Posted by Cassondra Murray Dec 5 2013, 1:04 am in 12 Bandita Days of Christmas, Artificial trees, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Christmas, Christmas tree, Traditions
I need help here.
I’m going to say it. Shameful as it may be, yes, I’ll say it, right here in front of God and everybody else.
I have a fake Christmas tree.
My house is 164 years old. It’s partially restored but a long way from finished. I’ll never forget the moment when I walked into the front foyer for the first time. I looked up at the ten-foot ceiling, then I looked at the glass sidelights and transom that wrap around the glass-paneled front door, all original 1800s wavy glass panes, loose enough to rattle in the muntins, uninsulated, and leaky as hell, and I said, “Think of the Christmas tree I could put in here!”
That’s half the reason I bought this ongoing-project-of-a house.
I love Christmas trees.
I love all of them, from the uber-chic designer trees to the tacky trees with ugly garland piled on a foot thick.
And falling somewhere on the upper middle of the Christmas tree scale, is mine. I have a really great tree.
Of course I can say that, because it’s always the same. It’s a fake tree.
And okay, yeah. I know. That’s not nearly as good as a real tree. I know this because everybody around me has real trees and when I’m talking with somebody and I say I have an artificial tree, there’s a very brief, subtle pause, with just a slight lifting of both eyebrows. You might not even notice it if you’re not paying attention.
Then they smile and nod, trying to hide the fact that they’ve just judged me.
“Oh,” they’re thinking. “I thought she had better taste! Bet she bought it at K-Mart.”
I could have bought it at K-Mart. Just two days ago I walked through their Christmas department and drooled over their awesome selection of really awesome artificial trees.
But I didn’t buy it there. I bought it at an upscale Christmas shoppe.
See? There’s an extra p and an e on the end of “shop” which proves it’s upscale.
I don’t get a real tree for two reasons.
First, I have an unusual attachment to trees. I feel a kinship with them. I have such a deep love for trees that it’s almost painful for me to see one cut. It’s a sad weakness. I can’t enjoy having a cut tree in my house without wondering at what beautiful thing it might have become if I hadn’t cut it. I just can’t do it.
Second, I like to put my tree up at the winter solstice, December 20th or 21st, and leave it up until February 2nd, Groundhog Day. Some of y’all remember a blog I did last January called Waiting For The Light To Come. I confessed that I get clinical depression in the winter, and February 2nd is the point at which I can feel the season turning, spring coming, and hope renewed. So that’s when I’m ready to take down my tree and unplug its cheerful lights.
No real tree will last that long.
When I was a little girl, Daddy would take me out to the woods and we’d cut down a little cedar tree. It was usually about six feet tall, and it smelled heavenly.
Then a few years later we got a fake tree, and it was full and fluffy and perfect. Every needle was stick-straight and the same shade of fake green. I hated it. From about a mile away you could look at it and say, “that’s a plastic tree.” When I was little, fake trees were awful.
Things have changed.
Artificial trees come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and they’re beautiful.
Now my tree is nine feet tall, slender, and looks like a real evergreen, even up close.
I wrap several strands of white lights in piles around the center “trunk” then wind many more lights through the branches. I learned this technique from a book with a title I can’t remember, but it was probably something like “Martha Stewart rocks Christmas” or some such. When I plug it in, with all those lights in the center, it glows like something from another realm.
But no matter how excellent my tree is, it’s still a plastic tree.
If y’all read the newsletter, you know that Marco, Paulo and some of the other guys on staff had some issues recently when they went out hunting for trees to decorate the various rooms here in the lair.
No fake trees here.
So I did a survey in the lair about what kind of trees the Bandits get for their own homes.
Bandita Suz said, “We’ve always gotten a real tree since we got married. The Jazzman (aka, my hubby) loved them when he was small. Hated helping his mom put up the fake one.”
Bandita Nancy said, “We have a real tree. We like the smell of it and the texture.”
Yeah. No love for the plastic tree.
Bandita Jo said, “We generally like a live tree. There’s something very satisfying and comforting about the smell of pine in the house.”
Yes. Yes, there is. *Heavy sigh*
Bandita Tawny said, “I love real trees, but both of my girls have really bad allergies. After a few sniffly, watery holidays I gave in and got an artificial tree. Ours is about 8 foot, green and lit with white lights.”
Finally, another artificial tree!
Small consolation though. Tawny has a plastic tree, but she doesn’t like it. “I miss having a live tree,” she said. “The scent and feel of it is always wonderful. But I do bring in a few boughs to decorate with, and we have a live wreath on the door. Those don’t seem to send my kids into misery.”
Okay she’s only doing this for the sake of her children’s health. Hmmm..
I asked Bandita Trish what she had, and she said, “Fake. I actually have two, the smallish one I’ve had since college and a big one that I got when we bought our house because the front living room has a vaulted ceiling. I don’t like cleaning up after live ones, and knowing my allergies they would make me sneeze anyway.”
Hmmm…once again, allergies are the determining factor.
I’m still feeling like the odd woman out.
Joanie said, “Replica tree…yeah…that’s what I’ll call it…replica. Don’t recall a real tree growing up as my brother suffered from allergies.”
Once again, it would be a real tree if not for the children’s health—or for the sake of the cats…“The artificial ones HAVE improved over the years, especially in assembly,” Joan said. “I have a pre-lit one now about 6 feet tall that comes in 3 pieces. And I can tie it to the wall so certain kitty elves don’t topple it.”
Yes, the kitties do love to climb the Christmas tree. Real or fake.
Hey, at least Joanie tried to be diplomatic about it.
Bandita Caren said, “Our tree is fake. It’s a 6-foot Douglas Fir and is, naturally, pine green…We stick with fake because pine is the thing I am most allergic to in the world!”
Okay I’m getting a complex here.
Even my evil twin, Duchesse Jeanne, stands against me in this question.. “We always get a fresh tree, usually on my birthday,” she said. “We’ve bought the kind you can plant before, but I’m running out of places in the yard to put them, so fresh cut it is.”
Bandita Christina said, “We do a fake tree. Not many people have real ones where I live. It’s getting on in years now, probably needs replacing, It’s plastic, with dark green needles and it’s decorated with all the love and tackiness we can manage.”
Yes, yes, YES! Finally! Apparently I would fit in better if I moved to Australia. Ahem.
Bandita Anna Sugden, who lives in England now, said, “These days, a real tree – we always get a special “non-drop” tree (A Nordmann or a Norwegian Spruce, she says, which I’m assuming will not drop its needles) so that it’s safe for the cats…Have always preferred a real tree, but when we lived in NJ we couldn’t get non-drop trees, so bought a fab fake tree (which we still have in the loft), which looked very realistic!”
Yeah. You can tell she’s just trying to make me feel better, can’t you? That’s the thing about the Bandits. We always have each others’ backs, even if one of us is off in left field with regard to Christmas trees. *heavy sigh*
Bandita Susan Sey said, “I prefer real…In our on-the-road-for-Christmas years, we sometimes will buy a really small real tree (think Charlie Brown’s Christmas).”
I found a ray of hope, though. She went on to say, “Sometimes, we just decorate my extremely tacky fake tree from Target. It’s about two feet tall and comes complete with LED color-shifting lights built into the end of each needle. It’s wicked awesome. Like a disco ball/Christmas tree mashup.”
That’s the kind of tree that both my mom and my father-in-law have now. Very space efficient. And I’ve gotta say, they do rock.
I remember a couple of years when my mom had a retro silver aluminum tree. I hated those when I was little (when they were NOT retro) but now I think they’re kind of cool. They reflect any colors around them and are just straight up fun.
Disco trees notwithstanding, artificial trees of all kinds have come a long way. I have to get up close to some of them–even touch them–to know whether they’re real or not.
Still, it’s obvious that I’m outnumbered. I’m thinking of applying for minority status.
My squeamishness about cutting down a live tree (or buying one that’s been cut down) is definitely in the minority. With a fake tree, there’s no magical smell of evergreen that says “Christmas” any time you breathe it in. There’s no “real tree in the house” energy about it.
But you don’t have to water an artificial tree. And it doesn’t drop needles or turn brown.
Bandit Buddies, what do you do?
Is your tree real? Or fake?
If it’s fake, what color is it? How tall? And do you miss the touch and scent of the real thing?
If it’s a real tree, where do you get it? Do you cut your own? If not, where do you buy it?
When do you put it up? Is there a special day each year? Or is it whenever you manage to get to it?
If you don’t celebrate Christmas, do you participate in another festival or holiday this time of year?
Watch for our annual 12 Bandita Days of Christmas, with fun and so many prizes Santa can’t carry them, coming in just a few days!
Posted by Cassondra Murray Nov 5 2013, 2:13 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, country life, rural America, small towns, waving
My friend Rene moved here from Michigan. We met for lunch one day and I drove us both to a little diner a few miles down the road. As we rode along on the country lane, I met a car coming from the opposite direction. I slowed down, eased over to the edge of the too-narrow strip of asphalt, and as we passed, I waved. The driver waved back.
Rene looked over at me. “Who was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. Rene’s face scrunched up into a confused frown. A few minutes later, I met another car. The driver waved. I waved back.
“Who was that?” Rene asked.
“I have no idea,” I said.
Rene raised her left eyebrow. “If you don’t know who it is, why do you wave?”
I raised my own eyebrow. “Because this is rural Kentucky. That’s what you do.”
When I was a little girl, everybody waved at everybody. I remember my grandfather, DaddyMike, coming back from an outing to the store in town. He climbed out of his battleship-size blue Impala, came into the kitchen and set the box of soap powders (this was laundry soap) on the kitchen counter. MotherGrant (my grandmother) said, “Did ya see anybody out?”
DaddyMike: John C. Coomer was in the garden, hoein’ out sweet corn.
MotherGrant: Did he speak?
DaddyMike: He threw up his hand.
I mentioned this exchange to Bandita Jeanne, and she immediately burst out laughing. She said, “Hahah! I could quote that exactly about dozens of times from my childhood!”
I could too. This conversation happened over and over—each time about a different person–when I was a kid.
Now let me explain something so you get a feel for the place. John C. Coomer was known as John C. Coomer, (or perhaps the shortened version, John C, or the ever popular “Little John Coomer”) most likely because his dad, or his cousin, or his uncle, was John W. Coomer, and there was every possibility that these two—or three–John Coomers lived less than a half mile apart on the same country road.
Now then. For you who don’t understand the exchange between DaddyMike and Mothergrant, what this meant was that as DaddyMike drove past, John C. Coomer was outside in plain view, and he was busy digging weeds out of his corn patch.
John C. may—or may not—have actually looked up from his destruction of the vile corn-infesting weeds. But whether he did or not, he heard the car driving by on the road and he made the effort to take one of his hands off of the hoe handle, and lift it into the air.
Quite likely he did not actually wave—as in move his hand back and forth in a waving motion. Almost certainly he just lifted his hand into the air. How high he lifted his hand would be determined by how far he was from the road and his energy level.
If he was right by the road, his hand might not even clear his shoulder. If he was “a ways off” he might even lift his arm all the way up so it could be seen. If he was in a good mood, he might add a jaunty little flick of the hand. Then he would’ve dropped his hand back to the hoe handle and proceeded to rid the corn patch of another weed.
I didn’t do anything fancy when I met that car on the way to lunch with Rene. There was no actual waving motion.
I just threw up my hand.
And that was enough.
It was one human noticing the presence of another human. One soul acknowledging another in passing, and honoring that meeting. I have no idea where or when the tradition began, but where I grew up, it was important. It was expected. No matter who you were, if your path crossed another’s, that meeting was worthy of acknowledgement.
Now let me digress. Had John C. been unable to actually remove one hand from the hoe—perhaps because DaddyMike was moving along at a good clip, and John C. was caught in mid stroke, attacking a particularly noxious weed–John C. could have simply thrown his head back a little. It’s kind of the opposite of a nod. This motion would have been greatly exaggerated by the wide straw brim of his hat, and this would have been clearly visible from the road if you knew what to look for.
If that had happened, instead of “he threw up his hand,” DaddyMike would have reported that “he threw his head back.”
And that, too, would be proper acknowledgement.
A lot of people do not understand this advanced waving repertoire, but it’s a required skillset for anyone living long in the rural American South.
My friend Sandra moved here from another state. She accepted that waving was necessary, but still, she said, “all these people keep lifting one or two fingers at me as we meet on the road. I feel slighted. I want the whole hand.”
Sandra is from a southern state, but she grew up in the city. What she didn’t get was that this is a farming community. That means farm vehicles on the road. These are not compact cars with power steering and automatic transmissions. They’re pickup trucks. Trucks with trailers. Tractors. Combines. Or in the case of the Amish, a particularly ornery horse.
I have a hunch that maybe, all this “hands occupied” stuff–including ornery horses– is how we ended up with so many acceptable variations on the wave.
When I was a little girl, almost everybody drove a stick shift. The gear shift lever might have been on the floor or on the steering column, but either way, it required both hands to operate.
But none of this was an excuse not to wave.
What do you do when you need to wave and your hands are full of steering wheel and gearshift lever? You adapt.
You keep your hand on the steering wheel, with your thumb firmly wrapped around it, and you lift one, two, three, or (if you’re very confident in your driving skills and the road is straight) four fingers.
If all else fails, even while driving, you throw your head back. It’s fortunate that so many people in the south wear baseball caps, since the bills of those caps do an exceptional job of exaggerating the “throw-your-head-back” motion. But even without a cap, if the other driver is paying close enough attention to know whether you wave or not, that person will almost certainly see you throw your head back.
It’s subtle, but once you know what to watch for, it’s obvious, and one waving style is as good as another.
When I tried to explain this, Sandra frowned at me, just as Rene frowned at me over the whole waving-in-general thing.
It’s the same way in Tennessee, best I can tell, and I’ve seen this happen in North Carolina, at least in some parts, so I know that the “must-wave” rule applies in rural areas there..
If you pass somebody on the road, you wave.
Duchesse Jeanne’s mother instilled this into her children. Jeanne said, “It was a point of fact that you never passed anyone on the street or sidewalk without nodding and waving or saying hello. Mama always told me that it was only polite to acknowledge the other person’s existence on the planet.”
She went further to say, “My auntie used to say that it was allowing that everyone was a child of God, and you acknowledged that when you spoke or waved.”
The first time I visited New York City, I understood why folks up there don’t wave at everyone. It would be logistically impossible. Most people didn’t make eye contact or nod. That would be considered rude in my country town.
But in big cities, if they waved at me–or even made eye contact much– I would be a little freaked out. There are too many people all around you, all at once, all the time. I simply could not connect with all those people I didn’t know.
And I can imagine the correlation. If I grew up in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago and came to live in the South, when everyone started waving at me, I’d be like, “what are they doing?” I’m guessing it would make me nervous.
But around here, once you get off the four-lane road, people still wave.
Perhaps the best lessons I got from MotherGrant and DaddyMike were about the times when somebody did NOT wave. Those were the lessons about not taking things too personally. And about always giving another person the benefit of the doubt.
MotherGrant: Who’d you see on the way to town?
DaddyMike: Big John Coomer was on the corner, comin’ out of the feed mill.
MotherGrant: Did he speak?
DaddyMike: Nah. I think he didn’t see me.
What about you, Bandits and Buddies?
Do you live in a place where people always wave?
Queen Elizabeth, there on the right, has spent a good part of her life waving at people, and has become famous for her certain particular, stately and understated wave.
Are there various forms of “waves” for different circumstances where you live?
I’ve been in some cities—mostly outside the US—where friendliness or eye contact would mark you as a target for crime. Have you ever been to a place like that?
If you live in a big—or a medium-size–city, is it okay to smile or nod when you pass on the street? Or is that a reason to look over your shoulder and watch your back?
What’s the etiquette for connecting with someone on the train, the escalator, or the elevator? Is it a quick glance and a nod, then move on?
If you’ve lived in more than one place, did you have trouble adjusting to the culture and rules for “friendliness” and connecting there?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Oct 9 2013, 2:19 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, childhood memories, costumes, Halloween, harvest, Samhain, seasonal festivals, Witch hats
When I was a little girl, Halloween was my favorite holiday.
But…bottom line? When I was a little girl, Halloween costumes were AWFUL.
Yes, that DOES deserve to be capitalized.
Do you sense that there might be some leftover bitterness????
When I was a little girl, store-bought costumes were ridiculous plastic affairs with poorly-painted-on details. The only masks available were from the dime store, and that meant a thin piece of molded plastic, with eyes way too wide for any little kid, and a mouth hole the size of a sewing needle.
So…your mission, should you choose to accept it, was to go trick-or-treating around the neighborhood while wearing strange clothes that probably dragged the ground and were likely to make you trip, while you were able to see out of one eye MAYBE part of the time, as you dripped unnatural amounts of sweat because your skin had a plastic mask plastered against it, all while you were forced to shove the bottom of the mask away from your face periodically in order to actually…you know…breathe. And this last bit was at the risk of snapping the elastic that held your mask on. The elastic was about as thick as sewing thread and was stapled haphazardly to the mask by one staple on each side. This was, no doubt, accomplished by an overworked person in some foreign country who could not possibly care less whether your Halloween experience was a good one or a nightmare.
Should you break said thread-like elastic–or pull it out of its ill-placed staples– you had to spend the entire night walking around holding your mask in place with one hand.
Seriously, what self-respecting Frankenstein has to hold his face on with one hand while spitting “Thwiiiit-O-Thweeeth” through the barely-there mouth slit and holding out the bag with the other hand?
So…you couldn’t see and you couldn’t breathe. But by-golly you got candy.
And that’s what everybody did.
And after the candy was dropped into your sack at each successive house, you said, “Thuuuumppppthuuuu!” And then you ran for the car and your waiting parents.
Incidentally, that was “Thank you!” spoken through the needle-size slit in your mask, in case you were wondering.
Where I grew up it was a mile or two between houses, so everybody got driven around by the parents, and the code was as follows:
Porch light on—trick-or-treaters welcome.
Porch light off—stay away.
Everybody honored the code. And for doing so, you got lucky. Homemade treats at many houses. Homemade fudge or pumkin bread or chocolate chip cookies with m&m pieces.
My mom made homemade caramel apples and popcorn balls the size of your fist. Each kid got one apple and one popcorn ball. The little lady down the road made Bourbon Balls, but that’s a whole nuther story. Ahem….
Each Halloween went by and I did my best. But I longed for something better.
Frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the candy. I just wanted, for one night a year, to be somebody I wasn’t. A dream character. A vampire. A witch. An angel. Lily Munster.
This was my chance to act, and I wanted to BE that character. With a capital B. E.
We won’t talk about the year I tried to use Vaseline and baby powder to make that white, skunk-like, Lily-Munster stripe in my waist-length brown hair. No, we won’t.
Each year when September rolled around, I started thinking about my costume for Halloween. And once I got old enough to have an actual personality, given the rotten-sorry state of costumes where I lived, I started figuring out how to make my own. Of course, this involved my mother and her sewing machine.
One year I decided I would be an angel. Mom bought a few yards of cheap, white, quilt-lining fabric. I took coat hangers out of the closet and bent them into grotesque approximations of wings. We used tissue paper and Scotch tape and covered these rudimentary frames. The wings attached to my arms via two coat-hanger-wire loops. I threaded my arms through. White robe. Wire-and-tissue wings. Coat-hanger-and-tinsel halo.
I made it home with at least one wing intact.
Then there were the years when I wanted to be a witch.
A few yards of cheap black fabric?
A beat-up old broom?
A decent witches hat?
The witch hats in the dime store–back then– were an eight-inch cardboard cone with a three-inch cardboard brim and the aforementioned thread-like plastic to hold it on your head.
There are no images available on Google to illustrate how bad these hats were. Apparently even the most Halloween-deprived individual of the present day has a better witch hat than anything that was available in my community at that time.
*smooshes bitter angst into dark corner of heart*
The thread-like plastic on the witch hats of my day was always too short for any child older than, oh…eight days… so by the end of the Halloween evening the erstwhile witch had a thin, reddened line running from one temple, down her cheek and around her chin, to the other temple.
Oh…and a bag full of candy. Which I did not care about.
Let’s just say that for the budding drama queen who had seen the Wizard Of Oz at least five times by the time she was age seven—and the most awesome witch hats on display in said movie–these options were, at best, insulting.
Times have changed.
Nowadays, if a witch wants to go out to a party to celebrate All Hallows Eve, the options are…well…frighteningly diverse.
Two years ago I was coming home from a work trip and Steve picked me up at the airport. We have a routine. When he picks me up from an evening flight, he knows I’ll be way too tired to fix food when I get home, so we stop a few miles north of the airport at Cracker Barrel. That night there was a wait for a table, so I browsed through their Halloween displays. And that’s where I found it.
I found the first had I’d ever seen that was worthy of a discerning Halloween witch.
I was not happy with the velvet spider attached to the hat, but I could live with it to get the black and red crushed-satin roses, black and blood-red feathers, and the black mesh veil attached to a wide brim with a black, crushed-velvet crown–the pointy part that says “witch” to anyone who matters. That’s it up on the right.
So I put that hat on, and I was transformed.
The inner always-wanted-to-be-a-real-witch-at-Halloween-but-never-had-the-hat child overtook me.
Our table was called, and I walked through Cracker Barrel wearing the awesome witch hat, complete with price tag dangling from the brim, ala Minnie Pearl.
People stopped what they were doing. They looked at me, wearing the hat.
And they smiled.
Thus was born a monster..
Last year, for the first time in my life, I decided I should indulge my inner witch. I bought two more hats. One was what I lovingly refer to as the “Purple Feather Witch Hat” (up there on the left) and the other is the “Scrunch Black Pearl Feather Witch Hat”–which is on the right –the girl with the cleavage–but I cut all those mesh strips at odd angles to make them all ragged because that hat deserved so much more than blunt whacked-off mesh veil strips.
It’s okay. Other people have called me insane before. I won’t be hurt if you do. Much.
There was one I did not buy last year, but I’ve actually dreamed about it several times. It’s the Zebra Witch Hat. I think the fact that I’ve dreamed about it probably means I should buy it.
Don’t you agree?
So anyway, I have three awesome witch hats, but I don’t actually attend any Halloween functions.
All dressed up and no place to cast spells.
Oh and I’ve realized, much too late, that nobody makes BOXES to hold awesome witch hats.
What’s a witch to do?
In the United States, Halloween is the modern equivalent of Samhain (incidentally that’s pronounced Sow-un. Sow like a female pig, un like undone)– a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. It is celebrated from sunset October 31st – sunset November 1st. This was changed by the Christians to All-Hollows Eve, the time when evil spirits walk the earth on the day before All Saints Day, November 1st.
So, Bandits and Buddies…
Is Halloween, Samhain, or All Hollows Eve celebrated where you live? If not, is there a similar holiday to note the dark half of the year?
Did you have a favorite Halloween costume when you were a kid?
Did you go trick-or-treating? Or where you live, is there another ritual associated with this time of year?
If you did trick-or-treat, what was your favorite candy or goody?
Do you ever go to Halloween parties now? Do you wear costumes?
Is there a “code” in your neighborhood–like porch lights on or off means welcome or not?
What’s changed about Halloween from when you were a kid to now?
Do you still like Halloween, even as an adult?
Have you seen any good costumes show up on your front porch?
Or do you turn your lights off and wait for it to be over?
If it’s coming spring/summer where you are, what festivals mark the change of spring and fall seasons for you?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Sep 12 2013, 4:25 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Inspiration, Romance, trains
What is it about trains?
A train should be a machine that moves people and stuff from place to place. And it is that.
But from all I’ve been able to discern in my life so far, a train is far more than that.
I first realized this when I was a tiny little thing, listening to my family make music.
When I was a little girl, my two brothers and my sister all played guitar. They were 14, 16 and 18 when I was born. By the time I was four years old, they’d all left home, but during each visit, they’d sit around the gray Formica kitchen table, guitars propped on their knees, singing.
While other kids were learning Can you tell me how to get…how to get to Sesame Street?, I sat quiet and still as a mouse on the old piano stool in the corner of my mom’s small kitchen, watching as my older siblings played and sang It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe. It don’t matter anyhow….in three part harmony.
My earliest clear memories of this are from when I was five or six years old. I don’t remember the words to all the songs because I was a generation behind my brothers and sisters, and by the time I became “radio aware” these songs were out of fashion. But I did remember the words to one song in particular.
It was a song about a train.
All three of my siblings had “their” songs–the particular songs where they would sing lead and the others would find the harmony. The train song was my eldest brother’s. To this day I can close my eyes and hear him sing it. The fingerpicking rhythm of the strings ran beneath his deep voice singing the words.
Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday mornin’ rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors, twenty five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee and rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ trains that have no name and freight yards full of old black men
And graveyards of rusted automobiles
Good mornin’ America how are you
Doncha know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles ‘fore your day is done
And that’s when I began to understand that trains are magic.
Arlo Guthrie made that song famous, but when I hear the lyrics, I hear it in my brother’s much more appealing bass voice. (Sorry Arlo.)
I got one “big” gift for Christmas each year. The year I turned eight I asked for an electric train.
The year I turned eleven, I asked for a guitar. I worked hard to learn the first few chords, and I kept learning chords because I had a goal.
I wanted to play The City of New Orleans just like my brothers and sisters could.
If you’ve never heard the song, and you want to experience a bit of history, I found an awesome video of Arlo in his later years as a guest on the Boston Pops, singing this song.
When I first heard The City of New Orleans, even as a toddler, it’s a fair bet that I’d never seen a train since the nearest track was many miles from my home and seldom used. Maybe I’d seen one on tv, but not in real life. But that song was enough to make me feel the magic of trains.
And I’m not the only one who feels it.
My guest this past Monday was Joanne Rock, and she mentioned that when she was growing up on a farm on the Hudson River in New York, she used to sit and watch the trains go by. I read that, and something in my heart went *click* because I also had a fascination with trains. I still do.
If you live in a city, you probably ride trains all the time. Or maybe you live just outside a major city, and you ride a commuter rail. For you, perhaps trains don’t seem like magic at all. But even so, when I think of the movie While You Were Sleeping, I realize that the entire plot setting was centered largely around a metropolitan train system–the Chicago L– and for me there’s still a bit of mystery about the whole thing.
Trains–especially the heavy rail trains, seem to inspire people. Humans build trains, and so I find it odd that humans also make art about trains. They paint pictures of trains. Obviously, they write songs about trains. Other people sing those songs about trains.
I typed “songs about trains” into Google, and immediately got pages to choose from. The City of New Orleans has its own page on Wikipedia.
People devote lifetimes of free hours building model trains, painting them to the exact specifications of real trains. That photo on the left is a wall of nothing but engines. There are huge stores devoted to model trains, each tiny engine or car a replica of some real one that ran the rails either in history, or in current day.
What is it about trains that sparks the muse?
Kittens are ridiculously cute. Can we all agree on that?
A search on Amazon for “books about kittens” yielded 399 results. Not bad.
But a search on Amazon for “books about trains” yields 1763 results.
Seventeen. Hundred. And. Sixty. Three.
Therefore in this ridiculously unscientific study, I must conclude that since trains do not have a longer history than kittens, trains are in fact more popular than kittens.
I find this astonishing.
From what I know, trains are what allowed serious expansion into the American West. When I think of sexy tv heroes I think of James West and Artemus Gordon in the Wild Wild West. They spent a lot of time on trains.
A lot of gospel songs talk about trains to Glory (that’s pronounced Glow-ree. Take my word for it if you’re not from the South) But clearly, the very attractive Josh Turner believes that not all trains lead to good places.
Rod Stewart, on the other hand, was all about finding his love on a train. A downtown one, in particular.
When I met and fell in love with my husband, Steve, his apartment was the upstairs of his mom’s house. It was right across the street from the railroad track. The first three weeks I stayed at his house overnight, I got almost no sleep.
No, not for that reason.
Okay, fine. Maybe there was some of that. But mainly it was because of the trains. At least twice every night a train would roll by, with horn blowing, wheels clack clack clacking, and the inherent prolonged roar of a giant, unstoppable thing moving by.
The first time I ever rode a train, I was in England to study the gardens. I rode all over the UK on trains. I even rode an awesome narrow-gauge rail from the harbor in Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales. That’s a picture of it on the right, and if you’re ever in Wales, I recommend the ride.
But I realized at that point that in many parts of the world, everybody rides trains. They’re no mystery at all. They’re an everyday thing.
But for some reason they still hold a certain magic for me, and apparently they do for others as well.
Flash forward many years to now. I read a book recently and in it there was a train. There it was, rolling by on the fictional railroad track, boxcars and all. And the main character thought about trying to hop on the train to get away from the bad guy. But she didn’t. She just let the train roll right on by. And I admit that I thought, “you totally missed your opportunity.”
So here I sit, typing my blog at 2 in the morning. The railroad track is two or three miles due south of my house. But just now I heard the faint, high-pitched moan of the train whistle. Not enough to keep me awake, but just enough to make me notice.
I feel the faint melancholy of it. I wonder who is riding the train. Where is it headed? What is is carrying? How many engines are rolling down those rails? How many cars? Though I can’t really hear it, in my mind I see it passing the railroad crossing. I hear the clanging of the bells. I see the flashing lights. I hear the rumble and feel the vibration as it rolls by.
Just the sound of it sparks my muse. It takes me to places I’ve never been. I imagine people I’ve never met. I suppose it’s the writer in me that wonders these things, but what are their stories? Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they running from someone? Running TO someone?
Is it a mail order bride riding to meet her stranger husband-to-be in a mining town in the west? Will the train run through a portal in a tunnel somewhere and end up in another place or time? Is it a man huddled in an empty boxcar, hiding from the mob who would kill him for what he knows? Is it a hero coming home from war, about to set foot in his hometown for the first time? Whose face is he imagining? That of his high school sweetheart? Will she be there waiting on the platform when he arrives?
Yeah, I know all these people would probably be on a plane. It’s faster. It probably even costs less now. But when I picture a romance, I see a train.
What about you, Bandits and Buddies?
What do you think is the source of the mystery and magic that surrounds trains?
Have you ever ridden a train?
Do you regularly ride commuter trains or subways?
What about a long-distance passenger train? Ever been on one of those?
Given the choice, would you jet across the country just to hurry up and be there?
Or would you take it slow and see the countryside as you go?
Did you ever play with a toy train when you were a kid?
Can you hear a train from where you live?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Sep 9 2013, 1:38 am in Author interviews, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's Blog, contemporary romance, Harlequin Blaze, historical romance, historicals, Hockey Heroes, Joanne Rock, medieval romance, strong women
The force of the arrow roared through him as it struck the shield still clutched in his hand. Bemused, he stared as the flaming arrowhead ignited the shield with lightning speed. The heat of the burning wood finally penetrated his dulled wits, and Malcolm withdrew his grip from the rapidly disintegrating armor. Although not an heirloom, the shield had been crafted by Laird McNair for his son. Malcolm was disappointed to see it ruined, but it had served its purpose today, protecting him from what would no doubt have been a mortal blow.
From the stout defense of the walnut tree, he peered up to the northern watchtower, from whence the missile had come. He blinked to clear his vision, knowing his eyes must deceive him.
Yet there she was.
Standing defiantly on the crenellated parapet, she did not even bother to duck behind the safety of the wall now that she had discharged her deadly shot. She lowered her crossbow, her gaze never leaving her intended victim…
The fey creature was no kitchen maid. She reeked of nobility. Her green-yellow gown shimmered with the precise hue of newly unfurled spring leaves, and even from Malcolm’s considerable distance, he could see the voluminous folds and rich color conveyed wealth. A golden girdle sparkled around her hips in the sinking sunlight.
And her hair…
The woman’s hair outshone her adornments. It floated in a halo about her head and shoulders, rippling clear down to her waist. Loose flaxen strands caught by the breeze gave the impression of gentle disarray. She looked like a pagan sacrifice to the ancient gods of spring.
Have you ever finished a book and then flipped right back to the front to start reading it again?
That’s what happened to me way back in 2005 when I read The Laird’s Lady.
Rosalind and Malcolm’s story hooked me hard. Every now and then, after all these years, I still drift off, thinking about it. That story had just the right amount of history, plus wounded, driven main characters, and in particular it had something I hadn’t seen in a lot of historical romance–a strong, kick-butt heroine. Now it’s available only in eBook and in paperback at used bookstores, but I’ll tell you that this book won me to medieval historicals, and the author became my go-to girl for medieval romance.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting that author several times at conferences and events around the country, and I can tell you she’s as sweet and generous as she is lovely and talented. She now has more than 60 books under her belt, and I’m so pleased to introduce you to her today.
Sven is pouring drinks, so y’all give your orders to one of the guys–they’re all here–the whole crew has gathered ’round to meet today’s guest, and you’ll soon figure out why.
Everyone please give a famous lair welcome to one of my long-time favorite authors, Joanne Rock.
*loud applause and whistles*
Cassondra: Joanne, thank you so much for joining us in the lair today! First things first though…what would you like from the bar?
Joanne: Thank you so much for having me here! I’m feeling right at home and it’s always nice to visit with you. Since you were kind enough to ask, I’d love a margarita.
Cassondra: *speaks up over sounds of ice being scooped and drinks being shaken behind the bar* I read your bio when I was getting ready for the interview, and saw that you went to the University of Louisville. That was new to me since I thought of you as being from Florida, then the Northeast. I tend to think our childhoods are a big part of what makes us the writers we are. Will you tell us a little about where you grew up and your moves about the world?
Joanne: Surely! *smiles and nods at Sven as he sets her margarita and my glass of Cabernet on the small, rustic table between us* I grew up south of Albany, New York, on a farm along the Hudson River. I used to like to sit by the river and watch the trains go by on their way to New York City.
Eventually, I would be on the train every summer while I worked in Manhattan as a teenager. It was fun and exciting, but it taught me that I was as much a farm girl as a city girl. Like Goldilocks, I’ve always been in search of the perfect place for myself and neither of those places were quite right. Louisville, Kentucky, on the other hand, was a great fit!
Cassondra: I love Louisville. It’s my favorite Kentucky city.
Joanne: The city is charming with lots of arts and culture. Outside the city, it’s wonderfully rural and you feel right at home hanging out with the neighbors in the backyard for weekend picnics.
Cassondra: But you’ve moved around a bunch since then, right?
Joanne: *nods and takes a sip of her drink* Since my Louisville days, I’ve relocated a fair amount for my husband’s then-job as a sports editor. We lived in Utah, Ohio, Louisiana and Florida before an extended stay in upstate New York again. These days, I’m trying to be a snowbird even though we have kids in school. I think the change of scenery inspires my work and keeps me energized.
Cassondra: As prolific as you are, I’m sure it’s extra- important to keep the well filled so the stories can flow. Do you remember what made you fall in love with books?
Joanne: I probably fell in love with books because my parents read to me a lot and they so obviously loved reading as well. I saw my parents read all the time. My dad used to read a Sesame Street story to me called “The Diamond D and the Dreadful Dragon” and we were so silly with it.
Cassondra: Hmmm…on a lark I went looking for that story, and I think I’m vindicated in believing the childhood of the writer influences what she writes. The first line reads
Dozens of years ago.
In a drafty castle.
Duke David of Dundeedle did dwell.**
And…..*dramatic pause*… you grew up to write romance set dozens of years ago in drafty castles.
Joanne: *lifts her margarita glass and grins* My dad also liked to arrange my wealth of stuffed animals into storybook vignettes as a surprise for me when I got home from school. One day, he’d made a newspaper hat for my stuffed dog so he looked like Robin Hood. Another day, one stuffed bear was trying to shoot an apple off another stuffed bear’s head. From my early childhood, stories came to life for me in a fun way.
Cassondra: What a gift that was!…Your parents gave you the gift of story, and you now give that gift to all of us who are readers. *cheers and more catcalls from the audience*
You went on to school for a higher degree in English. What were your plans for that, and how did you end up in romance?
Joanne: I got my Bachelor’s degree in Communication and then wondered why I hadn’t gone to school for what I loved most- English.
I had tried to be very practical about my education, but I ended up realizing there’s such a thing as being too practical and that you will be best served by following your passions.
So on the day that I started my Master’s coursework, I was simultaneously beginning my first romance novel. I literally wrote the opening on campus before my first class. The dream of writing a book and the dream of studying English literature went sort of hand-in-hand for me.
I ended up in romance because I love everything romantic- from the Romantic poets, to Arthurian romance, to chivalry and modern day genre fiction. Romance speaks to me because I adore the big, sweeping emotions associated with the tradition.
Cassondra: You’ve written more than 60 books, so your call story—and your first sale—were a lot of words ago, but not so long ago in terms of time. Do you mind telling the story?
Joanne: I don’t think a writer ever gets tired of reliving the happy memory of the first sale! I had written several full manuscripts before selling one. I wrote medieval historicals first but realized there simply weren’t as many outlets for historicals, whereas – at the time- 75% of the romance purchased by editors was contemporary. So I tried my hand at contemp in a line that I read anyway- Harlequin Temptation. I was scared to try it at first, but the story really flowed well! I knew I was on to something.
Cassondra: Ah, I miss the Temptation line.
Joanne: *nods* Another benefit to writing contemporary romance- and for Temptation in particular- was that editor Brenda Chin was so incredibly accessible to writers at conferences and regional workshops. She was an active contest judge too. So I got my stories in front of her and she gave me feedback and encouragement that were like pure gold to a new author. I sold to her within a year and settled into a very happy publishing schedule.
Cassondra: *glances around room as she swirls wine in her glass* All of Bandita Anna Sugden’s hockey hunks are standing around the edges of the room today.
Joanne: I’ve been fanning myself the whole time.
Cassondra: They wouldn’t miss your interview for anything, because one of your series is about a family of brothers, including two amazing hockey players, Kyle and Axel. Why hockey?
Joanne: *smiles at good-natured catcalls from hockey hunks* What’s not to love about a hockey player? *more catcalls* They are incredibly hard-working athletes in a sport as tough as any out there. I follow a lot of sports, including the NHL, and hockey players also strike me as super down-to-earth for professional athletes. So it was a pleasure to write about a couple of hockey guys in my recent Murphy Brothers series.
Cassondra: Tell us about that series?
Joanne: There are five brothers (four plus a sort-of foster brother they took in- a Finn who started living with the family when he played on a junior team with one of the brothers) and their family dynamic really spoke to me. My husband has six brothers, so I get to see those relationships in action all the time!
The prequel to Murphy Men is actually a free online read. You can get it here Living the Fantasy.
Cassondra: *waves wine glass at Buddies* Y’all definitely need to read that. You’ll love it, I promise. And you can read the blurbs for the different books, plus some excerpts by clicking on the links below. Joanne, tell us the reading order?
Joanne: After Living the Fantasy, the books are in this order..
Book 1 -Jack and Alicia’s story, Making a Splash
Book 2- Keith and Josie’s story, is Riding the Storm
Book 3 – One Man Rush is the first of the hockey books, about Kyle and Marissa.
Book 4–Her Man Advantage, is Axel and Jennifer’s story. Hockey defenseman Axel is the foster brother from Finland.
Book 5-Full Surrender, wraps up the Murphy brothers’ stories with Stephanie and Uniformly Hot! Lieutenant Daniel Murphy.
Cassondra: I love all these guys, and of course I have a thing for guys in military uniform, but I gotta tell ya, I totally fell for Axel. *fans self and takes a long sip of wine*
Ahem….Now let’s time travel a bit, from the very modern, very steamy world of Harlequin Blaze.
As I said earlier, I first discovered Joanne Rock books because of historicals. I’m always interested in why writers choose a certain period of history. In particular the earlier periods when there were fewer creature comforts. Why medieval for you?
Joanne: I like the independence of the feudal estate. It gave rise to a way of life that was unique to each household since the lord of the land functioned like a king in his realm.
Medieval nobles had to be Alphas, and it’s a setting where I can accept an Alpha guy for being that way because people would die if he wasn’t strong enough to hold his lands. There’s something very primal about this responsibility, and the medieval hero is unique because of it.
I also like the epic scale of a historical since the stakes were so high. A wrong choice could mean death. For a woman, an indiscretion could mean losing her position and her way of life forever.
Cassondra: You’ve been doing a lot of the shorter Undone stories for Harlequin. Will you tell us about those?
Joanne: I’m writing a lot of shorter historicals right now because there is a demand for them. Readers appreciate short content to read stories on their lunch hour or after work and feel like they’re getting a complete, satisfying read. Harlequin puts the “Undone” stories out in anthologies overseas and I hope they’ll find more interesting ways to package them here too. I have a Viking story up next for Undone- VANQUISHED BY THE VIKING- and then I’ve got some Victorian set stories planned with a ghost who’s a Highlander. So it’s set in the Victorian era but the hero is still a laird from a time period I love!
Cassondra: Do you have plans for more full-length medievals?
Joanne: I’m not sure when I’ll write a new full length historical, but one of these days! Adding the Young Adult books to my schedule really shifted things around for me, but I will always return to some kind of medieval stories. They are a core part of what I love to write.
Cassondra: Speaking of the Young Adult, let’s talk about the latest writer hat you’ve donned. You’re presently writing the Camp Boyfriend YA series as JK Rock with your sister-in-law, Karen. Can you talk a little about that series ?
Joanne: Camp Boyfriend is the first of a three-book series with Camp Payback out in April 2014 and Camp Forget Me Not in August 2014. Readers can learn more about the series- and the FREE novella downloads between books- at http://campboyfriend.net
Cassondra: You hooked me instantly with these stories. I never went to camp when I was a kid, but I could SO relate to the heroine, Lauren.
Camp Juniper Point
“Truth or dare, Piper?”
I twisted my friendship bracelet and eyed my fidgeting bunkmate, relieved it wasn’t my turn in the hot seat. Yet. Would Piper shake up our seven-year first-day-of-camp tradition and surprise the cabin by taking the dare? Either way, I wanted this mega-humiliating game over before it began. I edged closer to our window fan, my mind whirling as fast as its blades, knees jittering.
“It’s hot. Let’s swim.” I twirled prescription goggles in the expectant silence. Anything to avoid a turn that could lead to me revealing my secret camp crush. I loved my Munchies’ Manor cabin mates, but they were bloodhounds in sniffing out drama. And liking a guy we’d been friends with forever, one who treated me like a little sister, was a camp soap opera I did not want to star in. What if I crashed and burned? I’d never liked a guy before. At least, not one I knew in real life.
Not when it mattered.
Cassondra: Camp or no camp, I’ve felt that. What inspired you to write Young Adult novels?
Joanne: I love Young Adult books. I’m thrilled that there are so many offerings for teen readers and I think it’s a great sign for publishing in general that YA is thriving. Part of the reason I wanted to try my hand at a YA was because writing a wide variety of material helps to keep my storytelling fresh. Tackling new challenges makes all my work stronger. But the other reason I wanted to work in YA was for the chance to work with my sister-in-law, who was interested in writing. She’s very talented, and as an eighth grade teacher, had a special affinity for YA books. When we brainstormed a potential project to develop together, Camp Boyfriend emerged in full-fledged Technicolor.
Cassondra: You’ve moved to warmer climes for the winter season, just in time for your own kids to start school. As you dig your toes in the sand, what’s up next for Joanne?
Joanne: I’ve got two Blazes coming out this fall/winter and I look forward to sharing them with readers. One is a Uniformly Hot! Christmas novella in A SOLDIER’S CHRISTMAS with fellow authors Leslie Kelly and Karen Foley. If you want a hot man in uniform for the holidays, please check this one out!!
Then, in January, the follow up to MY DOUBLE LIFE goes on sale. MY SECRET FANTASIES is another first-person Blaze, an idea that readers really responded to in MY DOUBLE LIFE. And the down-on-her-luck heroine of MY SECRET FANTASIES is so fun that it’s a blast to be directly in point-of-view as she meets sizzling hot Damien Fraser. Here’s the blurb:
All I wanted was to escape the media frenzy I left behind in L.A. and open a cute little shop on the Sonoma Coast. Simple, right? But Damien Fraser—the hunky property owner—isn’t exactly thrilled about my reality-TV-star status. Still, I’m pretty sure that all he needs is a little creative convincing…and I’ve learned I can be very creative.
I started writing a naughty novel, and with every sexy scene I write, things between me and Damien get really hot. Now the hero in my book is starting to look more and more like Damien, and I’m well on my way to becoming my brazen sexpot heroine. But when my real life and my fictional life collide, my fantasies just might cost me all of my dreams….
Okay Bandits and Buddies, have any of you ever done what I did with The Laird’s Lady–finished a book and just flipped right back to the beginning to read it again?
Did you fall in love with books by having other people around you read? Or read to you?
Have you ever read a medieval romance? Are there any medievals on your keeper shelf?
Have you ever read a Joanne Rock book?
Do you ever read Young Adult books just for the great stories? If so, what’s your favorite Young Adult series?
Joanne has brought some great giveaways. Two random commenters will win a copy of MY DOUBLE LIFE or CAMP BOYFRIEND (your choice)!
Y’all can find Joanne all over the place: Website /Goodreads /Twitter /Facebook /Amazon/ J.K. Rock
**(Snippet of "The Diamond D and the Dreadful Dragon" taken from The Sesame Street Story Book,
Random House, 1971.)
Posted by Cassondra Murray Aug 9 2013, 1:42 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, decks, Feels Like Home, friends, Front Porches, home, lights, relaxing, Summer
I love summer. Y’all know this if you’ve been in the Bandit lair for long. I love the green leaves, the flowers, the warm breezes.
And I love the long evenings.
I sit at a computer a lot, and every now and then I have to get away from it or I’ll go a little crazy.
Tonight we had a special treat. We got invited to the home of our friends, Adam and Josh, for dinner on their back deck.
It’s one of my favorite ways to spend an evening. I love to sit on the deck or patio with a glass of wine, some candlelight, and good friends. And tonight got me thinking about decks and patios, how they’re used, and what makes them a good place to spend an evening, because Adam and Josh had something I’d forgotten about.
When I was a little girl, we didn’t have a deck. We had a front porch. It was mostly bare except for a wooden “loveseat” rocker, and a couple of wooden chairs, but we hardly ever sat up there on the porch. Most of the outdoor sittin’ was done out in the grass in the lawn chairs. Cheap, fold-up aluminum frames covered with nylon webbing. When the webbing wore out, my dad got more webbing from the hardware store and redid the chairs.
Just every now and then we’d sit on the porch if it was sprinkling rain, or if Mama was canning and had to stay close to the house so she could hear the relief valve on the pressure cooker jiggle. But otherwise, even if we were breaking beans or hulling peas, we’d be out in the lawn chairs under the shade trees.
In the long evenings I’d sit outside in those chairs with Daddy, watching the lightning bugs flicker to life in the field across the road, picking out constellations, or watching the summer heat lightning putting on a show on the horizon to the south. The porch was mostly a place to leave your outside shoes, a place to hang the thermometer, and a roof to keep the straw broom out of the weather and the rain off of the front door.
Things have changed. I still want to watch the stars, see the lightning bugs flicker, and watch the thunderstorms build up in the distance, but these days I sit outside in a chair on the lawn only if there’s a fire in the fire pit. I’ve gotten old and soft I guess, because if I’m going to be outside in the evenings, I like being on a patio or deck.
Steve (my husband) and I have had a deck on the back of our house for only a year. For any of you who haven’t seen my blogs about it, we’re restoring a house that’s 164 years old. It’s a long-term project, and for the past few years, getting in through the back door has involved a few strategically placed concrete blocks. But now there is a deck.
Okay, the deck is still sitting on concrete blocks, getting ready for permanent installation, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it just the same.
When we got the deck last year, we got a set of deck furniture with squishy cushions, and an umbrella. Our grill is on the deck, and nine months of each year, I grill most every night instead of cooking inside.
But what we don’t have–what I’d forgotten about until tonight’s dinner–is a string of fun party lights..the ones I used to see only around RV canopies at the KOA campground. They come in all shapes and sizes now. Look at these gorgeous grape clusters on the left.
I haven’t been fishing in a long time, but I could make a guess and say that one on the right is a large-mouth bass.
And I’m not entirely sure how the licensing went down for this, but yes, that looks for all the world like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
I have some solar landscape lights scattered around the flower beds and walk, and candles in Mason jars for when we have company. This time of year, the candlelight needs to include a citronella scent to keep the mosquitos away, and even then, here in Southern KY, you might be spraying on repellent. But as of yet, there are no electric lights on our deck.
Now I’ll fess up. I’ve done wedding and event planning for some high-end events, where nothing would do for the candle holders but Waterford or Baccarat crystal. It was beautiful. I can turn into a Martha Stewart Mini-Me if I’m not careful, and I could get a serious jones for these higher-end vintage-style lights with their amber-yellowed globes and little copper rain guards.
But the bottom line is that when I look at strings of fun party lights, I smile. I feel festive. I relax.
I don’t know why, but even a string of white, mini Christmas lights run around the top of a porch ceiling make me feel a little lighter. I think these glowing seashells on the right are great, but the truth is that string lights run the spectrum from pretty and understated, to over-the-top tacky.
And even when I see the tacky ones like the fish or the dougboy, I can’t stop myself from grinning.
Our friends, Adam and Josh, have their deck out back too, surrounded by trees and complete with their own grill and table with cushy chairs. And they just got their first beautiful, red patio umbrella. But they didn’t stop there.
They strung the edges of their umbrella with fun novelty lights— It was so pretty and cheerful, I made Josh take pictures with his phone so I could use them on the blog today.
We had a great meal, sipped our wine, and had good conversation. I arrived at their house all stressed out, but I left there smiling.
Our deck is two levels, and I’m already making plans to add on because I want more room. I want a screened porch, too. And now that I’ve been reminded, around the top of it I want fun lights.
Maybe pumpkins or skulls at Halloween. Icicles at Christmas. White mini-lights all summer long.
So tell me, Bandits and Buddies..
Do you spend time outdoors in the warm months?
Do you have a patio, deck or balcony where you hang out –or the ultimate warm-weather retreat–a screened porch?
Is there permanent outdoor furniture? Or do you have the fold-up portable chairs like the ones I use around the fire pit?
Or….do you prefer to sit out on the lawn, under the trees or the open sky?
What cool-shaped novelty lights have you seen?
Do you remember these from your childhood–or do you own any now–and if so, are they hung up to enjoy? Or are they packed away?
I can’t quite get into the duck retrieving dogs, but I definitely need some pink flamingos.
Am I the only one, or do YOU feel the urge to grin when you see fun, festive party lights?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Aug 7 2013, 1:30 am in Cassondra, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, humor, Lexi George, paranormal romance
Today I saved a human female from certain death at the hands of a demon.
I am disquieted by my actions. I am Dalvahni, an immortal demon hunter. ’Tis our sole purpose to hunt down and return rogue demons to The Pit, thus saving the universe and those weaker than ourselves from degradation and destruction at the hands of the djegrali.
Saving the human female from the demon was a violation of the Dalvahni Creed. I saved her nonetheless—I could not seem to stop myself…
I first met our guest at a reader event in St. Augustine, Florida. I didn’t get to attend her ten-minute reading, but everywhere I went for the whole rest of the conference, all I heard was how absolutely screaming funny she was. I had to get her first book, then I devoured the others like a woman starved, and of course I had to bring her to the lair.
Sven is mixing drinks, the Gladiators and Hockey Hunks are passing around glasses and trays, so grab your favorite treat and find a spot where you can see. Our guest has brought a few of her heroes with her today, so please give a famous Bandit welcome to Lexi George and her Dalvahni Demon Hunters.
Cassondra: Lexi, I’m so pleased that you could visit today.
Lexi: *lifts her glass of Cabernet* Thrilled to be in the lair, Cassondra! Thanks for inviting me.
Cassondra: *swirls the Cabernet in her own glass* Tell us a little about yourself. When did you first start reading romance?
Lexi: I discovered romance in the seventh grade, when I found The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer in my local library, and I was hooked. Read everything I could find by her, and it grew from there. I love it all, romantic suspense, contemporary, historical, and, of course, paranormal. Funny, sexy, heart pounding, droll: I am a romance junkie. I don’t do sad, though, and don’t make me suffer through too much angst. I’m a criminal appellate lawyer, which means I read grim all day long, so when I sit down and open a book I want to escape to a happy place.
Cassondra: Oh, good grief. I don’t blame you for not wanting the angst. But..*glances at he extra big,hunky, badass guys standing around the edge of the room–NOT the gladiators or hockey hunks we normally have in the lair* …uhm… it looks like the Dalvahni Demon Hunters are ready and willing to deal with any angst on your behalf..ahem….moving on…
First, let me tell you that I love your website because it gives a hint of the personality you put into your writing. If readers want a taste of the town and its characters, they should check out Ten Things To Do If You’re In Hannah But I learned from your bio that the Muse deserted you in law school. To quote you, “The Muse hated law school.” You said it took fifteen years to return. Will you tell us about when you first began to write again—what was that like for you, and how did you decide on romance?
Lexi: I fancied myself a poet in high school and college and then law school sucked my creative juices dry. I wasn’t until my first child was a toddler that the urge to write returned, and I haven’t stopped since. I’m largely self-taught. Didn’t have a clue about genre or word count or POV; just wrote and wrote for the sheer joy of it. My first book was a fantasy romance. It never sold (100 rejections; yeow!), so I decided to try my hand at a paranormal romance, and that’s how Demon Hunting in Dixie came to be.
Cassondra: You kept going after 100 rejections. That’s seriously impressive. Tell us a little about the town you grew up in. Is your story world of Hannah, Alabama, based on that?
Lexi: Hannah is actually based on two towns, the small South Alabama town I grew up in and Wetumpka, the place I now call home. There’s a lot of charm in a small town, a slower pace of life (some would call stagnant), and a sense of ease and comfort that comes with familiarity. I borrowed the river, hills, and crater from Wetumpka and plunked them down in South Alabama: total creative license. Anyone who’s ever been south of Montgomery can tell you it’s flat as a flitter. Great farmland, but the closest you’ll get to a hillock is an ant bed.
Cassondra: The first story, Demon Hunting in Dixie, is Brand and Addy’s story. Addy is in the park and sees a demon about to attack him, shouts a warning and helps to save his life, but in turn, she is attacked. She wakes up on her own couch and he is there.
“You should rest. I have repaired the damage to your organs from the djegrali blade. You will live, but I fear some of the poison is still in your system.”
Addy shot off the couch like she’d been bitten. The sword-carrying, creature-of-darkness-fighting dude from the park gazed down at her without expression. In the semidarkness he’d been handsome. In the bright light of her living room he was devastating, a god, a wet dream on steroids. Tall and powerfully built, with wide shoulders and a broad chest that tapered down to a lean waist and hips, he was the most handsome man Addy had ever seen. His long, muscular legs were encased in tight-fitting black breeches, and he carried a sword in a sheath across his back. He was also a stranger, a very big stranger, and he stood in her living room.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I am Brand.” He spoke without inflection. “I am a Dalvahni warrior. I hunt the djegrali.”
Cassondra: I love the world of the Dalvahni Demon Hunters. Can you tell us where you got this idea, and how you developed it?
“This I cannot allow. “ All heads turn to Brand, the tall, dark-haired Dalvahni warrior who has stepped out of the corner by the door. He glowers at the chairs at the front of the room where Cassondra and Lexi are seated. Gladiators and Hockey Hunks take a step forward, all focused on Brand.”
Cassondra: Brand, it’s okay. We’re not asking Lexi to give away any of the Dalvahni secrets. I swear.*Brand squints at me, then relaxes and steps back. Gladiators and hockey hunks breathe a collective sigh of relief. Ansgar, the Dalvahni warrior who reminds me of Legolas from Lord Of The Rings, raises his eyebrow at Brand. Ansgar doesn’t even bother to hide his smirk. Brand catches Ansgar’s eye and his forehead wrinkles into a more intense frown.*
Cassondra: Jeez…The testosterone is so thick in here you could cut it with a dull knife.
Now, Lexi..back to the question about the origins of the Dalvahni…
Lexi: *takes a sip of her wine as she glances around the room to check on her guys* When I finally got a clue that my fantasy romance was going nowhere, I was in a real slump. There was a writing exercise online offering feedback on the first chapter of a paranormal romance, and I decided to try it. I sat down in my office with a couple of co-workers and knocked around ideas. I’m a big fan of Janet Evanovich and I decided to write about demon hunters in the Deep South.
Frankly, when I started the first book, it was as a lark and I didn’t give much thought to world building. I was simply trying to regain my writing mojo. The first book was total fun and pretty much wrote itself. (Can’t say the same about the others!) The world building came later, after I was published. I’ve always liked alpha males, superheroes, and Regency bucks, and the Dal are a little of all three. And I love the juxtaposition of my no-nonsense, humorless warriors with the zaniness that is the Deep South. Just because you speak the language down here doesn’t mean you always get it, as the Dal soon learn.
Brand and Addy:
“The demon has marked you. He will return. He will be unable to resist.”
“Oh, great, so now I’m irresistible. Just my luck he’s the wrong kind of guy. Don’t worry, I’ve got a thirty-eight, and like any good Southern girl I know how to use it, so you can leave.” She waved her hand toward the door again. “I’ll be fine. If this demon fellow shows up, I’ll blow his raggedy butt to kingdom come.”
The corner of his lips twitched, and for a moment she thought he might smile.
“You cannot kill a djegrali with a mortal weapon.”
“I’ll rush out first thing tomorrow morning and get me one of those flamey sword things, I promise.”
Again with the lip twitch. “That will not be necessary. I will protect you.”
“Oh, no, you won’t!” Addy straightened with an effort. Her chest still hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. “I’d never be able to explain you to my mama.”
“This mama you speak of, she is the female vessel who bore you?”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t call her a vessel to her face, if I were you.”
“You fear her?”
Addy rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding? The woman scares the crap out of me. Thirty-two hours of labor, and don’t you ever forget it,” she mimicked. “You owe me. Big time.”
Cassondra: The stuff that makes your stories so blessedly funny is the secondary characters –the parents and friends, the iconic figures in the town. How is the way you paint your town and characters influenced by your own observations growing up?
Lexi: Gosh, I think writers are influenced by EVERYTHING. Certainly, growing up in a small town has shaped my writing. I was a shy, gangly teenager with big feet and self esteem issues, and that’s shaped my writing, too. And I’m the middle child, always striving for attention. We lived way out in the country and I didn’t have friends to play with, so I spent a lot of time alone with only my imagination for company. It all comes out in my writing, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being a writer means being naked in public.
Cassondra: Why paranormal?
Lexi: I love magic! My other favorite genre is fantasy, and I’m a big LOTR and Harry Potter nerd, so paranormal was a perfect fit for me. With magic, the possibilities are endless. Take the fairy kitten in book one, for instance. The kitten appeared just as Brand and Addy were about to go into the Sweet Shop for a bit to eat. Now, you can’t take a kitten in a restaurant. That would be a health code violation, but Addy wasn’t about to let me leave that poor kitty on the sidewalk. I mean, what if he got squashed? So I came up with the idea that the Dalvahni have interdimensional hidey holes, sort of a Rubbermaid vortex where they keep things safe. As a writer, magic gives me another way to write myself out of a tree.
And it also kept Addy happy. You don’t want to mess with Addy Corwin.
Cassondra: Rubbermaid vortex. I love it! And WAY cheaper than Tupperware. Just sayin’.
I love the way you have Hannah set up. Tell us about the river and the meteor. That meteor looks like it will be critical to the upcoming stories.
Lexi: The Devil River winds around Hannah, full of treacherous currents and quiet backwater pools. To the locals, the river is a source of income stemming from the fishing and white water rapids industries, but the Devil hides secrets from the norms. There are ghosts on the river and a giant catfish named Gilbert big enough to swallow a boat whole, and a dive bar that caters only to shifters and demonoids.
Cassondra: *interrupts* The dive bar–and the demonoids–are the focus of book three?
Lexi: Right. Anyhow, the crater was formed a bazillion years ago when a meteor slammed into Behr County, folding the earth into gentle hills. The meteor thinned the veil between dimensions and is the source of magic in Hannah. The crater attracts supernatural critters of all kinds, including sexy demon hunters and their age-old enemies, the demonic djegrali. Anyone with the least bit of magical ability finds their powers enhanced by the meteor. Anything and everything can happen in Hannah thanks to that fallen star.
Cassondra: Are any of these landmarks taken from places you’ve actually seen or visited?
Lexi: The Sweet Shop is a real restaurant in my childhood home, and the Greater Fair was the town’s nicest clothing store for women. The Trammel Bridge and Sardine Creek are also real places, taken from the area where I grew up. We used to ride out to Sardine Bridge to party when I was a teenager. There was no ghost, though, just a lot of beer drinking and rednecking around on the sand dunes. I got caught skinny dipping in the creek once, but that’s another story.
I went to the University of Alabama, both undergraduate and law school, so many of the names I use for things are names related to Alabama football; Behr County, Paulsberg, Namath Springs, Newsome Correctional Facility, to name a few. It’s a nod and a wink to my alma mater.
Cassondra: I’m guessing a lot of Alabama fans will be giving you a high five, right through the computer screen.
Have people always told you that you’re funny? Did you start out to write funny? Or did it just happen?
Lexi: Middle child, remember? My older siblings were much more glamorous, so I had to do something to stand out. My father had a wonderful sense of humor, and I like to think I get mine from him. Oddly enough, Demon Hunting in Dixie didn’t start out screwball. I even had a serious name for it: Dark Encounter. But, it quickly became evident that this book was going to be something else. Almost from the first page, the funny came out. It was a big surprise to me.
Cassondra: Here’s a sample:
From Demon Hunting In Dixie:
Addy has gone to the funeral home to deliver flowers (she’s a florist). Shep, Addy’s brother, runs the funeral home. Addy’s mom is there too. Dwight Farris should be dead, in the casket, but his body is missing. His widow, Shirley, has just figured this out. And Dwight’s mistress, Bessie Mae Brown, has just arrived on scene.
“What have you done with my husband, you Jezebel?” Shirley’s shrill voice recalled Addy to the nightmare.
“Me?” Bessie Mae’s heavily mascaraed eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”
People in the hall heard the commotion and wandered into the room. A low, murmuring buzz began and grew as folks noticed the empty satin-lined box.
Shirley pointed a fat finger toward the casket. “I’m talking about the fact that my husband is missing. I want to know what you did with him.”
Bessie Mae teetered across the room on her four-inch heels. “Sugar Scrotum,” she cried. She flung herself on top of the metal box. “What have they done with you?”
Sugar Scrotum. Eww.
“Please, Ms. Brown.” Addy hurried over to the wailing woman. “This is highly inappropriate, not to mention downright tacky.”
She put her arms around Bessie Mae and tried to peel her off the casket.
“No!” Bessie Mae screeched and hung on tighter, kicking her purple heels. “I won’t go.” Not until somebody tells me what happened to my sugar.”
“Oh, Lord have mercy, Jesus,” Shep groaned, relapsing. “What else?”
“I can’t take any more.” Addy’s mother toddled over to a chair. “Somebody tell me when it’s over.”
Shirley waved her pocketbook. “I got your sugar right here, Bessie Mae Brown,” she quavered in her Aunt Bea voice, “or at least the only part you ever cared about.”
A shiver of dread shot down Addy’s spine. She let go of Bessie Mae-the damn woman was stuck like a tick to the casket, anyway–and turned to look at Mrs. Farris.
“Uh oh,” she said when she saw the triumphant gleam in the widow’s china-blue eyes.
Bessie Mae must have had a premonition too, because she unsuckered herself from the casket and turned around. “What have you done, Shirley?” she hiccupped.
Mrs. Farris opened her pocketbook and pulled out a ziplock baggie. Some kind of watery fluid smeared the inside of the see-through plastic. Formaldehyde, maybe. Addy tried not to think about the particulars of her brother’s work. At rest in the bottom of the bag like an abandoned hotdog was Dwight Farris’s one-eyed monster. Or, at least Addy hoped it was Old Man Farris’s one-eyed monster. She’d never met this particular monster…until now, thank goodness. As Addy stared, she could have sworn the thing winked at her.
“Your sugar’s not here, and even if we find him, he won’t be the same, “Shirley said. “What’s more, you won’t be diddling my husband in the afterlife. Nobody will, ’cause I got his winky right here. This winky is finally all mine, and it’s going to stay that a-way. I’m going to have it buried with me. I’m going to hold it in my cold dead hand. I’m taking this winky with me through the Pearly Gates. Not even Saint Peter’s prying this cold dead winky out of my hand. But maybe–if Dwight asks me real nice, mind you–I might let him have his winky back in the hereafter. But only on special occasions and only if he plays tiddley winks with me, and nobody else.”
Cassondra: We love call stories here in the lair. Tell us about your path to publication?
Lexi: You already know part of it. I was really down because I’d spent three years trying to get someone to look at that first book, without success. It took me a year to write Demon Hunting in Dixie, and I was pretty optimistic, because it had done well in the contest circuit. In January of 2010, I started querying agents with high hopes . . . only to have them dashed. The rejections I got back were that light paranormal didn’t sell, that the book wasn’t dark enough.
I was devastated. I was on the Southern Magic (chapter of RWA) loop whining about the rejections when Carla Swafford, a fellow writer and Southern Magic member, sent me an email suggesting I check an interview with Kensington editor Megan Records. In her interview, Megan commented that she got lots of dark stuff but not much funny anymore and she’d like to!!!
I queried Megan, she asked for the full, and a few weeks later I sold! Wheee!!!!
Cassondra: Woot! I’m so thrilled that you did, because I laugh out loud at the funny parts of your books, then I sigh and cry as the heroes and heroines lose their hearts to love.
I’m interested in what made Lexi George a serious attorney who also writes crazy-funny romance…I know you grew up with a judge as a daddy. But what got you interested in law? Did you always plan to follow your dad’s path?
Lexi: I never ever thought about becoming a lawyer until my senior year in college. I was about to graduate with a degree in public relations and no idea what to do with it. I was petrified and my only thought was how to avoid reality. Knew I didn’t have the curriculum to go to medical school, but I’m good in English and history. Went home and asked Daddy what he thought about me going to law school and he was tickled pink. Law school was a big awakening for me. It was the first time I ever struggled in school, and I was terrified of failure. Trial by fire.
Cassondra: Even more pertinent, how do you juggle a high-pressure career like law—oh and kids too– and still manage to write books?
Lexi: I have a wonderful job where I can manage my workload, so that helps. And I write every chance I get. I’m a glacier slow writer, though, and the stress is a killer!
Cassondra: In the last book, Demon Hunting In A Dive Bar, we find out that there is a much, MUCH bigger threat in Hannah than just a small outbreak of demons, and I’m honestly a little worried about Brand, Ansgar, Conall and the other Dalvahni. This also suggests more books coming up. What’s next on the agenda for the Dalvahni and Hannah?
Lexi: I’m working on book 4 right now, Demon Hunting with a Dixie Deb. It’s a fish out of water tale about a rich debutante who comes to Hannah to unload the family business and ends up staying. Think Elle Woods from Legally Blonde trying to run a timber mill. There’s a flesh eating witch and a hulked-out demonoid and a magical car. And those pesky demons are around, so there’ll be lots of work for the Dalvahni to do.
There are three more books in the works, Demon Hunting with a Dixie Deb, which I’ve already mentioned, Demon Hunting with a Sexy Ex, and Demon Hunting with a Southern Sheriff. Y’all come to Hannah, and be sure and stop by the Sweet Shop Café and Grill. Miss Vi makes a chocolate pie that’ll make you want to slap ʾyo mama!
Cassondra: And just so y’all know, the Dalvahni guys don’t get drunk on alcohol. They get drunk on chocolate!
Okay Bandits and Buddies,
Do you like romantic comedies in books or movies?
Do you read paranormal romance?
What’s the furthest south you’ve ever been–in the US or in any other country?
Lexi is giving away THREE copies of Demon Hunting In A Dive Bar. This is Conall’s story. He’s the leader of the Dalvahni, and the biggest baddest badass of them all. And it takes a kick-butt heroine to make him realize that love is a really good thing.
Y’all gather round the bar, order your favorite drink and stuff yourselves with Sven’s goodies, then leave a comment or ask Lexi a question to be entered for the drawing.
Posted by Cassondra Murray Jul 12 2013, 3:07 am in Black Ops, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, contemporary romance, dianna Love, Friendships, Jill Shalvis, Lexi George, series, Story worlds, teams
I’ve recently been devouring a lot of contemporary romance series, both paranormal and…well..not…and I was thinking yesterday about why I’m so taken with those books.
I’ve read a bunch of different series books by different authors, but in particular, I’ve just about foundered myself on the Lucky Harbor, Animal Magnetism and Sky High Air series by Jill Shalvis.
These are not what I write. They’re actually the opposite of what I’m working on now. They’re not particularly big plots. There is no big world threat. With a few notable exceptions, they’re not dark or overbearingly angsty, even when there is a suspense threat or the characters have something bad–like abuse– in their pasts.
Yet despite all the things that are “not typically me” about Jill Shalvis books, I slurp up her series like an alcoholic guzzles smooth, top-shelf Bourbon.
Way more than I oughta drink.
I have threatened to take the books to a testing lab, to find out if maybe she’s impregnated the pages with crack cocaine, because I finish one, then immediately go looking for the next.
So after considering this for a while, I think I’ve figured it out.
It’s the relationships.
No, not the romance. Of course, I want to see that romance be born and develop and mature and I want to see the couple get their HEA. But even if her characters have a certain zing that is her distinctive way of writing, the truth is, I can get the romance from a bazillion books on the market. That’s not the reason I constantly reach for her books over so many others.
I choose those books because of the friends of the heroes and heroines. The relationships that exist between the characters. The communities of people in which Shalvis sets her characters. She’s brilliant at making those communities come to life, but particularly, she hits her stride with trilogies of friends, and in particular, male friends.
In the first three Lucky Harbor books it was Jax, Ford and Sawyer, who (if I remember right) are not actually related but best friends from the same small town.
In Animal Magnetism it was Brady, Dell and Adam. Dell and Adam are actual brothers, and were together with Brady in a foster home.
In Sky High Air, Noah, Shayne and Brody met when they were all in trouble at school, and bonded over a love of planes and the allure of flying.
The men in each of these trilogies know one another in that way that says, “I’ll call you an asshole to your face, but nobody else better mess with you or I’ll pound them into the dirt.”
It is a bond that goes deep, and lasts a lifetime.
I live with a man who was once a Special Forces soldier, and almost all of his buddies are either still in the military, are military contractors, or work for the security of our country in other ways.
But even before I met him, I’d spent most of my life working in male-dominated fields, with mostly men, sometimes to the point that I was almost…almost…one of them. They never completely forgot I was female, or that there was a female among them, and they would never get as raunchy with me there as they would when it was all males, but they trusted me to not go all girly or get them in trouble, and they didn’t hold back much.
I know how men behave toward one another when (almost) no women are around. Shalvis’s friendships in these books read as real to me. And it is those relationships that suck me into her story worlds and won’t let me go.
Lexi George, who’ll be my guest next month, also builds a camaraderie between her heroes, but she does an especially brilliant job with the women in her books-the heroines who break the stoic, emotionless facades of the hunky Dalvahni Demon Hunters. In the first book we meet Addie Corwin and Evie Douglas, best friends forever, and it’s often “them against the world.”
The first book is Addie’s but the way Lexi builds the friendship and the caring for Addie’s friend, Evie, is masterful. I couldn’t wait for Evie’s book, and because I already loved her, it was even more satisfying.
The friendships—and sometimes the angst–between these women make the stories rich and full.
As I do my final rewrite on my own first release, I’m striving to create the kind of real-feeling friendships and relationships that make me fall so in love with series like the ones I’ve mentioned—the ones I love to read. Many authors do it well, but some are just masters of this craft.
Suzanne Brockmann first won me to her SEALs—this was years ago– back when she was writing for Harlequin/Silhouette–by so clearly showing the brotherhood that exists between these elite warriors. Okay, yes, I’ll be honest…she got the weapons right, which is a big deal for me, and that was the first time I gave a fist pump of any kind to a romance novel, but that’s a whole nuther story.
Anyway, that’s the original cover on the left, of the first Brockmann book I ever read. Prince Joe. It’s still on my keeper shelf as one of the best books ever.
Most recently my amazing friend, Dianna Love, has sealed my devotion to the Slye Temp Black Ops teams by the way she develops the friendships between the operatives. They don’t always like each other, but even when they don’t want to, they care about the other members of the team. It’s never more evident than in her latest release, Book 3 of the Slye Temp series, Honeymoon to Die For.
And that right there—illustrated so powerfully in her latest book–is the crux of it for me. That book is Ryder and Bianca’s story. But the role of the other operatives—the role of the team—in this novel, is a major part of why I love it so much.
There is something powerful about bruised, battered hearts finding love that brings them closer to whole.
When they also find a group of people who support them—a community—it wraps the story in a way that binds me to the characters. Makes me want to live in that world.
Makes me go to the Kindle store and immediately hit “Buy” for the next book in the series.
Makes me yell “NOOOOOOOOO” when I reach THE END and the next one isn’t released yet.
I fall so in love with the other team members that when Dianna says, “I may make XXX’s book a novella,” I go “NOOOOOOOO! I love him! He has to have a full book!!!!”
She just laughs at me.
But my heart is invested. And with each book where the familiar friends play a role, I become more and more invested in each character’s happy ending.
I want that for my own books.
Yes, of course, I want to hook you, the reader, and yes, I want you to wait eagerly for the next book in the series. But the real dream, for me, is that I will be able to write the story world so that you’ll want to return over and over again. So that it’s so real to you that you begin to believe it is a real place. That those characters walk and breathe the same as you do, and that they are having their happy endings-and that their friends are going to get happy endings too.
So help me, Bandits and Buddies.
Most readers I know love series. Do you?
I want to know who does wonderful “friends” in books. What author does amazing groups of friends, or teams of people with relationships so real that you believe those characters actually walk on the earth in flesh and blood?
Which authors build the best story world—communities of people like Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor, where we, as readers, worry—even between books–about the nosey little old ladies who post inappropriate and should-be-private things on the Lucky Harbor facebook page?
Which story worlds do you live in when you lie down to sleep at night, and wake up thinking about them in the morning?
Who are your favorite series writers, and what are your favorite series built around groups of friends or a team of people?
And what is it, exactly, that makes them seem so real to you?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Jul 9 2013, 3:14 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Family recipes, Home canning, state fair, Summer foods
Okay, not technically. But here in Kentucky, you can figure that the user-friendly, guaranteed version of summer (not the calendar version) starts at the end of May, and is about done by the first week of September, which is when some trees are beginning to show a little color.
Color on the trees means fall. Period.
That makes July 4th midsummer.
By midsummer, gardeners have generally gotten over it.
See, they got all excited when the seed catalogs arrived in January, and they ordered too many seeds. So they planted too much stuff.
Now the weeds are high. It’s hot. The produce is…well..producing. The zucchini is threatening to swallow the planet whole and there are pickup truckloads of tomatoes in a garden that looked completely reasonable four months ago when the snow was still melting.
WAY too much to eat, even if you are the Waltons and have thirteen first cousins who are out of work and starving.
When I was a little girl, this was the time to make Green Tomato Ketchup.
Right here, right now let me just say…that squishy green stuff called “green ketchup” that Heinz bottles? That’s an abomination. That has nothing to do with the real thing.
If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, you’ve heard about my grandparents, MotherGrant and DaddyMike. They were born right along with the last century. DaddyMike in 1905. MotherGrant in 1908.
Times were hard. Then came World War I. Then the Great Depression and World War II. And they survived through it all. They lived and they prayed. They had babies, and managed to feed those babies by scraping and saving the stuff we throw away without even thinking.
Nothing went to waste.
If it would grow in the dirt, they grew it. And if it bore fruit they ate it.
And if they couldn’t eat it, they canned it.
They “put it up” for winter.
One way or another, they saved it for hard times. Because as hard as times were, there was always a chance that things would get worse.
One of the ways they used up all that extra produce was by making Green Tomato Ketchup.
It’s homemade relish–without the cucumbers. When you are living on nothing, and might have to eat beans for a few months, relish is a miracle from God. It’s a burst of flavor in a bland, bean-centric world.
There are about a million recipes on the internet for relish. Not so many for Green Tomato Ketchup. Relish usually involves cucumbers. Green Tomato Ketchup, as a rule, does not.
The recipe is one that was, generally, passed down or developed by the lady of the house. And most of the women in Southern Kentucky had one.
Cucumbers didn’t last long in MotherGrant’s kitchen. She’d harvest baby cucumbers before they got two inches long and before they were as big around as your little finger, and she’d put them up in pint jars to make the tenderest, sweetest, most delectable cucumber pickles on the face of the earth. So there were not usually cucumbers in Green Tomato Ketchup.
But there was no way to keep up with the rest of the garden.
So about this time of year, Mothergrant and DaddyMike started harvesting the extra tomatoes—both green and red. And the extra peppers—both green and red. They’d peel and chop some of the onions that were going to seed.
If the tomatoes were red, it was just straight “tomato ketchup.” Don’t even think about what you buy in the store that’s labeled “ketchup.” It’s not the same thing. This was red, chopped relish made of tomatoes and red peppers.
But if the tomatoes were green, it was Green Tomato Ketchup.
I don’t have a recipe. I wish I did. That’s one of the things that got lost over the years in our family. But it involved lots of green tomatoes, maybe some peppers (but not always) some onions and vinegar and sugar. And some spices. That right there—the spices–that’s the secret part. The part that won the blue ribbons at the state fair.
And it turned into a concoction you’d want to put on top of dang near anything you ate.
I went to a local restaurant earlier this evening for a quick dinner. I ate mixed beans (white and brown) cooked down so they were soft and soupy. I asked for some onion to go on top of my beans. The sweetheart waitress said, “You want some of our bean relish?” She brought me a little container of what amounted to tomato ketchup. Not the kind you buy in the store—not smooth, squirtable red “Ketchup.” This was chopped tomatoes, maybe some red peppers, and onions, all cooked together and canned in a glorious mixture that adds a brilliant ziiing to plain old beans or potato soup, or any other boring food that needs a lift.
I sat there at the table and had a little moment all to myself as I flashed back to MotherGrant and DaddyMike, Aunt Pearl and all the other neighbors you could name, all standing over their stoves about this time of year, heating up the pressure cooker, windows open and fans whirring as they sweated in the summer heat, stirring up pots of Green Tomato Ketchup.
MotherGrant’s recipe never won any awards, but the women where I grew up guarded their Green Tomato Ketchup recipes the way Fort Knox guards gold.
Here in Kentucky, the State Fair is only a few weeks away. If you’re gonna be cannin’ anything to enter, you’d best be gettin’ it done.
And Green Tomato Ketchup had its own category at the fair when I was a little girl.
Yes, it was that important.
A few years ago I went to a Christmas gathering with some long-time friends from our K9 Search & Rescue (SAR) team.
An experienced K9 SAR team is a group of people you’ve laughed with. Cried with. People who’ve held your very life in their hands when you dangled on the end of a rope and they held the safety line. People you may or may not like, but people you LOVE. People you trust. People who, when the proverbial sh*t hits the proverbial fan, have your back because they know you, and they know you will have their backs when the situation is reversed.
As we were leaving, my friend handed me a jar. It was an old-fashioned, square pint Mason jar. An antique. You don’t see those nowadays. She said, “This is a pint of my grandmother’s Green Tomato Ketchup. I just need my jar back when you’re done.”
There was nothing she could have given me that would have meant as much. No fancy wrapped present. No expensive gift card. Because what she gave me was a jar full of love and a taste of her own family heritage.
Steve won’t eat any kind of pickle or relish, so it took me a long time to go through that jar. It was some of the best Green Tomato Ketchup I’ve ever tasted. I sent her jar back a few months ago, and I’m proud to have tasted her grandmother’s recipe.
What about you?
Have you ever heard of Green Tomato Ketchup?
Do you have a recipe?
Is it a secret family recipe? Or are you allowed to share?
Did your family grow a garden?
Did they can food or “put up for the winter?”
If not…do you eat hot dogs? Do you like relish on those dogs? Or do you eat relish on anything else?
Do you have a favorite kind of relish? Do you like it sweet? Or tangy?
Wherever you’re from, is there a secret recipe or favorite dish that’s been passed down?
Do you have the recipe filed away somewhere?
Do you can stuff to give as gifts?
Have you ever received a gift of home-canned goodies?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Jun 18 2013, 2:04 am in Author interviews, Bandit to Bandit, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, early influences, Nancy Northcott, Richard III, Superheroes
Okay time out!!!! It’s all my fault.
Yes, it is. Today was supposed to be a visit with screaming-funny author, Lexi George.
Y’all know I don’t bring guests to the Lair unless I love the books, and I DO love these books. But some stuff happened, and…ahem..well..it’s my fault she’s not here. There was a timing issue. Bottom line? I blew it. *hangs head* She will join us in August and she’ll bring her hunky Dalvahni Demon hunters along with her. So watch for that.
But in the meantime…
YES! I’m starting a series. I’m calling it Cassondra talks Bandit to Bandit.
I’ve wanted to do this for a long time–interview the other Bandits. Ask them the questions that don’t usually get asked.
I make no promises about the timing of the interviews, or who will be my guest. And chances are good I may scare some of the other Bandits away and nobody else will agree to let me interview her.
Enter at your own risk. Muahahahaha!
Sven is bringing around drinks for everyone, and the house lights have been dimmed.
So for my first interview in the Bandit to Bandit series, please give a rowdy lair welcome to our own Nancy Northcott!
Cassondra: Nancy, most of us know you have a thing for super-heroes, comic books, science fiction and fantasy. That came from when you were little, I’m guessing.
What was the first book you remember being read to you?
Nancy: It was a picture book version of Silver Chief, a story about a wolf and a Mountie. It had no super-powers, no paranormal elements, not even a mystery.
Cassondra: This is not the Nancy we know. *raises eyebrow* How did you get from Silver Chief to Super-heroes.
Nancy: I discovered super-heroes when I saw the window of the M&M Soda Shop in my hometown of Davidson when I was seven. I was walking down the street with my grandfather (my mom’s father) and spotted a Superman comic (I think it actually may have been an issue of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen) lying in the window. It had a Phantom Zone story on the cover, if I remember right, and I was intrigued with the bright colors and spooky ghosts. So I asked my grandfather to buy it for me.
“Honey,” he said, “are you sure your mama wants you to have that?”
“She won’t mind if you buy it for me,” I replied, with greater insight than I realized. And so it all began.
And Cassondra, you’re not that scary. So far.
Cassondra: Hmmm. I’ll have to try harder.
What’s the first book you remember reading by yourself?
Nancy: I don’t really remember what that was. I suspect it would’ve been in the Dick & Jane series.
Cassondra: I know nothing of this series, but since I’m a romance writer, based on the cover I’d say Dick and Jane had something going…Ahem…
What book did you read over and over as a child?
Nancy: The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, an oversized, beautifully illustrated picture book about the Greek gods.
Cassondra: Oh, jeez. I knew you were a geek, but I had not fully comprehended the extent of it, or how early it started.
Nancy: It’s never too late to be enlightened. Anyway….I discovered that book in the school library when I was in third grade, and I checked it out over and over and over again. This was about a year after I discovered super-hero comic books, so maybe the two are related. From a third-grader’s perspective, the Greek gods seemed a bit like super-heroes.
Cassondra: Okay, yes. I can see that connection.
Nancy: The dh learned of this a few years after we were married. The book was back in print, and he gave me a copy for Christmas. I later enjoyed reading it to the boy.
Cassondra: Okay now for the serious stuff…
What are you willing to tell us about your first date?
Nancy: Hmm. It was with a guy I met at the Latin club banquet. He was taller than I was–always a plus!–as well as a year older and actually looked pretty good in a toga (with a shirt–remember, this was high school a few decades ago). I thought he was interested in my friend, but he called and invited me to go with him to hear a chamber orchestra.
All I knew about classical music was what my piano teacher had managed to instill in me and I’d absorbed from being in the band. Still, he was cute and nice, and into Latin, so why not? We had a great time and dated for a while.
Cassondra: What was the best date you ever went on? (No, it doesn’t have to be one with your significant other. Shhhh. We won’t tell.)
Nancy: That’s kind of a toughie. My view of any date is shaded by what came after it.
Cassondra: That is so quintessentially Nancy.
Nancy: *rolls eyes* So I’ll pick the night the dh and I got engaged, which happened on the sidewalk as we walked from dinner to a play. It’s tough to focus on the stage when you feel as though you have champagne fizzing inside you, but we stayed for the whole thing. That was 26 years ago, so what came after obviously shades it rather nicely.
Cassondra: What do you collect, and why?
Nancy: I love dragons (big surprise!), so I collect dragon pictures and glass goblets with blown glass dragons in the stems. I have four different goblets. They’re not very expensive, which adds to their appeal, but I haven’t seen a new one lately. We drank champagne out of them when Renegade sold.
Cassondra: You love dragons. So it’s no coincidence that you were the Bandit who found Ermingarde and brought her to live here in the Lair.
Nancy: I guess it’s not a coincidence. She turned up in our back yard when the Golden Rooster was here overnight. Our house was too small for her, so I brought her to the lair, and that was that.
Cassondra: Good thing we had a turret. Ahem….What toy do you still have from your childhood?
Nancy: A small, red (now faded) stuffed dog I hid in the Barbie airplane box in the basement because he had holes in him, his stuffing was coming out, and my mom was going to throw him away. As the years went by, I kinda forgot about him. I found him again when we cleared things out before my parents moved out of the house. His foam stuffing is rock hard now, and he looks pretty bedraggled, but I’m never getting rid of him.
Cassondra: Okay that’s just totally awesome. *sniffle* A beloved stuffed animal goes straight to my heart.
If I say the word “hero” what male actor comes immediately to your mind?
Nancy: Christopher Reeve. His Superman was superb–
Cassondra: *interrupts* I totally agree.
Nancy:….and the way the man turned personal tragedy into an opportunity to help others was awe-inspiring. Even without a red cape and spandex, he was amazing.
Cassondra: We all know you’re a history geek. But what is up with you and Richard III? I happen to know you’re crazy about that era, and it comes up frequently in conversation when we’ve been together. It comes up from YOUR side of the conversation, since I know zip about this time in history. What’s up with that?
Nancy: I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time on a recommendation from a law school classmate. Richard III has a reputation, thanks to Shakespeare, of murdering many, many people. So, the gist of the book is that Tey’s Inspector Grant sees the NPG (National Portrait Gallery) portrait of Richard III and does not believe this is the face of a murderer. He then starts looking into the history of Richard’s reign.
I’m an English history geek. The mystery just drew me in. So I went out and read everything I could get my hands on, on both sides of the question, but with particular attention to the sources that believed Richard III was not a murderer.
I still read about this now, and I have to say I think the traditional case has a great many holes in it. It bothers me to see historians write about other figures in the Wars of the Roses and credit them with intelligence and political ability, then flip to say Richard hoodwinked them and murdered them. The internal inconsistency makes me nuts.
Cassondra: Only you, Nancy, would be driven nuts by this.
Nancy: I’m restraining myself here with an effort because I could go on about this at very great length..
Cassondra: Yes, we see that this is, indeed, the case.
Nancy: Ahem….and your Bandit to Bandit would turn into Nancy’s Soapbox on Historical Controversy.
Cassondra: Thank you so much for not taking it there.
Nancy: I was talking to Anna Campbell and Duchesse Jeanne about this in the bar at the Washington, DC RWA conference when Anna C started laughing.
“What?” I said. I mean, to me the fact the National Portrait Gallery had rearranged things and stuck Richard in with the Tudors, the ones who, yaknow, knocked him off the throne, was a matter of great moment. Quite annoying, especially as it took me half an hour to find him.
Shaking her head, Anna chuckled. ”You talk about these people as though they’re your neighbors.”
Well. Yeah. Because they interested me at least as much as my neighbors did. *g*
Cassondra: So you’ve studied all of this at great length and been to see the sites involved?
Nancy: The last time we were at the National Portrait Gallery and I was seeking out the portrait of Richard III, the dh waited in the lobby. Someone taking a poll for the gallery approached and asked him why he’d come there that day.
“My wife,” he replied. ”When we’re in London, we have to come here so she can see Richard III.”
He reported that the woman didn’t seem to know what to say to that, but he was merely speaking the truth.
And just think, this is me being restrained!
Cassondra: Indeed. And this is why we love you. *grin*
Last question…Most of us have something–some hobby or dream–that we’re saving for “later.” Later when we have time. Later when we have money. Later when we retire. What are you saving to do when “later” finally gets here?
Nancy: Assuming “later” arrives with considerably more money than we currently possess, I’d like to spend two weeks in England and have box seat tickets on Centre Court for the second week of Wimbledon.
Cassondra: Me too! I love tennis! It’s my sport of choice.
Nancy: Thank you for having me kick off your series, Cassondra. I hope we haven’t scared anybody.
Cassondra: I guess we’ll see whether they come back for seconds. Thanks so much, Nancy, for being my guest and guinea pig.
So, Bandits And Buddies…
What’s the first book you remember–whether it was read to you, or you read it yourself?
Who is your favorite super-hero?
And when you think of the word “hero” (or heroine) what actor comes to mind for you, either male or female?
Are you like Nancy?—Are you a geek about something? Is there something you love, like Nancy’s comic books or Richard III, that you obsess over but nobody else around you gets?
Do you have a toy from childhood–one you’ve saved–that means something to you?
Sven is serving drinks, and Ermingarde is toasting marshmallows on the front lawn.
Hey, don’t question it. She. Breathes. Freaking. Fire….
It’s her way of fitting into the lair festivities.
The guys who keep the Lair running are passing around snacks. Grab some food and drinks, tell us about youself, and join the fun as we get to know our favorite history and comic book geek, Bandita Nancy.