Monday, July 15, 2013


For the next few weeks I'll be away on vacation with my family. Swimming, canoeing, reading, and cooler weather (fingers crossed) await! I'll be back at the beginning of August. In the meantime, you can read posts from last year's vacation here and here. Hope you're all enjoying summer!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Tour!

Most of the time this blog is all about history and homesteading. But today you'll get to hear about another interest that takes up a big chunk of my days: creative writing. (And of course, there's a lot of history involved in that, too!)

For the past few years I've been working on a YA historical novel with a wonderful critique group in Providence. Gaia Cornwall, fellow crit-member and fabulous writer/illustrator, tagged me to participate in the Next Big Thing Blog Tour, which moves from blog to blog to highlight the latest projects of writers and illustrators. Thanks, Gaia! (Learn more about her picture book Jabari Jumps, about the challenges of jumping off the high dive, here.)

I'll answer ten questions about my novel below (complete with fun historical photos) and tag two writers/illustrators that you should all check out. And without further ado, here we go.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Drawing from Life.

a few of the family letters
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

After my freshman year of college, I discovered a big collection of family letters, most of them written by my great-great-grandmother Maud Kerruish and her family. Maud traveled to Europe on the Grand Tour from 1890 to 1892, and she wrote about everything, including the fact that she would never get married and would spend the rest of her life as a "wanderer."

I ended up writing my senior history thesis about her travels, and during the research I found out some tantalizing information about her (and my) family. Her sister Mona, for example, never married, but the letters refer to Mona's fiance Tom. What happened to him? What was the "unhappiness" that Maud and her family members referred to in the letters? Because I couldn't find out anything more through straight research, I decided to make up the answers. And this book was born.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It's a young adult historical novel.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Since I have photos of the actual people I'm writing about, it's hard to imagine actors in their place. Nevertheless...

Maud would be played by someone with quiet strength, like Romola Garai, who was wonderful in I Capture the Castle.

Her older sister Mona would be played by Jodhi May, who did great work in Daniel Deronda.

And her friend and potential love interest Owen would be played by Andrew Garfield, my crush from the latest Spider-Man movie.

sisters L to R: Maud, Mim, Helen, Grace, Mona

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In 1883, 17-year-old Maud Kerruish pursues her dream of leaving Cleveland to become an artist, while struggling against the confines of her gender and a tragedy that still haunts her family.

6) Who is publishing your book?

I wish I knew! My goal is to have the book revised and ready to submit to agents by December.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I'm finishing up the draft now, and it's taken an embarrassingly long time to get to this point. I began research in 2010, and I started writing in 2011.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Maud struggles with some of the same feelings of family duty that Mattie does in Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, and she and Mattie both want to follow their passions. She also has the same pluck and independent spirit as Hattie from Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky.

the real Maud, c. 1883 (age 17)
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The real Maud Kerruish is the main inspiration. I loved her independence and determination to see the world.

Major subplots of the book were inspired by my ongoing interest in gender issues, both past and present. In the 19th century, many women suffering from depression or anxiety were diagnosed under the catch-all term of hysteria, when in reality they were struggling to care for their families while ignoring their own passions. Hysterical women were confined in sanitariums or at home for long periods of time, and they were treated terribly (like the heroine of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper"). I began to wonder under what circumstances a woman might be diagnosed with hysteria, and the ideas just wove themselves together.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Maud's life revolves around her family, not her friends, unlike most main characters in YA novels these days. Her close relationship with her older sister Mona provides a unique perspective on teen friendships.

Now for the tagging!

Next week check out Christina Rodriguez, a fellow crit-member in Providence who writes and illustrates picture books. She brings a unique perspective to whatever project she's working on, and I love reading her work every month. Find Christina's blog here, where she'll be writing about a book she's illustrating for Arte Publico. She writes:
"The main character is a little girl, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose mother cleans houses in order to provide a better life for her family. This story recounts a time when the little girl accompanies her mother to her job in a rich suburban neighborhood, and what happens when she meets the wealthy homeowner there."
Shelley and Haggis
And in a few weeks be sure to check out Shelley Sackier, a writer who blogs at Peak Perspective. We first got in touch over a year ago, when I had the chance to critique her fun middle-grade novel Dear Opl. And I've just learned that her first love is historical fiction, too! About Opl, Shelley writes:
"After two years of hiding beneath a sugar-laden junk food diet meant to soothe the bitter loss of her dad, thirteen-year-old Opl Oppenheimer is told she's gained so much weight she's pre-diabetic and now must start weighing more than she bargained for. DEAR OPL is a middle grade humorous novel."
Happy reading! 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Himmel torte

We just returned from a week in Maine with Josh's family. A gorgeous lake house near the town of Casco served as our home base, and we spent the week swimming, kayaking, reading, and playing games. The men-folk cooked almost every meal on the grill, while the women-folk engaged in some serious salad-making and baking. I even hauled out The "Settlement" Cook Book to make a belated birthday cake. (Yes, I packed it. No, you shouldn't be surprised.)

That week is still on my mind, for the sense of utter relaxation it gave me and for the cooler weather we left behind. And also for the cake I baked. You see, it was kind of a disaster, and I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong.

This was one of those recipes that was devilishly hard to interpret, thanks to its sheer lack of specificity. With the frosting, for example, the only instructions were: "One pint thick sour cream, vanilla, two tablespoons cornstarch and sugar mixed. Boil." How much vanilla? Do you combine one tablespoon each of cornstarch and sugar, or two each? There were no reassuring comments from the cookbook writer, either, telling me not to worry when my cake batter was barely spreadable. As a modern cook, it's frustrating to encounter old recipes that assume you know everything.

So I made some of it up, crowd-sourced interpretations for some of the stranger instructions, and hoped for the best. The resulting cake (ambitiously titled "Himmel torte," or "heaven torte") was flaky and crumbly, but the jam helped hold some of it together. Once frosted, you could hardly tell this cake was a disaster. And once served, it was pretty darn tasty.

I might redo this cake at some point in the future, but for now I'll leave you with the recipe I cobbled together. Try it if you want--it actually turned out okay.

Himmel Torte
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

for the cake:
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened
4 tbsp sugar
2 eggs + 2 egg yolks
4 cups flour
grated rind of 1 orange

for the frosting:
about 2 tbsp cinnamon sugar
about 3/4 cup raspberry jam
1 pint sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp flour or cornstarch
2 tbsp sugar
2 egg whites

to make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease two round 8 x 8 cake pans and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add the orange rind and flour, mixing gently until just blended. (Use your hands if you have to, and I won't tell.) Spread in the prepared pans and bake at 350 F until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

to make the frosting:
In a medium pan over a medium flame, heat the sour cream, vanilla, flour, and sugar until bubbling. Mix in the egg whites until well-blended and remove from heat. Let cool and move to the refrigerator to set, about 1 hour.

Once the cakes have cooled, turn one layer out onto a large plate. Sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar and spread evenly with the raspberry jam. Turn the second layer out on top of the jam. Spread the cooled sour cream frosting on top and sides and serve.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fencing in the kitchen garden

Josh and I have something of a squirrel problem in our backyard kitchen garden. Accustomed to running free and wild thanks to the apartment's no-pet policy, these squirrels are daring. They take risks. They chew on plants and dig up bulbs with abandon. But the last straw came when they started munching on my still-ripening strawberries. We decided it was time to take action.

On the advice of my dad, a long-suffering veteran of the wars against backyard rodents, we built a basic fence to enclose the container garden. Josh prefers to call it a "squirrel vault," which to my mind implies a cage for keeping squirrels in. But whatever, it sounds majestic and menacing. And he did most of the hard labor.

Our Fence

After measuring the length and width of our container collection, we had four two-by-fours cut at the hardware store. Hoping to keep the fence/vault portable, we chose to use hook-and-eye latches to hold the four sides together. Then we stapled vinyl-coated poultry wire to the boards to keep the vicious varmints out.

So far, the squirrel vault has held strong, though we may have to add a roof (which my dad recommends). The gauge of the wire is small enough that the squirrels can't poke their heads in, and we tied the sides together to prevent them from crawling in. Unfortunately, the backyard drains poorly, so the fencing has collected water during our many epic rains. Pros and cons to the squirrel vault, but we'll take it.

Fencing in the Past

Thomas Jefferson used ten-foot tall fencing, called "paling," at his late-18th century Monticello estate to keep out deer and other domestic pests from his vegetable garden. This consisted of boards placed tightly together, "so near as not to let even a young hare in." While other gardeners, especially hard-working housewives, probably didn't have the luxury of ten-foot tall boards, many families constructed at least a short fence to demarcate their gardens and hopefully deter some critters.

I kind of want that ten-foot tall fencing for my own garden. I bet Thomas Jefferson never had trouble with squirrels...

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Line-drying laundry

For a few weeks the dryer in our apartment building has been broken. Problem? Easily solved. After putting in a call to the landlord, we hung our clothes fresh from the washing machine out to dry on the balcony.

It's easy to string a line of twine from the hooks already hanging from the balcony ceiling. Yes, they're more for hanging plants. But they do the job just as well.

I piled clothespins in a basket and, working quickly, clipped shirts and PJ's to the line. Because the balcony faces the street, I decided to dry delicates inside on a wooden clothes rack stolen from my parents' house.

We line-dry clothes every summer when we're on vacation, but I always forget how stiff and wrinkly clothes get on the line. And when the weather's humid, the clothes stay damp for much longer than you'd expect. Nevertheless, once they're actually dry, they have this fresh-laundry smell that you just don't get from a hot dryer. And this handy old-fashioned method saves a ton of energy.

Have you ever line-dried clothes? What do you do to get the wrinkles out? And do you stick with it even through the winter months?