New Culinary Cozy Mystery

A few days ago I wrote about P G Wodehouse and his quirky characters, his humorous turns of phrase. Well, as chance would have it…
A week or so ago I downloaded a mystery through Book Bub and finished it last night. The author has created a main character, Chef Maurice, reminiscent of Hercules Poirot and humor that echoes tones of Wooster and Jeeves. Zany, delightful, and a mystery right to the end!

Chef Maurice. and a Spot of Truffle
a Chef Maurice Mystery

by J. A Lang

I’ve heard of truffle-snuffing pigs before, also temperamental French chefs. When Ollie, the local forager and mushroom supplier doesn’t turn up with the needed omelet ingredients one day, Chef Maurice goes to collect and discovers in Ollie’s fridge, in the guise of potatoes, some rare and precious mushrooms. And they carry the scent of an English woods. Where did Ollie discover these? Are there more nearby just waiting to be unearthed?

Chef Maurice adopts Hamilton, a micro-pig who proves himself well able to snuffle a truffle, and they check out the local forest, with good friend Arthur along to temper the exuberance of the chef. Searching for this valuable variety they come across Ollie’s body.

Now they need to know if Ollie’s death was the result of a secret truffle turf war. Or was it because Ollie had a little business on the side selling another species of mushroom to local teens?

With his up-beat, well mannered disposition, Hamilton is a hit with the staff. Everyone is horrified when he’s pig-napped and the Chef receives a package of shrink-wrapped bacon and a warning note.

The only minus point, which may bother some readers: clues aren’t all revealed up front. On the last day Chef Maurice does some investigating, the results of which remain unknown to readers until that evening when he explains his conclusions and reveals the guilty party. I didn’t mind this — it made the ending more of a surprise. I couldn’t guess before he actually named that person, who it would be.

This is one case where you really can judge a book by its cover — kudos to the artist. When you see Hamilton’s jolly grin you know the story is going to be funny.

Writing Prompt Sources

Like so many of you, I read the announcement last week that WordPress is discontinuing some of its regular features, including its Daily Prompts on May 31st. I haven’t been using their one-word prompts for a long time; nevertheless, this announcement sparked my curiosity. I decided to have a look at how many other sites on the net offer writing prompts.

Hello Mr Google… WOW! I could write a story a day for a hundred years with what’s available out there.

Some sites are maintained by publishers like Writer’s Digest. Some are blogs by published authors like Graeme Shimmin and John Matthew Fox. (For your convenience I’ve put their links at the bottom of my sidebar under Writing Help)

Searching specifically, you can find random first line generators, random plot generators, random character generators, movie script generators. There are prompt sources for teachers, for students, for songwriters. There’s one titled, “Twenty-one writing prompts to help you finish an entire novel this summer.” There’s even “80 Letter-writing prompts” from Compassion International.

Just for curiosity I clicked on THIS ONE and generated a random set of ideas; you can click the buttons and come up with a story line that suits your fancy. Much like WriterIgniter, a site I’ve used before.

Just for fun I clicked the buttons and this is what I came up with:
MC: A young man in his late teens who is very wise
2nd character: A woman in her late thirties who is very lively
Setting: The story begins in a nursing home.
Situation: something precious has been lost
Theme: It’s a story about justice
Character action: MC reluctantly becomes involved

This combination called to mind a real happening, back when I worked in a seniors’ home. Something precious really did go missing. I don’t know if the truth was ever revealed, so I’ll have to fake it. Stay tuned for my tale — with details changed to protect the guilty. 🙂

The Daily Post also has a free e-book of writing prompts that can be downloaded as a pdf. Get it HERE.

When I go to Amazon.ca and do a Writing Prompts search, again I’m bowled over by the 84 pages of books containing writing prompts — and I see a lot of these are “Read Free with Kindle Unlimited.”

The down-side of picking a prompt at random instead of using a central source like Daily Post Prompts is lack of the sense of community. You’re on your own; there aren’t hundreds of people using the same word or photo. For those of you currently connecting via the Daily Post will you miss this? Will you try another community like The Write Practice (link in side bar) or one of the various Flash Fiction groups going?

And for anyone reading this post, what writing prompts sources have you found useful?

Negative Self-Talk. Delete, Delete, Delete

A Reader’s Opinion

While I’ve been laid low with back problems this week, I took the opportunity to read a novel by P G Wodehouse. Like all his novels, Jill the Reckless is a great story! Six stars out of five. The author has created a memorable cast of characters and, like Agatha Christie, has such a delightful way with words and phrases.

Writers like D E Stevenson, Wodehouse, Sayers, Christie, etc., used strong story lines and an interesting cast of minor characters to showcase their heroes. There was a STORY in their story. Even in tales with a romance woven in, the overall focus was as much on the main character’s triumph over adverse circumstances as on their relationships.

Have modern genre formulas become like a corset, rigidly holding writers to a specific shape deemed to be attractive in our day? Stories tend to be so focused on the conflict between the two love interests. Furious outbursts, insecure characters full of negative self-talk, a lot of internal dialogue use up word count without adding variety. I read one novel awhile back where I’d estimate 75% of the word count was spent on the MC’s conversations with himself — basically why she’d never have him anyway so forget it.

I find almost no negative self-talk in those older novels. Miss Marple doesn’t constantly berate herself for snooping. Lord Peter may babble about his silly curiosity but the writer doesn’t devote long paragraphs to his self-chastisement. Wodehouse’s characters act and react in a lively way; they spend little time mentally rehashing their own actions and reactions.

In real life negative self-talk is usually destructive. It’s the devil on our shoulder that berates us for how we are without giving us any power to change. Sometimes we do need to admit faults and make changes, but negative self-talk rather tends to paralyze.

So, in our age of promoting self-esteem and ridding ourselves of guilt, why do we allow our book characters to indulge in so much self-criticism? Do readers really find it that appealing?

Imagine yourself standing in a long supermarket checkout line and striking up a conversation with the customer in front of you. You notice she has two boxes of Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream. You’re quite fond of it yourself. You say so, and she replies:

“I really shouldn’t be buying this. I know it’s not the best for me; it’ll only go to my hips and I really should lose weight. I can hardly resist the delicious taste but I know I shouldn’t indulge and it’s so foolish of me to be buying it. My best friend’s brother’s such a hunk and I wish some romance would take off between us but he makes fun of me for eating it and says I’m turning into a dumpling. Well I don’t like him anyway. But still, even if the taste is exquisite and I can hardly resist, I am just getting fat eating it every day. What kind of a wimp am I? I need to develop some backbone and not ever touch the stuff again. But then I might as well eat because no guy’s ever going to look at me anyway.”

Worse luck, every few days you visit that same supermarket, stand in line beside the Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream addict, with another two boxes in her cart, and hear her recite her insecurities again.

Welcome to the modern novel. No, not all. But too many. Recently read another one myself.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to edit some current book — your choice. So you open it in a new window, start at Chapter Two and delete all the negative self-talk. How much will be left?

Can you fill in those gaps with ACTION? An outside CRISIS they must deal with? Other issues going on apart from main character blow-ups. Maybe leave just a phrase here and there to let the reader know those feelings are still in the background. Once in every  chapter is often enough, IMO.

Can you add some ENVIRONMENT? In one story I read, the female MC and her parents had joined a wagon train. Though they would have been crossing amazing new territory, scenic description was scant. (Saves research, I guess.) Pages were filled with how she was attracted to/ couldn’t let herself fall for/ the scout or he was attracted to/ couldn’t let himself fall for/ her.

What about adding a new CHARACTER? A jolly old auntie or uncle to give readers a break from the intense focus on the lovers’ spats. Wodehouse added the smooth-talking, conniving Uncle Chris who squandered Jill’s inheritance in poor stock market investments, but was always ready to fleece some new lamb. The author devotes some paragraphs to Jill’s assessment and acceptance of her uncle’s nature and weaknesses; these in turn show Jill’s compassionate nature.

Maybe you could add a nosy neighbor? If the story already has one, write in another and have the two interact with each other and with the main characters. Sprinkle in their WRY COMMENTS ABOUT HUMAN NATURE and each other. Have them play “Pass the Rumor.” Display your hero’s nature in the way they deal with these minor characters.

I believe these subplots are what made novels so memorable and writers so successful in years gone by. As a reader, I’d like to encourage all writers to loosen the constrictions of formula and put more STORY in your stories.

Another Poem From My Stash

HOLD STILL

by Margaret Penner Toews

Wee little hummingbird, caught in a wire,
Halt, little bird, or your wings will tire:
In your little-bird-world your plight is dire!
Hold still, wee bird, hold still!

Wee little hummer, don’t flail, don’t fight!
If you’d stop your frenzy you’d be all right.
It’s the flailing that causes your awful plight.
Hold still, little bird, hold still.

Is your wee little scream a little bird-prayer?
How can I tell you, wee bird, I care?
You pause at last and numbly stare.
Don’t be afraid! Hold still.

Spent, despairing, you rest your wing.
I reach. I touch. What a fragile thing,
The delicate body quivering,
A hummingbird, holding still!

In my palm you tarry a little bit,
Then shake, and away like a breath you flit.
I stand astonied at thought of it…
A hummingbird, holding still!

How tiny the feather you left behind!
…And then of a sudden there comes to mind
The truth God wanted for me to find:
“Hold still, my child, hold still.

“Stop your frenzy and rest in Me.
It’s the flailing that hurts you, don’t you see?
Whate’er your predicament, trust in Me.
Hold still, my child, hold still.”

© Margaret Penner Toews
From her book FIRST A FIRE

Margaret’s poetry is delightful reading and she has published several books of poems as well as several books of devotional thoughts. These are available from PrairieView Press and Gospel Publishers.

A Letter From Home

This “letter” is from a book of poems written by Mary J MacColl, published in 1880 by Peter Paul & Brother of Buffalo, NY. The book comes with endorsements from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes. speaking of hob-nobbing with the Greats!

Johnny’s Letter

Dear Ned, your letter’s come at last
and Nelly’s cockatoo;
Old Captain Cable brought them both,
‘Twas pretty good of you
to write so much, when it’s so hot;
how jolly brown you’ll be –
just like a heathen Hottentot –
when you come back from sea!

I don’t believe I’d care to hunt
in jungles – at a show;
I’m just as near a lion’s jaws
as I would care to go.
Suppose the cannibals you saw
had nothing left to eat?
Phew! They’d have built a fire, I’m sure
and roasted you for meat.

We’ve all been down at Grandma Lee’s
and didn’t we have fun!
We jumped the fences, climbed the trees,
and made the squirrels run.
High on a load of hay we rode
with Jake and Uncle Nate;
we hunted nests and fed the chicks,
and swung upon the gate.

We fished and waded in the creek,
shook apples off the trees—
I ate so many I was sick!—
we chased the bumble bees.
They stung poor Bobby on the nose
and Katy in the eye;
it made them look so very queer
and oh, how they did cry!

Dick made believe he had a horse –
‘twas nothing but a rail –
I tied the duster on behind,
it looked just like a tail.
But he got tired, let go the rein
and tumbled on a log
and when I ran to call Nurse Jane
I fell across the dog.

I haven’t got much more to say
and I must go to school.
I missed my lesson yesterday.
I said “a little bull”
when teacher asked what bullet meant.
Why shouldn’t it be so
when streamlet means a little stream?
That’s what I’d like to know.

There goes the bell! I must be off–
I ‘most forgot to say
that Charley has the whooping-cough
and Tom fell off a dray.
But ‘cepting them we’re all quite well.
Good-bye – remember now,
if you don’t bring a monkey home
there’ll be the biggest row.

Thrift Store Finds

Here are a few writers and titles books you might watch for if you’re in a used book store. I highly recommend all of them as good reading:

Three Came Home, by Agnes Newton Keith © 1946, 1947
Published by Little Brown and Company, Boston, MA, USA

When the Japanese army took over Borneo in May 1942, Agnes and Harry Keith and their 18- month-old son were taken prisoner along with others from the British colony there. The men were put in one prison camp; women and children kept in another. This insightful book reconstructs the scene immediately before the invasion, the two years and four months they were interred, and their trip home.

With clarity and charity Mrs. Keith details life in the two prison camps, their ways of coping with abuse and starvation rations. She describes guards, prison commanders and interpreters as well as her fellow prisoners. In her opening she says, “The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us… If there is hate here, it is for hateful qualities, not nations. If there is love, it is because this alone kept me alive and sane.”

She has also written WHITE MAN RETURNS, BAREFOOT IN THE PALACE, and LAND BELOW THE WIND, which describes their life in Borneo (an English colony in the South Pacific) before the war.

Hot off the press…

HOT APPLE CIDER, © 2008
A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider
, © 2011
A Taste of Hot Apple Cider  © 2014
Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon  © 2015
Christmas With Hot Apple Cider © 2017

These “Stories to stir the heart and warm the soul” have been compiled by N. J. Lindquist and Wendy Elaine Nelles and published by That’s Life! Communications, Markham, Ontario, C anada. Each book is a collection of stories by Canadian writers, sharing experiences of divine guidance and comfort, short fiction, and poems.

And three interesting books about the Depression years in Canada

THE WINTER YEARS by James H Gray
Published 1966 by MacMillan of Canada,
reprinted in ‘66, ‘67, ‘68 and ‘72

James Gray, born in Whitemouth, Manitoba, was working as a clerk for the Grain Exchange in Winnipeg during the Twenties. They were good years; credit was easy and work easy to find. He married, bought a home, and in the late 20’s he left the Grain Exchange to go into business on his own. Several things he tried didn’t pan out, then he started up a mini- golf business in 1930. This shut down that fall and he found himself in debt and out of work.

In February 1931, almost out of food and fuel, two months behind in their rent, with a wife and daughter plus his parents to support and absolutely no hope of finding work, he finally swallowed his pride and took that long walk down to the Relief Office. No one dreamed that this depression would last eight years!

Mr. Gray shares his own personal struggles; he also gives the overall picture of what was happening on the prairies and in Canadian society in general during those years. As the back cover says, “The Winter Years is a story of hobos and housewives, radicals and aldermen, farmers and judges. It’s a moving tribute to the courage and resourcefulness of the human spirit.”

The Great Depression
©1990 by Pierre Burton, published by Anchor Canada

This is an overall analysis of the 1930’s in Canada, starting in 1929 and going through the decade year by year. As well as covering the overall political scene, the author gives very interesting personal experiences, details about weird weather, plagues of insects, families applying for relief, prejudice and deportations, etc.

Apples Don’t Just Grow
© 1956 by Maida Parlow French

Widowed at the beginning of the Great Depression, with three small boys to raise, Maida Parlow found her earnings as an artist didn’t pay the bills. She chose to leave Toronto and take her sons back to the abandoned farm her grandparents had owned. It was still in the family, the old apple orchard sadly neglected, the house totally run down.  Still, she was determined to bring it back into production and sell apples.

Before she left the city a friend advised her to keep a diary of this new adventure. Years later she published it as this book detailing the highlights in their day-by-day struggle to survive and all the mistakes she made trying to grow and sell her produce. A compelling memoir!