Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Divinity Chronicles

I have always loved divinity, that "southern" soft and smooth candy that you really can't buy--and it seems hard to make (but it isn't). I like it smooth, with no nuts or cherries in it.

But I'm not much of a purist.

So when I decided I needed to make a batch of divinity, I divided it and made half of the batch vanilla, and half chocolate. I had never heard of chocolate divinity, but I had a recipe for chocolate nougat that my mother recognized right away as divinity that hadn't been whipped long enough.

So, for each dozen or so divinity you want, the recipe, which requires a heavy-duty stand mixer like a Kitchenaid, is:

1 egg white
1 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
1/4 c water
1 pinch salt
1/3 tsp vanilla (opt)

Boil the sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt until they reach soft crack stage. Most recipes say around 275 degrees on the candy thermometer. I don't have a candy thermometer, so I test the candy by drizzling it in cold water. When the drizzles hold their shape and stretch but then crack when you pull on them, they're ready (and the kids LOVE tasting the "ice candy" that comes out of the cold water each time I test the syrup). Set the syrup aside to cool slightly while you whip the egg white until it forms firm but not dry peaks when the beater is lifted. Add the vanilla and mix. Then, while beating on medium low, pour the hot syrup in a fine stream into the egg whites. After the syrup is all in, various sources say to change the speed of the mixer. It's not necessary. Keep it on about a 4 on the kitchen aid (out of 10) until it holds its shape when plopped on a sheet of wax paper. This can take 20 minutes, but it usually takes less if the syrup is cooked long enough and cooled slightly before pouring. Dipping spoon and finger in cold water frequently, spoon blobs of divinity onto wax paper to cool. It should hold its shape perfectly, but not be grainy or dry all the way through.

To make chocolate divinity: Make vanilla divinity, but then, just as the divinity reaches the "finished" stage, dump 1/3-1/2 c chocolate chips into the "dough" and let it mix up. Once the chocolate is in, if the nougat recipe is right, the divinity won't set up any further, so you don't have to worry about over-mixing it.

So those were both such a success that I started getting ideas. I grasped right away that the secret is the hot syrup into the whipped egg whites, so I theorized anything that can be cooked to hard-crack stage and poured in a fine stream could go into whipped egg whites and make divinity.

My first experiment was adding sweetened, peach-flavored gelatin to the sugar mixture--to get flavors, of course. Turns out gelatin prevents sugar from reaching the soft crack stage (at least before it takes on a burnt smell). So it made a lovely, puffy, soft creamy creme, like marshmallow cream, that would have been tasty frosting, I suppose. Didn't work as divinity.

So the next try was to use Brown sugar. It made fabulous syrup. Until it was done and I made the mistake of adding a capful of maple flavoring and a capful of vanilla. That completely ruined the syrup--it almost instantly crystallized into fantastic maple sugar. The kids love it.

I had the egg whites already whipped, so I pulled out my toffee recipe. Unfortunately, I wasn't paying close attention, and I made exactly 1/3 the amount of toffee syrup I needed for the 3 egg whites I whipped, so it never really set up, but the resulting sauce was really really tasty. If I do this again, I'll make the toffee with the 3 cups of requires sugar, but only 1 c of butter (instead of 3) to make the syrup/candy less crumbly.

I gave up for a few days but couldn't put it out of my head, and I realized somethings by looking online at divinity recipes. The secret is that you don't mess with the syrup. You mess with the egg whites if you want variations. You can (and people do) make "Jello Divinity"--by sprinkling the Jello on the egg whites while they whip. That's where you add the flavorings (vanilla is traditional, but I suppose you could add maple, or orange, or lemon, or strawberry, or almond, or brandy--many recipes call for almond flavoring).

So today I wanted to try making "butterscotch" divinity. I made the basic recipe, but, after whipping the eggs, sprinkled in 1/2 c brown sugar, making brown merengue just like on the "Foamy River Brownies" recipe I posted last year. Then I followed the recipe exactly as above (for 3 dozen, so with 3 egg whites), and it came out GREAT. It has a flavor somewhere between butterscotch and that old fashioned "burnt sugar cake" flavor (the "burnt sugar cake" recipe was very popular in folk and fundraiser recipe collections in the 1930s-1950s). It's good.

Next try? I don't know. Strawberry gelatin flavor? Lemon? Maple? Oh--I know. White chocolate. Or butterscotch made with butterscotch chips. Or maybe raspberry chocolate divinity (raspberry jello in the egg whites, and then 1/3 c semi-sweet chocolate chips). Now that I got the formula, I can really start trying things. And I suppose I'd better start giving away candy!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Learning to Write takes a LONG Time

I started this novel in earnest in Colorado Springs before Anda's first birthday. She is now 8 weeks away from being 5.

I worry that I am beating a dead horse. I worry that I am doing what some of my friends have done to their novels--editing the life and joy out. I certainly have done too much of changing things to fit other people's ideas.

Now the novel, "done" last week but no longer, is 87,000 words long (versus 214,000 for the 2nd draft), and I have about 10,000 words I can add in before anyone even blinks at the length.

I have learned a lot about writing. First and foremost, there are no rules. But, with that in mind, there are most definitely guidelines.

For example, while characters must be believable, they don't necessarily need to be realistic. What I mean by that is just that we want to read about characters that are Characters as well as people on the street. I mean, if the bad guy is going to be a dumb witch, make her DUMB. But also make her believable (ie she doesn't know she's dumb, and dumb doesn't mean less mean and bad).

Query Letters are movie trailers in print. To learn to write a good query letter, read a couple of agent's blogs about the basics (links on the sidebar can point you to a couple), and then watch a BUNCH of movie trailers.

If it takes a lot to explain the motivations or reasons for an action, there's something wrong in the story (plot, characters, or whatever). When they say every movement in a story needs a motivation, it doesn't mean stretch really far to explain it. The motivation should be clear and obvious to the reader in general.

Don't talk too much--trust your reader.

Don't be afraid to say enough to make it work. Too little is not better than too much.

Readers want to be able to grasp everything the first time through--plot, characters, etc. It's great if there are layers and depth and ideas to explore, and ideally a book should be able to be read with satisfaction many times. But if someone can't grasp it the first time (which is my problem--I can think of all kinds of complexities that are delightful to me, but confusing to others even though it's clear as day in my mind), they aren't going to go back for another try. Or recommend it to others.

While you don't want to write something cliche, there is a great deal in life that constitutes the shared experiences of being human. If you avoid dealing with those things for fear of being cliche, you miss the chance for your reader to connect with your character. Yes a million women have longed for love, and a million authors have written about it. But we still read it because it is one of those shared experiences. I have thought of this in terms of giving birth and raising a baby--it is an incredible, powerful, amazingly unique experience. That a majority of adult women in the world have gone through. To put it another way, there's a reason so so many authors have used the phrase, "Her heart pounded."

As you know if you've read over the years I've been blogging, I have STRUGGLED with the first chapter of my novel. I've rewritten the first five pages five times for every full draft.

I got done with this draft, left it alone for a week intending to leave it for 2 months, and felt compelled to go back and re-read. So I started at the beginning with the end clearly in mind, and discovered that, to my horror, they didn't match! Not only that, the beginning was still BORING. Not just because I've read it before. It just was, all of its own accord. Dreadfully boring.
That night, I had a dream that I was turning a quilt edge for binding, and I had come all around back to that first corner, and it was all out of line. I kept trying to turn the edge under on one side, but that would throw all the folds out of line on the other, and no matter what I did, it was awful. I got more and more frustrated in the dream because I couldn't fix "this story" even though I had a quilt in my hands. I woke up and said to myself, "Duh. I just needed to take that corner all apart and re-fold it from scratch. Obviously something is puckered or mucked up inside that is irredeemable simply by holding and pinning.

So I deleted the prologue, introduction, and first five pages and started from scratch.

And Really Liked how they came out--easy, relaxed, to the point, natural, and fitting in tone and style with the new draft, in which I employed all my new writing skills (so the writing is much more interesting to read).

I gave it to Tim, and he pointed out to me all the places it failed. That's why I like him to read my stuff. He just says, "It's not there yet. Here's where I'm getting hung up...." and he KNOWS.

We talked for a long time, and he said, "If a query is like a movie trailer, the first chapter has to be like the song-and-dance number at the beginning of every Disney movie, before the character's parents die." He talked me through it and it was like a light came on in my head. I already knew the concept--the first few pages have to introduce the characters, setting, and problem. But Disney movies do it well, over and over with different stories, and in a straightforward, easy to pick apart way. Lots of examples of application of the same formula--and, going back to that cliche thing--it's a formula that works.

So I went back to the text and realized the problem. It was written when the main character was 16 and the intended audience was 13. But the new draft has the main character 18-19 and the audience the same. Not only does an 18 year old have a different learning curve and thought process than a 16 year old, the 13 year old readers need more spelled out to them than the 18 year olds do. Further, I realized the character's development had changed drastically over the million drafts, and the original "comic throughline" I'd drafted to guide character development (see sidebar for links to that) was completely out of the story.

So I went back to the beginning and opened the comic throughline and started over with "What does the character think she wants and what does she really want?"

To my great relief, the answers were already built into the story. I had written them without knowing it--and in a nice, fleshed out kind of way that I really like.

So that solved the first chapter problem, and that old "how do I make this compelling" problem. The first chapter needs to establish the starting point for the character development that's already happened in the story.

So now I can get started again!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Science Songs for Kids

Time for Learning's demos for the playground have a "Hurricane" song that Anda just loves. So today I googled "science songs for kids" and found the source: a series of records full of science songs for kids, with music reminiscent at times of the sixties folk song tradition and at times of the title song of "the Blob" (click below if you haven't seen it--skip to 1:10 for the vocals--they're the good part!)

The Science Songs for kids can be found here:

I am generally opposed to pirating songs (since I'm married to a musician), and I don't know the legal status of these. I suspect they are the equivalent of "abandonware" (software that is technically still owned by the company, but it no longer produced or supported by them and is only available by "pirated" download or purchase at a thrift store), or books that have gone out of print and can't be found anywhere but are still under copyright (so they can't be republished and distributed by, say, a fan society).

This is really fun stuff. We especially were smitten with the song about how to make heat, and the hurricane song, and....well, just go listen. It's a riot.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Funny tax situation this year left Tim "married filing separately". His taxable income was just under $1600. The tax he owes? Just over $1400. Yes, the government gets 91.5% of our Taxable Income this year. Pretty steep tax, no? Especially when you remember that we were essentially unemployed all of 2007.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Packing Again

So here I am, repacking everything so we can move again. I hate moving. A move out of state almost demands a double move though because you really have to be there to know where you want to settle down.

Thus, packing again.

I was watching Craigslist obsessively, and I still stared at the house announcement off and on for an hour before I decided to call on it. There was nothing unique about that particular announcement except that is was dead in the center of the area I was looking in for a house. I couldn't let it go, though, so I called and we like the house and the manager and the owner, and I guess they liked us because we sign the papers tomorrow. With taxes coming due, it's a lousy time to come up with a deposit, that's for sure, but the house is totally worth it to us.

It is a 1976 house, 1920 square feet on one level, with a security fence in the back yard, big driveway, four bedrooms, three living rooms, two bathrooms, and a porch covered with grape vines that produce table grapes. There's also an enormous mulberry tree that shades the house and driveway, and a fig tree in the back yard, and a shed for storage, and floor plan I like (walk into the parlor, but can't see the kitchen or toy room from there!). So we're moving again, this time to Spring Valley (an "unincorporated" part of Las Vegas--lots of this city is not incorporated and instead falls into townships, including the area that The Strip is on--technically, and ironically, it is in a township called Paradise).

The new house is just around the corner from the church, just like we love.

Some people have asked why we're moving again. It was needed. I can tell you, I won't miss having the landscapers throw away the kids toys (I know the ball looked a little flat, but it was Ben's favorite because he could pick it up, and it was Anda's friend--it even had a face). I won't miss the stairs, or Daniel making me walk him past every smoke alarm in the house because it might turn on. I won't miss the smoke alarm going on whenever we bake. I won't miss the oven melting my plastics because it vents improperly. I won't miss the neighbor's tall houses looking over into our yard constantly. I won't miss having to drive to church. I won't miss the light-colored laminate floor that shows all the dirt. I won't miss the stairs. I won't miss having only one bathroom on the "living" floor. I won't miss the floor plan, or the master bathroom that's bigger than the kitchen, or the kitchen that has too high of cupboards and counters and no floor space, or the the dishwasher that leaves a nearly irremovable residue on the dishes or else leaves a white powder coating them, or the high ceilings and correspondingly high utilities costs, or the rooms that are too big so that 2000 square feet acts like about 800 in terms of usefulness, or the lack of place to put the clothes, or having no place for visitors to go that isn't toy space.

The clincher was the day I discovered my temple dress got wet during the first move, and I hadn't noticed, so it was mildewed. Online it said sunshine cures mildew, so I washed my dress and carefully laid it out on a blanket in the evening so that it would get the benefit of the bright Las Vegas sunshine in the back yard all morning. In the morning, I found my Temple Dress wadded up in a ball and tossed into the house. I was offended on so many levels it was unbelievable. Not only had someone touched my Temple Dress, they had wadded it up. AND they had entered my house without my permission. I thought having landscapers care for the yard would be heavenly. Turns out it has been just one more layer of privacy stripped away.

Plus they didn't tell us the day they fertilized, so my kids played barefoot on the lawn all that day (and Benj put lots of stuff in his mouth). I found out a week later from the neighbors across the street!

I realize there will be things I hate at the next house. I suppose I'll miss having a guest house. Hopefully that's all.

So I'm packing again, excited to go to a place that has more potentially livable space than this, but sad to put my current landlords in dire straights the day their baby is due.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


I went to Savers yesterday to find sandals for all the kids. The Savers near our new house also happens to be on the line of one of the ritziest neighborhoods in Vegas, so it actually had GREAT shoes. Really expensive ones (Diesel, Puma) in size 13, which almost never happens. And, in a great miracle, there actually were sandals for everyone of the kids. So we went to look for shoes for me and I found two pair of clogs.

I've never been fond of clogs, but I'd heard these brands were great, so I tried them on.

And fell in love with them.

Because of the fibromyalgia, it is extremely difficult for me to find shoes that don't leave my whole body hurting like crazy, but these worked like a charm, so that I want to wear them.

The first was a pair of looked-brand-new light suede Eccos. They are incredibly designed so that they stay on without any stress to your feet, and the heel is just the right height, and they actually look really nice even though they're comfortable. The second pair was a chocolate brown pair of Merrells, which my sis-in-law told me are fabulous and she was right. They're soft inside, so I feel like my feet are being cradled in cushions, but they still have the support I need and look nice on.

I count it a miracle. Well worth the $35 I paid for both pair, especially considering new they would have cost me over $150.

So there you have it: Ecco clogs: A+ shoes; Merrell clogs ("Jungle Primo" style): different, but also A+ shoes.

The new Nigerian Scam, and a way to look at things....

Tim's commercial project right now deals heavily with Spam emails, so we've been reading some. Okay, a lot.

Many of you are probably familiar with the old Nigerian Scam, which predates the internet. You can read more about it here:

I got a new twist on this scam yesterday in my spam box. It said that the UN has approved compensatory payments for victims of Nigerian scams. Just send along your bank account information.....

Now the fraudsters are choosing their target audience more carefully--people who believed it the first time and are anxious to get their money back. And, presumably, gullible enough to fall for it again.

Reading all the spam emails has led us to a few sites that illustrate more literal meanings of the often euphemism-laden spam emails, with hilarious (although not always sparklingly clean) results. This is one of the cleaner ones:
And one that sounds "dirty" but they changed how you see it:

So, after looking at all these, I started seeing all the undesirable ads in Vegas in a whole new way. For example, right at our exit from the freeway to the Strip is a big billboard of male strippers showing off their bodies. The last time I looked at it, I suddenly saw them without their skins on, showing off their muscles and stomachs, and bones. I mean, if you're going to show off your body....

The other that struck me funny is a big picture of a showgirl from the back. Looks like a proctologists' ad to me--so now when we drive by I hardly notice it's there. Big sign for a doctor's office is all.....

How we manage to adapt is amazing, isn't it?

Chaos Week

The last three days have been unbelievably emotional. Not all good, not all bad, just all intense.

We found a different house to rent right where I was looking that fit all the list of characteristics I didn't think were possible to find, including nearly 2000 square feet on one level, with a safe fenced yard that is bigger than the one we have (but still small, unfortunately), and lots of spaces that are very functional for us. We filled the application and the owner of the house liked us and the property management co liked our credit scores, so we are moving in a month, to the great distress of our current landlords.

The contract arrived, was signed, and was sent back for Tim's first composition that is getting published--the "Pirate Song," for men's chorus, to be published by Alliance Publishing. Very exciting.

My brother-in-law had surgery and the recovery has been full of complications.

My brother had a birthday! Hooray!

My parents found a wonderful house to buy and managed to get a loan squared away for it, so they are moving and selling their current house.

My sister is also moving because her lease is up and my parents' new house is big enough for her to get into, too.

Tim is filming his first commercial for a non-music product--and he wrote all the music for the commercial, which will be released on youtube as soon as it's done. I'll embed it on my blog so you all can see.

My brother just returned from South America, where he was doing a service Spring Break.

And, just when the publishing contract went out in the mail, the house loan came in, the brother-in-law was sent home with his IV still in his arm, the brother got home from the airport, the music project was 80% completed, the notices given we and my sister are moving, the other brother's birthday dinner was about to commence, my very elderly grandpa died.

That, in and of itself, is one of those bittersweet, deeply emotional things. His body had been falling apart for years, and we expected him to die last December, and he is finally free of pain and suffering. But death is never sweet for those left behind, even though I can't say that I feel sorrow. Just intense emotion. I just know he's happy, talking to his brothers who died in World War II, released from pain and the prison his body had become. And those thoughts bring me to tears more than sorrow would.

It has driven me to ponder mortality, though, as I look at my babies and think that someday they will be the gray-haired men surrounding my bed while I die.

And when that happens, I hope they joke and laugh and talk cheerfully to one another instead of mourning and fussing and being quiet and "reverent" and trying to make it a solemn, "spiritual" occasion. I can't think of a better way to go than hearing my children happily being a family still, laughing and talking and doing what they do when they are happy and together. It's those "normal" happy sounds that tell me now that everything is as it should be--those are the sounds that are sweetest to my ears--and that's what I want to hear when I am dying so that I will know that they will go on being a family even when I am not there to direct things anymore. That would be far more comforting than anything else I can think of--just to know that everyone else is okay, too. And that, I hear, is just what Grandpa got.

As Christina Rossetti said, "When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me." I don't mind if you sing, of course. Just make it Skook and the Pirate Song, would you? I don't want to be made to feel guilty for dying and leaving everyone miserable.

When it comes to that. When my hairs are white and my body tired and its time to go. Not any time soon.