Apple Cake to Celebrate Autumn

One of my favourite things about autumn is that apples are in season. I know you can get apples year-round at the grocery store, but there’s something special when they’re local and freshly ripe, and they smell amazing. I love snacking on apples on their own, but baking with them is also wonderful. It’s been a long time since I posted a recipe on my blog, and this cake recipe is dangerously delicious enough that I need to share it. It keeps well for a few days (assuming you can restrain yourself from eating it all before that much time has lapsed) and is easy to bring to potlucks or other fall gatherings.

Caramel Apple Cake

Ingredients

Cake:

¾ cup butter or vegetable oil

¾ cup applesauce

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp backing soda

½ tsp salt

3 ½ cups diced apples

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 tsp vanilla

Caramel icing:

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup light cream

¼ cup butter

Dash salt

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Combine butter and sugars, then beat in the eggs one at a time. Add dry ingredients, and stir well. Fold in chopped apples, walnuts, and vanilla. (Walnuts could be omitted if anyone is allergic). Pour into a greased and floured 10 inch tube pan. Bake at 325 for an hour to an hour and a half or until a fork or toothpick poked into the cake comes out clean. Cool in pan for about ten minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool completely.

For the icing, melt brown sugar, cream, butter and salt until in a pot over low heat. (You could probably do this in the microwave too). Cool to room temperature, then beat in confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Drizzle the icing over the cake. Feel free to let it drip casually down the sides; it will give the cake a rustic appeal.

Devour with coffee or tea and a good book!

 

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Physicality in Fiction

Recently, I read a thought-provoking and helpful article on Writer’s Digest on using physicality to bring your characters to life. There’s some great advice here. Incorporating different senses and the physical signs of emotion can help immerse the reader in the setting, even in the mind of the protagonist. Being grounded in the story world makes it feel that much more real – and exciting – as a reader.

 

I think this can be especially important in historical fiction. The genre brings its own unique challenge of trying to recreate a time long past, and sometimes, as a writer, it feels like grasping at echoes. Of course, one of the joys of historical fiction – both as a reader and writer – is that once the details and story click into place, you do slip into another world entirely. I love the way being drawn into a historical world feels like new, uncharted territory, but history has left just enough imprints on the present for it to feel a little bit familiar. You might know the bare bones of the time period, but not what happens to the protagonist, or maybe you find comforting kernels of ‘sameness’ in the characters. People haven’t changed so much, really. Three hundred years ago, they still wanted to find love, or worried about their children, or struggled under the weight of family pressures.

Trying to capture the sounds and textures and the smells of the story’s setting bring it to life. For me, while I’m writing, trying to show those things end up helping me connect more strongly to the world, help me to better polish it for the reader. It makes the setting more vivid, so a reader can easily imagine the acrid black smoke from the burning Réveillon wallpaper factory, or airy softness of one of Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns, or picture the scum of half-congealed blood tarnishing the Tuileries after it was violently mobbed, to use examples from my novel The Wardrobe Mistress.

That last one was a little dark. Sensory depictions can be delightful, too, especially if they’re food related. I still think fondly of the way Crystal King’s description of kitchens and food in her Roman historical novel Feast of Sorrow made me clearly imagine I could smell the mouth-watering aromas of Parthian chicken or the tang of mustard beets. Sounds and music can pull readers into the world, too. I can still remember the rebellious thrum of music in the Prohibition ‘juice joints’ that Bonnie (of Clyde and Bonnie fame) frequented in Jenni Walsh’s novel Becoming Bonnie.

A story or character can also be deepened by plot, as the Writer’s Digest article that sparked this whole post suggests. The article mentions a Stephen King novel where the narrator is diagnosed with cancer. Another example I can think of that I particularly enjoyed is Julia Heaberlin’s novel Lie Still, where the protagonist is heavily pregnant throughout the story. It added an extra layer of tension. As danger escalated all around her, I feared not only for her, but for her soon-to-be-born child.

Habitual gestures or nervous tics can strengthen characterization, too. Outlander fans know that Jamie Fraser often taps his two stiff fingers (from being broken) against his thigh when thinking. In Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, her character Eve struggles with a stammer, which sometimes intensifies during moments of high stress. While reading, it makes you ache with sympathy for her – especially because the high stakes WWI environment makes everything extra scary and intense.

What physical description or sensory element has really stood out to you in a book? Please share!

 

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Worst Literary Characters to Sit Beside at Dinner

As autumn arrives and winter sneaks ever closer, the seasonal changes seem to bring lots of opportunity for family meals and friendly get-togethers. It’s a time for Thanksgiving and making lots of things with apples and inviting people over to eat them. The idea of big holiday gatherings got me thinking about which characters from literature would be the worst to sit with at a formal dinner, and why. I came up with a few examples, where if I was seated next to them, I’d certainly be thinking of excuses to move.

Mr. Collins

Ever wondered if Lady Catherine de Bourgh enjoys poached salmon or glazed carrots? Well, you’d be bound to find out, willingly or not. Mr. Collins would delight in regaling his supper captives companions with all the details of meal preferences at Rosings. Of course, the dishes in that beautiful house are also much finer, as he’d describe in detail, adding that Lizzie Bennett could have been basking in the generous favour of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, being served meals on her porcelain supper dishes almost every week! What regret she must feel.
(On the opposite of this list, Lizzie Bennett is definitely on the list of people I’d like to sit beside at an imaginary dinner of literary characters).

Hamlet

David Tennant is the only way Hamlet is slightly bearable

You knew he’d be on this list, didn’t you? My dislike of Hamlet as a character is pretty well documented on my blog. No doubt he’d sigh and push his food around his plate without really eating it, probably splashing you with soup and not even noticing. Even that would be better than if he launched into a mournful soliloquy about how he’s the only one who’s ever had an emotional crisis – he’d stare at you so intensely that you wouldn’t be able to keep eating until he finally concluded his speech. Just sitting there, waiting, with your soup hovering in the air. And it would probably be even worse if Ophelia was present – his remarks to her would doubtlessly be uncomfortable for the whole table.

The one bright side, you could possibly fashion your napkin into a little ghost and see how he reacts.

Miss Trunchbull

Pity the poor person stuck sitting beside Miss Truchbull at a dinner party, particularly if cake is served at dessert. She’s also described as a “gigantic holy terror” and is known to be cruel, so I’m sure she would bash her elbows into your sides quite vigorously, probably waiting until an opportune moment when your knife is poised over your plate.

However, she’s also very superstitious and frightened of ghosts – perhaps banishing her and Hamlet to the ‘awful dinner guest’ version of the kids’ table could be interesting!

Hercule Poirot

Look, Hercule Poirot is a nice man, overall. He’d have some fascinating stories to regale the group with at supper, and I think anyone sitting near him would automatically feel safer. “No chance of me accidentally ingesting poison or ground glass,” you might think, blithely scooping stew into your spoon. “Monsieur Poirot would certainly notice, save my life, and solve the crime before cake.” But his obsession with symmetry and his, frankly, kind of judging attitude, could spark a lot of self-consciousness while you’re trying to slice a tough bit of beef or spear a carrot with your fork or spoon a little sugar in your coffee.

Mrs. Danvers

She might actually be a great dinner companion if you’re on a diet, because I can’t imagine having any appetite with the sinister, gloomy presence of Mrs. Danvers looming over my shoulder. I also can’t imagine her remaining in her seat for the duration of the meal. “Does anyone need more coffee?” she’d intone ominously, already rising to her feet. “I’ll just fetch some more. My dear Rebecca always had a cup after the dessert course. She was like coffee itself, in a way. Vital and irresistible.” Her cold breath would skim the back of your neck. “Oh, look at that. There’s none left for you.”

Miss Havisham

Poor Miss Havisham. And poor you, if she was hosting the dinner! After being jilted, she stopped her clocks at the precise time she received the letter from her ex-fiancé, and left all the wedding food and the cake out on the table. Sounds appetizing…for maggots. Ugh!

And if someone else hosted this theoretical dinner, I still wouldn’t much fancy sitting next to Miss Havisham, since she also wore her wedding dress ever since that fateful day. Based on this dedication to preserving the moment, and her lack of hygiene where the food is concerned, I’m guessing laundry isn’t high on her list of priorities.  Although, she did repent of her ways (and their effect on Estella and Pip) later on, so perhaps she might offer some surprisingly deep conversation.

Tigger

Have you seen Tigger? His propensity for constant motion means that all the explanation you’d need to imagine the results of a dinner with Tigger at your side can be summed up with gifs.

Have I missed anyone? Which character from literature would you hate to be stuck beside at dinner?

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Flash Fiction: Secrets

I’ve been meaning to post a new flash fiction for ages – finally, here it is! Inspired by a photograph of a letter and a mysterious key. They seem full of secrets.


Now that I’d reached the back of Gran’s closet, cleaning it out became slightly less painful. Like pressing on a bruise instead of stabbing with a hot needle. The dresses and skirts here were old items, obviously treasured, but I had no memories of her wearing them. I pulled out a black dress beaded with jet and flecks of silver. It could have belonged to a stranger, for I’d never seen it before. It smelled faintly of potpourri, the last ghostly linger of perfume.

I laid the dress on the stripped bed, smoothing my fingertips over the straight skirt. I could picture Gran as a flapper, sort of – I’d seen pictures of her with a sleek bob and matte lipstick. The short fringe dangling from the dress’s hem would have swished and trembled with each shimmy of the wearer’s hips, and I smiled to think of Gran dancing in it.

That smile turned into another pulse of pain, mourning sharp in my veins, leaving a salty taste in my mouth. I’d never again hear Gran singing Edith Piaf as she baked strawberry pie, or humming as she picked flowers from her garden to donate to the hospital. That emptiness ached, squeezing the air from my lungs, closing my throat.

I lifted the dress to my cheek, as if it could somehow bring me closer to her again. The fabric crackled under my cheek, which lead me to discover a hidden pocket, cleverly sewn at the hip and just large enough to hold a small piece of paper, folded four times. The heavy creases had grown soft as silk over the years, and I opened the paper with caution, afraid of tearing it. The once-black ink had faded to tea-stain brown, but I could still read the narrow script.

Rosie, it began, addressed to Gran:

After tonight, we’ll never have to see each other again. The plan hasn’t changed, but the time is confirmed. Create a distraction at exactly 9:05. Make sure the back door is unlocked before that. The diary will be hidden at our usual meeting place, and you may reclaim it any time after tonight.

I don’t think I need to say that this secret never leaves us two.

J

My mouth gaped. This mysterious letter didn’t seem as if it could have anything to do with sweet, unselfish Gran. Did it refer to a crime? Worriedly, I checked the other side of the dress for more letters, and instead discovered a hard, tiny bump. I almost tore the skirt’s lining in my attempt to get it free, and then I held a small metal key in my hand. One that would probably unlock a diary.

I gingerly placed the key and the letter on the bedside table. I knew where the diary was. I’d found it once years ago, while playing dress up with Gran’s shoes. She made me promise to never say anything, and I’d childishly agreed, putting it from my mind for the promise of a trip to the park.

If I read it, anything I learned could never be forgotten. Curiosity yanked me toward the diary, nestled in a shoebox, but fear held me back. The contents of the diary could change my view of Gran, snatching her away even more than death already had. My teeth fretted at my lip.

Eventually, I burnt the letter in a green tea scented candle I found on her dresser. I shoved the diary key into my pocket, and turned back to the closet. The tiny key poked me as I moved, its edges sharp, its presence unforgettable.


 

This flash fiction was full of surprises for me. First, it’s longer than I expected. I also meant for this to be a nice story, about someone discovering a pleasant secret about a lost loved one, and it morphed into something ominous. I think indecision is one of the worst feelings, and I’ve been mulling over a couple things in my own life recently, so maybe that’s a factor.

Have a great week, everybody!

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Historical Fiction Book Giveaway

My debut novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, has been out in the world for over a month now, and to celebrate I’ve got a fabulous book giveaway! Three winners will get a historical fiction prize pack with six books!

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA by Chanel Cleeton (February 6th 2018) – In 1958, the daughter of a Cuban sugar baron embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary. In the present, her granddaughter returns to Cuba and discovers the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her navigate her own romance, and find the true meaning of courage.

THE ORPHAN OF FLORENCE by Jeanne Kalogridis (October 3rd 2017) – A young woman rises from pickpocket to the assistant of “the Magician of Florence” and becomes tangled in a web espionage and murder

LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor (October 3rd 2017) – Told through a series of heartfelt letters, a privileged young lady and a soldier share their experiences of the First World War, and maybe even find love amid its horrors.

THE LOST SEASON OF LOVE AND SNOW by Jennifer Laam (January 2nd 2018) – A beautiful and intellectual young woman attracts the attention of Russia’s most lauded poet and embarks upon a passionate and tempestuous relationship that leads to a tragic duel.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE by Alyssa Palombo (May 1st 2017) – Set in 15th Century Italy, a beautiful woman navigates complex relationships in Florentine society – and develops a passionate intimacy with Sandro Botticelli, leading to her immortalization in his masterpiece painting, The Birth of Venus.

THE WARDROBE MISTRESS by Meghan Masterson (Aug 15th 2017) – One of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women is torn between her loyalty to the queen and her love for an idealistic revolutionary as the danger of the French revolution escalates.

This could be you!

So how do you win? There are three ways to enter:

Facebook – Like and comment on the contest post. Extra entry if readers post a photo of one of the books with the hashtag #HistFicContest

Twittertweet using the hashtag #HistFicContest

Instagram – Tag a friend in the contest post, as well as using the hashtag #HistFicContest. Or, post a photo of any of the books in the prize pack, along with the hashtag #HistFicContest.

The winners will be announced on September 28th. Good luck!

 

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Bad Decisions in History: featuring the Great Fire of London

Ravaging central parts of the city in September of 1666, the Great Fire of London was a disaster that left thousands of buildings reduced to rubble and ashes, and claimed the lives of victims unable to escape the deadly swathe of flames.

The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane in the middle of the night on September 2nd. How it started is unclear, though there was probably a bad decision at stake. The real bad decision for this post, however, comes from the next step by London’s mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth.

Bad decision:  Failing to initiate firefighting techniques in a timely fashion; this indecisiveness and lack of action allowed the fire to spread

Even with our modern plumbing and specialized fire departments, fires are still dangerous and frightening, and could be even more so in the past. During the time of the London fire, there was no fire brigade, although watching for fires was one of the duties of the watchmen who patrolled the streets. A fire would be alerted through the ringing of church bells, and citizens and the local militia would undertake to contain the fire. The main technique for controlling the conflagration was to create firebreaks. Sometimes, this involved levelling tall buildings completely to the ground, a sacrifice deemed necessary because it would stop the fire from spreading. Occasionally, buildings in the path of the fire could even be razed through a controlled gunpowder blast.

Fires weren’t uncommon during the time period. After all, everything was made of wood and people used candles and open fireplaces all the time. Most of the time, the fires could be dealt with relatively quickly. Every parish church was required to store firefighting equipment, including ladders, leather buckets, axes, and firehooks for pulling down the building. Sometimes these were also called pike poles. A fire would be fought quickly and determinedly, and could often be doused it before it spread too far.

As the fire started, the baker’s family was trapped upstairs, but the family managed to climb from an upstairs window into the house next door. Unfortunately, one of the maids did not escape and became the first victim of the blaze.

Following the usual firefighting procedure, the parish constables and citizens attending the blaze advised that the adjoining houses should be torn down to create a firebreak to stop the flames from spreading.  Up until this point, dousing the fire with water had little effect. The tenants of the houses that would need to be demolished refused to cooperate, so Lord Mayor Bloodworth (isn’t that a villain’s name if there ever was one?) was summoned, since he had the authority to override their protests and make a decision.

Even though the flames had crept to the adjoining houses and were hungrily reaching toward nearby paper warehouses and flammable wooden stores along the riverfront, plus the fact that London had been in a drought since November of the previous year, making everything extra dry and fire-friendly, Mayor Bloodworth scoffed at the idea of demolishing the houses as a firebreak. Supposedly he even made the crass remark of, “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” of the fire, and then departed. 

Since dedicated citizens had already been dousing the fire with water and making no progress, and the fire was severe enough that at least one life had already been lost, it goes without saying that no one, no matter what quantity of beverage they might have ingested, could quench the flames by urination. And don’t forget, one life had already been lost to the fire.

Bloodworth’s decision wasn’t looked kindly upon, as Samuel Pepys remarked in his diary. Later, he wrote that “People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.” Bloodworth may have been financially on the hook for replacing the demolished houses unless he got the king’s consent first, but as the fire soon proved, his derisive recklessness ended up costing far more than replacing a few houses.

The fire had been raging for around a full day before it became so severe that firebreaks became the only course of action, but it was too late by then.  The fire had already spread to the heart of the city. Altogether, the fire destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, many city buildings, and the homes of 70,000 people. The death toll is uncertain. While only six verified deaths were recorded, there’s some conjecture that not all of them were noted. This is partly because the poor and middle class people may not have been as well tracked, and also because the fire reached levels of heat high enough to cremate the bodies, making the discovery of remains difficult. There’s a melted piece of pottery on display at a museum in London that shows the temperature reached 1250 degrees. Eventually, the fire was put out, partly due to the good fortune of the changing winds, and also due to serious firebreak efforts via gunpowder through the Tower of London garrison.

The burnt areas are shown in red

The fire had serious political and economic consequences as well. Thousands of people became refugees without homes, and Charles II, the reigning king, encouraged them to leave London and resettle elsewhere. The fear the foreigners started the fire also spread, leading to street violence, mainly against people of French and Dutch descent, since England fought them in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Outcome: Mass destruction, deaths of citizens, street violence, thousands of people homeless

 

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The Magic of Moonlight Gardens

Recently I’ve been obsessively reading the “Graveyard Queen” series by Amanda Stevens, getting utterly lost in the eerie, evocative settings and the lives of the characters. Protagonist Amelia Gray is a cemetery restorer who can see ghosts, which makes for some bone-chilling and bittersweet moments. I’m hooked. One of my favourite details is that Amelia has planted a moonlight garden in her yard, and often sits outside drinking in the silvery light and dusky fragrances – until a ghost shows up, anyway.

While I’d prefer to enjoy a ghost-free moonlight garden, I hadn’t heard of this before and found the idea really intriguing. A moonlight garden is a place full of night-blooming and light, silvery plants, so that it comes to life in the dark, reflecting the glow of the moonlight. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

I’m determined to someday plant a moonlight garden, and luckily there seems to be lots of suggestions online for which plants are ideal for soaking up moonbeams and thriving at night. Though white or silvery grey leaves and flowers are quite suitable for adding a bit of glow under the glaze of the moon, they aren’t the only plants to bring a bit of magic to the nighttime garden. Soft colours like lavender, buttery yellow, and shades of pale pink are also ideal.

Photo credit: jochenspieker via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Textures are just as important as colours for capturing the moonlight. Plants with different shaped leaves will provide a contrast, as well as plants in various heights. Foxgloves and snapdragons both grow tall enough to add some contrast against low-growing plants like snow-in-summer blossoms. I also love the idea of planting cream climbing against a white trellis.

Lots of plants also release their fragrance in the evening, making them ideal for adding some more sensory appeal to the moonlight garden. Angel’s trumpet, night jasmine, and night phlox are a few examples, and each of them are quite pretty as well.

Extra landscaping touches such as white paving stones or a pool of water can add to the garden’s ability to capture moonlight as well. Mina Edison had a moonlight garden with a rectangular pool in the centre, and one can even visit it at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.

I think I’d prefer the white stones over a pool of water in order to discourage mosquitoes, but both sound lovely. Some gardens have statues in them, too, but after reading so many ghost stories, I can too easily imagine catching a glimpse of a glowing white silhouette and having a momentary heart attack, before remembering the presence of a statue. Besides, those are expensive!

So now you know the new dream on my list: planting a moonlight garden so I can sit outside and sip chamomile tea and soak up plenty of beauty – and hopefully inspiration. I’d like to write outside then, too, but I suppose the cold light of a laptop would ruin the effect. Anyone have a moonlight garden already? Do tell in the comments!

 

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