Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Dinos Eve

I made several versions of this simple square-in-square quilt for my nieces, finishing the last one just recently. The fabric is from the 1990s, when I started quilting. You can see below that the two main prints (orange and black backgrounds) feature brightly colored dinosaurs going trick-or-treating. The border stripes, purchased at the same time, I believe, have more traditional cats and ghosts. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Rule of Seven

Writers frequently employ a Rule of Three -- three characters, three plot lines, or three uses of a motif. (See what I did there?) You'll find it everywhere in legal writing, and not just because we like to cover all bases as if we were paid by the word, as in the standard language in many wills: I hereby give, devise and bequeath. Or marriage vows: love, honor and cherish. The idea is that just one thing is a bit random, two establishes a bit of a pattern, three cements that pattern and four (or more) is over-kill. So, for many purposes, three is the sweet spot.

In my last WIP, I had three goals for the protagonist: meet a deadline for her day job, harvest the garlic on the farm she's just inherited, and get her aunt buried properly (which then becomes a larger goal of seeking justice for her aunt by finding her killer). In the quilt appraiser's story, the protagonist had three goals: solve the murder, prepare for a career-making/breaking speech, and deal with a health issue that complicated everything.

Recently, though I was reading the thoughts of John Barnes here, where he says, "I like to set up seven slightly related ideas and riff on them till it adds up to something." Perhaps because I was brainstorming a new WIP at the time, I loved the idea of expanding from my usual focus on three to finding seven things that all contribute to the overall story. His Rule of Seven includes more than plot-lines, or the story might get a tad chaotic, and it serves as a reminder that plot-lines and other elements all work together, so the parts come together for the whole that's larger than their sum.

For my current WIP, I already had: 1. genre, legal thriller, 2. premise involving abuse of civil forfeiture laws, 3. a non-mystery-related deadline involving mountain biking, 4. the basic genre goal of solving the mystery, 5. the protagonist's desire to change careers and become a hobby farmer, and 6. a health issue for the protagonist, complicating her other goals.

The two things I was missing (which would add up to more than seven, but I'll combine one of them with another element) were: an interesting title (reflecting the genre), and something compelling about the antagonist.

Whether I'll succeed with the title and the antagonist is still to be determined, but simply knowing where to concentrate my brainstorming efforts was useful. It should save me a lot of the angst I usually experience when I've got a bunch of words written, only to realize that there's this big, gaping hole in the story where a three-dimensional antagonist should be.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Furry keyboards

If you share your office space with anything that sheds (cat, dog, yourself) you'll love this keyboard: 

Not so much for dunking it under a faucet (haven't tried that yet), but because the design makes it so easy to remove fur from between the keys. Just run a Q-tip between the rows of keys, and it will pick up most, if not all, of the fur.

Bonus feature: for those occasions when  you really need to see the keys (like searching for an odd symbol on top of the number keys, or first thing in the morning before you're awake, when you need to put in your password while leaning over the desk, not really in a position for touch-typing), the white keys are so much easier to read than most other color combinations.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pumpkin pie in a jar

I've been obsessed with jam/jelly-making lately. One day, when the crabapples weren't quite ripe, and the green tomatoes (to be made into jam) were frozen, and I didn't want to spend any money, I decided to make pumpkin butter. Except with butternut squash, because I had a bunch of them, including a couple that had blemishes, and wouldn't keep for long without cooking them.

Generally, butternut squash can be substituted for anything made out of pumpkin. I read somewhere that butternuts are actually sweeter and more flavorful than even the sweetest pumpkin, but I think there are proponents on both sides of that debate. All I know is that I find butternuts easier to grow, and I don't have room for both butternuts and pumpkins. So, butternut is my preference.

I did some research and found a bunch of pumpkin butter recipes online. The gist of them all is to mix the squash/pumpkin, a very little liquid (squash releases some when it's heated), sugar, spices and maybe lemon juice, and simmer until the vegetable pieces are mushy. Apparently, pumpkin butter is particularly popular in Portugal, and is more of a chutney, with raisins and nuts mixed in. I was also intrigued by a pumpkin-apricot jam and some spreads that were a hybrid of pumpkin butter and marmalade, with citrus bits included.

I wasn't prepared to spend any money or go to the grocery store, so I limited myself to what I had on hand: squash, sugar, and spices. I also had lemons, which were called for in the recipes I read, probably as a sop to getting the squash high-acid enough for water-bath canning. It's not considered safe to use this method of preserving squash, not even with the added lemon, so I planned to simply refrigerate the butter or freeze it. I didn't need the lemon juice for its acidity, and I doubted the lemon juice flavor would be noticeable in such a highly spiced concoction, but thinking of the marmalade-style versions, I decided to add some lemon rind bits, which hold their flavor better than the juice does. The little bits got more mushy than the usual chewy marmalade bits, but they're a nice little burst of lemon flavor.

Final recipe:

8 to 9 cups of butternut squash, peeled, cored and diced (or you can substitute two 29-oz cans of pumpkin puree)
Shaved peel of 1/2 lemon, just the very outer zest, not the bitter white part, cut into tiny bits
2 Tablespoons pumpkin pie spice from Penzey's (or the pumpkin pie spice mix of your choice)
1 1/2 to 2 cups of brown sugar (most recipes suggested 2 cups, but I like it a bit less sweet; you can start with the lower amount and add more at the end if necessary; I tried to go even lower, but needed a bit more than the 1 cup I started with)
1 cup water or cider

Toss everything into a slow cooker on high for an hour or so, then turn it down to low until the squash is mushy. Use an immersion blender or whisk or just a wooden spoon to smash it into a smooth consistency. Taste and adjust the sugar and spices, as needed.

Lay two wooden spoons or two metal knives across the top of the slow cooker and put the lid on top of the spoons, to allow the liquid to escape, and continue cooking on low until the butter thickens to a really dense texture, thicker than applesauce. Do a final taste test and any necessary adjustments. Ladle into clean jars and use within thirty days. If you want to keep it longer, use freezer-safe jars and freeze the butter.

Makes 4 to 5 cups (roughly half of whatever amount of squash is used)

P.S.: Ignore the "Classico" on the lids. I save and reuse those lids for things that are NOT processed, because I find the rings annoying for daily use. You need to use the official lids if you're processing jams, but as noted above, pumpkin/squash should be kept refrigerated or frozen, not "canned" and left on the shelf. Of course, at the rate I'm eating this stuff, it wouldn't go bad before I used it up anyway!