Italian Cooking

Italy taught the French to cook, so I was told. I went to Italy expecting the same revelatory food experience I had in France. There, eating in the equivalent of a cut-rate diner, you take a bite of your beef bourguignon and think, my God, that’s so good! And then you swallow it and think, it can’t have been that good. And you take another bite and oh my God it really is that good. When I meet someone from France, I ask them, how do you eat over here? And they give a little smile and shake their heads.

When Napoleon conquered Italy, he brought back to France more than just the twice-stolen horses of the hippodrome. (Venice told the Fourth Crusade that if they wanted ships to go to the Holy Land, they had to attack their rival, Constantinople, first. So, the Fourth Crusade sacked a Christian city, and brought back so much plunder that they didn’t need to go to the Holy Land after all. The Venitians put the four bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople onto the terrace of St. Mark’s Basilica.) Napoleon grabbed the horses. The cooking followed him back to France. (When Napoleon was defeated, the French gave the horses back, not to Constantinople, of course, but to Venice.)

So, I had high expectations of Italian cooking.

In retrospect I was looking forward to as huge a difference as I found between American cooking and French cooking. (I still can’t believe it’s that good). The food wasn’t better. It was often as good. But the cooking was different.

In Italian cooking, ingredients are simple. If you order spaghetti with meat, that’s what you’re going to get. No complicated sauce, no unexpected ingredients. The spaghetti, by itself, is delicious. The ground beef is sauteed, has maybe a little spice added, but not so much that I could tell what it was. And that’s that.

A mushroom, cheese and tomato pizza has a very thin crust, and the bread is delicious all by itself. It has fresh mozzarella, and that, by itself, is also delicious. And four or five large slices of mushrooms, also good, and that’s that.

Italian cooking (in my three week’s experience in seven towns) is simple. It relies on the fresh and delicious ingredients, and lets them stand for themselves.

One stand-out meal was a sandwich we had in Parma. Bread, ham, and cheese. The bread was perfect. The ham was local  proscuitto, and the cheese was slices of parmesan (what else?). This parmesan cheese was like Swiss cheese in its texture, but with a bright, bright flavor. There was nothing else on that sandwich. It was delicious.

Ingredients in Italian cooking are calculated. Not handfuls of herbs and spices, but one, in a precise amount, to cause a specific taste effect. Italian cooking is simple. It is probably distilled from thousands of years of experimentation down to exactly what works best, no more, no less. Of course, what works best is fresh, local, unadulterated ingredients. When you start with that, you don’t need to add much of anything.

This is a vending machine in Parma. You can get milk, yogurt, muffins, sandwiches, and of course, Parmesan cheese.


I still miss the bread.


Creativity: Dwelling in the Mind of God

On Sunday, I had the honor of speaking before the United Church of Christ in Campbell. What a beautiful building! And I had the pleasure of meeting some very nice people.


When I was invited to come and speak to this congregation, I thought this would be an easy gig. After all, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about creativity and God. I have a lot of ideas on the subject.

It has turned out rather more challenging than I expected. I think one’s relationship with God is extremely personal, so coming up with a way of describing it has been an interesting challenge. So, thank you.

I was raised an Episcopalian, which you probably know is the American version of the Anglican faith, the Church of England, the one Henry VIII made up when he wanted a divorce.

In preparing to give this talk, I was reminded of the Anglican minister over a century ago who was asked to preach before Queen Victoria. He was pretty nervous so he went to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and asked for advice.

Disraeli said, “If you preach for 40 minutes, Her Majesty will be bored. If you preach for 20 minutes, she will be pleased. If you preach for 10 minutes, she will be delighted. “Yes,” he said, “Very well, but what can I talk about in ten minutes?” “That will be a matter of indifference to Her Majesty.”

So, as your visiting lay Anglican, “indifference” and “ten minutes,” make a pretty low bar. I will try to do better than that. Continue reading

Peter Cushing Just Changed the World

Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin

Peter Cushing died in 1981, which makes it a world-changing event that he reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars: Episode IV (the first Star Wars movie), in the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I hear he was very good, for a dead man.

Did everyone feel the shift as the world changed? Now that digital technology, with sufficient sample size, can create new performances for dead actors, a lot of questions open up. First of all, who owns Peter Cushing?

In the print media, stories, novels, poems, etc., are under copyright under 75 years after the author is dead. But if the author can go on writing stories after death (we’re not there yet, thankfully), then what does that do to copyright?

Whom did they ask, to use Peter Cushing’s previous performance to create a new performance? And more importantly, whom did they pay, and at what rate?

An actor’s work used to last for his or her lifetime. But now that Peter Cushing has played a part after his death, that has changed. So when do I get to see the new Humphery Bogart movie? A part written for that actor in his prime, and played by a digitized configuration of his best trade-mark work, would certainly sell tickets. So who owns Humphery Bogart now?

If no one owns Humphery Bogart after his death, then anyone can cast him in anything. In fact, every actor who reaches the status of becoming a name actor, a star, could go on starring in films for as long as human civilization lasts. And we would see them, forever, in their prime. James Dean could have the career his untimely death denied him. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Maron Brandon, and dozens of other great actors who have stepped off the mortal set could bring back star-studded casts in new and yet-to-be-imagined films, and they don’t even have to be period pieces.

But if no one owns these peoples’ aggregates, which can be digitized into new performances, then who gets to say to what use they can be put? In this age when capitalism declares that anything that makes money is inherently good, who is going to say that you can’t make porn film of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy doing road trips and boinking in famous locations? If you can a dead star in a new movie, who’s to say you can use her naked? And all his or her parts, real or imagined, as well?

Entertainment lawyers, SAG, Actor’s Equity, and all the great actors of the present have a whole lot of new contractual parameters to work out, one of which is, of course, what rate do you get when you’re not breathing anymore, and who gets to collect? Digital artists will be using samples from the whole of these artists’ working lives: not only their acting, but their physiques, their charisma, their voices and mannerisms. Five hundred years from now, when Bruce Willis stars in his nine thousandth film, opening as a box office smash over sixteen continents (we will have new continents that we have built in the great oceans by then), dozens of space stations (why live down a gravity well), and the colonies on the Moon, Mars, and several of Jupiter’s moons (for those traditional souls who do want to live down a gravity well), should he not get his usual billing? In the unkindest cut of all, Peter Cushing reprised his role from the first Star Wars movie, but he did not get credit.

NaNoWriMo! Here We Go!


Today begin National Novel Writing Month! Can we make an adjustment, please?

I love the idea of National Novel Writing Month. In November, people are challenged to write a 50,000 word novel by the last day of the month. But can we make an adjustment so that we are not setting people up to fail? A practiced writer can write 1666 words a day, day after day. A practiced writer, when sitting down and finding that the work doesn’t go, knows they can let it alone for a bit, go do something else, because if you sit down and it doesn’t go, it means you need to think something through before you can write it.

Can November perhaps be National BEGIN Your Novel month? And maybe February could be National FINISH Your Novel month? 50,000 words does not make a novel, in any case. The sweet spot, so my agent, the Awesome Laurie McLean, has told me emphatically, more than once, is 90-110K, (and I mean emphatically, as in, come in between 90 and 110K or don’t give it to me.) So someone who actually succeeds at NaNoWriMo, and turns out a beautiful gem of a 50K novel, is, again, set up to fail. (Unless it’s a middle-grade book, but that’s a different story).

If the plan is changed to beginning your novel in November, and finishing it by the end of February, then each day you need to write 750 words, which is much more do-able. Also, if you fall behind a day or so, you’re looking at an extra hour of writing, not two or three. For people who have real lives, trying to carve out enough time to write 1666 words a day is a considerable a burden. But 750, over 4 months? That is ideal in several ways. It is doable, first of all. Also, sustaining such an effort over time teaches a writer the job of consistently planning the next day’s work, and consistently writing every day. On the job training is the best!

Novels need to cook. You can have a beginning in mind, and then you start writing, and your character turns a corner and you find yourself in a landscape or a series of events that you did not foresee. (And this is a lot of the fun of writing! To find mansions within yourself that you did not know were there.) With an extra day or two, you’ll have time to look around and take it in, together with all its implications and possibilities. If, instead, you’re trying to cram through to get the 1666 words done, you may, first of all, come to a complete stop because you haven’t though through this bit, and so don’t know what to write about it. Or, you may write it more shallowly than it deserves, and leave potentially wonderful material unused.

I thoroughly support National Novel Writing Month. If more people write books, then more people will read books. More people will appreciate what goes in to creating a readable story. More people will be capable of casting a realistically discerning eye over all the kinds of storytelling we have today. And working on a novel is an exhilarating outlet for passion and joy. More of that! So, let us BEGIN, and talk about what we’ve got in February.

Conflict Poisoning Again!

That’s three books in a row I have had to abandon because of conflict poisoning! Conflict poisoning is what happens when the writer buys in to the idea that drama is only created by conflict. When you have “drama is conflict” in your head when you write, all of your scenes become arguments or fights. Characters attack each other for no reason other than — there has to be conflict to create drama! So you’re reading this fascinating book, with a great story, and the characters keep picking on each other out of the blue. The fictional world turns into Fight Club for no discernible reason. Wading through the miserable, nasty interactions undermines the pleasure of the book, and I give up.

The fact is, drama is not created by conflict, it is created by tension. There are an infinite number of ways to create tension in a plot, and in a scene, and between characters. Conflict is only a tiny subset of all the ways to create tension. Romantic tension, sexual tension. the tension created by power relationships, the tension of overwhelming odds, of unbearable burdens, of difficult undertakings — these do not need to be underscored by constant carping, nasty backstabbing, and pointless verbal or physical fights, to make a story more interesting.

Imagine Jane Austen’s works if she were suffering from conflict poisoning. Would any principal’s face be left unslapped?

Conflict poisoning is undermining our dramatic literature, and now it’s in the books, as well. Promote conflict poisoning awareness, and win back our literature!

Driving to MidAmeriCon II

Going to WorldCon was a splendid adventure. Driving across country, by way of Phoenix and Santa Fe on the way there, and Denver and Green River on the way back, was a most excellent addition.


The best thing about a road trip is that you never know what you’re going to learn. (Besides the fact that Kansas is the longest state whichever route you take across, but everybody knows that.) We saw the music museum in Phoenix.


Spent five hours at the House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, figuring out the puzzle and wandering the ways.


Our hotel room at the Westin in Kansas City was very nice, though we saw very little of it, of course, during the Con.


Our drive-by tourism including a stop at Dorothy’s house in Liberal, Kansas, the unexpectedly comprehensive museum in Green River, and the botanical gardens in Denver.


I’m still processing all these experiences. Perhaps I will manage it by the time all the unpacking is finally complete.

The Making of Savage Island

A book doesn’t come from one idea, but hundreds. After it’s written it’s hard to remember all that went into it, but I have a distinct recollection of one of the engendering moments of Savage Island. I read an article that stuck in my mind for many years, back when Los Angeles was plagued by numerous drive-by shootings in the wars of African American and Hispanic gangs. The article said that some high-level mafioso from Mexico sent word to Hispanic gangs in L.A., giving them their opinion that drive-by shootings were cowardly. They were not macho. And after that, Hispanic drive-by shootings decreased significantly.

Nowadays it seems that we need to invent new words for “courage,” and “hero,” since these now get applied to people who recycle in the rain. Courage, in a fighter, means that you are standing within the danger of your opponent when you engage.

Savage Island is the work in which I was able to pour my love and fascination with martial arts.

Savage_Island_Cover_03_revised copy FINAL

In this story, Jules van Allan challenges martial artists from all over the world to come to Savage Island and demonstrate the true meaning of courage to the world. Van Allan’s son and daughter were killed in a drive-by shooting, and Savage Island is both his object lesson, and his vengeance. James Grayson, who has seized the chance to be the Island’s sportscaster, uncovers what is really going on, with deadly consequences.

I began studying fencing when I was twelve, earned a green belt in Shotokan karate, and later a brown belt in Uechi-ryu. In college I discovered the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, the non-profit educational group that re-enacts the Middle Ages, and took up broadsword fighting.

SCA broadsword fighters fight in real armor, using rattan weapons. We fight full speed, full power, and full contact. (It’s also safer than softball; our insurance company rates us with ping pong. Real armor works!)

In SCA fighting you are encouraged to learn all of the standard medieval weapons forms; sword and shield, axe or mace and shield, great sword, bastard sword, spear or halberd, etc. We fight tournaments, melees, and wars. I fought in the Estrella War where we fielded nine hundred fighters (the annual Pennsic War, back east, fields even more). It’s like Valhalla, where you fight all day, and then feast and sing at night with friends and foes alike. The endorphin rush of full-speed, full-contact fighting is memorable.

Lately I have been studying Toyama-ryu Iaido, the Japanese art of the sword, with a sensei who is working on short-sword fighting forms.

In Savage Island, I had the pleasure of figuring out numerous fighting styles and weapons forms, creating characters with all different kinds of fascination for the martial arts, and working out what would happen when they met one another in combat. I had discussions with SCA sword brothers, friends from various dojos, and people I met in cafes, about what kind of people might take up the challenge of Savage Island, if it were real, and go and fight there. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had in working out a book.

Each combatant is given a number of points to spend from the Savage Island catalog, with which to arm and equip himself. The variety of choices, in weapons and tactics, caused many a character to run away with their bit of the story, and that was fun, too.

Savage Island is being released on Friday, July 8. The launch party is being held at CombatCon, the convention celebrating Western Martial Arts. This is the perfect venue to release Savage Island, since it embodies the values of courage, skill, and fascination with every iteration of martial arts the Western world has ever come up with.

The party is at noon in the Writer’s Room at CombatCon, at the Westgate Hotel in Las Vegas. See you there!

A Day in the Life of a Writer

It would have to be Saturday.

On Saturdays, my husband and I go down in the morning to Aikido Fresno, where we study Toyama-ryu Iaido, the Japanese Art of the Sword, with Shiomi Sensai.

There are many schools of Iaido. Toyama-ryu was founded about a hundred years ago, after the Japanese push for Westernization created an officer class who were not familiar with the use of the katana, the Japanese sword. The Emperor of Japan caused the school to be founded, to teach officers how to draw and cut with the sword. Consequently, Toyama-ryu’s symbol is the Imperial chrysanthemum.

Toyama ryu

Toyama-ryu is practical, and in part aimed at teaching how to draw the sword very fast, because if you have your sword drawn before your opponent does, that can be a bit of an advantage.

I have been studying with Shiomi Sensai for nearly six years, and have earned my third degree black belt.

When I was young I was told that a black belt means that you have mastered all the basic techniques of a fighting style, and now you are ready to really learn what it’s all about. There are many myths around martial arts, but happily, in studying with Shiomi Sensai, this one turned out to be true.

Classes are small, and since last spring, when our most recent new students (of four years ago), passed their shodan (first degree black belt) tests, it is now a class entirely of black belt students. Thus, by the end of class, we are usually very tired and sore indeed.

By noon, when class is over, we generally grab lunch from one of the many nearby restaurants, and do some shopping. By the time we get home, it’s time to get ready for WITL, Writing in the Library.

Our local library had a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – November) event several years ago, and to support writers taking part, the librarian, Sarah Lingenfelter, opened the library on Saturday afternoons (when it officially closed), for writers to come and spend a couple of hours away from distractions, writing in the library. WITL has been going on ever since. Six novels have been completed during that time; four have been published. While Sarah sometimes has writing exercises for us to try, usually we simply offer enthusiastic support for our successes, and companionship during the process of writing. To encourage production, writers decide by the end of each session if they’ve met their goals, and those who have participate in a drawing for little presents. If you win, you have to replace the present next time. It makes an enjoyable reward system for working productively at WITL.

At home we have sheep and chickens, who by the time we get home are overjoyed to be released from the pens while we do chores, and feed them, and shut them up again, with the enthusiastic assistance of our border collies.

Then we feed said border collies, and ourselves. If we’re not too tired, we sometimes play music together; my husband plays the dulcitar and I have been learning the fiddle. It’s fortunate our neighbors are too far away to hear, or at least to throw things.

Then, one more walk around the yard with the dogs to check the stock, and look up the stars, before putting the day to bed.

In the play Our Town, after Emily dies, she gets to go back to her life for one day, one ordinary day. For me, it would have to be a Saturday.