Tuesday, February 12, 2019

When Fact and Fantasy Merge

The last two posts here at Classic and Cozy, Victoria Johnson's February is for Fairy Tales and Janis Susan May's Fantasy, Myth and Formula, have been about fantasies and myths, in other words, writing that is rooted in our dreams, stories that stir our imaginations and help us to understand good and evil. I loved both posts. They started my mind on a journey about two birthdays we celebrate this month: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Though these two men are actual historical figures, with many documented accomplishments, a large part of their allure lies in the myths that have grown around them.

Perhaps the most well-known of these is George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie". Did he actually say that? No. The story first appeared in the fifth edition of Mason Locke Weems's biography, The Life of George Washington, published in 1806. Mr. Weems knew it wasn't factual when he included it in his book. He said that his plan was to tell Washington's history, then go on "to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues." I first heard the story when I was in elementary school (a very long time ago) and it's a pretty safe bet most of you did too. So, why is this little story, which most people know is not true, better known than most of the documented facts of our first president's life? Why has it lasted for more than two hundred years when many facts have been lost? It has the appeal of myth. It's a tangible example of the good we, as Americans, like to believe is the basis of our country.

What comes to mind when you think of Abraham Lincoln? If you're anything like me, first is a picture of his noble, craggy face. Next is an image of the log cabin in which he supposedly was born. While it is true that he was born in a log cabin, the actual cabin, much like Washington's cherry tree, is the stuff of myth. That humble little log cabin has become a symbol of that American icon: a man of humble beginnings, proof that if you work hard and follow your dreams, anything is possible.

There is a tourist attraction representing the cabin but no one pretends it's the real thing. It's a facsimile and is enclosed inside a miniature Greek temple. One account I read described the temple as "pure and serene and utterly unrelated to the historical Lincoln". The temple has sixteen columns, representing the fact that Lincoln was our sixteenth president, and fifty-six steps representing the years of Lincoln's life. The closest they dare claim to authenticity was to say that there is a possibility that some of the logs might have come from the site of his actual birthplace. It other words, it's a symbol, a myth.

Does the fact that these stories are not true lessen their importance? I don't think so. They are part of our heritage, fantasies we have molded from fact to remind us who we are and what we aspire to be. They are stories to pass down through the generations in the hope that the values they represent will be an inspiration for our children and grandchildren, and, equally important, to ourselves.

Friday, February 8, 2019

February is for Fairy Tales

by Victoria M. Johnson

You know those popular holidays in February.  But you may not know about my new discovery, Fairy Tale Day is celebrated on February 26.

Many of us can remember the earliest stories that were read to us by family or teachers.  Some of them were scary—those with unkind lessons for bad decision-making.  Some were magical—those with fantastical characters and settings.  Either way, these tales were likely the first books we learned to read and they usually have happy endings.  It's no wonder we love them!

photo by Anthony Tran

How to celebrate National Fairy Tale Day:

1.  Reacquaint yourself with your favorite childhood tales.  Pull them off your shelf or visit your library or bookstore.  Do you still have your original fairy tale books on your shelves?  Cuddle up with your beverage of choice and enjoy.

2.  Read to a child.  Your own or someone else's.  Get into the role and voice of each character. Muddy Days Blog has other great ideas to ignite the imaginations of youngsters on Fairy Tale Day.

3.  Watch a fairy tale movie.  Animated or live action, films such as The Princess Bride, Beauty and the Beast, or Mirror Mirror will be time well spent.  Don't forget the popcorn.

4.  Throw a fairy tale party.  Just add friends to any of the above ways to celebrate.  You can all dress up as fairy tale characters.

5.  Write your own fairy tale.  You knew this was coming.  Why not try your hand at a fairy tale based story?  Poets & Writers magazine offers tips.   

Celebrate your way.  I'm wishing you your own happily ever after. 

Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria's website at http://VictoriaMJohnson.com for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Fantasy, Myth and Formula

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Several wise people have said that it is neither politicians nor warriors who shape a culture - it is the mythmakers, the creators of legends. In other words, it is us. The writers.

Laws might made by politicians and warriors, but the hearts and minds and beliefs of a people are created and fostered by the stories they read. For example, how many of our cultural beliefs have deep roots in legends and fairy tales? I think pretty much all of them. Even  the concept of a Happily Ever After comes from a legion of fairy tales all the way from Cinderella (the earliest known telling of which comes from the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt) to Nora Roberts and her fellow romance authors. The happy ending is by no means guaranteed in real life, yet we know we can always find one in a romance novel and that always makes us feel better.

It's the same with mystery novels. Some people wonder why, in this world of crazy behavior and rampant crime, anyone would voluntarily read a book in which fictional examples of the same take place. The answer is simple - because we know before we even open the book that justice will prevail. Not necessarily the law, I hasten to add, for the two are often not synonymous. When the novel is finished, the bad guys should be taken care of and societal balance not only returned but positively reaffirmed. If a writer is so injudicious as ignore this tradition, the backlash can be dangerous. Readers want their world tidied.

So how do you keep the ancient formula fresh? This was discussed on one of my writers' lists, and the answers were occasionally startling. Everything was suggested from reversing the sexes of the hero/heroine to putting the story on an alien planet with a bunch of non-human characters. All of these ideas had a certain viability that an experienced writer could pull off handily, but the discussion ignored the most important part... that the formula itself does not have to be freshened. The formula is a constant, no matter what costumes it wears.

For romance it is one character meets another character, there is an attraction, there are problems, the problems are solved and there is a happy ending. This formula doesn't vary what sex which character is or what the problems are or where the story is set, as long as everything is satisfactorily resolved and the two main characters have a happy ending. The rest is all just set dressing.

It's the same with mysteries - there is a protagonist, there is a crime, the protagonist solves the crime incurring no little risk/danger to himself and in the end all things are resolved in a satisfactory way. Perhaps the real world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but within the pages of a mystery novel the reader knows that justice will always prevail.

Sometimes knowing how things will end is the most desirable thing. That's why formulas have always existed and always will.

Monday, January 28, 2019

How to Load a Dishwasher

Dishwashers have been an integral part of my life almost from the very beginning.  One of my first memories is overhearing my parents, early in the morning before my three younger brothers and I were up, in our two-bedroom house in Levittown, discussing a house they were thinking of buying in neighboring Wantagh, Long Island.
            “But the kitchen is too small,” Mom said.  
“True, but it has a dishwasher,” replied Dad.
            They bought the house, a 1950’s style ranch that no one really liked, but which now would be termed mid-century and very much in vogue.  We lived there for the next sixteen years until I graduated from college.  My mother hated that kitchen—long and narrow with not enough room for a table—but there was a big back yard for her gardens and, of course, the dishwasher.  
            For something as mundane as a dishwasher, this appliance and how it is used has at times been the source of debate and controversy.  My daughter writes for a show on Netflix.  Very cool, right?  Let me tell you about the sign in their staff kitchen.  It details how dishes are to be rinsed before they’re loaded explaining that the dishwasher is designed to be more effective if the dishes still have some food on them. Even a super successful network like Netflix has a view.
My father-in-law, the premier dishwasher expert, at least in his own mind, would disagree with Netflix.  This father of eight invented, what I like to think of as, the Frank W. Nolan method of dishwasher use.  Step one:  keep a sink full of warm soapy water available at all times—even if there is only, as was the case in their shore house, one sink.  Step two:  thoroughly scrape the food off and then put the dish into the water. Step three: rinse. Step four: upon completion of the above, load into the dishwasher.  Caveat: knives and forks to be loaded with their points down. 
He and I endlessly debated the caveat about knives and forks with me driven to quoting Dear Abby to bolster my case, to no avail.
Perhaps by necessity and talent, with a houseful of kids and an engineering degree from MIT, my father-in-law had strong views on dishwashing, but he’s not the only one. How many of us have reloaded our dishwasher, surreptitiously, when a guest or an in-law has not loaded it the way that we do?  
Or, even more irritating to me, loaded by someone who agrees with Netflix, i.e. does not rinse off all the food before loading.  I can’t be the only one who is frustrated to find food baked into the plates when I’m unloading supposedly clean dishes.  
But the question that remains, and a question I’m sure discussed by my children’s spouses, is whether it’s better to have a few plates that need to have the food sanded off or to wonder if the dishes have gone through the wash cycle because they’re so clean before they go into the dishwasher, it’s impossible to tell if “they’re clean or dirty.”  
A friend of mine from Alabama, cancer survivor, mother of two and doting grandmother of five once, as she loaded my dishwasher, correctly I might add, said with great pride, “I’m the best loader of dishwashers that I know.” How many of us could say that with honesty? She is a brave and remarkable woman who also understands that dishwashing is a fine art.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

People Who Scare People

We are all in the computer age. Whether that is a monitor and keyboard or a laptop or a tablet, we are sometimes at the mercy of miserable people who delight in scaring us with viruses, threats of destruction and malignant programming. 

I had such a scare this last weekend which sent me straight to the anti-virus on my computer but did nothing to alleviate the sense of having been assaulted. If you are using the popular browser specifically for a particular computer brand, you may have had this experience. 

Warnings about this assault are the hot topic on the IT fora but until you see the red-lettered words threatening to destroy your work and your equipment, you won't know the sense of dismay and panic that could send you straight to the hospital!

When I was young, my brother explained to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: 

  • Those who build
  • Those who destroy
Thankfully, most of us are builders: our work, our lives, our families, our homes, our communities.

Those who enjoy tearing down are incapable of any of those processes. They are thrilled only by the destruction of what others have made. Their anger and resentment is pitted against the creative forces of life.

Guarding against these people who enjoy scaring people is a lifelong enterprise but we can never let them prevent our continuing efforts to construct.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Life Goes On

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Okay, take a deep breath. We have survived the Christmas crazies and the New Year's excesses; since it's after Twelfth Night, all the Christmas decorations should be packed away for next December and probably most of us have already broken the ambitious New Year's Resolutions we have made.

It's time for normal (whatever that is!) life to begin again. Some of us have already returned to our jobs. 2019 is a blank slate, ready for us to fill in for good or for ill.

The prospect is terrifying. There is only so much time and yet so many things that cry to be done. We have families who must be attended to and enjoyed. We have jobs that need to be done, whether day jobs in the business world or the job of running a home or whatever. We have civic duties. We have.... You get the idea; everyone's life is different in details, but the same in so many ways.

So how do we do it all? The answer to that is as individual as we are. Speaking only of the writing part of our lives, we must write. And edit. And re-write, sometimes ad nauseam. Add to that research, and the necessity of giving some thought to our next project, and that bĂȘte noir of every writer I know, publicity. All the above apply - in various proportions - whether we are traditionally, self or hybrid published, whether we are a full time or a part time writer.

I read on one of the writers' chat loops that several writers spend up to 50% of their writing time on publicity. Somehow that seems so wrong. We should be writers, not publicity hacks. I know that If I wanted to spend that much time dealing with publicity and such I would have stayed in advertising - and be making a lot more money!

I know there are loads of publicity services available, all with different pricing structures. Most - dare I say all? - are out of my price range. I have a stubborn refusal to spend more on publicity than I am making. It is illogical, to quote Mr. Spock.

It's late for making Christmas wishes, but if I were allowed one it would be that some enterprising person would start a publicity service that even those of us who don't have a lot of money - read 'very little' - could afford. Think of what we could do with all that creative time! And even if the prices were kept quite low, think of how much money that publicity person could make. It would be a win-win situation.

As for the writing itself, I have long said that writers work pretty much 24/7. Even if we go days without touching a keyboard, somewhere in our brains there is a part that whirrs and thumps and wrestles with storylines - even if we are sometimes totally unaware of it. Ideas and wording and plots don't come from thin air; they are lured into the open air by hard work, creativity and skill. There is no magic shortcut, darn it.

Neither is there a magic formula. Some writers write a set number of words or hours every day in rigid discipline. Others write only when their 'muse' dictates. Others write in unbelievable multi-day explosions of creativity, putting aside every other consideration. There is no absolutely 'correct' way. Neither is there a completely consistent way, no matter what style of writing one chooses. There is family, there is illness, there are unexpected emergencies... all commonly called 'life,' and writers must work around them. And somehow we all manage.

It's called life, and life does go on.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Get Ready for National Spaghetti Day

by Victoria M. Johnson

What food is delicious, easy to cook, and has a national holiday?  If you guessed spaghetti, you're absolutely right.  This extra versatile Italian dish actually didn't originate in Italy.  Surprise!  Historians say pasta was invented in Asia and made its way to Italy in the 8th century. 

Pasta has become so prevalent that 55 pounds of pasta are consumed by the average Italian each year and the average American consumes 15.5 pounds of pasta each year.  No wonder spaghetti got it's own unofficial holiday.

National Day Spaghetti Day is January 4th.

Photo by Vitchakorn Koonyosying

The most popular ways to prepare spaghetti are: with pesto sauce, with alfredo sauce, or with tomato sauce.  Add seafood, or ground beef, or vegetables and you get a whole new dish.  Yum.  All this talk is getting me hungry.  Let's get to some mouth-watering recipes…

The Delish website has a recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce.  Did you know Americans invented adding tomato sauce and meatballs to spaghetti?

Cook spaghetti in water as usual then add it to this recipe from the Food Network's Ree Drummond.

Spaghetti withBasil Pesto Sauce

Campbell's has a great recipe for pesto sauce that uses chicken broth.

No matter which way you serve your spaghetti, don't forget the vino.  What is your favorite way to cook spaghetti?  Let us know in the comments below.

Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria's website at http://VictoriaMJohnson.com for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.