Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bread Made Easy

"Man does not live on bread alone." Luke 4:4

Although we don't live on bread alone, for me it wouldn't be hard! I love bread. Not store bought white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth, but the hard crusty kind you have to tear apart and fight to chew!

Making yeast bread is an art I never managed to master. Thinking a bread machine would have me churning out perfect loaves, I eagerly purchased one when they first came out. Trying to save a few bucks, my husband found a refurbished model. Right. Out of every five loaves made, only one would turn out perfect.

My faulty bread machine dampened my enthusiasm about bread making and was used less and less. The last time I pulled it out was about four years ago. I was having a large family gathering on Christmas Eve, serving lasagna and Italian meatball soup. Wouldn't homemade Italian bread be good with that? Needless to say, the bread machine let me down again. My loaf, which should have been 12" high, rose only four and resembled a mass of concrete.

Back to the shelf. Why I kept it, I don't know. Perhaps I hoped that next time it wouldn't fail me and produce a tall, golden brown, dome topped flawless loaf, like it had on three other occasions during the 12 years I owned it.

Not long after this, my friend Lisa gave me a recipe for European rustic bread. I think I'd been complaining about my bad luck with yeast bread and she felt sorry for me. Lisa assured me the recipe was easy--and to my disbelief, not even a bread machine was necessary!

I've been making Lisa's bread ever since and have shared the recipe with others who are shocked to learn that I actually made it myself! A big thanks to Lisa!

Oh, so what happened to my bread machine? The day after I made the rustic bread for the first time, the bread maker went to the curb! Hope you enjoy this recipe! As with all yeast breads, several hours must be allowed to let it rise.

Rustic Bread

3 cups flour
1 1/4 t salt
1/4 t yeast
1 1/2 cups water

Mix all ingredients by hand. Knead dough until firm. Cover and let rise 9 hours.
Pour enough oil into the bottom of a cast iron pot with lid to cover bottom. Set inside cold oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees with pot inside. Once oven is heated, remove cast iron pot and dump dough into it (it should be sizzling hot). Cover, and place back in oven. Bake 25 minutes. Remove cover and bake 7-13 more minutes.

Have a bread disaster story? I'd love to hear it!

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Clean Up Your Act: Trash Those Useless Details

"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling." Stephen King

I'm certainly guilty of descriptive overflow, as well as providing too many historical facts, overusing adverbs, and writing too many details that the reader doesn't need to know.

As writers, we want to entertain, not bog down our audience with how much we know, how beautifully we can describe something or explain every move a character makes upon waking up, driving to work, arriving at the office and riding the elevator to the 9th floor.

All of the above add wordiness and slow the pace. This takes away from the storytelling--what people buy books for in the first place!

In researching historical fiction, I find several things fascinating. But it's important for me to realize, that people read for the story, not a history lesson. Characters in whatever time frame we're writing about should react to events around them as we do today. In other words, no character should start espousing a dissertation on an event which today is considered historical and significant.

Something else I've had to curtail is wanting to describe every movement. "She took a sip of water. Afterwards, she set the glass down." The reader can figure that out, unless something significant happens as she puts the glass down. "She took a sip of water. But after setting down the glass discovered blood stains on the table."

It's also easy to lay it on thick with those adverbs and adjectives. "The large, shiny glaring light nearly blinded him with its overwhelmingly white brightness." Hmm, that's an instant rejection. How about, "The large light shone brightly, nearly blinding him."

Lastly, we should never overindulge ourselves by writing too much description. "Aunt Margaret's study, decorated with water stained antiques and thick gray curtains, appeared gloomy to Elise. She sat down on a wingback chair, feeling the metal springs beneath its threadbare fabric." That's good enough. Don't do this: "The chair once belonged to a wealthy planter in Georgia who'd owned 1000 slaves. At least that's what Aunt Margaret was told when she'd purchased it three years ago in Macon." Who cares?! Unless the history of the chair pertains in some way to the story, all we need to know is that it's old and uncomfortable!

Enough description to set things like time, the place and its surroundings, and the mood of your character/characters should provide enough details for the reader to fill in the rest. That's what reading fiction is all about, using your imagination!

What are some useless details you've learned to cut from your writing?

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Do You Know the Muffin Man?

"I can resist anything but temptation." Oscar Wilde

"Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man..." Okay, so we know the song, although none of us are personally acquainted with the Muffin Man. But if you're like me, you've never met a muffin you didn't like.

However, eater beware! Muffins may masquerade as harmless, healthy breakfast fare, but they're really no more than--GASP--cupcakes in disguise! They appear innocent as they sit benignly in coffee shops and bakeries pretending to be good for you. Honey bran, apple cinnamon, carrot raisin--yum! Loaded with oil and whole eggs, muffins are notorious fat traps. As the saying goes, "A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips."

In other words, take caution before being tempted! In my quest to enjoy muffins that are delicious, but won't add inches to my waistline, I've transformed lots of recipes into low fat creations. Here's one of my favorites. Hope you enjoy it!

Carrot Pineapple Muffins

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup quick cooking oats
1t baking powder
1t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t ginger
1 T canola oil
1/2 cup applesauce
1 whole egg, plus two egg whites
1/2 cup skim milk
1 1/2 cup carrots
1 cup crushed pineapple (undrained)
1 cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 dgrees. Spray muffin tins (enough for two dozen) with non-stick cooking spray. In large bowl combine flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Set asisde. In medium bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Add wet ingredients to dry, and stir until just blended. Fill muffin cups about 2/3 full (using an ice cream scoop works well). Bake 25-30 minutes. Yield: about two dozen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who Will You Encourage Today?

"One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own." John O'Donohue

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "encourage" as follows: to inspire with hope, courage or confidence.

Pastor Chris Beard ( described it in a totally awesome sermon this past Sunday, which inspired this post, when he said, "to encourage is to speak courage into someone's heart.

No matter what our circumstance, no matter what our station in life, we can all encourage others! Quoting Pastor Chris again, "We are made to take the input of others, and to to give our input to others.

But sometimes we're afraid to share our stories and experiences. Perhaps we're afraid of what people might think, or maybe we believe what we have to share isn't that important. But all of us learn and aquire wisdom from our mistakes, and it's a gift to share this with others!

Even though our scars exist (physical or emotional) the pain is gone, and sharing what we've experienced can stregthen, and speak courage into another person's life. One of the most moving accounts of encouragement I've ever read is in the June/July issue of Reader's Digest. Daniela Garcia was a young medical student who suffered horrific injuries after being run over by a train. Although she could have died, she didn't give up; she chose to live.

As a quadruple amputee, she finished her medical degree and became a rehabilitation physician. Through her experience, and her scars, she inspires patients daily, as well as ordinary folks like me who read her story.

Encouragement doesn't have to be on a dramatic scale. Every day we can encourage those around us. George M. Adams says, "Encouragement is sugar to the soul," and we all need it: children, spouses, friends, co-workers, the sales clerk who's having a bad day, etc.

In writing communities we encourage each other by sharing ideas to improve our writing. And we also share encouragement when rejections are received. We've all been there and we think of the current bestselling authors who aren't any more! And we're certainly encouraged to hear when one of us gets "the call" from an agent or publisher.

In the business world, encouragement by helping and sharing with others, and showing you care benefits everyone.

Dan Blank, in his May 13 newsletter, wrote a post entitled "What Are You Sharing?" In it, he discussed a recent transaction of ideas he shared with a prospective client.

Even though no money was exchanged, he chose not to hold back on his ideas and give them only a little of what he could offer. Instead, he shared extensively. Dan said, "It wasn't a transaction of money, but rather a transaction of of ideas and possibilities. Of considering what we can create together. And that's the way it should be. To share. To help."

And that's encouragement--at home, at work, or somewhere else out there in life--to share, to help, to care.

Who will you encourage today?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Research: You Never Know Just What Might Turn Up

"Sometimes when you take another look, you will find something to be grateful for that you might otherwise have overlooked." Elizabeth Elliot

Isn't it amazing when we find something we're not even looking for at all? Research can be like that at times. As a former reference librarian, I enjoy searching for information and finding answers. But sometimes, as writers, we can make unexpected discoveries that can actually help us while crafting our stories.

Maybe you've been trying to determine just the right expression for a 1930's character's to use when you hear Johnny Depp say "like nobody's business" in the movie Public Enemies. Or maybe you want some in depth information on thespians in turn of the century New York, and then you stumble upon just the right book at a flea market--for $2.00! Perhaps you're trying to envision a dinner party from the 1940's, and when flipping through channels, find an old movie depicting just that. Or while visiting the museum, you see a furniture exhibit that can help you develop a description for a bedroom in 1889.

Could be that we're more attuned to what's around us when we're creating narratives. However, finding something that helps us when we least expect it, is the most fun and unexpected part of research!

What have you found to be grateful for lately?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dreams of Screenwriting

"Find a purpose in life so big it will challenge every capacity to be your best." David O. McKay

One of my favorite books of all time is Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. If you haven't read it--read it soon and determine what your purpose is!

I love to write, and since I'm crazy about movies, I've often dreamed of writing a screenplay! I'm a film buff, so the older, the better. I'm particularly fond of the film noir classics of the 1940s.
According to EphraimItalic Katz's Film Encyclopedia, the term "film noir" was coined by French critics to describe motion pictures characterized by a "dark somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood." It literally means "dark film."

The film noir Hollywood pictures of the 40s and 50s portrayed the dark, sinister underworld of crime and corruption. And both heroes and villains were cynical loners, insecure and disillusioned by life's circumstances, bound to the past, and unsure of the future.

Several scenes are shot at night, and dingy realism is portrayed through the interior and exterior set designs. There's nothing glamorous about these movies (aside from the leading lady's wardrobe), but the stories are extremely compelling, with intrigue, suspense and lots and lots of plot twists!

Two of my favorite film noir pictures star beautiful Rita Hayworth. Although Lady from Shanghai is hard to follow (you'll have to watch it more than once), it keeps you wondering what's going to happen next. Even if it seems too wierd (or perhaps, thought provoking, since it's Orson Welles), it's worth watching just for the ending. That's when Rita's character is shot in the house of mirrors and then lay dying in broken glass (she deserves it).

My other favorite is Gilda, which, for film noir, has a relatively happy ending. In this film, Rita is glamour personified! As the hot and steamy Gilda, a woman with a questionable past, her dialog to leading man Glen Ford is topnotch. Her words actually had me saying "ouch" a few times for the poor guy!

Film noir has influenced my fiction writing, so maybe one day I'll try my hand at a screenplay. Do you love old movies, too? And have you read The Purpose Driven Life?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cooking to Save Time (for Writing and Reading!)

"The first wealth is health." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fast healthy meals are a must for me, and right now I'm sitting in my kitchen gazing at some of my most treasured posessions: my crockpot, food processor, rice steamer, and electric can opener. Yes, I love food, but I don't want to spend hours in the kitchen cooking gourmet meals. There are too many other things I could be doing. And besides, less time in the kitchen, means more time to write and more time to read!

If a robber broke into my house, I'd probably say,"take anything but my crockpot!" I didn't realize the value of it until I became a mother. Dumping ingredients in and turning the knob to high or low is near miraculous in preparing meals that are healthy, tasty and quick, not to mention time saving!

Here's an easy comfort food recipe I'd like to share. Though it takes only minutes to prep, it tastes like you slaved all day over the stove. Hope you enjoy!

Really Easy Beef Stew

3lbs beef stew meat
1 10 oz. pack frozen mixed veggies
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 T Worcesterschire sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1.5 oz envelop beef stew seasoning

Combine all ingredients in crock pot, stir well. Cover and cook on low for 10 hours, or high for 5 hours. Serve over rice. Great with a salad on the side! Makes about 3 quarts.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Say What? Simple Ways to Make Dialog Tags Disappear

"There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting." Mark Twain

"John," Mary said, "I love you."
"Mary, I love you, too!" John declared.
"But what about Evan?" Mary cried. "We're to be married tomorrow!"
"My brother!" John exclaimed. "He's ruined every good thing in my life, and now--"
"Stop!" Mary interjected. "All of this--it's not fair to Evan, but..."

Shall I go on? I think not. First of all, there's nothing wrong with using "said" as a dialog tag. It's like the ugly chain link fence that when painted black, becomes invisible. Readers are less likely to notice "said," because it easily blends in.

Too many different verbs are distracting, as in the example above. But that doesn't mean you can't use different verbs at all. You might want to say something stronger like hissed or spat for certain situations, but not too often. And make sure the words you choose in those instances have lots of s's that create an actual hissing sound or flying spittle!

You probably know, however, that dialog tags aren't necessary for each line of dialog. Plain old dialog can be used for several lines, or gestures can be used in place of tags. Just don't overdo the gestures.

Mary ran a hand through her hair. "John, even though it's not fair to Evan, I can't live without you."
John sighed. "Mary, we'll have to tell him."
Mary eyes widened. "But there's no telling what he'll do! He might--"
"Don't worry." John embraced her. "Even though he's a convicted felon, he's been through anger management." John kissed her neck. "Everything will be fine. Trust me."

You get the message. Now, one last word on dialog tags. Make sure they really are dialog tags. People don't smile, laugh or gasp their words. Here's one last example that correctly incorporates everything discussed today:

"Oh, John, you're impossible!" Mary laughed.
He smiled. "I know."
A door opened. Evan stepped from the closet. "Just what are the two of you trying to pull?"
Mary gasped, pulling from John's embrace. "How much have you heard?"
"I've heard enough! My own brother, and the woman I love!" When Evan reached in his pocket, John stepped in front of Mary.
"What?" Evan said. "You think I have a gun?" He pulled out a granola bar and unwrapped it. "As far as I'm concerned the two of you deserve each other with all that rotten dialog!"

I suppose you've probably read enough, so I'll stop now! But I hope this tip on dialog tags has been helpful!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

"Every year thousands of Americans mistakenly refer to Cinco De Mayo as Mexico's Independence Day." Joe Baca.

If you're unsure of what this Mexican holiday celebrates, here's a brief summary. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexican militia over the French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

It's a regional holiday celebrated in the Mexican state capital city of Puebla. Cinco de Mayo is also celebrated throughout the state of Puebla with some limited recognition in other parts of Mexico and some U.S. cities with high Mexican populations.

It is not Mexico's Independence Day, which is September 16. For more information on Cinco de Mayo see

Okay, now that we've had our history lesson, let's move on to something fun! Since today celebrates a Mexican holiday, I thought it would be cool to talk about something Mexican and romantic. Like Water for Chocolate immediately came to mind.

I've never read Mexican author Laura Esquivel's novel, but after doing some reseach for today's post, I want to, soon! It has not only romance, but recipes! That's my kind of book!

The story is divided into 12 sections named after months of the year, and each section begins with a Mexican recipe. Each chapter outlines the preparation of the dish and then relates it to an event in the protagonist's life.

The phrase "like water for chocolate" comes from the Spanish "como agua para chocolate." This is a common expression in some Spanish speaking countries, and of course, inspired the title of Esquivel's novel.

In Mexico, hot chocolate is made with water, but the chocolate doesn't melt until the water hits the boiling point. The saying "like water for chocolate" alludes to this. However, it's also a metaphor that can be used to describe a state of heated passion, or anger, such as "I'm boiling mad!"

For some, it's getting to be a little warm for hot chocolate, but I drink it all year long! Here's a link to what looks like a delicious recipe for Mexican hot chocolate from Tyler Florence:
Now off to write with a mug of hot chocolate. Hope you have some, too!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reading on the Run

"Runners just do it--they run for the finish line even if someone else has reached it first." Author Unknown

Lots of people hate to workout, but the health benefits outweigh the temporary torture. Many complain that there just aren't hours in the day to fit in an exercise routine. And between household, job and family, that's understandable.

One way to fit in a workout is to do it early in the morning, or late in the evening. I'm a morning person, so I get up around 5:00 so I can squeeze in exercise before I get the kids up for school.

I enjoy running, but I don't run outside until the summer, when it's light by the time I start. So prior to that, I'm stuck on the treadmill.

Running outside is exhilarating, while running on a treadmill is just boring. You can watch TV or listen to music, but you can also read--yes, read while you run! The catch is, you have to read a large print book. With LP books, you won't lose your place while bouncing up and down.

You probably don't want to start buying them just for your workout, so use your local public library. Although the library may not have the newest selection of LP books available, you'll still have a chance to catch up on some great stories you might have missed. For instance, I'm reading Envy by Sandra Brown. She's one of my all time favorite romantic suspense writers!

Now, believe it or not, I actually look forward to getting on the treadmill! The only bad thing is, I'm so wrapped up in the story, it's hard to stop on time.