Writing Wednesday: Building your Toolbox

Putting the other book on the shelf for a while to find a new heroine and plot means starting a new book in the meantime. And that means pulling out my trusty writer’s toolbox — and some wine and chocolate — and start  playing with my characters.

The toolbox is actually a bookshelf. I thought I’d share the books that I find indispensable as I write.

First up is The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit by Pam McCutcheon and Michael Waite. If you write on your own, this is a great book and deck of cards to get your creativity flowing. Each card has a descriptive word on it like greed, honesty or power. You deal cards for your hero and heroine, plot, antagonist, etc. For instance, if you draw honesty for your heroine, is it a benefit for her or a fatal flaw?

East Tarot Guide by Marcia Masino. Yes tarot. Yes really. I don’t particularly care if you believe in the cards. When you do a reading for a character, you force yourself to consider what the cards are saying. You may agree with them, or you may say, “No, that’s not it at all. The reason he’s that way is because…” Either way, you get something to work with.

The Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Tami Cowden, Carol LaFever and Sue Viders. This is one of my favorites because it looks at the sixteen archetypes and how they play together. Want to see the character traits of two beta personalities? It’s here, Want to see what some of the basic issues would be between your alpha hero and equally alpha heroine? It’s here, and it’s a great starting point for building your characters. Yes, this is where I tend to start my plotting.

GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Deb Dixon. Awesome. If you ever get to hear her speak on this or the hero’s journey, spend the money. It’s well worth it. In this book, Dixon uses movies you’re familiar with the explain why a character’s goal, motivation and conflict are key to writing believable characters. Once you read this, you’ll start dissecting everything you read that you love — or hate — and you’ll regularly find that the problem is because one of these things is missing. Don’t believe me? Go read Twilight and tell me what Bella’s GMC are. Good luck finding them.

These are my go-to books. If you’re looking for an all-around book on writing romance, check out Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger. former Executive Editor at Harlequin.

I’m off to plot a book. Good luck building your toolbox…and your book.



Video Game Addict

I had a list of stuff to do this weekend. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. On my deathbed, I will be making a To Do list. Even as I’m writing this blog, I’m mentally coming up with stuff for today’s list. Take Advil is pretty high on that list. In fact, it was number one on the list when I was laying in bed, listening to the rain that is, in part, the reason for today’s migraine. But I digress…

There was a list. Unfortunately, like so many of us, my lists are usually made up of things like clean the bathroom and make a million dollars, and rarely have stuff on there like have fun with the kids. No biggie. The kids roll their eyes when there’s too much house stuff and not enough fun stuff, so it usually balances out. Because, while I make lists, I’m not the best at following them these days. I’m easily corruptible.

On Saturday the list could pretty much be broken down to: fix everything. I also have delusions of grandeur. Of course we can weed and mow five acres of grass and gardens, clean the house and lose 15 pounds in 8 hours! We started out pretty well. With three of us working in the garden, we managed to get 1.5 hours of weeding done in 30 minutes. We rock!

But in doing the weeding, lost in the weeds we found a mostly dead tomato plant and a watermelon plant that might have been a victim to some wild Round-Up spray earlier in the week. Add buy replacement plants to the list.

Heading inside, I took a shower. That was the downfall. If I’d stayed sweaty and nasty, there’s a chance — a slim chance — that I would have stayed on target. But while I was getting cleaned up, I remembered Scout Son’s desperate pleas to buy Risk Factions for the Xbox. Which required information from a more knowledgeable source (the guys at GameStop). And if I was hitting them up for knowledge after getting the plants, then I might as well trade in old games, have Scout Son show me what game he wants for his birthday, and you know, hit two yarn stores in my never-ending search for the perfect yarn for a blanket for me. Ha! New list. Better list. Much more fun list!

Hours later Scout Son and I return with xBox points in hand, answers in brain, and a plan: beat Snarky Daughter in Risk. SD didn’t look so happy about it, so I suggested that after that she could teach me how to play Epic Mickey. That made her day.

I’m not allowed to play video games. I love them. I fall into them and come out later wondering where June went. So, the idea that I wanted to play video games with them for hours was alien. First we did some of the icky cleaning found on the icky grown up list. Then I ordered pizza. And then I took over the world.

I’d be proud of beating everyone in Risk, but I followed that up with five hours of Disney characters kicking my butt. I limited myself to one hour on Sunday. And I got off the system after an hour and a half, which is better than when I picked up the book that morning for 20 minutes of reading and finished it three hours later.

Today I’m picking up the icky list again. After all, the kids leave for a week tonight and that means the game systems are all mine in the evenings. Wahahaha! Is knocking their high scores off of all the games a reasonable addition to the To Do list?


Kids in the Kitchen: I Scream, You Scream…

“Hey mom,” said Scout Son the other day. “What’s that?” He pointed to an appliance next to the toaster that had been used maybe three times in the past 15 years.

Mental groan. “Um, an ice cream machine.”

Stunned silence was followed by, “We have an ice cream maker?”

“I think technically it’s a gelato maker. Your grandfather thought we’d like it.”

More silence as he mulled over this latest parental failure.

“We have an ice cream maker and we don’t use it? That’s not right.”

photo of Gelato Boy separating eggs
Scout Son, aka Gelato Boy, separating eggs for the ice cream.

“Look, we have a gelato machine and we don’t use it. It’s a pain to clean up, you have to cook a custard in order to make ice cream and all three of us have to agree on a flavor. Or, I can go to the grocery store, point at the freezer and you and your sister can each buy a half gallon of whatever, and I can get a pint of Hagen Dazs. It’s easier.”

Now, here’s the problem. Yes, it’s easier. But that kid of mine isn’t stupid. Since coming back from Italy two years ago, we dream about gelato. All rules went out the window while in Italy in July. Gelato for breakfast. Gelato for second breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Dessert. If I could have gotten them to float a scoop of vanilla gelato in my cappuccino every morning, it would have been the perfect meal.

Yes, we take ice cream very seriously. And I knew what would happen if we started using the ice cream maker. I’d have to make ice cream. A lot. Because once you have real ice cream, you don’t want to go back.

Back to the conversation at hand.

“We should make some,” says Scout Son. “Chocolate.”

“No, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to make Salted Caramel from Cooking Light so I can either put the “try it” recipe in the binder of good stuff or in the recycling bin.” So, in the interest of household cleanup, we made ice cream.

I know, that whole ice cream in Cooking Light thing threw you. I keep telling you. They’ve put taste back into food, which means by default, a little fat, but compared to that crap we’d been buying at the store, we’re in good shape. This stuff is so rich you don’t want more than a half a cup. Seriously.

Now we get into why I don’t make ice cream. You need things like candy thermometers. Which I have. But to me, you should just dump all the stuff in the machine, walk away and come back later to ice cream. Which is pretty much what we do… after we cook and cool the custard that becomes ice cream when mixed and frozen. Why this is mentally more difficult than cookie dough is beyond me.

photo of Gelato Boy
After dinner, Gelato Boy prepares to try the final product.

Long story short, Scout Son was fascinated with the whole concept of having to heat the cream and brown sugar to a certain temperature, then add stuff and get that to a higher temperature. Note to self: get the kid some kitchen thermometers. Snarky Daughter wandered in halfway through the process, stared at the saucepan and said, “That’s all that goes into caramel?” Truthfully, I have no idea, but I know it’s the base for pralines, which are basically the same thing.

And finally, the notes on the recipe. It calls for 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. I’d make it a scant teaspoon. The salt gives it a kick and without it I think this would be too sweet, but ours ended up a little salty to my taste (for just caramel ice cream, they suggest dropping the salt to 1/8 teaspoon). We also omitted the flake salt that you can sprinkle over the top.

Caramel isn’t Scout Son’s favorite, so he hasn’t been inhaling this be he does like it. And he was thrilled to see a recipe in the machine’s manual for chocolate gelato. All through Italy I told him there were other flavors, but he still doesn’t believe me.


But it occurs to me, it’s summer, and on the other side of the toaster, there’s a cappuccino maker. I think it’s time to flavor my coffee this afternoon…



Writing Wednesday: Drastic Measures

I tried. I really did. I took a great plot and tried to write the book. The problem? I hate the plot.

Not a little dislike. I hate the plot.

I hate it so much that over the past six weeks, I’ve stripped wallpaper, redecorated my daughter’s bedroom, sewed things, looked for work, looked for clients, planted a garden, weeded it twice, cleaned the carpets, taken a group of girls to the zoo, and today I’m about to go out and spray poison ivy. On a side note, it’s only taken me this long to realize that the stuff that will kill the poison ivy will also probably kill the weeds… The denial has to be pretty strong when you don’t want to obliterate weeds with a simple spray.

There’s a point where you have to face your demons. Today, in honor of Writing Wednesday, I am killing the book. I have to. It all started with a princess. Well, turns out, I really don’t want to write about her. While the idea was great — is great — on index cards, every time I sit down to write this story, a voice in my head (the hero) says, “No. Seriously?!!? We’ve talked about this. She’s not for me.”

Now, usually that’s what they both say on paper and we all watch in fascination as the story proves the couple wrong and they live happily ever after. But this time, I think he’s right. She’s not for him. Or she’s not for me. There aren’t very many things I’m not willing to write about, but it appears princesses are currently on the list.

I’ve tried re-plotting it twice now and I can’t break the cycle because I’m too close to the story. Usually I can walk away for a few days and strip wallpaper and have inspiration strike, but on this one, I’m pushing too hard. I know it, the characters know it, my critique partner must know it, so I’m accepting it.

The book is part of a trilogy, but lucky for me, they don’t have to be in a particular order. In fact, at one point I thought this book would be the last, not the middle in the series. So this week, I get to find out why Joe is in the coffee shop (actually, I already know that one), and figure out why he’d fall for the girl who walks through his door.

No, that’s not a spoiler. It’s part of the Heiress at the Door series. I suppose she could climb through his window…or maybe the princess will do that in book three. If she’s still a princess.

Welcome to the joys of writing. In college I painted my room to avoid a paper. As you can see, not much has changed. I’m headed out to obliterate the poison ivy and mull over my new idea. What do you do to avoid the unavoidable?



Summer Vacation Should be Mandatory

Summer vacation. Remember that one?

Snarky Daughter started it before Memorial Day. Scout Son’s last day in seventh grade is Friday.

I’d forgotten how awesome summer vacation was. Until my contract ended in March. I’ve now been on summer vacation for going on three months. I’d like to tell you all it sucks. I mean money is tighter than tight, and while I dream of the beach, I can’t afford it, no matter how I run the numbers. Although I’m running to the store later for a lottery ticket, just in case I can win my way out of my financial crisis.

But, even with that hanging over my head, it’s still a great time of year to be off the clock. I walk every morning and listen to the birds. OK, I listen to some crazy woman from Prevention’s Walk Off Weight program telling me to walk faster, but that’s only in one ear. The other ear listens to the hawk overhead and prays he hasn’t figured out I have chickens in the yard. So far, so good.

I get to garden for a while each day instead of cramming it all into Saturday. And I get to play with my kids. Tomorrow I’m headed to the zoo with Girl Scouts. When Scout Son gets out, I can’t wait to play volleyball and badminton with him. I’m caught up on Boy Scout merit badges and rank advancements and both kids’ sashes are up to date. Shocking, I know.

But I’ve pretty much decided that everyone needs at least a month of summer vacation each year because of all the stuff you can cross of your To Do list. I’ve painted, cleaned, sorted, cleaned, stripped wallpaper, cleaned… you get the idea. Closets that I’ve been meaning to get to for years are straightened out. I’ve picked up knitting Snarky Daughter’s blanket since she dropped it two rows in two years ago.

In case you missed it, I’m also a lot happier since I’ve been on vacation. I’m more rested and exercising more, which always puts me in a better mental place. And that’s the real reason we all need summer vacation. To go play in the kiddie pool, relax and remember why fun is important and how much fun family is.

Enjoy your evening. I’m headed into the living room to battle my kids in a Super Monkey Ball race.