Thursday, April 14, 2022

Cover reveal!

Publishing is a sluggish craft, but the big wheel keeps on turning. THE RAT QUEEN has a new cover design, and I gotta say, I LOVE IT. Advance review copies (ARCs) should be out any day now, and I’m enjoying the weird melange of hope, dread, joy, and nausea that arrives with every new publication.

THE RAT QUEEN is new territory for me. It started out as a horror novel based on a childhood nightmare, but as the story unfolded it became a meditation on the nature of the human conscience disguised as a fairy tale composed of fairy tales, which is kind of what fairy tales are—and if you can unscramble that train wreck of a sentence you might like it.

Here’s the cover. Pub date is October 11th. Preorders much appreciated!

Cover art by Anastasia Suvarova

Thursday, December 30, 2021

It's been a while...

…since my last book. Coming up on three years. Not that I haven’t been writing. Just writing more slowly. And also delayed…by…supply…line…issues in the publishing industry. You remember the great toilet paper “shortage”? It ain’t just the paper you wipe your butt with that’s hard to come by. I’m hearing a lot of weeping from authors whose books got great reviews, or won an award, or hit a bestseller list, or whose aunt wants to buy ten copies for her book club—and there are no copies to be found. 

In retrospect, it was a good time to not be launching a new book. We’ve had two years with very few public appearance opportunities. No school visits, no bookstore signings, no conferences. This may change in the latter half of 2022. I hope so, anyway, because I have a new book coming out in October.

A lot can change in ten months. This pandemic was always managable in theory, but we are creeping toward the sort of social responsibilty that will make it manageable in practice. There are still too many anti-vax anti-mask people out there. There will always be some, just as there are still drunk drivers, cigarette smokers, and untrained, irresponsible gun owners. But their overall numbers are waning. Or so I choose to believe.

Anyway, I have this new book to look forward to. It’s called THE RAT QUEEN, and yes, there are rats. And a queen. Ten months is a  long way out, so I’ll say no more. Later, I’ll say plenty, because I am unhealthily excited about this one. I’ve seen a cover design. Here:


(It’s tiny because I’m not sure this is the final design.)

Be well, stay safe, and let us bring hope with us into the coming year.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Post-Thanksgiving Post

After last year’s pared back celebrations, I was really looking forward to T-Day 2021. It wasn’t the usual full-bore extended family circus because we had a couple of anti-vaxxers who did not attend, and a few others who opted for smaller, safer venues. Still, there were about two dozen of us.


The food was great: Turkey, goose, duck, and a plethora of sides. For apppetizers there were stuffed mushrooms, sockeye gravlax, a beautiful cheese board, and more. I brought two crocks of rillettes—one duck and one pork, served with baguette croutons, cornichons and pickled okra. (If you don’t know what rillettes are, ask the internet.) I had planned to bring duck breast prosciutto as well, but I weighed the breasts this morning and they need to hang a few more days. We had four pies—apple, pumpkin, wild huckleberry, and wild blueberry.

I meant to take a photo of the presentation, but all I have is this preliminary stage of the rillettes:


The high point of the evening for me was the following exchange over dessert:


Cousin Tim: I have a joke.

Everybody: *groans* 

(CT likes to make up his own jokes, and they are far too often racist or homophobic or otherwise offensive.)

Sister-in-Law: Tim, don’t.

CT: It’s okay.

SiL: Just don’t. Seriously.

CT: But it’s good! This guy has a pet rabbit—

SiL: Tim, stop! I’ll tell you what, let’s you and I go into the next room. You can tell me the joke, and I’ll tell you if it’s okay to tell.

CT: Really, it’s fine. This man has a rabbit that won’t wake up. He brings it to the vet. The vet examines the rabbit and says, “This rabbit is dead.” “Are you sure?” the man asks. “Maybe it’s just sleeping!” The vet whistles and a black lab trots into the room.

Me: Why is the lab black?

CT: Okay, a white lab. So the dog walks up to the rabbit and paws it and sniffs it all over. The dog snorts and leaves. The vet says, “See? Dead.” “I can’t believe it!” the man exclaims. “It was fine this morning! Are you sure?” The vet sighs and snaps his fingers. A cat comes into the room, hops up on the table, and sniffs the rabbit. The cat hisses and departs. “The rabbit is dead,” says the vet. The man sighs and says, “Okay, I guess you’re right. What do I owe you?” “Two thousand dollars,” says the vet. The man gasps. “Two thousand dollars!? To tell me I have a dead rabbit?” “Well,” says the vet, “I performed an examination, then there were lab tests, and a cat scan…”

(Moment of silence)

Everybody: *relieved laughter*

SiL: That was pretty good, Tim. I’m sorry I doubted you.

CT: I have another one.

Everybody: Nooooo!


I have a lot of rillettes left, so I’m making pierogi for the freezer. One batch filled with pork, porcini, and sauerkraut, the other stuffed with duck and potatoes. 


I hope you all had a lovely holiday!

Thursday, September 2, 2021

"Poached by an Angel"

A little more than ten years ago I wrote about how to poach an egg. 


I was wrong about some things. 


Since posting that blog I have poached more than 3000 eggs, and I have learned a few things about what works, what doesn’t, and what matters.


My basic technique has not changed: Bring water to a boil in an eight-inch nonstick pan, turn off heat, drop in two eggs, and wait until the eggs reach your preferred texture—ten minutes, more or less. Add a little heat if they seem too soft for you. Trim off the “loose white” (the frilly stuff) and use a slotted spatula to transfer the eggs to whatever you’re going to eat them on. For me, that is usually an English muffin, toasted sourdough, hash browns, oatmeal, polenta, or a bowl of greens.


I also stand by my original advice to use plain water. Adding salt or vinegar won’t help. And you can forget about swirling the water to create a vortex and dropping the eggs into the center of the whirlpool. None of those techniques are necessary or useful.


Here is what has changed: In my original post, I go on about the importance of the age of the eggs, and how to read the Julian date on the egg carton. I have since learned that whether the egg is one hour, one day, one week, or four weeks old is irrelevant to their poachability. What is important is the age of the hen.


If your eggs have a nice, plump, coherent inner white, they were laid by a young hen. If they spread out in a frilly mess across the bottom of the pan, the hen was older. I learned this from the book “Locally Laid,” by Lucie B. Amundson, a Minnesota egg farmer.


Unless you raise your own birds, you will not be able to determine the age of the hen, so don’t fret about it. Some eggs will be better than others. Most will be just fine.


Another thing I have learned: Cracking the eggs into a bowl and then sliding them into the hot water is not helpful. These days I crack the eggs directly into the water. One less bowl to wash.

Following is the original, ridiculously complicated post from 2010:

A perfect poached egg is a thing of beauty—an aesthetic and nutritional miracle that is, happily, within anyone’s reach. The technique is simple, and even the priciest organic chicken eggs cost less than a quarter apiece. One would be hard-pressed to name a more versatile and inexpensive delicacy.

Recently I served a poached egg to my friend Susan. She looked at the egg perched on it’s mound of hash browns and said, “It looks like it was poached by an angel.”

Alas, for every angelically-poached egg, there are many thousands of less-than-heavenly poached eggs.

The phrase “perfect poached eggs” gets about half a million hits on Google. There are a lot of people who think they know how to do it. I have looked at all 500,000 of these sites, and I am sorry to report that nearly all of them are flat-out wrong.

I have poached a lot of eggs, using every technique available to me, including adding vinegar and/or salt to the water, swirling the water before adding the egg, using water at various temperatures and pans of various sizes, bringing the eggs to room temperature before poaching, and employing assorted mechanical poaching devices. I have poached eggs individually and en masse. I have poached medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo eggs. I have poached eggs in the oven, on the stovetop, and in a microwave. I have poached emu eggs in the outback. Okay, not true about the emu eggs, but I have poached.

My first few hundred attempts were not perfect, but over the past few years I have developed a simple technique that produces a perfect or near-perfect poached egg most of the time.

The egg: Of course, if you have access to a good farmers’ market—or better yet, if you have chickens—freshness will not be an issue. The happier the chickens are, the better their eggs will taste.Freshness is the key. Learn to read and interpret the date on the egg carton. In the U.S., there is a three-digit number on the carton that tells you when the egg was packed. This number, from 001 to 365, is the “Julian date,” with 001 representing January 1, and 365 (or 366, during leap years) indicating December 31. The “sell by date” is usually thirty days after the “pack date,” or about five weeks after the egg leaves the hen. For poaching purposes you want an egg that is not more than two weeks old. If the egg is older than that, make yourself an omelet.

The grade of the egg is somewhat important. Grade A eggs can be fine for poaching, but Grade AA eggs usually work better. Egg grading is an arcane business, but it does take into account the firmness of the albumen (the white), and that makes a big difference to the appearance and texture of the final product. Shell color, however, is irrelevant—that depends entirely on the breed of hen, and is no indication of quality. Any size egg will work—keeping in mind that the bigger the egg, the longer it will take to cook. I usually buy whichever size has the most recent date on the carton.

The pan: I use a ten-inch non-stick skillet. A smaller pan will work, but its lesser volume means that the water will cool more quickly when you add the eggs. Adjust cooking time accordingly.

The water: Use plain tap water. No vinegar or salt! I don’t know what it is with these vinegar-adders. Acidulating the water does nothing good for the egg’s texture or appearance, and everything bad for the taste.

The cooking: Fill the pan to within ½ inch of the top and heat the water. When it reaches a boil, turn it off and let it sit for a minute while you prepare the egg for immersion.

Your egg should be cold, straight from the fridge. Anyone who tells you different is wrong. A cold egg will hold its shape better. Crack the egg into a small bowl. It is important here to understand the structure of the egg. (This is not biology class, so don't worry - I’m not going to get into a discussion of the chalazae and vitelline membrane and so forth.) I think of an egg as being composed of four parts: the shell, the firm white, the loose white, and the yolk. The “firm white” is the thicker albumen that surrounds the yolk. In a fresh egg, this will comprise most of the white. The “loose white” is the thinner, more liquid albumen—the part that spreads out around the edge like a frill when an egg is sautéed. The older the egg, the more the “firm white” breaks down to become “loose white.”

When cracking the egg into the bowl, take care that the sharp edges of the shell do not tear into the firm white. This is important! Tearing into the “firm white” will produce a lopsided end result. Be gentle. Respect the egg.

Carefully lower the egg into the hot water. The water temperature will be somewhere around 180-190° F. Believe it or not, the precise water temperature is not that important, so long as it is at least 160°, and less than boiling.

If you have performed your task well, and if the egg is fresh, it will look something like this:

Once the egg is in the water, do something else for five or six minutes. Fry some potatoes, slice some bread, make a cup of coffee, check your email—whatever. Now look at your egg. The white will be opaque. The loose white will have spread out a bit. Carefully trim the loose white away with your spatula. Slide the edge of the spatula between the egg and the bottom of the pan. The egg will be quite jiggly. At this point, the process becomes very personal. It’s between you and the egg. If you like your egg quite loose, lift it carefully from the water and serve at once. If you like it on the firm side, you can turn on the heat for a few minutes. Not too hot though—the water should never boil. If your water gets too hot, the egg white will become unpleasantly firm.

I mentioned before that the exact water temperature is unimportant. I lied a little. Sorry. The final texture of the egg can vary tremendously depending on time and temperature, but because one person’s perfectly poached egg is another person’s slimy nightmare, I cannot make specific recommendations. David Chang (Momofuku) poaches his eggs for thirty minutes at 160°. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) poaches eggs at about 205° (a simmer) for less than two minutes. Two completely different approaches, both producing excellent, albeit different, results.

IMHO, the slower the poach, the nicer the texture. It is possible to slow-poach an egg to the point where the yolk is nearly (but not quite) solid, while the white remains soft and yielding. This is the Momofuku ideal. A fast poaching results in a much firmer white contrasting with a runny yolk, as preferred by Thomas Keller. I like an egg that is somewhere in between.

Like I said, it’s personal. I considered giving exact water temperature, timing, egg size, and water volume…but really, this is worth learning to do by feel. There are so many variables—altitude, egg temperature, cookware material and weight, barometric pressure, moon phase, pollen count, etc.—that the more precise the instructions, the more likely you are to fail.

To test the doneness of your egg, lift it from the water with a slotted spatula** and look at it. Experience is important here. After a few tries, you will learn to gauge the doneness of the egg by the way it behaves on the spatula.

Cooking more than one egg at a time: Some cooks recommend lowering each egg into the water individually. Bah. That is counterproductive and completely unnecessary. You can crack two, three, or four eggs into a bowl together and slip them all into the water bath at once (gently, please). The eggs will not stick together, and they will all get done at the same time. One thing to watch out for though, is that multiple eggs will lower the water temperature more quickly, so you will have to add more time or more heat than you would for a single egg.

Serving: Recently, I have been enjoying my poached eggs on hash browns.* They are also quite nice on toasted bread, or eaten with a spoon from a small cup. You could swing out and make Eggs Benedict, or even serve them cooled to room temperature on a green salad.

Concerning perfection: Not every poached egg will come out perfect. Sometimes you will tear the albumen when cracking the egg, and get a lop-sided result. Sometimes the white will be too runny, and your egg will come out looking like a shallow disc with the yolk jutting up from the middle. These eggs will taste just fine, despite their lack of visual appeal.

“We aspire to perfection, but we do not insist upon it.”

* My article on “Perfect Hash Browns” will be coming soon.

** The slotted spatula will make it easier to keep the egg from sliding off as you lift it out of the water.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Four Things I Will Do This Spring, in Chronological Order

I'm not doing a lot of book stuff this spring, which is good, because there will be mushrooms in the woods that need picking, and yard work to do, and a novel to finish. Here's what I've got:

April 6—Minnesota Book Awards
Most state book awards draw from a national pool, but Minnesota is one of the few states with so much talent that we have a high-profile literary award for only “our” authors. This year the Minnesota Book Awards recognize nine categories, including three(!!!) books for younger readers categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Children’s Literature. I especially like that Middle Grade books get their own category—possibly because my novel Otherwood is a finalist. Mary and I will be attending the ceremony on Saturday. I’ve won four previous MBAs, and I think Kate DiCamillo has a bunch, so it’s probably Jacqueline West’s or Pat Schmatz’s turn to win. However it pans out, I’ll be applauding.

April 23—Paperback Release of Slider
With a cool new cover design! This middle grade novel explores autism, eating contests, middle-child syndrome, Darth Vader, and Wonder Woman. Not really, but those subjects come up. It’s mostly a funny book containing (I am told) Important Life Lessons that somehow got in there without me knowing it. No events on the schedule, but there will be copies at the Red Balloon event (see below).

April 25—The Edgar Awards
The Mystery Writers of America’s annual Edgar Allan Poe awards will be in New York, and we are going! I get to wear my tuxedo for only the fourth time ever. Otherwoodis a finalist in the Juvenile (aka middle grade) category, and I could not be more delighted. Funny thing though—I never thought of this book as a “mystery,” but I guess it is.

May 14—Road Tripped Launch at The Red Balloon Bookshop
Yes, I wrote another YA novel. Possibly my last, as I’m more interested in Middle Grade these days. This will be a multi-author event. Jacqueline West (Last Things) and Kirsten Cronn-Mills (Wreck) also have new YA titles coming out, and Bryan Bliss will be there to celebrate the new paperback edition of his National Book Award finalist We’ll Fly Away. I haven’t yet read Jacqueline’s book , but Kirsten’s is a powerful gut-punch, and Bryan’s book is killer, literally. The event is at 6:30 p.m.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Returning to Pippi and Her Ilk

In honor of International Women's Day, I am reposting this item from six years ago. It is the first of five posts I wrote about strong young women in film and literature, including Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm), Scarlett O'Hara, Emma Bovary, Becky Sharp, Emma Jean Lazarus, Veronica Mars, and, of course, Buffy.

MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013

Strong Young Women Part 1: Pippi Longstocking

It started for me back in the third grade, with Astrid Lindgren’s 1950 novel, Pippi Longstocking: I love spunky, tough, resourceful young women. 

That’s one of the reasons I loved The Hunger Games. But I have to say, Pippi could kick Katniss from District 13 to Villa Villekulla and back again. Could Katniss lift a horse? No. But Pippi could do it with one hand.

We writer/librarian/teacher/reader types pride ourselves in our literary broadmindedness. With tens of thousands (give or take) of new titles being published every year, we like to think that we are living in a golden age of Anything Goes. That is partly true…and partly not. Would Pippi Longstocking be published today? I mean, other than as a self-published ebook?

Pippi owns a number of handguns, which she fires into the ceiling for fun and gives them freely to her friends. She uses the kitchen floor to roll out cookie dough, and eats raw eggs. She is impudent and disrespectful to adults, and has no respect for any rules or laws. She physically attacks policemen, and suffers no consequences for her actions. She has no math skills. She is functionally illiterate, and has no interest in reading. She is a heavy coffee drinker, and lives on (mostly) cookies and caramels.

Send a manuscript like that to Random Penguin, and see how fast they reject it.

Of course, many of today’s kids’ books contain elements that would have made them unpublishable fifty years ago. LGBT characters, references to certain body parts, and anti-government sentiments, for example. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back for our “open-mindedness” just yet. The only reason Pippi Longstocking is still in print is because she has been grandmothered in as a “classic.”

Today, we require certain approved behaviors in our heroines. Some of my own female characters have been criticized for being bitchy (Sweetblood and The Big Crunch), unrepentant and unpunished (How to Steal a Car), physically violent (What Boys Really Want), and dishonest (all of the above). It is true, and I hold Pippi Longstocking and her ilk to blame.

Next up: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Some Unsolicited Thoughts on Self-Publishing

For about twenty years now I’ve been watching and (mostly) staying out of the debates concerning the viability of self-published books, and the way they are received by reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers. There is a lot of anger out there in the self-published community, and there has been a lot of dismissive elitism on the part of traditional publishers and their authors. Conflict happens.

Much of the disdain heaped upon self-published books has to do with poor or nonexistent editing. Yes, most authors who self-publish have the good sense to hire an editor. There are many heavily advertised editorial services available. Some are good, some not so good. But even the best freelance editor might not be enough.

My experience as a reader has been that most self-published works need not just editorial advice, but editorial interventionas well.

Most writers, when they start out, have no idea what an editor does. I certainly didn’t. I did not expect, for example, that the editor of my novel The Mortal Nutswould suggest taking a minor character and making him the protagonist. I did not expect that he would tell me to make my second book “funnier.” I did not expect another editor to ask me to add 100 pages to a 200 page novel.

My first editor, Bob Asahina, once said to me, after listening to me argue against one of his editorial suggestions, “Well, you can do what you want, Pete. It’ll matter a lot more to you than it will to me.” I took his suggestion.

For my recent young adult novel Eden West—my twenty-eighth published novel—the first editorial letter I received from editor Deb Noyes was twenty-nine pages long. It took me three months to revise the manuscript. Her second letter was much shorter and I was able to address her concerns in a few weeks. I think the book turned out pretty good.

But suppose I had decided to self-publish Eden West. I could have hired an editor—maybe one as talented as Deb Noyes. But that editor’s job description would have been very, very different. For one thing, she would have a different employer: she would be working for me. That alters the author/editor dynamic in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle. A freelance editor working directly for an author has a vastly different mindset.

You can see this dynamic even in the world of traditional publishing. When an author becomes so famous and sells so many books that he or she has a significant impact on a publisher’s bottom line, the relationship between author and editor changes, subtly at first, then dramatically. 

A midlist or emerging author who sells a book through traditional channels usually regards his editor with some combination of awe, fear, and desperation. The editor (as perceived by the author) controls the purse strings, and has the power to make or break a book by means of cover quality, catalog positioning, marketing budget, and the semi-existent whisper line,* aka “buzz.” This spills over onto the art part of the deal—when editors suggest changes to a manuscript, they speak with a big stick in hand. This is largely a matter of the author’s perception, of course. The reality is that the editor is at the mercy of corporate and marketing forces, and while she can help a book, her power is not so great as it seems.

No matter what the reality, for most midlist authors in a traditional author/editor relationship, the editor’s word carries tremendous weight. For the superstars, not so much. Have you ever noticed how many superstar authors’ early novels are shorter, more powerful, and more elegantly constructed? And how their later work is often bloated, sloppy, and self-indulgent? I could provide many examples,** but I’m sure you’ll have no problem supplying your own.

Why is this? I believe the change in the author/editor dynamic is largely responsible. The editor-of-a-superstar has a little demon on her shoulder saying, “This guy is a genius! His numbers are fantastic! Don’t screw it up! If something doesn’t seem quite right, well, keep him happy or he’ll jump to Harper or Knopf. If he wants to go on a tangent for thirty pages on one of his pet topics, let him. The book is going to sell regardless.”

That same editor, working with an emerging author, will go butt ass to make that book the best book it can be. She or he will argue for and sometimes insist on changes—often big changes: Make the villain the hero. Cut four hundred pages. Write it over in third person. Make the main character younger, older, funnier, smarter, stronger, more likeable…you name it. And then, once the author makes those changes, there will be another round of edits, and another, and possibly even more. And that’s long before a copyeditor sees the manuscript.

How does this relate to self-published authors? Well, even a hard working, well-intentioned writer who digs into his savings and pays big bucks for an editor, and a copyeditor, and a proofreader, and a book designer, and a cover artist (You need all of them. Really, you do.), he will be working with folks whose mission is to make the customer happy. And who is the customer? The author.

It’s a minefield, and relatively few self-published authors—even those with decent writing chops and a great idea—have the time, the funds, the experience, or the disposition to negotiate it. Those few who do have my admiration and respect. Unfortunately, the vastmajority of self-pubbed books are a severely flawed, and that makes booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and end market readers chary of shelling out their time and/or money to look at them.

I have read dozens of self-published books, most them by friends or associates, or because the book dealt with some niche topic that caught my interest. I have enjoyed many of them, but in every case I encountered scads of wince-inducing moments that shrieked for editorial intervention.

That’s kind of sad. Because I know there are a lot of good books that need a little help, or a lot of help, but for whatever reason the author couldn’t—or chose not to—break into the business through traditional publishing.

Does this mean that self-publishing is not viable? Not at all. But the challenges faced by the self-published go far beyond marketing and distribution. Those who want to make a good book and publish it themselves should be aware of how much the editorial relationship matters.

*A little joke for you sci-fi geeks.

**Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life provides a fascinating look inside the editor/superstar relationship—particularly the section on working with Harold Robbins.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen

I am in the murky middle of a new middle-grade novel at the moment, and grasping at any excuse to avoid making the difficult decisions I need to make to crawl forward out of the murk. That means a lot of Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, crossword puzzles, and cooking. Yesterday I made posole, and managed to use about several pots and pans, the blender, the food processor, the Instant Pot, and a host of utensils. It was good. It probably would have been just as good if I'd simply thrown all the ingredients in a pot, set it on low, and walked away. But I succeeded in avoiding writing for about three hours.

When I finally got back to the heinous task of dealing with plot issues, I began by looking for things to delete, because deleting is easier than leteing. I found a lot, and shortened the manuscript by a good twenty pages, giving me a daily word count of negative bazillion.

One of the sections I deleted was a fairy tale. There will be several short fairy tales in the novel, each of them moving the story forward—or so I hope. But this particular tale turned out to be too dark and violent for the book I want to write. 

But not too dark for my blog! Here it is:

The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen
A Litvanian Fairy Tale

Once upon a time a lumberjack chopped down a tree and it fell on a young wood rat, killing it instantly. The lumberjack felt bad about the rat, but there was nothing to be done, so he continued working. Later that day, as he rested upon a fresh stump, he was approached by the Queen of the Rats.
“You have killed my grandchild,” the Rat Queen said.
“I am sorry,” said the lumberjack. 
“It is not enough to be sorry, therefore I curse you.”
“But I did not intend it!” objected the lumberjack.
“I curse you nonetheless! I take away your conscience!”
“My conscience?” The lumberjack thought for a moment. “How is that such a bad thing? My conscience has plagued me all my life. If truly gone it be, then I say good riddance!”
The Rat Queen laughed and scampered off.
That night, the lumberjack told his wife what had happened.
The wife, a thin, sinewy woman with a lengthy nose and a poor complexion, asked, “What was the nature of her curse?”
“She said she would take away my conscience.”
The wife thought for a moment, then said, “Is that so bad? Your conscience has held you back from many opportunities. For example, our neighbor’s bull sometimes grazes near the edge of the forest. If you were to lure him into the trees we would have beef for a year, and no one would be the wiser.”
“But it is not our bull!” said the lumberjack.
The wife shrugged. “Perhaps you still have your conscience after all.”
The next day, the lumberjack was chopping logs into firewood near the edge of the forest when he saw his neighbor’s bull nearby. He approached the bull slowly, for bulls are moody creatures, and spoke to it softly. He held out the apple he planned to eat for lunch. The bull snorted and followed as the lumberjack backed into the forest. As soon as they were beneath the trees, the lumberjack swung his ax and slew the hapless beast.
That night he and his wife enjoyed thick, bloody steaks with their turnips and kale. By morning he had salted and packed the rest of the beef in barrels, while his neighbor remained mystified as to what had become of his prized bull.
“Does your conscience bother you now?” the lumberjack’s wife asked.
“Not at all!” said the lumberjack.
“Nor does mine,” she said, “for I too have met the Rat Queen. Last spring I caught one of her rat children in the coop making off with a hen’s egg. I killed it with a pitchfork. The queen visited me that very night.”
“Then neither one of us has a conscience!” the man exclaimed.
A few days later, the lumberjack hauled a load of firewood to town to sell. Because it was mid-summer, he found few customers.
“Master Grocer!” he called to the grocer from his cart. “I know you have not enough firewood for the coming winter. Allow me to sell you a rick. A mere seven coppers!”
The grocer looked askance at the wagon piled with freshly cut logs. 
“I need no wood until winter,” he said.
“It will cost you more then!”
“Then I will have to pay more. In any case, your firewood is green. You should set it out for a season to dry.”
The grocer went back into his shop. As the lumberjack brooded on whom to approach next, the grocer’s daughter, a fresh-faced lass with golden hair, stepped out of the shop. The lumberjack had always thought her lovely. 
“You are the most beautiful girl in all the parish,” he said to her. “Come with me. I would take you for a ride through the forest.”
“You?” The grocer’s daughter laughed incredulously. “You are old, and your hands are rough, and you are married.” With that, she flounced back inside.
The lumberjack finally sold two ricks to the blacksmith, but only after reducing his price to four coppers per rick. He rode home with his cart still mostly full, brooding. He imagined the grocer’s daughter sitting beside him. How unfair it was that he should be married to a scrawny, long-nosed woman such as his wife. Did he not deserve better?
At home, his dark mood deepened as his wife berated him for selling so little wood. When he could stand it no more he struck her on the cheek. To his surprise, she took up a kitchen knife and came at him. He slapped the knife aside and struck her again, and again and again until she moved no more.
The lumberjack dragged her to the shed and chopped her body to pieces and stuffed her in a barrel and covered her with salt. He set the barrel beside the barrels of beef filled with his neighbor’s prize bull. He then emptied the wood from his cart and drove to town. The grocer, he knew, lived in the rooms behind his shop. The lumberjack took his ax and broke down the door. He slew the grocer and the grocer’s wife, tied up the daughter, and threw her in the back of his cart.
As he rode out of town, several citizens chased him down. The girl was saved and the lumberjack was dragged of to the side of the road. They cut off his hands and feet and rolled him into the ditch.
As he lay there bleeding, the Rat Queen happened by. She saw the lumberjack bleeding his last drops of blood, and she laughed.
“How can you laugh?” the man said. “I am dying, and you are to blame!”
“Lumberjack, you are correct,” the Rat Queen said with a smile. “I will return to you that which was taken.”
And with that, the lumberjack’s conscience returned, and he left this world filled with shame and remorse.

“I do not like these stories,” Annie said. “I do not like the way they end.”
“Some are better than others,” Miz Ozols agreed.
“Was the lumberjack glad to have his conscience back?”
“I rather doubt it. It was his final punishment.”
“That is very sad.”
Miz Ozols shrugged. “It is Litvanian,” she said. “In Litvania we tell sad tales.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Edgars

Otherwood is a finalist for the Edgar Alan Poe Award in the “juvenile” category. The other finalists are Denis Ever After by Tony Abbott, Zap! by Martha Freeman, Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective by A.B. Greenfield, Winterhouse by Ben Guterson, Charlie & Frog: A Mystery by Karen Kane, and Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon.

Mary and Pete at the Edgar Awards, 1991
I have a long history with the Edgar Awards. I joined the Mystery Writers of America back in 1990 after making my first short story sale to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I attended the annual Edgar Awards banquet that year with Mary Logue, who was a judge in the Best Novel category (Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke won). I had never been in the company of so many published writers. It was a magical evening. I was fanboying to the max.

A really good book!
Six years later I was at the banquet again, this time as a finalist in the YA category for Mr. Was, and as a judge in the Juvenile category (Looking for Jamie Bridger by Nancy Springer won). That was fun too, even though Mr. Was did not win.

My next Edgar banquet was in 2007, when Snatched, a middle grade novel I wrote with Mary Logue, was nominated in the Juvenile category. That was the year Stephen King stepped on Mary’s dress, a moment she will always treasure. We didn't win, but we got a bobblehead.

This year I probably won’t be attending the banquet. I mean, unless somebody else wants to pay for my flight and hotel. Otherwood probably won’t win, but you never know. I haven’t read the other finalists yet. If they all suck, I have a chance, but I very much doubt that is the case. Either way, I’m honored and delighted to have Otherwood included on the list.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why “Creep” isn’t on the ROAD TRIPPED Playlist

“Creep,” Radiohead’s first single, was the song that inspired me to begin the novel that became Road Tripped.

Released in 1992, “Creep” was a huge hit, and was consequently grossly overplayed. For casual listeners, it defined Radiohead. Musically, it is not as interesting and complex as their later work, and for many years they refused to perform it. Nevertheless, it is a seminal work, and will remain forever in my top twenty-five pop tunes. Maybe even in my top ten. The lyrics are brilliant and perfect—they speak to every young person who has felt shy, awkward, unattractive, and worthless—in short, nearly all adolescents and, at times, most adults.

When Thom Yorke sings, “I want you to notice, when I’m not around,” you hear a character who is so unsure of himself he can’t even imagine saying, “I want you to miss me.” He can hardly imagine a reality in which she, the object of his fascination, knows he exists.

Back in August of 2013, I began work on a novel about a stalker—a teen boy who becomes obsessed by an ex-girlfriend. The working title was “Creep.” I was thinking about the Radiohead song, and about Scott Spencer’s novel Endless Love, a book that made a big impression on me when I read it thirty-odd years ago. But as often happens, the story I set out to tell was not the one I ended up telling.

Stiggy Gabel, my “stalker,” began as a rather one-dimensional character. As his backstory grew and sent out tendrils, he became less monomaniacal, more complex, more sympathetic, more human. The story became less about his obsession and more about depression, loss, the grieving process, and things we think and do to stay sane when the world feels broken. The stalking element almost disappeared. The title changed from “Creep” to “Crock,” and finally to “Road Tripped.”

Road Tripped has a playlist from Stiggy’s recently deceased father’s iPod, which he carries with him on his solo road trip. The songs I selected relate to Stiggy’s journey, and I was strongly tempted to include “Creep” among them, since it was important to the genesis of the story. But other songs by, Concrete Blond, Pixies, Amy Winehouse, and others seemed to me deeper and less “mono.” Radiohead didn’t make the cut.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writing with Music

I often listen to a particular playlist while writing a novel. I don’t listen while I’m actively writing; I listen between sessions, while imagining what comes next. Usually a collection of songs that feel right for the story. Sometimes it’s a particular album. Side One of Miles Davis’s “Jack Johnson” got me through How to Steal a Car. Sometimes it’s just one song, over and over—when I wrote Rag Man back in 1999, I listened to K.D. Lang’s “Infinite and Unforseen” hundreds of times. It kept me focused on the moody ending I was pursuing.
Click for Playlist

In the novel Road Tripped, Stiggy Gabel leaves home with only his late father’s iPod for company. His dad, he discovers, had peculiar taste in music, ranging from Bach to Babymetal, from Snoop Dogg to Tammy Wynette. Some of the song titles serve as chapter headings. I assembled a bunch of them on Spotify. Here’s a link.

About half of the songs came off my own iPod. Stiggy’s dad is solely responsible for the rest. Spotify refused to load a few of them—not sure why. I’m new to Spotify. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time the book is released (May 14).

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Post

We are having a micro-Thanksgiving this year. Just four of us. A mushroom-hater, a pescatarian, a lactose intolerant, and a diabetic. A cooking challenge! 

We will miss the big Hautman Thanksgiving taking place a few miles to the east, but I’m sure I’ll hear all about it over the next few days. I need to catch up with a few cousins I haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving.

Despite the small guest list, our house is in a frantic uproar of cooking activity. It’s only nine a.m. So far this morning I’ve made vegetable stock for the wild rice casserole (we have one pescatarian). The turkey has been dry-brining for two days. (Pro tip: if you are making gravy from the drippings of a dry-brined bird, rinse it thoroughly before cooking, or your gravy will be ungodly salty.) I have taken a block of strong chicken stock out of the deep freeze—I’ll need that for the gravy. I have vacuum-sealed a piece of venison backstrap courtesy of my brohter Bob. I’ve been aging it for a few days, getting it ready for the sous vide bath. 

Last weekend my neighbor Mark returned from North Dakota after a successful pheasant hunting trip. He had told me that he and his buddies breast out their pheasants and don’t bother with the legs, and I was, like, WHY? Anyway, this year he brought me fifteen legs, and I confited them in the sous vide. When I share the result with him I guarantee he will never leave another leg behind. Yesterday I made rillettes from some of the confit. It’s amazing.

At the moment, Mary is working on her pumpkin pie. She has a great recipe suitable for her lactose intolerant self. It’s the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. She’s also making cranberry sauce. I think it’s going to be an uncooked version—more of a relish than a sauce.

The pie comes out of the oven at 12:30, and the turkey goes in. I take a short nap. The venison goes in the sous vide bath at 3:00. Two hours at 129°. Our guests arrive at 4:00. We're aiming at at 5:30 sit down. Depending on when the turkey is done. Things are about to get crazy. Toast some bread for the rillettes. Parboil some wild rice. Chop and sauté vegetables, nuts, and lobster mushrooms (the mushroom-hater will just have to deal) for the casserole, assemble it, check on the turkey. Robin is bringing mashed potatoes this year—one thing I don’t have to think about. Did I burn the toast? Just a little. Oh, shit, I forgot the sweet potatoes. Do we need sweet potatoes? Probably not, but…peel, slice, and throw in a sauté pan with some butter and honey. 

Four o’clock. Ding-dong. The dogs go insane. Open wine. Hang coats. Assemble an appetizer tray: Toasts, rillettes, cheese, gherkins. Don’t eat too much—there’s a lot of food coming.

Check on the turkey—it’s only ten pounds, so it should be done around 4:30. I’ll let it rest while the wild rice casserole is in the oven, and use that time to make gravy. Mary is making a green salad.

Last minute: Carve turkey, sauté the venison. Oh, and sauté some scallops for the pescatarian. Is there enough food for him? I think so. What am I missing? Dressing? Green beans? Never mind that, there are only four of us. We’ll be eating leftovers for weeks.

I'll edit this to add food pics tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

But It Really Happened!

From 1990 until about 2010, I was part of a weekly critique group, possibly the most valuable thing I ever did to bring quality and focus to my writing. The membership of our small, usually five to seven person group, evolved over the years. People would join us for a few meetings, or a few years, then move on.
One man (I will call him Bill, because that was his name) was part of the group for only a few months. Bill was a good storyteller, a competent writer, a thoughtful critic, and a nice guy. He was working on a young adult novel set in the rural Minnesota community where he had grown up.
One of the key scenes in his book was set on a train trestle running over a ravine. Several characters were involved. When Bill read this scene, we were confused—the complex physical setting with the multiple characters were all but impossible for us to visualize. We had many, many questions.
Bill was frustrated. He didn’t understand how we could be having trouble “seeing” the scene as he did. “It’s a real place,” he said. “I was there.” 
We talked about it for a long time. Bill returned to our next meeting with a complete revision. He read it. We still didn’t get it.
He revised again, and presented his new version at the following meeting. By this time we had heard the scene too many times, along with his lengthy explanations for what he was trying to describe. The scene still didn’t work. That may have been Bill’s last visit to our group. 
After that, we added a new term to our lexicon: The Trestle Problem. We have all run into it in our own writing. Sometimes the problem is solved by endless rewrites; sometimes it never goes away.

The Trestle Problem: A complex physical scene based upon a vivid real-life memory.

You might think that a strong, reality-based memory would form a solid foundation for a scene—and sometimes it does. But often we are sabotaged by our memories. Because they seem to clear and compelling, it can be difficult to step outside our memories and put ourselves behind the eyes of the reader. The more vivid and profound our real-life experiences, the harder they are to communicate through prose.
A common cry heard in writing critique groups throughout the known universe: “But…that’s what really happened!”
In the 1993 movie The Fugitive, when the cop, Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) has fugitive Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) cornered, Kimball cries “I didn’t kill my wife!” Gerard says, “I don’t care!”
Because all we care about is our ownstory. And so it is for the reader, who doesn’t care about you, or what you’ve experienced—even though, if you ask them, they thinkthey do. They care about what it means for them. If you don’t make it real for them, they will not care.
The singer and songwriter Johnette Napolitani expresses it as I rage-tinged cry in her song “When I Was a Fool:” Grow up and get real, have a kid in their teens, who won’t care what I’ve done, what I’ve been, what I’ve seen…
And that’s a terrific problem for us writers—to accept the fact that our readers don’t give a shit about us. Because all we really want at bottom is to be loved, to be cared about, to matter. But here’s the thing: Every book you write, every sentence, every word, has to bring your reader back to themselves. Standup comics deal with this every night, every joke. 
If there is a practical technique for dealing with the trestle problem, it is this: Say less. Tell them only enough to trigger access to their own storehouse of memories and emotions, then get the hell out.
Using words to insert specific images and emotions into the readers mind is a tricky business, and one we are often best off avoiding. Tell them you are looking at a…say, a pen, and they will see a different pen than you. Tell them it is a red fountain pen and they will see a different red fountain pen. Tell them it is a dark red Namiki retractable fountain pen with a chipped, chrome-plated ferrule, an extra-fine nib, and an empty ink cartridge…and you will lose all but the fountain pen aficionados.
There are exceptions, of course. When it is done well, the sentence- or paragraph-level infodump can be informative, evocative, and altogether pleasing. Rules must be broken! But when a complex scene is not working, consider stripping it down to its essentials and letting the reader do the heavy lifting.