A Day for Thanks

Between this writing blog and my food blog, I have had, at one time or another, fabulous readers from 71 countries! Page views are closing in on 8,000, and my name as a writer and decent cook is getting out there. When I started this adventure, I only wanted to write down some recipes for my kids to access electronically in perpetuity. Who would have thought I would be writing my second novel, revising my first novel for publishing, and participating in Penguin’s BookCountry – an awesome online writer’s community. I have been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News  and Gannett Corporation’s NowU, and have recently entertained the interest of The National Aquarium in Baltimore. As for the last one, they  ran across a food blog photo I had made of a horseradish-encrusted flounder entree. The dpi may not be good enough, jury’s still out on that one, but if it works out, the photo could be a part of an exhibit about the Chesapeake Bay.

Then there’s my short story (of course, not a mystery) being published in the inaugural issue of The World Unknown. This periodical will feature 11 pieces by indie writers who submitted through a national call for work. More (much more) to follow soon!

Not bad for a guy who forgot to stab the potatoes when he was cooking dinner once.

Here in the US of A, today we celebrate Thanksgiving. Most Americans are watching parades and football games on television, and those not watching are busy cooking up turkey, sweet potatoes, and one of a hundred variety of cranberry dishes, not to mention pumpkin pies and their ilk. And we are no exception. One child is taking a nap, one is working on grad school applications, and the in-laws and their daughter are watching television. The turkey has about an hour to go, the dressing is in the crock pot, and the mashed potatoes will be started soon.

But as for me? I am on hiatus until the turkey is done. What better time to work on the blog, and then will crank out another 2,000 words of the Nanowrimo novel. In case you were wondering, I am tracking to finish on the last day, November 30th, probably at the last hour. But I will have finished.

So a lot has happened to this writer. And lot will keep happening.


Because it’s fun to do, and I have the best readers on the planet. Thanks so much for your support!

So no matter what country you call home, and no matter what holiday, if any, you celebrate today – I am thankful you stopped by.

Coming soon – a return to The Thirteenth Samurai.

D.J. sends.

Is winning Nanowrimo your finish line?

I hope not. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Let us look at the facts:

* To ‘win’ all you need to do is write 50,000 words, preferably in novel form, during the month of November.

* Most novels are not exactly 50,000 words long.

There you have it. By all means, don’t quit writing just because I am playing down the fact you won’t really be done on November 30th. Rather, take this as a motivational speech!

Think of what you will have accomplished during the month:

* You will have found the time to write almost every day.

* You will have the bones of a story going. With luck, perhaps even a decent arc.

* People will consider you a writer!

Now, there are a few things to consider:

* Your novel will probably be longer than 50,000 words, meaning you will still need to keep writing in December.

* Your novel is a first draft. There’s a reason why Literary Agents take vacation in December – don’t be one of the thousands of ‘wrimos who send a copy of their manifesto to every agent listed in Writer’s Digest. Plan to revise; expect to edit.

* Once you are done, set your work aside for a month and go do something with family or friends. Your National Book Award and probable Pulitzer will be waiting for you later, I’m sure. No hurry.

Come back to your novel with fresh eyes. Make it February, maybe even March. Don’t be afraid to use the phrase “Did I really write that?” It’s okay. That’s why it is a draft. Change it.

So what am I saying here? Like fine wine, your novel will take some time to mature, get better. And it will. If you let it age properly. So keep writing, and don’t focus on the finish line – focus on the finished novel.

Sending you my best wishes.

D.J. (currently at 35, 058 words and counting…)

A Writer’s Puzzler

Somewhat in homage to Tom Magliozzi, the late (and great) co-host of NPR’s hit radio show, Car Talk, I present to you, my esteemed readers – a writer’s puzzler:

“DJ has been working on his Nanowrimo novel and has just surpassed 30,000 words. Using 1,667 words per day as the required average, he is right on track to clear the 50,000 words needed to win by the deadline of midnight on November 30th. His book is a culinary cozy mystery, and is the sequel to last year’s Nano-novel, also a culinary mystery.”

“DJ is a man with little focus many talents and interests. He has also been working on a historical novel, which, like the mysteries, has a backdrop of culinary themes. This novel is more a thriller than a mystery.”

“So given DJ’s penchant for writing cozy mysteries, and his recent foray into the world of historical fiction/thrillers, and – given the fact he took his car to the shop for a $16 state inspection and came away later with a new serpentine belt and tensioner (at a cost much higher than $16) – what can he now claim to be?”

The obvious answer would be BROKE!

But wait – Tom and Ray would have you wait until the next week to get the answer to this puzzler. They also would have asked you to send in your answers written on the back of a twenty dollar bill. But that’s not necessary here!

The answer:

DJ can now claim to be a published author. Yep. Someone has foolishly wisely decided to publish one of his stories in a new literary review. And pay him. Money. Really.

And was this winning entry a mystery? Not even close. A thriller? Pa-shaw.  (But I will say The New Yorker will probably be aghast they passed on the story a few months ago , but oh, well. They missed out.)

Explanation: I took a dare to write out of my comfort zone so I decided to pen a 2,500 word vignette about a disillusioned school teacher at a very exclusive private school. I won’t give out any spoilers, but the tale doesn’t end with a box full of kittens and puppies.

So now you know! More details on the new Lit Review will be forthcoming, but trust me – you will hear about it! But between now and the pub date (tentatively set for distribution in very late December,) it is time to go back to the Nanowrimo slog. A slog, for those not in the know, is one level lower than grind.

DJ sends.



Nanowrimo Madness Begins

It’s the first of November, meaning thousands upon thousands of writers are now busy scribbling their first draft of the next best-selling novel to hit the bookshelves (or website, these days.) And I’m one of them.

And I wish us all the luck in the world. For finishing a project of this magnitude already separates you from 90 percent of those who claim the moniker writer. It’s one thing to write; it’s another to say you have a completed work. I’ve lost count as to how many agents have a statement on their submission page saying something akin to will only consider completed novels.

Shouldn’t that be a given?

And likewise, remember the Nanowrimo novel is just a first draft. And by that I mean it will not be ready to send to a publisher or agent on December 1st. Just don’t do it. And don’t wait and send on December 2nd, either.

It’s a first draft, people. There will be a second, probably a third. And more. Be ready to spend months possibly years tweaking, revising, scrapping, rewriting, scrapping again, and everything in between before your novel is actually good enough to publish. If you don’t want to put in this work, or don’t think you need to, then you are either a naturally gifted author or one of the tens of thousands of people who put crap up for sale on the Internet.

Don’t be that person.

So keep writing. Finish the draft. Get the cool Nanowrimo perks for being a 50k winner. Then give it a rest for a few weeks and come back later to read your book with fresh eyes. Do some revision. Get some beta readers. Revise some more. Heck, Stephen King gives his first draft about six weeks to rest before he even looks at it again. For an interesting read on his habits, along with other writers, check out Karen Woodward’s blog post on how many drafts it takes to write a novel.

And send a Christmas card to all of the agents you had originally wanted to query on December 1st. Don’t expect anything in return. Just be a nice person. Someday your kindness may come back to you ten-fold. Who knows?

But whatever you do, don’t begin your novel on a dark and stormy night. Which, looking outside, is exactly what I have going on here. Oh well, tomorrow’s a new day.

1,913 words down. Many, many more to go!

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 6

The telltale sound of metal grinding against metal should have warned Masaru to walk away. The cook had intentionally wandered near the castle’s great hall, a place where the Shogun’s loyal Samurai were practicing their techniques of sword, knife, and bow. And while the castle had well over one hundred servants, Masaru was the only one who daily walked about the passageways bordering the hall. He enjoyed staying in the shadows, watching the men practice their combat techniques. Among half the servants Masaru was legendary; the other half thought he should be locked in a cage for his own protection.

So as not to injure themselves, the Samurai often practiced on frightened laborers grabbed as they walked near the hall. Most were too scared to do anything but accept the soon-to-come beating, but Masaru was different. Knowing he had the favor of the Shogun, Masaru always defended himself, being careful to not accidentally insult the Samurai. What they did not know was Masaru’s mother had taught her son more than just cooking.

“Hataka Masaru – the kitchen can wait. Come stand over here. Now.”

Today, however, Masaru found himself with a true dilemma. He could not disobey the Samurai, for to do so meant probable death. Yet, if they discovered the kaiken’s blade hidden inside his kimono sleeve, there would be questions. And then his death would follow with certainty.

This indiscriminate power to kill peasants was an accepted part of Bushido, the warrior’s code. And until now, Masaru’s desire to become a Samurai had not been personally tested by the consequences of following the entire code.

Masaru was positioned in the center of the hall. Here there was adequate space for combat; the furnishings having been moved to the side. Samurai gathered around, forming an inescapable perimeter ten paces in diameter. He knew what was coming next. The senior man was about to impart wisdom to his charges, and Masaru would be the demonstration. He clenched his muscles, ready to accept the pain.

Two Samurai stepped forward and bound Masaru’s hands in front of him using a strip of old fabric. A third came up from behind and tied a blindfold across his eyes. The cloth scraped his skin, but Masaru knew better than to flinch; he wanted to remain as silent as possible. His ears would tell him what was happening.

The senior was instructing his students about the higher techniques of controlling a prisoner. The news of the one-armed thief had travelled quickly throughout Castle Edo, and the leader of the Shogun’s Samurai knew his position, and his life depended on such an occurrence never happening again.

“Your prisoner no longer has the use of his hands, and his eyes are blind,” the man said. He slowly circled around Masaru, pointing to the blindfold and the cloth handcuffs. “He tries to escape. How can you stop him?”

A student stepped forward two paces.

Masaru could not see, but knew from the smell of the man’s sweat that he was now directly in front. Masaru’s nose detected this odor was not the normal stench associated with wearing the chain-mail armor coverings, the kusari gusoku. No, the novice Samurai stank of fear.

Instinct caused Masaru to jump, lifting his feet as high as his muscles could flex. The swooshing sound of a wooden Bo whiffed by Masaru at ankle-height. He had dodged the first attack, then readied himself for the next movement of the Samurai’s bojutsu kata, the litany of physical actions used with the long staff.

Masaru, with only a moment to react, raised his arms in hopes of catching the descending pole before it landed a debilitating hit on his neck. The cloth handcuffs entrapped the bo; and Masaru dropped to his knees pulling the young Samurai’s staff down with him.

The clatter of the oak weapon skittering away was drowned out by the laughter of the other Samurai. The senior admonished the warriors to stop, putting his hand on top of the handle of his katana. The older Samurai knew their leader would not draw the sword from its sheath, for that would indicate someone, a Samurai no less, would have to die. The junior Samurai had no clear indication of their mentor’s intentions, though, and silence was immediately restored.

“Masaru, you are wasting our time as a cook. Had you been born into a higher class, you would do well to join us. Perhaps you have spent more time observing our methods than stirring the Shogun’s soup?”

Masaru knew his station in life. To speak now would be an affront to the Samurai, implying he considered himself an equal. A deep and prolonged bow would suffice. He hoped.

The senior motioned his charges away to another part of the great room. It was time for archery and Masaru wanted no part of it. Arrows flew much faster than wooden poles could be thrust, and being hit with a stick was one thing; feeling the sharp point of an errant arrow wielded by a warrior in training was another.

As Masaru returned on his journey to the kitchen, he noticed another servant carrying two large buckets of potatoes. It was Ichiro. How long had he been watching? Had he been watching at all? Why was he watching?

Masaru, remembering the one-armed thief from the midday meal, tried not to look too closely at Ichiro’s arms as the man lugged the heavy buckets. Still, Masaru wanted to know if the mark on Ichiro’s forearm matched the one he had seen on the limb sliced from the thief.

Something was wrong; something bad was going to happen. Masaru’s instincts were overstimulated, probably from the blindfolded attack he assumed. But still, Masaru had a gut feeling the incident in the Shogun’s antechamber was just the beginning.

“Masaru,” his new assistant said, “we must hurry to your kitchen. I have something very important to tell you.”

The man’s kimono sleeves had slid up just enough to confirm Masaru’s theory. The marks were not burns. They were tattoos. And only two types of people in Edo had such markings. Criminals, and those who would soon enough become one.

Masaru said nothing in reply, instead letting his own sleeve loosen enough to allow the hidden blade enough freedom to slip down into his palm.

As the two reached the privacy of the kitchen, Masaru spoke. “I see you have brought more potatoes. Very good. We will both make another journey to the markets to get the other foods needed for the dinner tonight. And some fish. But only if we can carry it ourselves.” The last thing Masaru wanted was another stranger in his midst.

“Hataka Masaru. You have not had training as a Samurai, yet you do well against their attacks.”

Masaru slowly backed away from the man. He did not know if this was a challenge or flattery designed to gain something else. “I have watched the Samurai move through their bojutsu kata many times. I know which moves follow every strike. It was a simple matter of hearing when and where the first attack would occur.”

“I think it more than just observation. You and I both know. Your mother taught you well.”

       How did this man know my mother?

♦ ♦ ♦

Heterographs and the art of reading

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

A recent post on Penguin’s Book Country espoused the benefit of reading. And I am in complete agreement. Hard to believe coming from a guy who in his youth read the bare minimum to keep scholastically alive and kicking. Now, however, as a writer, I am playing catch-up, and have a stack of books just waiting for me to open.

Of course, I did read something daily from the mid 1970s through the mid 2000’s – music, a different language using different symbols, but reading all the same. Helped with brain cognition and neural network formation, or so the smart people say. In my old crowd, the word “read” was usually referring to small-ish wooden slivers called “reeds.” As on online dictionary stated, read and reed  are actually “homophonic heterographs.” Try using that one at your next cocktail party. Okay, maybe not.

Anyway, with regard to reeds, a woodwind musician is on a neverending quest always looking to find the best one. With a great reed, a musician can produce a much better sound. A bad one can get you fired. And no one wants that. There are only so many jobs in the fast food industry.

For writers, a better “read” will only help them become a better writer. What constitutes such a good book? That’s the fun part, you don’t really know until you start reading!

Back to Book Country for a moment: I have been asked to read and comment on a draft of a historical novel set in mid-to-late 1800s Montana (hence the photo of Glacier Nat’l Park above.) The Ghost at Beaverhead Rock is a page-turner written by  Carol Buchanan. This book is well-researched and contains themes that could easily apply in today’s world. After all, greed and jealousy weren’t invented last week.

Because of my agreement to read the book, and comment – and because I am waaaay behind in my daily bible reading, I am taking my own advice and making this week a reading week. And by the way, in case your bible is still in your car, and your car is in the shop this week (who knew wheel bearings were so important?) you can always link to an online bible. I now have the Revised Standard Version linked on my favorites thanks to biblestudytools.com. This site has many translations and commentaries. If you are going to hang out online, this is not a bad place to spend time.

That’s it for now. Back to reading – unless the Nobel Committee calls. I hope they didn’t lose my phone number like last year.

Keep the ink well full.


The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 5

Masaru stopped, his hand frozen at the door’s threshold. The Shogun had asked him a question, an unexpected question yet one Masaru knew his life’s longevity hinged upon. There was no time to think; an answer was due. And it needed to be the correct answer.

“Shogun, I do not think the enemies within the castle walls are plotting against you.”

The ruler of Edo and all Japan put down his soup bowl. His left hand stroked his black, wiry beard as his right drifted across his belly, coming to rest on the handle of his sword. The man started to smile. A short laugh erupted at Masaru’s expense.

“For a cook, you have more wisdom than all of my advisers. Just like your mother.” The Shogun resumed his lunch, slurping the hot soup as if it were water drawn from a cool mountain stream.

“Will that be all, Shogun?” Masaru bowed deep to his master, holding his head down hoping the lack of eye contact would give him permission to leave. Hearing no reply, he inched his torso back to an upright stance, still being careful to remain slightly lower than the Shogun.

“You said enemies, Hataka Masaru. Within the castle walls, yes?”

This was the situation Masaru had feared the most. All he had wanted to do was deliver the soup and leave. Now, a curious Shogun was engaging him in a conversational interrogation. Masaru knew if he was caught in a lie, his head would roll. And a lie of omission would be worse. There were certain appendages no man wanted to be without.

“Shogun, I have seen Ronin.”

“My Samurai have not seen anything of the sort. Where are these lost warriors?”

Masaru was about to answer when a scuffle broke out in the antechamber. He lunged for the wooden beam used to secure the door. But before he could secure the room and protect his master, the Shogun pushed Masaru aside and rushed out. The glint of the Shogun’s katana flashed in front of Masaru.

By the time Masaru regained his balance, the fight was over. Two Samurai stood tall, swords in hand, each blade coated with blood. On the floor lay what remained of one of the food tasters. Kira was rising up from behind the thick wooden door; for the moment he was unable to speak.

The dead man’s body was contorted by the force of two sharp blades slicing him in quick succession. Masaru knew the death was instantaneous. The man felt no pain; a gruesome yet merciful way to die. The Shogun directed one of the Samurai to unlock the iron handcuff from the severed arm. Masaru assumed the dead man had tried to escape. He was wrong.

Kira, seeing the danger now gone, came forward to explain the prisoner had slipped one hand out from the cuffs and tried to assassinate the Shogun. Kira said he had ordered the Samurai to protect the Shogun, but it was evident the two Samurai waited for no such order.

As the sentries dragged the dead man and his arm out of the chamber, Kira begged an audience with the Shogun. Masaru had seen this behavior before; it was not honest – it was deceitful and more than likely evil. If the cook could change any aspect of his life now, he would become a Samurai. They knew their purpose, their value. They were honorable. Unlike Kira.

Now alone in the antechamber, Masaru picked up the pot handle that had dropped from his sleeve. As much as he wanted to consider the piece of wood a weapon, after seeing the power of the katana, Masaru knew he would someday need to have his own. He, unfortunately, had no idea how this would occur.

Turning to secure the door to the Shogun’s room, Masaru noticed something sticking in the door’s frame. It was a small dagger.

Masaru pulled the knife out. Could Kira have been correct? After all, had the door not been there to stop the knife’s flight, it would have gone into the Shogun’s room. Masaru held the knife up to the light streaming in from the window. There were no kanji, no discernible markings on the blade. No blood, either. The attacker had missed his mark.

Something still bothered him, though. How would the attacker know the door would open, and at what precise time?

Masaru sat down in the chair used by the food tasters. He mimicked his hands being bound by the irons. Standing up, he raised his left arm as the attacker would have done. Twisting around to now face the door to the Shogun’s room, Masaru pretended to hit the nearest guard, the one approaching from Masaru’s left side.

Of course! Masaru extended his left arm to allow the fictitious Samurai to chop it off with one arc from the katana. He then raised his right arm, aiming at the door. This man knew he would be killed, yet he chose to sacrifice his left arm first to draw attention away from the right. In the commotion, the attacker probably hoped no one would notice the thrown dagger until it was too late.

His right hand following the path of the knife, Masaru walked straight to the door. The dagger had impaled itself deep, at a depth almost the length of his little finger. That’s when Masaru noticed the torn piece of black silk stuck inside the opening.

Maybe the attacker wasn’t trying to assassinate the Shogun, he wondered. What if the man was trying to protect him?

Masaru heard Kira and the Shogun speaking in the next room, but knew he could not accuse Kira of anything without losing his own arm, or worse. He decided it was time to return to the safety of his kitchen.

He started walking the corridors back to the Shogun’s private kitchen. With such dramatic events of the day now over, Masaru hoped his new assistant would return with the needed supplies soon. As he walked, Masaru kept adjusting the dagger now hidden within his sleeve. He was not accustomed to weaponry. A sad commentary, he thought, for a cook who wanted to become a Samurai.