It’s easy to feel guilty about not writing over the holidays. We’re overwhelmed with festive meal preparations, gift shopping, out-of-town guests, and myriad social activities. Yet everything we do can be considered fodder for the imagination. Be observant, note the characters around you, and describe your surroundings in your head. One of these items might prick your story brain and inspire a scene later on.
As an example, I recently strolled through the Longwood Festival. Imagine my surprise when I happened upon Judy’s Dolls, a site I’d looked up online as research for Star Tangled Murder, #18 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, interviews a suspect at her boutique doll store. I modeled some of the descriptions on what I’d read online. It was delightful to step inside this Victorian house to see the actual shop and meet the proprietor. As Marla has a son, and I have a grandson, I’d wondered if they had gifts for boys. And yes, they did. I bought a couple of items and put them away for Hanukkah.
Next, we strolled the lanes of tents and admired the craft items for sale. I found a unique handmade trivet and bought one as I’m always needing them for dinner parties.
Then we came upon a hat vendor. Having seen one before at the Apopka festival, I was reminded of a scene just like this one in Star Tangled Murder. Marla attends a July Fourth town festival where she encounters a hat lady. The woman shares gossip about one of the murder suspects.
This is why as a writer, we should not discount our experiences even if it seems like we are not writing. Everything we do becomes potential research for our books.
With the holidays rapidly approaching, you’ll be thinking about menu items for your festive dinners. These items are some favorites of mine, aside from the traditional roast turkey meal. Personally, I look forward to the leftovers more than anything. These are dishes you can try on other nights or add them to your holiday menu.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
This soup serves as a starter dish for a dinner party or can be a meal in itself with a salad on the side. It’s perfect for chilly fall evenings.
Melt butter over medium heat in large soup pot. Add onion and cook until translucent. Then add squash and carrots. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Add spices and cook until vegetables start to caramelize. Add chicken broth and thyme. Simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove from heat and discard thyme sprigs. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. (It can be frozen at this stage.) Stir in molasses to blend. Add half-and-half and mix to combine. Ladle into individual bowls and serve hot.
If frozen, defrost gradually and then reheat in large pot. Stir in molasses and half-and-half and serve as above.
I love roast turkey same as anyone, but this is an alternative if you don’t feel like roasting a whole bird or even making a boneless breast of turkey. You can slice the tenderloins into serving sizes and make a nice presentation with the sauce. If the liquids get absorbed during cooking and the tenderloins aren’t done, add more broth.
2 lb. turkey tenderloins
2 Tbsp. butter
½ cup chicken broth
½ tsp. dried thyme
4 Tbsp. molasses
2 Tbsp. light rum
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown turkey on both sides in melted butter in large skillet. Remove tenderloins from pan and place into greased baking dish. Deglaze pan with chicken broth and pour drippings over turkey. Sprinkle with thyme. In a separate bowl, combine molasses and rum. Spoon over tenderloins. Bake turkey in oven uncovered for 45 minutes or until cooked through. Slice and serve warm. Makes 6-8 servings.
RITZ CRACKER DRESSING
I use the terms ‘stuffing’ and ‘dressing’ interchangeably. However, if you want to be technical, stuffing is a seasoned mixture of bread, vegetables, and oil or butter that is stuffed inside poultry. Dressing is cooked in a separate dish on the side. In the South, cornbread dressings are popular. This recipe is inherited from my mother.
3 or more rolls of Ritz Crackers
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 eggs or ½ cup egg substitute
8 oz. container chopped onions
8 oz. container chopped celery
6 oz. matchstick carrots
White wine (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Crumple crackers into a large bowl. Add eggs, mix, and set aside. In a frypan, sauté chopped onions and celery in olive oil until wilted. Add to crackers along with grated carrots. Sprinkle in salt and garlic powder to taste. If you want to moisten the mixture further, add some white wine. Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes.
SWEET POTATOES WITH MARSHMALLOWS
You all have your favorite sweet potato recipes for the holidays, and here’s mine. It’s quick and easy, which is how I like to cook.For a larger crowd, add extra cans of potatoes.
(2) 40-oz. can sweet potatoes or yams
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup light corn syrup
1 bag mini marshmallows
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain and mash potatoes and put into large bowl. Stir in melted butter and corn syrup. Pour into greased 9x13x2 inch baking dish. Sprinkle marshmallows on top and bake 20 minutes or so, until dish is heated through. Remove when marshmallows are lightly browned. Serves 8 to 10.
Personally, I prefer jellied cranberry sauce and buy the cans for expediency. This recipe is easy if you want a healthier version.
12 oz. bag fresh cranberries
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
1 cup water
In a medium pot, mix all ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes or until cranberries are softened. Cool and store in refrigerator until served. Makes 2 cups.
This is a light dessert if you want an alternative to pumpkin pie.
1 ½ cups fat free milk
1 oz. package sugar free instant butterscotch pudding mix
½ cup canned pumpkin
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground allspice
½ cup fat free whipped topping
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Whisk milk and pudding mix in large bowl for two minutes. Set aside. In another bowl, combine the pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. Add to the pudding mixture. Gently fold in whipped topping until blended. Spoon into individual dessert cups. Sprinkle nutmeg on top. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 4 to 6.
For more recipes, check out A Bad Hair Day Cookbookavailable at most online bookstores. With 160+ recipes, plus anecdotes and cooking tips offered by savvy sleuth Marla Vail, this award-winning title will become a handy reference guide for quick and easy meals.
Deals and Steals
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Attorney Sarina Bretton believes in facts, not fantasy, until Captain Teir Reylock of the Coalition Defense League kidnaps her from Earth. His mission is to deliver her to the High Council for her marriage to Lord Cam’brii. It is through this union that she will become the legendary Great Healer and save the galaxy from a devastating plague.
At the capital city of Bimordus Two, Sarina discovers the wonders of an advanced civilization. She also awakens to her desire for Captain Reylock, who has been assigned as her personal bodyguard. Meanwhile, danger follows the betrothed couple as enemies try to prevent their marriage from taking place.
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Hairstylist Marla Shore is eager to introduce her fiancé, Detective Dalton Vail, to her extended family over Thanksgiving weekend at Sugar Crest Plantation Resort. Their festive turkey dinner turns into a serious bad hair day when she finds her aunt suffocated in bed. Aunt Polly isn’t the only ghost at this haunted hotel. Marla uncovers secrets that should have stayed buried. It’ll take all her sleuthing skills to untangle the clues and root out the killer, even if it means exposing her family’s unsavory past.
The Space 220 Restaurant at Epcot in Disney World is an out-of-this-world restaurant. It’s so popular that it is nearly impossible to get an online reservation. We went in person on a Friday morning at 10:30 and lucked out. They had several slots available for lunch. This themed dining establishment is located next to the Mission: SPACE Pavilion. As you come into the park by Spaceship Earth, veer left toward the attractions on that side of the park.
At the designated time, we gained entry and were given boarding passes at a neon-rimmed reception desk.
From there, we lined up to ride on the space elevator. This would take us to the space station 220 miles up from Earth. A small group of us went inside. There’s a round rail in the center where we held on, with viewports at the bottom of this circle and overhead on the ceiling. With a rumbling vibration, we took off. Florida receded below as we shot toward the sky.
The station came into view above and grew larger until we docked. Here we entered a snaking utilitarian corridor. One section rotated with hydroponic vegetables reminiscent of the Land Pavilion.
A server escorted us to our table. Out the wide set of windows, we saw the curvature of Earth.
I ordered a Planetary Punch – Bacardi Silver, Malibu, Blue Curacao, Guava, and Coconut. The purple beverage bubbled and had an intriguing taste.
For $55 each, we had a two-course fixed price lunch with an appetizer and entree. Annual passholders get 10% off lunch only. Dinner is $79 and includes different choices of appetizers and entrees plus dessert. Here is the lunch menu. You can see the dinner menu here. Lunch starts at 11:30 am and Dinner at 4:00 pm. Remember that you need a reservation to Epcot for the day plus an admission ticket or pass.
I chose the Space Greens which was huge – Bibb and Red Leaf Lettuce, Honey Crisp Apples, Radish, Cornbread Croutons, Bacon Bites, Warm Bacon Vinaigrette. The lettuce was so fresh it might have been grown right there in the hydroponic garden.
My lunch was the Spaceghetti & Shrimp – Sautéed Shrimp, Spaghetti, Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Garlic Beurre Blanc. Richard had the Rocket Flame Seared Tuna – Fennel Spice-Rubbed Tuna Loin, Eggplant Caponata, Arugula, Aged Balsamic. Sue and Mark both had the Galactic Miso Salmon – Miso Glazed Salmon, Glazed Rainbow Carrots, Edamame, Celeriac Puree.
While the food was tasty, I wouldn’t return based on the meal alone, although the dinner menu is very appealing. However, the out-of-this-world space station experience would definitely be worth another visit. You can go to the lounge without a reservation if you don’t mind standing in line for a spot, but there’s limited seating and it faces away from the viewports.
As we dined, suited spacemen floated past and various spacecraft came and went. It was awesome to imagine yourself dining on a real space station. Space elevators have been elemental to science fiction novels since I’ve been reading them, and our imagination often fuels invention.
The ride down to Earth was even more exhilarating than the one up to the station. It seemed real as we jostled with movement and sped down toward the land far below. With a gentle thump, we reached the terminal and entered reality once more.
For a more immersive experience, there’s always the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Adventure. That’s a mind-blowing two-night stay in the Star Wars Universe. If not for the cost … well, maybe our kids will get there someday.
In the meantime, Space 220 Restaurant offers a stellar adventure. We were glad to enjoy it with Sue and Mark Bernstein. Next time, we’ll have to try this place for dinner.
Epcot Food and Wine Festival is the main reason we get annual passes to Disney World. It’s fun to stroll among the food booths at Epcot’s World Showcase to sample new dishes. A number of cookbooks in my collection feature previous festivals and include many of their popular dishes.
Here is what we sampled this time:
Grilled Sweet and Spicy Bush Berry Shrimp at Australia with pineapple, onions, peppers, and snap peas.
Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake with Irish Cream Liqueur Custard at Ireland
Teriyaki Chicken Bun at Japan with chicken, vegetables and teriyaki sauce.
Chesapeake Crab Slider at The American Adventure with tangy coleslaw and Cajun remoulade.
Warm Raclette Swiss Cheese with Riesling poached pears, red wine braised figs, candied pecans, honey, and cranberry toast. I liked this dish, except for the toast that was too hard to bite.
Alps Wine Flight – I liked the white wine, Huber Vision Gruner Veltliner from Austria. The rosé, Cave De La Cote Rosé Gamay from Romand was also good. I didn’t care for the red choice, René Favre Dole from Chamoson.
Flavors From Fire over by Test Track – We shared the Smoked Corned Beef on crispy potato chips with melted cheese. My blurry photo doesn’t do this dish justice, but it was delicious. It was more than enough for the two of us.
The Florida Writers Conference 2022 took place on Oct. 28-30 at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs. It’s a great event for meeting other Florida writers from around the state and for exchanging writing and marketing tips.
Since this was a relatively pared down conference compared to previous years, I didn’t attend every session. The booming attendance this year hopefully will encourage conference planners to resume their multi-tract format from previous years. I admit to skipping certain topics in this case that didn’t interest me with no alternative sessions available.
The first thing I attended was the Friday evening cocktail party. This got quite a crowd and I met a lot of interesting people. It was fun to run into some familiar faces, including fellow FWMA members. The Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America has their own annual conference, SleuthFest, held in July in Deerfield Beach.
Here I am with my husband Richard, then Sarah N. Fisk, Marlene Stringer, Al Pessin, and Elaine Viets.
Saturday morning after a hot buffet breakfast, I went to a session on Screenwriting with speaker Jaimie Engle.
Here are some things I gleaned in summary. Any errors are my own:
Follow industry people on LinkedIn.
Enter screenwriting contests.
Action & Dialogue make up a screenplay. Story & Character are the focus of novels.
Specify isolated visual moments for action in a screenplay. Cut on an action and resume on an action. Go from Point A to Point B and let the viewer discern what happened in between. Story is told in between the shots.
Dialogue should have layered character nuances.
Have people say what they want to find out what they need.
Scene changes are location changes, and this costs money.
Start by figuring out:
Character needs or wish song
What’s the win?
Give it, take it away, then watch what happens.
What’s the win for the character if they get what they want? What happens if you take it away? Or if they get what they want, what else are they going to need next?
Workshop on Dialogue with Julie G. Murphy
Julie discussed how dialogue comes from the writer’s subconscious. It should be invisible, create tension and reveal character.
Royal Palm Literary Awards
The gala cocktail party and dinner took place on Saturday evening. My husband and I joined friends Al Pessin, Elaine Viets, and Daphne Nikolopoulos at a table. We had a delicious dinner while waiting for the ceremony to begin. Congratulations to Al, Elaine, and Daphne who all won awards. I am relegated to Finalist status for the third time in the mystery category.
Sunday morning’s agent panel included Arielle Haughee, Marilyn Allen, Marlene Stringer, Sarah N. Fisk, Jae Worthy Johnson, and Stephanie Katz. I liked their advice that they look for “The Hook, The Book, and the Cook.” The hook is obvious. The Book is about the story and the writing mechanics. And the Cook is about the author. Why are you qualified to write this book and how do you plan to market it? If it’s nonfiction, have a one-liner tagline and offer comp titles that are recent and get good ratings on Amazon. Make the proposal interesting to read. Submission guidelines are on their sites.
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Once you’ve finished the latest revisions on your novel and sent it to your editor, what then? Do you begin work on the next book? Not yet. This is the best time to write all the blogs for a blog tour. The story is fresh is your mind, so it’s prudent to write these articles while you’re close to the book.
A blog tour may include the following:
A Day in the Life
If you’re smart, you’ve been jotting down possible blog topics as you write the book. These can include research subjects, what inspired your story, how you selected this setting, the writing process, or bonus materials such as world-building details.
I start with the research topics and write three to five posts based on these ideas. For my upcoming mystery, STAR TANGLED MURDER, these articles include History and Mystery, Tea and Murder, Clues and Buttons, Ghost Stories and Lost Treasure, and Independence Day Celebrations. Whatever doesn’t get used on the blog tour can be applied to my personal blog.
Next, write A Day in the Life for your main character as another post. What’s her typical day like? How is it disrupted by a murder? How does she plan to deal with it? This is written from her viewpoint and meant to entice the reader with a sample of your writing and tone.
If you want to encourage comments, have each guest post end with a question. Consider offering a giveaway on these guest articles from among the commenters. You’ll also want to offer a grand prize for the entire book tour, perhaps a Rafflecopter for a gift basket, signed print copy, or other related items. If you do your own contest, you’ll need to supply the code to the tour organizer. I like to do it myself because then I get the mailing list.
At the bottom of each post, after the final question and giveaway, I give my story blurb with buy links and then add a section called About the Author with a short bio and social media contacts.
Once these pieces are written, choose two to four excerpts and save them as separate files. These may be requested by your blog tour organizer.
For the interviews, you’ll have to wait until the tour organizer sends you these from the individual hosts. In the meantime, you can draw up your own interview if so desired. Use it to answer questions ahead of time that you figure will be asked, such as How did you come up with this idea? Or What’s coming next for you? As an alternative, you can add your own author interview at the end of your book as bonus material. Or submit it to a podcaster as part of your marketing plan.
Once you have your blog tour pieces assembled, you’ll need the metadata to go along with them. This includes your book description with ISBN numbers and buy links. Regarding your book blurb, have long and short versions available. These will be used in any Spotlight-type posts with your author bio and social media links.
When you’ve completed your blog posts and any associated materials, you’re ready to move on. Now’s a good time to write your launch party posts and reader discussion guide. For more ideas, Go Here to learn what else to do. If you’re a writer, how do you spend the time while waiting for editorial feedback?