Posted by Cassondra Murray Dec 12 2013, 1:42 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Christmas, Christmas traditions, Decorations, Doll makers, Santa
When I was a little girl, Santa was a fat guy in a screaming red and white suit, with a white beard and a list.
That’s how he always looked.
Sometimes his face looked mean—a little on the evil side depending on the depiction– but most of the “Santa” images were of a jolly, happy, kind-looking Santa, much like this one on the left.
Doesn’t he look like a nice guy, laying his finger aside of his nose, about to nod his head and ascend through the narrow chimney?
Back then, Santa’s face was pretty much the only thing that varied. Some of them looked absolutely evil. This guy on the right isn’t too bad, but doesn’t he look like he has some mischief afoot?
As a child, even into my teens, I didn’t realize that the “fat guy in a bright red suit” imagery was fairly new, or that it had evolved over a long, long time, and that Santa did not always look exactly like this.
But I never did much like that suit.
I suppose, even as a little girl, the beginnings of the Martha Stewart Mini-Me that I would eventually become…well…they were already in place. I swear I don’t know where I got these tendencies.
I loved Santa back then. But even as a little girl, when I looked at Christmas decorations in the stores, I just wasn’t into that red suit.
Yes, I was an odd child. I won’t deny it.
As I grew older, I’d see those Santa dolls –you know the ones that are two or three feet tall, with fabric outfits–meant to be put out as decorations either inside or outside, but I never wanted one for my house. They just didn’t appeal.
Then it happened.
A few years after I was married, I was walking by the window of an upscale department store when I saw a Santa that made me stop and stare.
He was not in a bright red suit. He was in a robe. Not screaming red. It was deep dark burgundy. The fur trim was off white and looked old.
Now I know he’d be called an “Old World Santa,” but those weren’t around back then–or at least I hadn’t seen one. This one on the right is not him, but he has the same look. This is an Old World Santa from Linens ‘n Things.
After that, I started noticing more and more versions of Santa that were not the clownish guy I grew up with, but were based more on Father Christmas—the old world version of Santa.
Not long after that, I was in another store and I saw “Woodland Santa” with leaves and pine cones in a wreath around his head, and a long robe of what looked like fur-trimmed burlap. He had on snowshoes and there was a deer standing at his side. In one hand was a staff made of a tree branch, and in the other, a lantern. He had a rough knapsack over his shoulder. His cheeks were still rosy and his beard long and white.
It was just my style. I love primitive antiques, log cabins, barns and woods. I had found my Santa.
I was in school at the time, and we were flat broke, so I couldn’t afford him. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen one like him since, but I’d had my “Santa Awakening.” This one on the left is similar. It’s another version of “Woodland Santa”
Back then, all of these were “designer” Santas and were WAY too spendy for my budget, but I could still stare at them and imagine how they’d look in my future house, standing on my future hearth beside the future fireplace.
Flash forward a few years. Really cool Santas have come down in price, and now they’re available everywhere, as common as Bright-red-suit Santa.
Here’s another version of “Woodland Santa” on the right. This one is available at Costco. Doesn’t he look rugged and ready for some serious outdoor trekking? Even if his sleigh breaks down, ala the movie “Elf,” this Santa could still get where he needed to go.
Now, thanks to the internet and shops like Etsy, there are doll makers who specialize in a zillion different versions of Santa Claus, like this Father Christmas in a fur cloak on the left. You can see the rest of him if you click on the link. He’s amazing.
Looking around the web, I found one particular doll maker whose work I absolutely love, and she was kind enough to give me permission to share her Santas with you here on the blog.
Her name is Bona Lowery, and her Santas are stunning, one-of-a kind pieces of art, but many of them cost far less than you’d think for such beautiful work.
If you click on the links, you can see the detail in these Santas in the bigger pictures.
This is her Cabin Santa on the left. Cabin Santa is holding a little log cabin, and I love his fur-trimmed robe.
On her site, Santa Creations by Bona, she has a snippet about the history of Santa Claus.
Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from church history and folklore, notably St Nicholas and Sinterklaas, merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus.
Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a jolly, well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe.
Okay so Santa was fat back then, and Santa is still fat. Even most old-world Santas and Father Christmas figures have a belly. Every one of us feels the pressures of current fashion, but not Santa. Santa is, thus far, immune.
I understand from my friends who write historical romance that centuries ago, having a little fat on you was a sign that you were well-off. You could afford to eat all you wanted, regularly, and you could eat yummy stuff that most people couldn’t get. The common folk were lucky to eat at all, and worked off what they did eat. So, not only was Santa doing okay for himself, he was also generous, especially toward kids.
Here are more Santas by Ms. Lowery. That’s Fishing Santa on the right, complete with his tackle.
On the left is Silver Wreath Santa–less rustic, and more in keeping with the sparkle of the season.
Nowadays there are Santas with sheep, Santas with donkeys, and Santas with kittens.
I’ve seen Santas in sleighs and Santas wearing snowshoes pulling their own sleds, Santas with huskies instead of reindeer pulling the sleigh, and one Santa I saw was riding a polar bear.
None of them were wearing the bright red suit. I’ve even seen a “Green Man Santa”–the pagan version of Santa– with long gray beard, still carrying the traditional gifts, but wearing a wreath of leaves and sporting antlers on his head.
Bandita Kate is like me–she’s a wine lover, and she’ll love this next Santa. It’s a wine rack, and Santa is enjoying a glass of his favorite.
The photo on the right is of the Karen Didion Originals Crakewood Santa Claus 5-bottle Tabletop Wine Rack.
I had not heard of Karen Didion, but she was all over the internet when I went looking for Santas, and I absolutely loved everything I saw of hers. I think she’s brilliant. I found her Santas at Wayfair.com.
If you click on the link and look at the photos, you see the Santa wine rack from all directions. Plus, the wire barrel holds wine corks. Did I already say this Santa designer is brilliant?
Yes, she is.
Here’s another of her Santas on the left. Victorian Santa Claus.
Awesome Santas are not just from fancy designers. They’re everywhere. The Father Christmas Dolls on the right were from QVC.
The one below, on the left, is from Lowe’s. I *think* those are snowshoes strapped on his back, though I’m not certain.
Santa is stylin’.
He’s no longer just a guy in a red suit.
I had a bit of an epiphany while I was writing this post and searching for awesome Santas. If I fall in love with a Santa decoration, it’s probably because it looks nothing like the traditional guy in a red suit, and everything like a Wizard.
It seems the more Wizard-like the Santa is, the more I love it.
I never thought of Santa as a Wizard before, but he does have the pointy, floppy hat. And how else does he get up and down the chimney–and fly all over the world in one night?
What about you, Bandits and Buddies?
What sort of Santa appeals to you?
Did you grow up with the “Bright red-and-white suit” Santa?
If you celebrate another holiday, what are your decorations like? Do you like bright and sparkly? Or do you prefer colors and designs that are more subdued for a holiday?
If you decorate for Christmas, do you choose Screaming-red-suit Santa?
Or do you like the old-world Santas better?
Do you have any Santa figurines or dolls like the ones in the photos?
What says “Santa” to you?
It’s ALMOST HERE! Tomorrow is Day 1 of our annual 12 Bandita Days of Christmas! Prizes every day, plus extra goodies for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Be sure to stop by the blog each day between now and Christmas and leave a comment to be in the drawings.
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 Aug 27 2013, 2:08 am in art, book covers, Cassondra, Cassondra's blogs, dianna Love, Imagery, imagination, Romance Covers, Romantic suspense
I’ve got a long-time Bandit friend and surprise guest in the lair today–AND I’ve got something really cool to show off. Y’all get to see it first!
But before that, can I say that I really miss having covers on the books I read?
Yeah. I do.
It’s because I’ve caught the e-Reader craze.
Until I started reading on a Kindle, I never realized just how often I’d pause at a poignant moment in the story, and flip the front of the paperback book closed to see the cover. I’d picture the setting just as the author painted it, seeing the characters in the scene. I’d see the expressions shift on their faces, the hurt in their eyes. I felt the pain, the fear, the want, the longing, right along with those people who had become so real to me.
Granted, my connection with the cover models was a little easier if they …you know… actually had heads. And given the recent tendency for publishers to cut off the heads of the models, covers with heads have been getting harder and harder to find.
But even without heads–even if I supplied their appearance from my own imagination and the author’s description, that full-color cover still added immensely to my experience of the book. It was part of the pleasure of reading for me.
Then I got the Kindle. It was the black & white kind, like that one up there on the left. I fell hard, like a teenage girl in the presence of a rock star. I immediately LOVED my Kindle. I still do. I love how light it is. I love that the battery lasts dang-near forever. The color ones are much heavier and the batteries need recharging WAY more often. My Kindle was a gift, and you can get it away from me if you can pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Just sayin.
But bottom line? The covers on the black and white Kindles are the size of a postage stamp.
After I got the Kindle, it was a long time before I quit missing the pretty covers. Nowadays I prefer reading on my Kindle, but I still miss those images.
Exactly a month ago, long-time Bandit Buddy and lair favorite Sandy Blair was here to announce that she’d re-released one of her series independently with…drum roll please…new covers. Covers that better reflected what the stories were about.
On Saturday’s fabulous blog by Bandita Caren Crane about likes and dislikes in covers, it was clear that covers matter to some of you as much as they do to me.
So I want to ask you a few more questions about that.
Y’all know Dianna Love is one of my closest friends, and some of you know that I work with her. In May, we were in the middle of a phone conversation when she dropped a little bombshell on me. It went something like this:
Dianna: “I’m thinking about changing the covers for the Slye Temp series.”
Me: *Head snaps up as I stop pacing through the kitchen. I squint at the wall and push my Bluetooth earpiece tighter against my ear.* “What? You worked hard to get those covers just the way you wanted.”
Dianna: “I know. But I don’t think they tell the story of what the book is about. I think they look too much like mainstream thrillers and not enough like romantic suspense. I don’t think I’m doing right by the readers.”
I considered this as I started pacing again. That cover for Last Chance To Run on the right? It was exactly what Dianna had wanted at the time, and I think it’s beautiful.
But in my heart I knew she was right.
I went to Google and typed in “Romance Book Covers” and clicked on “images,” and almost to a one, the covers included people. Dianna had hit on an important point. That Google page said loud and clear that the books were about the people–the relationships. And although her Slye Temp books contain a lot of big suspense and fast-paced action, anybody who’s read them will tell you that they are one-hundred-percent romance from start to finish.
Her covers alone would not tell a reader that the Slye Temp series was romance.
She notified her artist that she was going to make a change, and over the next couple of months she searched for images of couples.
Two weeks ago we were together at an event in Savannah, Georgia, and between panels, Dianna was online with the artist. When the covers finally appeared, here is what we saw.
I couldn’t stop staring at them. I wanted to frame them and hang them on my wall because they were so damn pretty. And the angst, the longing and the “almost” between the couples was so thick you could cut it.
It was three shots of pure romance, 100 proof.
Me: “Hey can I do the cover reveal in the lair?”
Dianna: *Squints at me for a minute* “Yeah, that would be cool!”
When I put them side by side with the originals which you can see here on the left, it’s clear what Dianna was talking about.
But no way can you look at the new covers without knowing they’re mostly about a relationship. They whisper intimate to me.
By now you realize that I’m a cover ‘ho. I will admit to pulling Anna Campbell’s Tempt The Devil off the shelf every now and then, just to stare at it. *Fans self*
To be successful, a cover has to draw me in. And it needs to tell me what the book is about.
With the help of amazing artists like Dianna’s— Kim Killion at Hot Damn Designs– and Bandita Suz’s gifted daughter Lyndsey Lewellen, who’s done so many of the beautiful Bandit covers, authors can try something, and if it doesn’t work, they can shift gears and try something else, all for the benefit of the readers.
Bandits and Buddies, how do you feel about that?
Do you expect your books to deliver what the covers promise?
Do you want your romance covers to say “romance” right up front?
Dianna will be here to talk with us off and on during the day, so ask her anything about how and why she chose to remake her covers. BUT….If you didn’t know what Dianna wrote, and you looked at the original covers, would you know they were romance?
Lots of authors have more than one cover for the same book. Have you, or anyone you know, loved a book enough to collect all the versions with all the different covers?
And since Caren didn’t ask in her Saturday blog…
Where do you fall on the “heads vs no heads” question? Do you prefer to use your own imagination about the character’s appearance? (I’m sure that’s what the publishers are thinking–either that or they couldn’t afford a model with a handsome face) Or do you want the full cover art, sans decapitation?
When you see nekkid people on a cover, do you automatically think it’s erotica?
Dianna is giving away three books today. She is offering one copy each of the three books-with the new covers–and each book will go to a different winner.
So THREE winners today–leave a comment, and let us know which book you’d like. Watch the blog in the upcoming days for an announcement of the winners of Dianna’s books, and since I’ve been out of town, I still have to give away books from Lexi George’s guest blog on the 9th! I’ll announce both at the same time.
**FYI…Awesome reviewers Miranda and Joy from Joyfully Reviewed are also giving Dianna’s new covers some love today. And later in the week, Dianna will be on the Simply Ali blog, with more giveaways!
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?