Saturday, September 29, 2007

Saturday Night Lights

It's finally happened. I've been sucked in by "Saturday Night Lights." My kids are in middle school, and they are playing tackle football for the first time. This is Texas, so that's a big deal. Texans are more than dedicated to sports at every level; they are, quite frankly, insane. Every game, from elementary Pee Wee ball to high school Friday Night Lights is live or die with them. So, I was a little concerned when my kids said they wanted to play ball this year.

They've done well, and are on a good team--3-1 for the season so far. Those first few weeks of practice, though, we had a steep learning curve. The boys wanted to play; they wanted the glory of the win, the camaraderie, the touchdown pass. What they did not want, however, was to practice. Oh, lord, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that went on every time the boys had to suit up and run endurance sprints, or play in a rainstorm, or practice three times a week and once on the weekends. This on top of the regular obligations--school work, orchestra practice, etc. Some days those first few weeks ended in tears and threats--and the boys weren't too well-behaved, either. :-) Someone else's kid quit, deciding that football wasn't for him, and a pall hung over the rest of the team: would they be the next to go?

But, somewhere after the second game, things started clicking. They'd won their first two games, and it felt good. They finally understood what all the hard work and practice was for. They got into a groove with their other obligations, and could come home from school, spend ten minutes relaxing, then hop on their homework, finish, suit up, and be out the door in an hour. Even after their first butt-whoopin' defeat (33-0), they learned to commiserate with one another, then to shake it off because they had to go forward or they'd constantly be looking back, unable to play their best. They sacrificed some of their other pleasures, and even a friend or two along the way because their interests had diverged. However, they enjoyed the fellowship of the field with like-minded kids all striving toward the same goal, and even when they beat out another team, they understood that didn't mean the other team didn't want it as much; it meant our team was both lucky and ready.

Watching tonight's game, with the weather finally starting to cool off, and the field lights on, and us cheering on the team, I realized the parallels with wanting a writing career. It looks so glamorous, and so easy, from the outside. Then we realize somewhere along the way just how hard it is, and how much we don't know, and how much we have to learn. We struggle against the discipline, complain about the hours of practice and sacrifice, and some of us even quit because we realize it isn't for us. But others, others keep on, until that first contest win that validates our struggle, or "good" rejection from an editor, or until an agent recognizes our talent and takes us on, or until that first sale. We enjoy the fellowship of other writers, knowing we're all reaching for the same prize, and sometimes, when we achieve it, we know it isn't because we are necessarily more talented than the others; it's because we wanted it more that day, the right day, when the editor read our manuscript and was in the right mood, and we were both lucky and ready.

Here's to Saturday Night Lights. I get it now.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Quotes, quotes

I'm so jazzed. I received two great quotes from other romance authors whom I admire, ladies who took the time to read my book and say something nice about it for public consumption. I admit to biting my nails after I sent them the ARC (advance reader copy) of The Legacy, because what (I thought) if they read it and decided to decline to offer a quote? It happens, I'm told. So, I was very delighted to receive these quotes--and very nice comments privately--from these women:

"Bennett delivers a powerful evocation of an exciting period in history most romance novels have ignored. Her full-blooded characters take you on an emotional rollercoaster, for a trip you won't soon forget. We'll be seeing more of this author, and I can hardly wait." ~ Susan Squires, author of Danegeld, Danelaw, No More Lies, and The Companion series

"Tempting, tantalizing, and terrific! TJ Bennett is an exceptional new talent who delivers a fresh, satisfying romance." ~ Shana Galen, author of Good Groom Hunting, When Dashing Met Danger, and Blackthorne's Bride

Yay, me!!!


Monday, September 24, 2007

In the beginning, was the WORD...

Had a fascinating discussion with my critique group yesterday, after our session was done. A more knowledgeable, intelligent, and thoughtful group of women I have yet to meet. Anyway, the discussion of profanity, both in our work and in our lives, came up. I joked that I don't use bad language, but sometimes my characters do. Some of the women confessed they have varying ranges of comfort with profanity, depending on the situation and who is involved, and wondered if we give up our power to others by overreacting to certain derogatory or profane words. Then the idea that we can render offensive words inoffensive by the acceptance of their overuse was tossed into the mix, because after all, "They're only words."

The idea that we can change the character or nature of a word through reclaiming its use is not a new one. Some in the African-American community have chosen to reclaim the use of the N-word and render it powerless by using the word with casual aplomb in every day life: "Hey, N____, how you doing?" "He's one funny n______!" That sort of thing. My girlfriends and I occasionally admonish each other not to do stupid things or one of us will have to "b*tch slap" the other to bring her back to her senses, and a b*tch slap by your girlfriends is an affectionate gesture of encouragement and admonishment in that context.

So, yes, I see this argument, and I understand its purpose. However, I object to the proponents of the desensitization technique who imply I should not find words such as the "f" word or its ilk offensive in an offensive context simply because it is only a word. Words have power and meaning, and that's why I'm a writer. How can we say something isn't powerful simply because we encounter it repeatedly? If I hit my thumb with a hammer repeatedly, it will certainly go numb after a while, but does that mean it is something I want? Or that the hammer isn't just as deadly as it ever was? Certainly not. Besides,

What Martin Luther King said, was only words.
What Jesus Christ said, was only words.
What Mother Teresa said, was only words.
Dear God, what Hitler said, was only words.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words
will certainly crush me.
If you tell me to "f" off a hundred times,
Am I going to be insensate
or desensitized
by that last time,
or will it still bother me that you said it to begin with?

Words have power, as well they should, and I choose to continue to be offended by the ones intended to offend. Not that you don't have the right to say them; just don't deny my right to be upset when you do.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sweet Potato Casserole

Today is the one year anniversary of my mother's death. It's been a tough couple of weeks leading up to it, I'll admit. I miss that woman like crazy. In honor of her, I fought the creeping tentacles of my crazy schedule to carve out this day of remembrance. I refused to attend my kids' football game, the post-game pool party, the dessert social at church, the date night, and several other events that tried to occur on this day so that I wouldn't have to pretend to be happy for anybody. Mom deserves that much, since I couldn't go to her grave site for lack of funds and schedule conflicts. I did order flowers for her, but it's not the same thing.

One thing I did today is made Mom's famous sweet potato casserole, covered with melted and crisped up marshmallows. She wrote the recipe out as a "pinch of this, some of that, get the big container, not the small one" sort of thing a couple of years ago for me when I asked. It's the sort of recipe you have to have tasted all your life to be able to duplicate, because you sure as heck can't do it from the recipe itself. Traditionally, my mom would make it for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. She'd spend all day in the kitchen cooking the meal, and then we'd have what we came to call the "ceremonial burning of the marshmallows," wherein Mom would put the casserole under the broiler, get distracted, and when the marshmallows would start to burn, one of us kids would rush over to pull it out while the other ones turned off the bleating smoke alarm. Then, Mom would say, "Oh, sugar-foot," we'd scrape the marshmallows off, and my sister or I would stand watch while a second layer of marshmallows was applied and broiled to perfection. That was always the signal of the official start of the holiday, since it happened every time. For the rest of my life, when I smell burned marshmallows, I know I'll smile and think of my mom.

Anyway, when I moved cross-country two years ago, I adapted her handwritten recipe, through trial and tasting, until I could make it just the way she did. I knew I had it right the day I baked it, tucked a spoonful in my mouth, and my eyes crossed with bliss as memories of years of happy holidays came back with that taste. Sadly, my kids don't have the yen for Mom's casserole the way my sister, brother and I did growing up, which has left me flummoxed. My kids won't grow up with the traditions I had in my house as a kid, and when I'm gone, no one else will make this recipe quite the way Mom did. It is a sad thought, a break in the circle that hadn't occurred to me until after Mom died. It's bad enough we had to lose Mom; do we have to lose her recipes, too?

Therefore, in honor of Dottie, my mother, I've decided to share the recipe with you. I've gotten it as close as I can to my memories through trial and error, but it still calls for tasting because the sweetness and firmness of the sweet potatoes varies from crop to crop. Here it is, and I hope you make it for your family this holiday season, as you remember mine. I swear to you, if you get it right, this is the best damn sweet potato casserole recipe in the universe of casserole recipes, bar none.

Dorothy Jackson's Sweet Potato Casserole recipe:

3 cans (29 oz) sweet potatoes in light syrup
3/4 - 1 c sugar (you can start with the smaller amount and adjust as needed for sweetness, but I gotta tell ya, I always wind up putting in a cup because I like it sweet)
1/2 c stick margarine or butter, cut into cubes
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp pure vanilla
1/2 c - 1 c low fat or skim milk (adjust for moistness of batter--if too dry, add up to the larger amount. The batter shouldn't be as wet as cake batter--maybe more like cornmeal batter)
1 tsp nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
dash ginger
miniature marshmallows (reserve for after baking)

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Drain the sweet potatoes and mash them well. Mix the remaining ingredients together and beat on medium to high speed with mixer until texture is somewhat smooth and most strings in the sweet potatoes are broken down. You may need to adjust the spices, sugar, and milk as per your taste (taste as you mix the ingredients together. The flavors will intensify slightly with cooking, but the taste should be a bit on the sweet side and slightly cinnamon-y, with a very light nutmeg/ginger bite). Spoon the mixture into a casserole dish (about a quart or larger) and bake in oven from 45 mins to one hour. The top should darken slightly, and there should be hissing sounds coming from the mixture with slight, tiny bubbles of steam escaping around the edges. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before putting on marshmallows, as they will melt immediately if you do not. (You can make this recipe ahead and store it in the refrigerator. Then warm in microwave prior to putting on marshmallows.) When casserole has cooled to where it is warm to the touch, put a layer of marshmallows over the top to cover, and put under the broiler in the oven. CAUTION: Stay and watch the marshmallows, as it only takes about 30 seconds for them to slightly brown and crisp up, and they burn fast (remember toasting marshmallows over a camp fire? Yeah, it's like that). That is, unless you wish to engage in the "ceremonial burning of the marshmallows" in order to signal the official start of your holiday dinner. Then make sure to have a second bag of marshmallows ready to go. :-)

I hope you enjoy!


Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Ingrid fades to depression"

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with Tropical Depression Ingrid, formerly a tropical storm. However, in my Google alert delivered daily into my inbox, this was one of the headlines (snipped by the alert feed), and I'm in a weird mood, and I got this image in my head of a six-foot Norwegian girl beset by mood swings, her hand pressed to her forehead while she engaged in a dramatic swoon. That her emotional condition is being reported in news feeds is no doubt one of the reasons her mood is fading to depression.

Like I said, I'm in a weird mood. This might have been brought on by the other incident today. The screaming pig incident. Let me explain.

My boys won their second football game today (they’re 2-0 now). This was an “away” game; we had to drive to a rural area in East Texas, where I live. The school field we played on apparently shared resources with the local 4-H club. During the entire second and third quarters of the game, we had to listen to a big pig screaming so loud, the kids could hardly hear the calls. I guess the pig needed shaving, and wasn’t too happy about the whole idea. I’ve heard pigs squeal before, but never scream like a demon from the depths of hell for thirty minutes. Of course, why the pig needed shaving in the first place was a mystery until my sister, intrigued by the whole concept when I called to tell her about it (she lives in Los Angeles), looked it up on the Internet. I guess it’s important that your pig be smooth when it goes forward to the 4-H show. And, it takes a couple of days to shave it, because, you know, the pig gets tired after a while and you have to stop.

Wow. Can’t buy atmosphere like that in Los Angeles, let me tell you. I wonder if this is how Thomas Harris got his idea for Silence of the Lambs.

My sister keeps telling me I should write a book...