Sunday, June 24, 2012

Four weeks

RWA '12 is just four weeks away now...and this was NOT a good week with respect to progress toward my health/fitness and writing goals.

You see, I got derailed by a health issue. I can't even call it a health scare, because the odds of it being anything particularly dire are quite small. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I saw my doctor, she was able to give me some short-term help, and she's referred me to a specialist, whom I'll see tomorrow. There are good treatment options, and I've got reason to hope the simplest and least invasive of them will actually work for me.

This shouldn't have derailed me as much as it did.  At the worst of it, I was in enough discomfort that I had a reasonable excuse for skipping aerobics, but it wasn't bad enough to justify the potato chips or the extra sodas or the three days of not writing. I was never sick as such, just uncomfortable, and thanks to my internet research (yes, I self-diagnose via Google), I knew even before seeing the doctor that this was almost certainly nothing to be afraid of.  My only excuse is that the whole thing pulled my focus and wrecked my rhythm.

Planning and journaling my food was the first thing to go, and still hasn't come back. Writing came back more quickly, partly because I like writing a whole lot more than I do carefully planning and controlling my food intake, and partly because the consequences of not writing are a lot clearer: If I stop writing, I'll never sell another book. Period. End of my stories.

The food thing? Well, sure, it increases my risk of various conditions that might eventually kill me, but it's not like eating a perfect diet from this day forward guarantees I'll never have a stroke or a heart attack or develop type II diabetes or colon cancer. Genetics are at least as powerful as lifestyle. And it's not like I'm going to drop 2-3 dress sizes and reach goal weight in time for this year's RWA anyway. 2013 or 2014, maybe.

Ordinarily this is where I give up, drop the program, and eat whatever and whenever I want for another few months. But this time I mean to dust myself off and try again, not least because I've committed myself to blogging about it every Sunday between now and RWA. It's just a setback. They happen. Just because the health thing never had me spiking a fever or fearing some dreadful diagnosis doesn't mean it wasn't legitimately stressful. If nothing else, it was one more thing I had to spend energy concentrating on, and it's not like my everyday life isn't packed already.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Books read - more summer reading

52) The Scottish Prisoner, by Diana Gabaldon. This is a book you'll love if you're already well acquainted with Jamie Fraser and Lord John Grey. If not, you'd just be lost and confused. But I first read Outlander in 1995 or so and have been following the series ever since, so I was hooked. Gabaldon doesn't always get every tiny historical detail right (in this volume I found myself wanting to give her a wee lecture on how to address baronets and their children), but she weaves such a richly imagined historical world that I'm happy to set my inner nitpicker aside for the duration.

One reason I can turn off my nitpickery for Gabaldon is that Jamie and Lord John feel more realistic than most military men I run across in fictional versions of the 18th and 19th centuries.  While battle has marked them--they're different men than either would've been if they'd never seen combat--they're neither too shattered and broken to function nor hardened into heartless killing machines.  If either had Claire's ability to travel through time, I can readily imagine them fitting right in with the Napoleonic-era officers and soldiers I've researched, or, for that matter, with my brother the lieutenant colonel or my nephew the captain.  

53) The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, by Clay Johnson. A quick read, making a surprisingly convincing analogy between the obesity problem--living with bodies that evolved to survive times of famine in an age of abundant food--and the way we consume and process information in a world of constant internet access and hundreds of cable channels. I wish it had had a better copy editor, though. E.g. a military trial is a court-martial, not a Court Marshall, and there was a palpable that would've made more sense as a palatable.

54) Mockingjay. I didn't intend to read the whole thing in one evening, but somehow I did. I was spoiled going in for its grimness and bleakness, and for the major character death, so it ended up being more bearable than I expected. And, obviously, I couldn't put it down. Still, I'm feeling the urge to read something really fluffy and optimistic next.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Waterloo Dinner

A friend on my personal Facebook page suggested that the problem with my Pork Wellingtons was that I was over-rolling the puff pastry to get one sheet to fit around the tenderloin.  So this time around I used one whole sheet with enough of a second trimmed to fit, no rolling, and it turned out PERFECT.  Quite possibly the best thing I've ever cooked.

And the timing was perfect, too, since I served it at my first annual Waterloo Dinner on Saturday night. Now, I suppose you could do a Waterloo dinner with authentic 1815 foods, and I'd love to attempt such a meal someday...but I went with a Wellington as the main course and a Napoleon (aka a mille-feuille) for dessert, because, really, why wouldn't I?  As a wholly American, wholly non-aristocratic person hosting a Waterloo party, I've got to have my tongue somewhere in my cheek during this process.

Anyway, if the Wellington was the best thing I've ever cooked, the Napoleon was the best dessert I've ever bought and served.  (I was going to say the best thing until I decided that's still the time I had barbecue from Dreamland flown in for a housewarming/first book sale party, because if you can't splurge after buying your first house and selling your first book, when can you?)  The Napoleon came from Le Fournil, which is up there on my Seattle recommendations list with Tilth and Serious Pie.

I didn't get any pictures of the Wellington, but here's the Napoleon, accompanied by my desk toy/writing mascot Duke of Wellington:

The chocolate curls on the side got a little messed up in transit from the bakery, but I think you can still tell that's an awesome cake.

I plan to continue this dinner in future years.  We were even riffing on the idea of a Waterloo seder, complete with questions like, "Why is this night different from any other night? On all other nights we eat our meat plain or lightly sauced. On this night why do we wrap it in puff pastry?"  Halfway through we'd send someone to the door to look for Blucher and the Prussian army, and Mr. Fraser thinks we should close with a particularly solemn rendition of this song.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Five weeks

Just five weeks to go now till RWA 2012, and five weeks for me to stay on Weight Watchers and complete the rough draft of my novella WIP, working title Widow's Fortune.  How am I doing so far?

1. Yesterday I weighed in at Weight Watchers for the first time since April, and I was down five pounds.  Since I didn't weigh in right before going back on the program last Sunday, I don't know how much I lost in the last week vs. gradually over the past month or so. Either way, it felt encouraging.  I also met my goal of working out every weekend day plus one weekend evening.

2. I'm 2800 words into the new manuscript.  A slow start, but that's not unusual for me when just feeling my way into a story.  I wrote at least a little bit six days out of seven, and I'm getting a good grip on my hero's voice.  This week, I mean to write all seven days and work on my heroine.  From there, hopefully I'll be able to kick it into a higher gear for the next four weeks and finish the draft.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks - #29, Food Matters

I admire the philosophy behind Mark Bittman's Food Matters, though what with the day job and my writing career, I just don't have the time to embrace it wholly.  Some nights are just going to be pasta served with frozen meatballs mixed with jarred tomato sauce.

Basically, he advocates going back to a more traditional diet with far fewer animal products and refined carbs than the modern American diet.  I think he's right; it's just a challenge to balance his recommendation with a hectic lifestyle.  I'm working on it, and a few of the recipes in this book are on my go-to list.  E.g. for my work breakfast I make a batch of whole-wheat couscous at the beginning of the week flavored with nuts (pecans are tastiest IMHO), maple syrup, and dried fruit, and the Thai beef salad makes an excellent light dinner on a warm evening.

When Food Matters came up in my cookbook rotation, I decided to try one of his dessert options, No-Bake Fruit Tarts:

No-Bake Fruit Tarts

- About four c. fresh fruit, trimmed, cored, peeled, and sliced as needed (I used a mix of fresh berries)
- 1 T sugar
- 1/2 c. brandy, dessert wine, or champagne, optional (I used ice wine, though I made a tart for Miss Fraser sans alcohol)
- 1 c. almonds; or use pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, or macadamia nuts (despite my passion for pecans, I used almonds)
- 3/4 c. pitted and packed dried fruit (I used apricots)
- 4 oz. good-quality bittersweet chocolate, melted

1. Put the fruit in a bowl.  Sprinkle with the sugar, and the liquor if you're using it.  Toss gently to coat, and refrigerate while you prepare the crust.

2. Put the nuts in the food processor and pulse until ground, being careful not to overprocess. Transfer to a bowl, then put the dried fruit in the processor along with a tsp or so of water.  Pulse until finely chopped and sticky enough to adhere to the nuts (some fruit will require more water than others).  Use your hands or a rubber spatula to combine the nuts and fruit until they become a "dough."

3. Divide the dough into 8 pieces and press into 3-inch round disks on a piece of wax paper or parchment; they should be about 1/4-inch thick.  Brush each disk with the melted chocolate in a thin, even layer, and top with the fresh fruit and any accumulated juices.  Serve immediately.

As you can probably tell from the image above, my tart bases were too wide and thick, and the fruit just sort of slopped over it without sticking.  I ended up with three, one for each of us in Casa Fraser, not eight. I think I should've pulsed the nuts into something closer to almond meal.  In my zeal to avoid over-processing, I went too far the other way.  Also, it might've helped to add a smidge more water to the apricots.

The result as made was edible, but out of balance--too much dried fruit and nut, not enough chocolate and fresh fruit.  I ended up with half a bowl of fresh berries left soaking in ice wine, though Mr. Fraser and I did eat them, and I slurped up most of the berry juice and ice wine syrup they left behind.  That was pure deliciousness.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Recipe troubleshooting

One of the tastiest recipes I've ever attempted is Alton Brown's Pork Wellington from Good Eats.  It has pork tenderloin, prosciutto, apples to give it a bit of sweetness, all wrapped up in puff pastry.  What's not to love?  I want to use it as the main dish at a dinner party I'm throwing next weekend.

Only there's a slight problem.  Every time I make it, when I slice it, it doesn't come out in neat, cohesive rings like it's supposed to.  The pastry just kind of falls off and falls apart, all soupy and sloppy, and while it still tastes wonderful, it doesn't look like Good Eats.  And, dang it, if I'm serving it to someone besides the three of us here at House Fraser, I want an elegant presentation.

So...what am I doing wrong?  I've tried to follow the recipe as exactly as I can.  Mr. Fraser thinks it might help to cook it on a rack instead of directly on a parchment-lined sheet pan.  Or could I be overrolling the pastry?  It does come out pretty flat, not puffy at all.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Six weeks

Six weeks from Tuesday, I'll be on a plane headed to Anaheim for RWA12.  And I want to do two things with those six weeks:

1) I want to finish the first draft of the novella I just started.  That way I can whip it into submission-ready form by sometime in August and move straight to my next goal of turning in a proposal for my next novel-length project by October or so--all the better to meet my big picture goal of having at least two releases every year starting in 2013.

(Incidentally, my stretch goal is to finish my first draft by 6/30 and submit it before I leave for RWA, but that assumes that a) I can tell the story at ~20K rather than, say, 25-30K, and b) I can plow straight through without backtracking to correct the plot or being slowed down by a shoulder pain flare-up.  So I'm not going to call myself a failure if I don't meet it.)

2) I want to stick with Weight Watchers and regular exercise, which I'm defining as doing an in-home aerobics workout Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and at least one weekday evening.

All year I've been stopping and starting again with my nutrition and fitness goals, but at least I've figured out why it's so hard to stay on task.  Mostly, I'm just so busy that I can't do the perfect version of eating right and exercising.  I can't work out every weeknight, or even on a more regular schedule like every other day.  I buy fresh fruits and vegetables yet snack on junk anyway because junk requires no prep time.  But then I don't want to do things like buy precut fruit because it seems lazy and insufficiently frugal.

Thing is, I'm wasting money anyway by buying food I don't eat.  I'd be better off, nutritionally and financially, buying fruits and vegetables in whatever form I can just grab and eat as simply as a bag of potato chips or a cookie.  So that's what I mean to do, for the next six weeks--which I hope is both a short enough time that I'll stick with it and long enough that I'll see actual benefits in weight loss and improved energy to make me want to keep going after RWA.

I'd love to have a few accountability partners.  Your goals don't have to be related to writing or diet/exercise, but we could check in with each other once a week, cheer each other on, and if you'll be in Anaheim too, maybe we can get together for a drink or dinner to celebrate our successes.

Who's in?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Books read - start to summer reading

I've signed up for the Seattle Public Library's Adult Summer Reading Program.  Every three books I read this summer, I earn another entry in a drawing to win a Kindle.  Mind you, I already own a perfectly good second-generation regular Kindle AND a Fire, but this is still enough to get my competitive juices flowing.  If I win, I'll just give it to Miss Fraser (who otherwise will get her first e-reader for Christmas) or use it as a raffle basket prize at ECWC.  That said, I've given myself something of a handicap in speed-reading this summer in that I've started reading War and Peace on my lunch hours at work, so that's half an hour a day not going to nice short-to-medium-length novels.

Anything I finish between June 1 and August 25 counts toward the reading challenge.  (August 25 because the library shuts down for a week before Labor Day because of budget cuts, which has been going on since the dot-com bust recession back in 2001 or so, and I still think it's depressing.  Really, it's not helping the economy to furlough a bunch of librarians and shut down a service that for many is their only access to books, information, and the internet, and what we need is more stimulus and to save worry about deficits for when unemployment gets back down to 5% or so, but if I keep going this post will get very political very fast.)

Anyway, books.  I finished #48 before the challenge started, so I've just earned my first entry in the drawing.

48) If Walls Could Talk, by Lucy Worsley. An overview of how the major rooms in our houses and their furnishings and functions have changed over the past few centuries, focusing on Britain but with occasional comments on American and French homes. It doesn't go into a lot of depth, but it makes you think on how changeable the most basic functions of everyday life actually are.

49) Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March, by Adam Zamoyski. I've never been an admirer of Napoleon's, and every time I read about that campaign I want to go back in time and just scream at him or something. So many wrong-headed choices that led to so much death. That said...I now have some story ideas based around the invasion.

50) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise Part 2, by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, and Bryan Konietzko. Second in a graphic novel trilogy filling in some of the blanks between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and likely to be the only overlap point between my summer reading and my daughter's.

51) Too Hot to Touch, by Louisa Edwards. Not only does Edwards write a sexy romance, her love of food and big city life shines through. Her books are among the few contemporary romances I seek out.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks - #28, Express Lane Meals

When it comes to books, movies, and TV, I don't have guilty pleasures because I don't see why I should feel guilty about reading or watching anything purely for enjoyment or relaxation.  In fact, I'm outspoken about the whole range of what I read and watch in part because it's so fun to confound people's expectations of what a woman, or a romance author, or a Penn alum, or an adult, or any other group I'm a part of, is "supposed" to enjoy.

That said, I feel some of that guilty pleasure bashfulness about admitting I own two of Rachael Ray's cookbooks.  I can be a bit of a food snob sometimes.  While Mr. Fraser and I are hardly rich, eating out a couple times a year at places like Tilth and Boat Street is one of our main indulgences.  I don't ask for jewelry and such for birthdays and anniversaries--I'd rather have a really nice, really unique dinner.  We celebrated my first sale with a dinner at Canlis, and I've promised Mr. Fraser dinner at The French Laundry should I ever make a major best-seller list.  (Though they haven't cropped up yet in the rotation, we have two Keller cookbooks--Ad Hoc at Home and The French Laundry Cookbook.)

The thing is, as much as I'd love to devote long hours to working my way through those Keller books, cooking is a lower priority than my day job (which supports my food, shelter, and transportation habits) and my passion for writing.  In fact, most days I just want to get a reasonably tasty, reasonably healthy dinner on the table with enough time left over to write, work out, and even unwind a little before bedtime.  And that's what Rachael Ray's cookbooks, her whole approach, is for. 

So, you know what?  I'm not going to feel guilty about that, either.  I'm not a chef, and I am busy.  Why shouldn't I work from cookbooks that are designed for people in my circumstances, especially when, as Ray's generally do, they're based around actual fresh ingredients that cook quickly rather than processed shortcuts?  I do think Ray's earlier cookbooks are better than her later ones, and her pasta recipes are better than the rest of her repertoire.  And the EVOO thing drives me crazy.  It doesn't take that much longer to say extra-virgin olive oil.

All that said, Cookbook #28 was Express Lane Meals, and my chosen recipe was...

Drunken Tuscan Pasta

1 bottle Tuscan red table wine such as Rosso di Montalcino or Chianti (I just used a bottle of Oregon pinot noir we happened to have in the house)
Coarse salt
1 lb. spaghetti or other long-cut pasta
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 lb. sliced pancetta or bacon 
3 portobello mushroom caps, thinly sliced
2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
A couple pinches red pepper flakes
4-5 cups chopped dark greens, your choice of chard, escarole, spinach, or kale (I used chard)
Black pepper, to taste
1/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a handful plus more to pass at the table

Pour the entire bottle of wine into a large pot.  Add water and salt to fill the pot up as you would to cook pasta. Bring the wine and water to a boil over high heat, add pasta, and cook to al dente, ladling out some cooking liquid for the sauce before draining the pasta.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add 2 T oil, then chop and add the pancetta.  Brown the pieces until golden at the edges and transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate. Add the mushrooms to the same skillet, season with the rosemary, and cook until they are deeply golden, 6-8 min. Push the mushrooms to the sides of the pan, add the remaining oil, and add garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook them for a minute or so, then blend in the mushrooms.  Add the greens and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. When the greens have wilted, add a couple of ladles of the pasta cooking liquid and cook for a minute to reduce it a little.

Drain the pasta well and add to the skillet. Add the pancetta and a handful of cheese to the pan.  Toss the pasta for a minute or so to absorb the remaining liquid. Adjust seasonings and serve.

It looked like this.  The pasta isn't whole wheat--cooking in red wine darkens it:

And it tasted delicious.  Nothing to feel guilty about at all.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Emerald City Writers Conference 2012 open for registration!

Speaking from my insider's perspective as the assistant registration chair, I can tell you that between the first three days of registration and the people we know are coming as speakers, we're already over a third of the way to being full up.  So if you'd like to come, and especially if you want high priority for an editor/agent appointment, register now!


2012 Emerald City Writers' Conference – Registration now Open

Be part of one of the largest regional writing conferences on the West Coast!  The Emerald City Writers' Conference, held October 26-28th at the Westin Hotel in Bellevue Washington, is sponsored by the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America and is designed to meet the needs not only of romance writers, but writers of all genres.

ECWC features a rich schedule of workshops to help you enhance your writing skills, increase your marketing savvy and build your technical know-how. Workshop presenters include Cherry Adair, Susan Andersen, Stella Cameron, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, Jane Porter, and more.  A list of workshops and a tentative schedule are available at

Keynote speakers are NYT best-selling author VICTORIA ALEXANDER, story and script consultant, author and lecturer MICHAEL HAUGE, and three-time RITA recipient SUSAN WIGGS.

Editors from Avon, Ellora's Cave, Entangled, Montlake/Amazon, and Tor will be attending, along with agents from Janklow & Nesbit Associates, The Seymour Agency, and Waxman Literary Agency.

Tons of fun activities are planned also, including a Bookfair, a Saturday night Glow Ball, games, raffles, and door prizes!

Last year's ECWC sold out early – so don't delay!  Register now at: