We heart writing “on location”

View from the Artist Loft - Cape Charles Coffee House

View from the Artist Loft – Cape Charles Coffee House

Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day and the two of us decided it would be a great day to do something together, out in public. No – not that. This is a family blog, you know. But given the outside temperature is in the 20’s (-3 or so Celsius) and the high winds not helping matters, a relaxing morning inside the warm comfort of the Cape Charles Coffee House was deemed to be public enough.

A few pancakes, some scrambled eggs, a yogurt fruit parfait and muffin later, we found ourselves upstairs. The building, beautifully restored to the elegance it had over a century ago, has a nice artist’s loft. Paintings by locals hang on the wall; there are small and large tables, plus comfy chairs. A perfect place to hold a small informal meeting, or in our case – plug in the laptops and write.

Truth be told – once my trilogy of culinary cozies hits the press, readers may see a coincidental resemblance of this coffee house to the diner-headquarters of the main character. Why shouldn’t I use such a great space for the setting of a novel, right?

So here we sit for a while – me catching up on my social media accounts and eventually moving on with revisions to book number two. My better half? She’s doing work. I know, not as fun as my quest, but she gets to work in an elegant space. And with such fine company!

Valentine’s Day or not, if you need a space to write, look for a quiet place that still has some life to it. You might try a coffee shop, a library (yes, that building with all of the books,) or anywhere people will ignore you, yet be visible for inspiration. Heck, try the waiting area at your local airport. You’ll definitely see a cross-section of humanity there!

Wherever you write – may inspiration hit you like a strong cup of hot coffee; and may any writer’s block be vanquished!

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Revision & the Post-Nanowrimo Reality Check

How many of you participated in Nanowrimo 2014? You know, the month of literary abandon where writers of all ilk try to pen at least 50,000 words into some coherent fashion – all during the month of November?

Thousands tried it. Thousands finished. You may be one of them!

And literary agents now cry during the month of December as their email in-boxes explode with submissions. Now, let’s give credit where credit is due: there could be a bestseller in there somewhere. Odds are against it. But it could happen.

And that’s why writers submit their Nano Novels.

Alas, the writer may be ready to be a bestselling author, but the story is not. Many (smarter?) writers use December to revise their draft. Good idea! But now it’s January. The revision must be ready to submit, right?

Here’s some advice from a long time Nano winner, me. I’m the one whose first novel is getting good reviews, but has yet to be traditionally published.

Wait.

Revise.

Wait.

Revise.

Wait some more.

Revise again.

Give your brain a chance to think about other stuff. I wrote a new novel (the sequel) while I was waiting. I put the first book up for critique on the online writer’s peer group, Book Country. I had a few beta readers offer me their opinion. All good feedback, even if not always what I wanted to hear.

The point is – good on you for writing a book in November. Most people could not do it. Ever. But don’t waste that effort. Revise it. Work it. Peer review it. Do something else and then come back and read it with fresh eyes. Trust me. It is worth it.

And eventually, you will find less and less to change. Finally, perhaps a year (or more) later, you will feel confident enough in the work to send it out.

And when you do, I send you my best wishes!

Now put down the draft and go read a book! Make a bucket list and check some things off! Go to the coffee shop and – gasp – talk to someone instead of hiding in the comfy chair typing away. You can do it, you know you can!

Give your book a chance to become as ready for the world as you are!

And now I’m published!

The World Unknown Review, Vol I

The World Unknown Review, Vol I

Shameless self-marketing post:  One of my noir-ish humorous shorts was chosen for the first volume of The World Unknown Review, with L.S. Engler, editor. Containing 11 short stories and one novella, this new literary review features authors who have an impressive publishing background, as well as those (me) who are just breaking into the business.

My story? Titled The Crucible, this tale is a slice of life featuring an English teacher at an exclusive private school. Distraught with the futility of his efforts, he receives a ray of hope in a promotion to headmaster, only to see…well, you will have to read it for yourself.

If you are a teacher, you can probably relate to this story. If you aren’t, you very well may be one of the characters!

Yes, I’m excited! And you should be, too. Eight clams and some change for the paper version (huzzah for an editor who wanted to make a traditional book!) and just under a dollar for the Kindle version.

If only there was some occasion where you could use a new gift. Hmmm.

Now, back to my happy dance!

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.

Why?

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…)

The 13th Samurai, Act 1, Scene 3

Masaru used a short wooden pole to pick up the iron pot of soup, taking it away from the fire. With a nod of his head, Masaru motioned for Ichiro to place a nearby lid on top of the pot. There was not so much to worry about the soup getting cold, but rather the boiling hot liquid sloshing out and burning the cook. With the long, winding passageways inside Castle Edo, this was a daily risk for all of the cooks.

As Masaru stepped left foot then right, then left again, his barefoot toes felt the lay of the cobblestones leading upward. The pathways were long and winding. Around every corner or bend in the path were small alcoves inset at varying heights, perfect defensive positions for the Samurai loyal to the Shogun. Torches lit much but not all of the cobbled stone walkways, their smoke hindering visibility at times. Masaru, however, had made the daily journey so often the obstacles meant nothing. He just needed to be careful.

A voice behind him asked “Which way? I am confused?”

It was Masaru’s new assistant cook. The man was trying to find his way to the main entrance of the castle so he could venture out to the markets and obtain more fresh vegetables. Spy or assassin, it mattered not to Masaru since at best the man would return with vegetables needed for the dinner. At worst, he would fall victim to one of the false passageways, those leading to nowhere.

Some of those routes were ascending, others dropping steeply. Invaders assuming the elevated paths would lead to the Shogun would find themselves at a walled-in summit guarded by archers aiming their arrows downward. Survivors, if any, might have tried to escape down one of the other paths, but there deep pits awaited.

Masaru told his assistant to stay on the level pathways. He warned going up would get him lost for hours; downward in any fashion and he would never be found.

Ichiro gave another short bow, then picked up his empty sack and went on his way. This simple errand, albeit a necessary one, would allow Masaru enough time to speak to the Shogun. He dared not speak to anyone else. Especially to Kira.

Arriving at the antechamber of the Shogun’s dining room, Masaru set the pot on the table, removing the wooden handle and stowing it away in the folds of his kimono as a Samurai would. Masaru had no formal training in weaponry but had seen enough martial training to know the short pole would make for a decent club in a fight. With a Samurai hiding in his kitchen, Masaru wanted to take no chances. There could be more.

The door opened.

It was Kira, followed by a man whose wrists were cuffed in irons. Two Samurai entered and stood behind the man. The daily ritual had begun.

“Masaru, do you assert this soup has not been poisoned?” Ichiro rattled off the words just as he had done every day for the past several years. Masaru knew the game. If the soup actually did contain poison, once the body of the food taster had been taken away, Masaru would be the next taste tester whether he wanted to be or not.

“The soup is just as the Shogun prefers. There is no poison in it.” Turning to the shackled man now sitting at the table, Masaru continued. “Do not worry. You will eat better here than if you had been sent to the mines on Sado.”

“Yes,” Kira added. “And perhaps live longer. But for now, taste the soup, thief.”

There was no effort made to remove the iron handcuffs from the prisoner’s wrists. Instead, one of the Samurai dipped a small wooden bowl into the soup pot, then pushed the bowl up to the man’s mouth. As soup spilled over the reluctant diner’s face, the second Samurai drew his katana.

The sound of the metal blade being withdrawn from its sheath was enough to convince the man to swallow.

The room fell silent as everyone waited.

Beads of sweat formed on the man’s brow. His tongue smacked against the inside of his cheeks and teeth. The soup had scalded his mouth. As he gasped for breath in an effort to bring relief to his blistering skin, Kira pulled the man’s head back by the hair.

“Let me look into your eyes, thief. Do I see death? Or not.”

Masaru decided enough was enough and used his leverage with the Shogun to move things along. “He is not dead. Let me bring the Shogun his lunch before it gets cold. You know how he is intolerable of cold soup. Or should I tell him you wanted to play with the thief while the meal cooled?”

“Do not try my patience, cook. The Shogun may be your benefactor now, but he is old. The next Shogun may not be so, so friendly, to one of such a lower class.”

Masaru did not reply, instead inserting the pole back into the pot. On his way through the doorway leading to the Shogun’s private room, Masaru let the pole slip just slightly to one side. He had cooked more soup than the Shogun would normally want and he had done so intentionally. Kira’s left leg received an unexpected cleansing.

Birds roosting on the highest points of the castle wall took flight; farmers stopped their carts. And Masaru wondered if the Jesuit heard the devil’s cry?

♦ ♦ ♦

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 2

“Do you not speak, Ichiro?” Masaru ignored the weapon for the moment and tried to focus on his new assistant’s eyes. What was this new man’s intent?

Masaru’s mother had once said a killer had the gaze of a normal person until the decision had been made to take a life. She knew from painful experience being one of two survivors of a near-massacre at the hands of drunken ronin, Samurai who no longer had a master. Masaru, a babe in her arms at the time, was the other survivor.

“Why does Yamato Kira fear you?” Ichiro retorted as he sliced the yellow carrots with deliberate, slow strokes of his blade.

Masaru broke a few pieces of dried kombu and added it to the devil’s tongue soup. The saltiness of the kelp harvested from the northern island of Hokkaido would give the soup the balance all dishes required.

“Kira does not fear me. He despises me.” Masaru had no other way to say the truth.

“Yet he lets you cook for the Shogun. Is he not afraid you will poison your master?”

Masaru’s mind, honed to a sharp edge of skepticism and wariness from twenty years of living in Castle Edo, began to question the assistant cook’s motivation. Why does this man ask these questions? With each stroke of Ichiro’s knife slicing through the sturdy root vegetables, Masaru knew his interest would became obsessive.

He noticed the pieces of carrot falling over in rhythmic succession. If Ichiro had anything to do with a plot to kill either the Shogun or Kira, perhaps Masaru could force a sign of recognition.

“It is no secret,” Masaru said. “Besides, there are those who will taste all of the food before it reaches the Shogun. I would say if anyone is in danger, it is Kira, not the Shogun.”

The knife did not waiver. The carrots continued to fall, one after another like the low-pitched ringing of the bonsho bell calling the Buddhist monks to prayer.

Masaru would need to stay alert. Something was not right. The Shogun had always treated him and his late mother well, almost like family. Masaru felt an obligation to protect the Shogun if he could, as if the army of loyal Samurai were not capable. He rationalized his thought by telling himself he was on the inside of the castle; most of the Samurai guarded the outside. What if the enemy were within?

Ichiro had finished preparing the vegetables and asked what else was needed. When Masaru turned around to answer, he noticed the man’s knife had already been secured out of sight, save the tip of the handle sticking out just below the edge of the man’s sleeve. A scar, small, probably a burn from cooking somewhere else Masaru assumed, was visible as well.

Ichiro noticed his mistake and pulled his sleeve down enough to cover the knife handle. He studied Masaru’s reaction, trying to decide if his secret had been discovered.

“Hataka Masaru-Itamae, I am just here to do a job, hoping to earn respect from my family. If there are enemies within Castle Edo, I know them not.”

Masaru was not sure how to respond. First, the man had bowed when he arrived, an unexpected sign of respect. Now he addressed Masaru with a title – Itamae, meaning head cook. Masaru considered himself a decent cook, but knew for some reason the Shogun kept him employed only because of his mother. Had the ruler desired more fanciful meals, the Shogun would out of necessity need to hire someone else.

“Indeed, Ichiro. In that endeavor we are all employed.”

Masaru pierced the devil’s tongue noodles with his own knife. The soup was done. Placing the lid on the iron pot, Masaru thought about his conversation with the Shogun. Would he advise him of the Samurai in the private kitchen? Is the Shogun even the target of an assassination plot? What if Ichiro was telling the truth?

Masaru opened his pouch and removed his omamori. It was time to make a decision, a choice that would affect him the rest of his life. And more than likely a decision that would directly influence how long his life would be.