjusted the temperature on the oven, moving it up to five hundred degrees. They did have to eat this Christmas, after all.

“It’s about thirty pounds,” Sally replied. She studied the magazine in front of her with its glossy photos of beautiful, yet edible garnishes. Unfortunately, the tortured tomato in Sally’s hand bared no resemblance to the elegant rosette in the picture. “It’s hopeless.” She plopped her mangled tomato onto the counter. It sagged, its star shaped points flattening against the counter’s surface like a dying jelly fish. “Maybe I’ll just slice the tomatoes.”

Ted watched tomato juice ooze onto the counter and down to the floor. “Good idea.”

The doorbell rang and Sally shot Ted a look of horror.

“I’m not ready yet.” She pulled at her apron strings. “I haven’t changed, or finished setting the table. I didn’t even light the candles.”

Ted turned her around and unknotted the apron. “It’s not like Martha Stewart is coming for Christmas dinner. It’s just your family. They’ve seen us before, warts and all.”

“But this is different. This is the first Christmas . . . our first Christmas alone. I’m the oldest. Christmas is my responsibility now.”

Ted didn’t know where she got that misguided notion, but there was no time to argue. “The kids and I will set the dining room table. You answer the door before someone freezes to the front step.”

She gave him a nervous smile before hurrying to the door. Ted found his offspring in front of the TV in the basement, ten year old Adam flicking channels with the remote, and thirteen year old Brittany lounging on the recliner. Ted pulled at the ear buds of her Ipod.

“Hey,” Brittany protested. “I was listening to that.”

“Not anymore.” Ted took the remote from Adam’s hands and clicked off the TV. “We’ve got company and your job is to set the dining room table. Tablecloth, napkins, the whole nine yards. And do a good job. Your allowance depends on it.”

“Is Uncle Dave here?” Adam asked. Sally’s brother Dave was Adam’s favorite uncle, which wasn’t surprising considering that Dave was such a big kid himself.

“I’m not sure. Let’s check it out.”

Upstairs they found that Dave had indeed arrived, along with Sally’s sister, their respective spouses and assorted nieces and nephews. After greeting their guests, Ted shooed Adam and Brittany into the dining room. He followed Sally into the kitchen.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

Sally looked around her kitchen to the dirty dishes heaped high in the sink, the countertops sticky with cooking remains and the mound of mashed potatoes on the floor.

“Aside from blowing up this room? No, I don’t think so. Why don’t you fix everyone a drink while I get things ready.”

Ted poured rum and eggnog for the adults and gave the kids glasses of punch from the bowl Sally had set up on the sideboard. Presents were stacked under the tree to be opened after dinner. Ted sat back in his chair and enjoyed the conversation around him. Even Sally would have to agree that everything was going well.

Sally’s four year old nephew tripped over Ted’s shoes, landing face first on the carpet. The boy laughed, a glazed look in his eyes. Ted frowned at Sally’s sister and her husband. What were they giving the poor kid?

Sally walked into the living room, her smile dying slowly. Ted watched her gaze settle on the punch the kids were drinking before turning on him with “the look”. Now what had he done?

“Please tell me you didn’t give the kids that punch.”

Ted winced. This was not good.

“Ted, I put a bottle of vodka in that punch. That was for the adults.”

For a second the room turned deathly quiet. Then parents scrambled to their feet and grabbed what remained of the punch in their children’s glasses. Sally’s sister Karen picked up her son.

“It’s not so bad, Sal. They didn’t drink that much. We’ll give them something to eat and they’ll be fine.”

Sally nodded, tight-lipped and mortified. Ted hung his head, feeling like the world’s worst husband, father and uncle. He followed Sally into the dining room, staying a respectful three paces behind her. He could practically feel the waves of anger that rolled off his wife and tumbled towards him.

Sally abruptly stopped in the doorway. She turned and stared at him, her eyes wide.
“What have you done?”

She pointed at the dining room table. Mismatched dishes sat on top of what appeared to be a pink and white flowered bedsheet. Instead of dessert spoons, soup spoons sat next to the paper napkins which had been hand coloured with childlike Christmas scenes. Serving as centrepiece, Adam’s favorite decoration, a Santa dressed in a Hawaiian grass skirt and lei, did his animated hula dance to the tune of “Tiny Bubbles”.

Dave and Adam began to hula along with Santa. “Isn’t it great Dad? We went the whole nine yards, like you said.”

Ted smiled weakly. “You sure did, son.”

“Ah-choo.”

Karen’s husband Mike began to wheeze. “It’s my allergies,” he managed between sneezes. “Is someone wearing Old Spice?”

Karen sniffed at the bowl of potpourri that Sally had painstakingly arranged. “It’s this stuff. We have to get rid of it.”

Sally grabbed the bowl, marched to the front door, and dumped the contents into the snow.
“So that’s what smelled,” Ted said as Sally walked by. She glared at him.

“Something else smells, Sal,” Dave said, sniffing the air. “I think something’s burning.”

Ted rushed into the kitchen. Black smoke billowed out of the oven when he opened the door and Sally threw baking soda on the grease that had ignited. The smoke alarm shrilled and children cried. Ted grabbed the pot holders and pulled the roasting pan from the oven, praying it wasn’t as bad as he feared.

It was worse. The turkey lay dry and shriveled in the coffin shaped pan, parts of it burned beyond recognition. The only decent thing to do now was to bury the poor thing.

Sally stared at the turkey, her shoulders slumped in defeat. Ted’s heart broke. She’d wanted so much for this Christmas to be perfect and he’d ruined it for her.

Though everyone crowded into the kitchen, the room seemed unnaturally quiet. And then from somewhere near the back of the room, Ted heard a chuckle. The chuckle grew into a guffaw and then a full blown laugh. Everyone turned to look at Dave, who was bent over with spasms of laughter.

“Sal, this is priceless. This is so Mom.” He wiped the tears from his eyes. “Do you remember how many times she burnt the Christmas turkey?”

Sally looked confused. “But Mom’s Christmases were perfect.”

Dave grinned. “Take off the rose colored glasses, kid. Mom couldn’t boil water.”

Sally shook her head. “I just remember things being so . . . right.”

“Yes, they were.” Karen smiled. “Mom was a terrible cook. But Christmas was always perfect just because she was there.”

After a moment Sally began to smile. “Do you remember the time she made that marshmallow and sweet potato casserole? It was the most vile thing I’ve ever eaten.”

Sally and her brother and sister reminisced about disasters of Christmases past over pre-dinner drinks. For the first time in days, Ted saw his wife relax.

Just after they paid for the pizza, Sally gave Ted a kiss.

“Does this mean you’ve forgiven me?” he asked.

“Only if you forgive me.” She winked at him. “You may even get lucky tonight.”

Ted tucked away that delightful thought. “What about your perfect Christmas? I thought you wanted it to be special.”

Sally smiled. “It is special, and it’s perfect. Just like Mom used to make.”


Don't forget to add your comment for a chance to win a gift basket from the Chicks to celebrate our upcoming first anniversary. Be sure to use at and dot when you leave your email so we can fool the evil trolls! Have a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous and healthy New Year.

From Jana and Lou (who's keeping watch for the evil mailman!)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Fire Tales -- The Miller and The Snow Witch

I'm thrilled to be able to kick off this week's holiday writing, not to mention my first post as a full-time contributor to the Chicks, with a piece of my own work. To get the introductions out of the way, I'm Hayley, you may have seen me playing devil's advocate in the comments. I'm a fantasy writer and English Lit grad, and I enjoy exploring and questioning the boundaries between literary and genre fiction. I hope to bring another unique viewpoint to the craft of storytelling and show writers that the techniques of fantasy can apply to all genres, just as romance crosses every genre.

*

Did I ever tell you of the night the miller vanished? They used to tell me, on nights like this, when they’d huddle around the hearth and overlook blood-taint for the heat a small body offered. They told me the miller was a wealthy man, before the storm took him.

Two daughters he had, and a fine son to teach the trade. How to channel the fast mountain stream to turn the wheel, or yoke pack-beasts when streams froze in winter. How to balance the scales, add a thumb’s weight to tip the payment with none the wiser. He had a pretty wife, the miller. And he had a pretty mistress.

‘Twas a night like this and twice as black, with the wind a-baying to drive the wolves to earth, ‘twas a night like this he disappeared. Snow in the pines, ice in the rocks, ale in the mug. Stay indoors child, they tell me, else the snow witch get you.

But the miller does not stay indoors, possessed of an itch as cannot be scratched alone. Just off for a pint, my lamb, and then straight home, I. So he kisses his dear wife and she takes it. He bids his daughters, his fine son goodnight, and they nod their heads and out he goes. By the warmth of his need he’ll brave the driving snow, and they’ll utter not a word of protest.

Go to your lady who awaits you across the village. Craigend, walled heart of the north. She keeps a light in the window for you. May lust guide your way.

How long the miller walked, I cannot guess, but of a surety he knew himself lost when he tumbled down the hill, though he swore the gate shut on such a night. Black torsos of pines darted about him, lunging and vanishing in the driving snow, and all around the howling, howling wind.

They say she howls over a fallen love, a lost child. They always say such things. They also say the miller fell to his knees when she appeared before him, although none were there to see it.

The snow witch. Frigid, wailing tempest of the superstitious north. Cloth spun of ice shards, hair of flying snow, eyes of the black frozen sky beyond the gale. She has no feet, for she needs none, borne upon her own storm, but her hands are cold and hard as river ice and she grabs the miller with them. Blue lips plump and grow flush as her cold penetrates his body, drinks his warmth away.

Perhaps he cried out. Perhaps he did not. He had an itch as could not be scratched alone.

The blizzard dies down. No cock crows in the dead of winter, but a pale sun rides low in the east. Snow in the pines, heaped in the branches. Bowed, bent, broken. The gate stands shut. Craigend, walled heart of the north. It is death to venture beyond those walls, and the way is shut on such a night.

Where is my husband, have you seen him? Fear wells in a wife’s eyes, or perhaps only the glare of light off new-fallen snow. It is very bright, after all.

No tracks in the village to mark a lost soul’s passage. One could not say if any had ventured about that night. The lady knew not where he might have gone; she did not know he meant to come at all. Only the pretty wife knew, two daughters and a fine son, but none say a word why the miller might have ventured out so late. Where he might have gone.

They find him in the valley, the dogs a-baying their discovery. Twisted. Frozen. Dead. Blue-lipped from the snow witch’s kiss. The widow sheds no tears; it is too cold for tears.

Stay indoors child, they used to tell me, but no spirit stopped me when I left the gate. Never looked back.

The miller was a wealthy man, before the storm took him. His family prospered.


**

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Welcome Kate Austin

I hope this blog helps you have a happy (and productive) holiday season. We all know that the holidays (any kind of holidays) can put us off our game, our writing game, that is. So I’ve developed a few hints to keep you in the swing of it.

ONE: The number one thing – whether you’re published or soon-to-be-published – you have to remember is to give yourself a break. If you miss a writing day or don’t make your targets for word or page count, don’t beat yourself up over it. Take a deep breath and forgive yourself. This season is meant to be joyous.

TWO: Whether you’re published or not and you haven’t figured this out already, don’t put December or January deadlines in your contract or your schedule unless you absolutely have to. Something always comes up to make these deadlines difficult, if not impossible. You want to enjoy the season and your writing and you won’t be able to do either if you’ve got a deadline in the midst of the excitement.

THREE: Try and do what absolutely has to be done ahead of time. There are some things I have to do no matter how busy I am with dinners and shopping and evenings out with friends. I know that sometime between now (I’m writing this on December 16) and January 1st I have a bunch of things that have to be done. If I’m doing them at the last minute, I’m not going to enjoy any of them nor any of the fun things I want to be doing for the holidays. Plus, if I’m doing them in a hurry, there is no way I’m doing my best work. So I try and set out my schedule (something I hate doing with a passion – I’m a spontaneous kind of person) on paper and do one thing every couple of days. That way, I can enjoy the process and also enjoy the season.

FOUR: Writing is not only an art, it’s a job. You’re allowed, encouraged, in fact, to take a holiday. If this is the best time of the year for you to take a holiday, book it just the way you would book time off from a nine to five job. Planning to take the time off allows you to enjoy yourself and not feel guilty about it.

FIVE: But, if you’re the kind of writer who loses her way if she takes too long away from the manuscript in process, plan to write for half an hour every day. That won’t take anything away from your holiday enjoyment, but will allow you to keep the story in your head and make you feel good about yourself at the same time.

SIX: Remember that these holidays aren’t just for you, but also for your family and friends. You help them enjoy their holidays by being relaxed and available to spend time with them. You’re as important to them as they are to you so your joyous celebration of the holidays adds to their celebration.

SEVEN: Guilt gets you nowhere. If you take a day or two or even a whole week off, don’t feel guilty about it. Enjoy those moments and come back refreshed and relaxed and ready to start 2010 with a great attitude.

All of you probably have ideas about ways of making the holidays work for you. Please, let us know what schemes and plans you’ve made.

Every person who posts a comment on this blog before Sunday evening will be entered to win one of my books and two people will win. If you want to pick a specific book, go to my website and check out the book list, otherwise I’ll pick one for you.

Kate Austin

http://www.kateaustin.ca/
http://www.witchychicks.blogspot.com

Friday, December 18, 2009

Summation, New Chicks, and a Contest...

About 12 months ago, five of us decided to embark on a blogging adventure. And what an adventure it’s been! We unfortunately lost one of our original Chicks (shout out to Suse), but gained three others (Helena, Connie, and Molli) who blogshared on Tuesdays. We started hosting authors on Saturdays – our first Honorary Chick, Donna Alward, will return close to the first anniversary of our inaugural guest blog; watch for that on Jan. 23, 2010. And we’ve been thrilled with the response from you, our readers. Who knew back in that dark, cold month of December that a year later we’d have 75 followers and an Honorary Chicks list that reads like the ‘who’s who’ of current romance authors? What a year!

To celebrate the success of Prairie Chicks Write Romance – and to thank you, our readers – we’re holding a contest. Each of the Chicks will be writing a special holiday blog next week, starting Sunday when our newest Chick, Hayley, will kick off the contest. There are seven of us, so next Saturday will belong to Helena. The week after Christmas, each of us will post a Christmas Recipe (some will be the perfect solution to holiday leftovers). To enter the contest, all you have to do is comment. Once, twice, every day for the entire two weeks – you decide, remember the more you enter, the better chance you have at winning. Everyone who leaves a comment (with their e-mail addresses, please) will be entered in the draw for a fantastic gift basket. Each of the chicks is contributing something to the basket, so it’s going to be full!

Now, wait a minute? Did you say newest Chick Hayley? Why, yes, yes I did! There will be some other changes to the Chicks’ blog starting in the New Year. Molli is taking some time away from the blog, but she’ll be back. Hayley will be taking her place. And we’ve recruited two other Chicks who will add their own unique perspective as they move toward their writing and publishing goals. Joanne and Anne bring our number to nine. We’ve incorporated a jobshare strategy. Here’s the line up for the New Year (and links to those Chicks who have a personal blog and/or website):

Mondays – Jana, Helena
Tuesdays – Hayley, Joanne
Wednesdays – Karyn, Anne
Thursdays – Anita, Connie
Fridays – Janet, special*

*The special will be a different blog post every second Friday. You’ll have to come back to check it out!

And we’ll be continuing with our Honorary Chicks on Saturdays starting Jan. 9, 2010 with Pamela Callow. Remember, if you want to guest blog, our e-mail link is in the sidebar. We’d love to have you become an Honorary Chick, too!

So, People of Blogland:

In summary – a year of wonderfully educational and entertaining posts, authors sharing their wisdom and inspiration, fabulous readers who have become a part of The Chicks’ family.

Welcome – to the New Chicks on the Prairies (could be the name of a rock band). We’re looking forward to your posts and sharing in your writing journey.

Contest – just leave a comment over the next two weeks (Dec. 20 – Jan. 2) for a chance to win a gift basket from The Chicks as our thanks for being such great supporters. Don’t forget to leave your e-mail in the form of dots and ats to wreck havoc on those nasty E-mail Trolls.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Prairie Chicks Welcome Kate Austin


Join us this Saturday as we welcome Kate Austin to The Prairies. She'll not only be giving us great tips on how to make it through the holidays as a published or unpublished writer, but she'll be giving away a book to TWO lucky readers. Leave a comment on Kate's guest post over both Saturday and Sunday for a chance to win. Two winners and tips on staying sane - why wouldn't you come back to read Kate's post?

Here's Kate's bio:

Kate writes women’s fiction, magic realism, paranormal and erotica. She writes short fiction, poetry and novels. She’s had dozens of stories and poems published over the years and her eighth book – Seeing is Believing – about a woman who sees death in photographs – was published in October 2007. She has published nine books since 2005. Kate blames her mother and her two grandmothers for her reading and writing obsession – all of them were avid readers and they passed the books and the obsession on to her.

Check out Kate's website and the impressive list of books (as a winner, you'll get to choose the book you want as your prize). Swing by her group blog, Witchy Chicks (great name). Then come back here on Saturday to read Kate's post - and perhaps win a book!

A Variety of Caves

It’s 8 days until Christmas – at least that’s what the Christmas countdown banner on my personal blog says – and I don’t have anything ready except some unwrapped gifts. If you’re expecting me to say it’s because I’ve been working on Emma’s story you’re going to be disappointed because I haven’t been. It's on my mind throughout the day but that's as far as I've gotten. And I know it's because my writing space is gone, again, albeit for the last time.

Put your hand up if you remember me blogging about finding the carpet wet under my writing armoire? Then came the 20 sq ft hole in the wall to fix the leak and remove all the ruined and moldy wallboard, etc. It stayed like that for 3 months. During that time, my writing cave was moved into the sunroom until it became too cold to type in there, even with the plastic over the screen windows.

It was probably around mid Oct when I moved into the garage we’re in the process of renovating into a rec centre which will house my office, and exercise area and an activity/game room. I really liked my cave out there as long as I went out each morning and put the furnace on to warm it up first. Then about 2 wks ago, the temp dipped and it was just too uncomfortable. My fingers stayed warm from the typing but my toes were freezing in their slippers even with a rug between them and the cement floor. And I just couldn’t concentrate on my story when my feet were cold.

It was now the beginning of Dec. The workers came back and patched up the hole in the wall. Yay, oh yay, privacy at last! With the walls wallpapered and painted, we just had to await the carpeters. I love my new burgunday wall! Hubby put a small table in the corner where my writing armoire was originally but now that I was back in the house I saw all sorts of things that needed doing and Christmas was just a breath away.


This past Monday the carpet layers said they’d come on Wed. Everything had to be moved out of the living room including my new little writing table. Then yesterday they came and put down new the new carpet. The only thing left is the baseboards and then my writing armoire can be moved back in the original corner and I’ll have my cave back. I can’t wait.

But I still see trouble ahead. In the next 5 days I have to make 3 trips into the city as family members fly home. At least I’ll have help to decorate now that the carpet is down. But there’s still taking the kids shopping, attending Christmas concerts, baking and wrapping.

The thing is, although I love my cave in the garage, I always feel the need to dress before going outside. I need to put the heat on and let it warm up. I need to pack my laptop, power cord, mouse, house phone, hot drink, etc. This all takes time.

When my writing armoire is in the living room, I often start writing as soon as I awake and then I write late into the night after everyone has gone to bed. It’s because I’m warm and comfy and can allow my mind to concentrate on my story and not my physical discomforts. I believe this will keep me in the writing spirit during this holiday season when it’s so easy to get distracted.

What are your writing plans for the next couple weeks? Are you going on writing hiatus or are going to try to keep writing albeit at a reduce number of words?

And if you're a reader: Do you like reading Christmas books just in Dec or throughout the year?


Anita Mae

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Martinis, Cookies and Johnny Reid

I should be making lists of all the things I have left to accomplish but at this point what gets done, gets done and what doesn’t – well, doesn’t. And writing? Not happening at the moment, although I did wake up at five o’clock in the morning the other day with an idea that morphed into an idea for another trilogy. That’s what I need more ideas for new books. Not that I’m ungrateful, I’m very grateful, but it’s hard to resist the temptation to dive in and get started. I wonder if deep down it’s not a stalling tactic? Because I probably should finish the first book from the first series first. Right?

Must. Write. Faster. Or rewrite faster. Or something.

Does that make sense?

Probably not, but that might have something to do with the Sour Grinch martinis I had last night during my book club’s December Christmas ‘meeting’ where we did not in fact discuss a book. Go figure. Not that we haven’t read great books this year because we have, and we actually discussed them - over wine, good food and lots of laughs. If you want recommendations I’d be happy to give them.

Where was I? Oh yes, writing! I figure that’s what Book In a Week (BIAW), which my writing group (SRW) participates in every January, is for. I will get back into the swing of things and continue on with my revisions. On a crazy wishful thinking whim, I had written down a writing goal for December, which included seeing chapters six, seven, eight, nine and ten completed, but God laughed, good naturedly of course, and sent me down a different path. I just realized there were forty words in that last sentence and eight comas. That can’t be good.

Did I mention those martinis were very tasty?

Anyhoo…

Back to the idea of lists! Or better yet what to give my blogging friends this holiday season?

Music. It’s all about holiday music this time of year but this is a romance writing blog so here’s a little romantic something to take you away for moment from the hectic pace of the season from my new favorite country artist, Johnny Reid, called Dance With Me. I LOVE this song.

They say smell is the sense most connected to memory but also that it also works in conjunction with taste. Here’s something that incorporates both, the Best Big, Fat, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie. This is no exaggeration, it is the best chocolate chip cookie recipe in the universe! Don’t take my word for it, whip up a batch of these and prepare to be amazed. I LOVE these cookies.

So enjoy a little music and a cookie and Happy Holidays from my house to yours!

Are you writing faithfully through the holiday season or have you taken a holiday break? How do you plan to get back at it in January? And if you have a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe feel free to share. Or a favorite song. Or a favorite martini.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"When Do You Stop Tweaking?"

Another way to pose the question is: “How will I know my manuscript is ready for submission?” Or, my own uncertainty: “Every time I open the file, I change something. When will I be able to let it go?”

The quote in the title comes from a comment Jana made in response to Anita Mae’s post on secrets a couple of weeks ago. During the writing exercise, Anita Mae realised that not just one of her main characters, but both her hero and heroine, had a secret. This discovery created an ‘aha’ moment for her, and she admitted she was going to have to further revise her story to show how important it would be for each of them to keep their respective secret. (She’s already in the middle of a big revision.)

Jana said this about when you stop revising: “When the book is on bookstore shelves (or in my case available for sale online). I'm only sort of kidding. Don't send it to the editor until you're convinced it's as polished and as good as you can make it. If you think this idea will add depth to the story, I think you should go for it. When I talked to Donald Maass in Surrey he said it didn't matter how long it took to send in my work, as long as it was polished.”

Thank you, Jana, for yesterday’s post when you told us more about your pitch to Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and about your overall experience at the conference.

The final workshop I attended at SiWC was Lisa Rector’s, entitled “The 11th Hour Checklist.” I scribbled notes for an hour and fifteen minutes, not wanting to miss a word. The checklist can be downloaded for free from her website, The Third Draft. All I can do here is attempt to capture some of the essence of her message. She speaks eloquently and passionately about writing.

Lisa Rector is an award-winning writer and independent editor in New York City. Her workshop is described in the conference program: Your manuscript is ready to go. Or is it? If you’ve done everything you can think of to improve the story, if it’s already the best thing you’ve ever written, it’s time to think like editors and agents ... learn the questions to ask before you submit.

Many writers who have reached the point where the manuscript is 90% done will know the feeling, their eyes glaze over if they have to look at it one more time. It may not help to be told that the last 10% is the hardest 10%. Rector encouraged writers who are that close to try to figure out why they are resisting that last push to do what is best for their near-ready novel.

Her checklist encompasses some big picture questions, such as the first two: Is there a reason to care about these characters? Does motivation escalate with story progression? The list includes questions about conflict, exposition, multiple plot lines, emotional triggers, setting, heroic qualities of the protagonist, moments of doubt. The last question sums up: Has the author said what they wanted to with this manuscript or are they merely scratching the surface?

Of course, how to answer the questions is the most difficult part of the exercise. As I see it, it involves more than mere tweaking. Rector suggests beginning with the first page of the first chapter. As you look at how you began your story, ask yourself why you wanted to tell the story in the first place. Can you still feel the joy of the world you created? Did you put everything into the beginning that should be there? Does your first line raise questions? Do the same for the beginning of every chapter, not chronologically, but at random. Then examine the last line of each chapter. Do they lead progressively to the next action?

Look for random passages from the middle section – pieces of dialogue, description – does the sentence suggest animosity, dissension, offer joy, a new way of looking at things, does it complicate things? Look at what sustains the scene, find turning points. What questions are being asked throughout all the scenes?

Lisa Rector suggests that you close the manuscript, close up your computer, and distract yourself for a couple of hours or a couple of days. Then ask yourself: If I were going to write this novel today, how would I start it? Ask yourself what is the very first thing you would want to tell the reader. Recognise that the time lapse since you started writing the manuscript may have changed your priorities or your perspective. If the story doesn’t fascinate you any more, the reader will detect that you don’t believe in it. Ask what excited you about it in the first place and try one more time.

Ask yourself: If you were a reader in a bookstore, what is it about the book that would capture your attention? At the very least, the reader has to know from page one that something important is about to happen.

Back to the beginning: Do I open by telling about the familiar or throw in something unexpected? It can be internal or external, but is it on the page? At the eleventh hour, you have to think about it some more. It’s not necessarily about what needs to be cut or done better; it’s about being self-aware. Can I set it up better? Is the plot too obvious? Did I forget to allow for twists and unexpected events to surprise the reader?

Style, substance, voice and language – all work together to push characters deeper or to further develop the plot. These are the elements that work somewhere within the writer who wonders if it can really be pulled off. Look for the story within the story. Have you said all you want to say, how you want to say it? If you’re sure, it’s time to send it out. If not, take a little more time.

Editors look for books that are the best they can be, so you need to write to the best of your ability. They are seeking works that will be competition for what she called “the big guys,” but 90% of the manuscripts Rector reads are missing the most important element, whatever that particular manuscript needs is not there. Expectations that are set up at the beginning have to be delivered. Sometimes problems are too small to sustain interest to the end.

You also need to examine whether you are writing what others expect, or something new, more original. Find something that gives you a fresh feeling about your story, because you are not the same person you were when you started writing it. Take the extra time to make sure you have a story that lives on every page. If you’re unsure about anything about the story, you aren’t ready to put the manuscript forward. But the writer willing to put the extra effort into it, to set the story apart, is the one who will make it.

Her final advice: Push it, and have fun with it, because it is your story.

This workshop was inspiring and thought-provoking for me. Do you have additional suggestions or different approaches to ensure that your manuscript is polished for submission?