Thursday, July 9, 2020

Low Down Dirty Vote: Inspired by a Texan who fought voter fraud

HALLIE EPHRON: What a great idea: an anthology of crime fiction about voter suppression. Writer and anthology editor Mysti Berry told an interviewer how the idea came to her:  
“I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband after the 2016 election, feeling horribly na├»ve to have believed all these years that voting rights were universally protected in the United States. It was news to me that people in this country, since at least the time of Nixon, have been actively seeking ways to keep Democrats from voting. They try to disenfranchise people of color, young voters, any residents of blue districts in red states. In that restaurant, feeling stupid, staring hopelessly at the condensation on my water glass, a title came to me out of nowhere: 'Low Down Dirty Vote.' The last thing voting should be. And thus, Volume I was published July 4, 2018."

"Low Down Dirty Vote - Volume II" is just out and proceeds will benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center's projects to support voting rights in the United States. Scott Turow wrote the introduction. We’re delighted to welcome one of the contributors, Jim Doherty, to talk about the fascinating character and chapter in history that inspired his story.

JIM DOHERTY: Winston Churchill, one of the greatest leaders of a democracy in the history of leaders of democracies, nailed democracy’s point when he described, with almost mystic reverence, “ . . . the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

When that hypothetical “little man [or woman]” makes that mark, s/he is absolutely equal to everyone else making that little mark, Be they stronger, smarter, healthier, wealthier, when they’re making their “mark,” they’ve an equal say in their governance.

That’s why it’s so important that citizens aren’t kept from voting, or that their votes aren’t rendered pointless by fraud or theft.

I’m proud to be one of one of the contributors to LDDV2. “The Lord of LaValle” features Gus Hachette, a character I’ve developed in other stories.

He’s based on a real-life Texas law officer who, during an amazingly eventful career, was virtually every kind of policeman it’s possible to be, state cop, small-town police chief, big city detective, deputy sheriff, and federal investigator.

Researching him over the years, I became convinced that he wasn’t just a great cop, but possibly the greatest ever to pin on a badge. An inspiration to me in my police career. A spark to my imagination in my writing career.

But writing Gus was difficult. You’d think with characters and events all laid out in history, it’d be a snap. But real-life’s messy. Fiction’s tidy. Tidying up real-life into readable fiction is sometimes harder than just making it up.

Still, those real-life stories are so damned compelling!

Max Allan Collins, who’s made a career out of fictionalizing real-life crimes, once said, “God’s a great storyteller, but He’s a lousy plotter,” adding, “That’s why He created writers.”

When the call for submissions to LDDV2 went out, I recalled that one of the last crimes my real-life model investigated was a case of voter fraud in an election for US Senator. The contenders in the Democrat primary were a popular former governor and an up-and-coming young congressman. At that time, Texas being part of the Solid South, whoever won the primary would be the de facto Senator-Elect.

A notorious political boss conveniently found enough uncounted ballots to swing the election from one candidate to the other. Gus’s original was called out of semi-retirement to investigate.

In the true-life case, he was unable to prevent the fraud his investigation clearly showed had occurred, and the losing candidate won. This had profoundly tragic consequences, among which were the deaths, in combat, of 60,000 US soldiers, to no real purpose.

In my fictional version, the good guys win!

Tidying up reality, indeed.

The story itself had an unexpected “come-from-behind” win, too.

After I submitted it, Mysti wrote back, praising “The Lord of LaValle” as “an amazing story.” But she’d already accepted a Texas-set piece featuring a flamboyant cop, and didn’t want two such similar stories.

C’est la vie, I thought. Thanking her for considering it, I sent it out to other markets.

Then, several weeks later, she e-mailed me again. She’d decided, after comparing the stories, that they really weren’t all that similar. If mine was still available, could she include it?

That’s never happened to me before. I’ve been accepted. And Lord knows, I’ve been rejected. But I’d never been rejected, and then had the editor reconsider, on her own, and get accepted after already being rejected.

But Gus’s model was known for his “come-from-behind” wins, too.

HALLIE: Are you feeling the effects of voter suppression in your world? Where I am in Massachusetts, I'm afraid I take for granted that voting is a piece of cake. Usually it takes under ten minutes, and this year it's been made much easier to mail in ballots. But I know it's not like that everywhere.

JIM DOHERTY a policeman for over 20 years, has served US law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels. He’s the author of the true-crime collection Just the Facts – True Tales of Cops & Criminals, which included the WWA Spur-winning article, “Blood for Oil,” and the novel An Obscure Grave, a CWA Dagger finalist.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Secondhand rage in the age of coronavirus... the musical

HALLIE EPHRON: Today I bring you rage. Unadulterated. Incubating since March. Not very productive, I know. But there you are. 

Here in Massachusetts where we have (so far) flattened the curve, we live in a bit of an echo chamber. (Most of us) are not in a state of denial. (Most of us) wear masks. (Most of us) keep our social distance. I’m saddened and horrified as I watch what seems to be, from this distance, fellow citizens willfully playing follow-the-leader off the edge of a cliff. (Though it turns out even lemmings don't actually do that.)

It's been not-a-hoax to me from early on. My daughters were living in one of the epicenters: Brooklyn. There was no room for doubt whether it was a real thing, not with ambulance sirens going 24/7. Not with friends who worked in hospitals reporting back on what it was like with basic protective equipment running short and beds filling to the point where patients had to be piggybacked on  ventilators. In rapid succession, we knew a half dozen people who’d caught the virus; two have since died.

No surprise, I have been nurturing a craving for music that channels rage.

Twenty years ago the Dixie Chicks released one of my all-time favorite ragers: “Goodbye Earl.” It’s the tale of an abusive spouse who ends up getting his comeuppance at the hands of his wife Wanda and her best friend, Maryanne.

Those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me, Earl
You're feelin' weak? Why don't you lay down and sleep, Earl
Ain't it dark wrapped up in that tarp... 
The video  is a must-watch. Jane Krakowski plays Wanda. Dennis Franz the odious Earl. SO satisfying! 
Just in time, the (no longer Dixie) Chicks have released first new music in 14 years featuring a scathing song about an unrepentant liar: ‘Gaslighter.’
Gaslighter, denier
Doin' anything to get your ass farther

And another kickass video.

Here’s a play list of more classic revenge songs, in case you, too, are in the mood.

Nancy Sinatra - These Boots are Made for Walking (1966)

"One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you..."
Carly Simon - You’re So Vain (1972)
“I’ll bet you think this song is about you…”
(Turned out it was about Warren Beatty.)

Gloria Gaynor – I will survive (1978)

“Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Do you think I'd crumble

Did you think I'd lay down and die?”
 Adele – Rolling in the Deep (2010)
“The scars of your love remind me of us”
Taylor Swift - Mean (2012)
“All you’re ever gonna be is mean – why you gotta be so mean?”
Are you in the mood for a little secondhand rage? Share your playlist...

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Salad dressing: Bottle it or whip it up fresh?

HALLIE EPHRON: One thing I've never understood is why anyone uses bottled salad dressing. Unless you're camping. Or cooking for a household of fussy eaters in which everyone wants a different dressing.

Salad dressing really is easy and delicious. Make it yourself and you won't accumulate a backlog of partially used bottles of dressing. You can make just enough for a single meal and know exactly what you're putting in your mouth.

A basic make-it-yourself balsamic vinaigrette uses these ingredients:

Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pepper
Here's the ingredients list for a popular bottled balsamic vinaigrette:
Water, Balsamic Vinegar (Wine Vinegar, Grape Juice, Water), Soybean Oil, Sugar, Canola Oil, Salt, Contains Less Than 2% Of Dried Garlic, Dijon Mustard (Distilled Vinegar, Mustard Seed, Water, Salt, White Wine, Tartaric Acid, Citric Acid, Spice), Spice, Xanthan Gum, Dried Parsley, Oleoresin Paprika, Potassium Sorbate And Calcium Disodium Edta
I'm sure it tastes fine, but notice the first listed ingredient (and hence the one there's most of) is water. Who puts water in salad dressing? And their "balsamic vinegar" is (parenthetically) a combination of wine vinegar, grape juice, and (more) water.

The best thing about making dressing from scratch is you know exactly what went into it. You can decide at the last minute what dressing you want to go with whatever you're cooking.

With these staples (below) on hand, and you can whip up a French vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, creamy blue cheese, Ranch, Greek, or that orange creamy stuff we used to call French dressing in California...

  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar x 3: balsamic, white, cider
  • Sour cream
  • Mayonnaise
  • Ketchup
  • Dry mustard
  • Dijon mustard
  • Salt, pepper, sugar
  • Blue cheese
  • Fetah cheese

Here's the how-to for a delicious spinach salad with almonds and raisins and crumbled fetah or blue cheese.

- Soak 1/2 cup of raisins (or dried cranberries) in 1.5 T balsamic (red wine) vinegar, 3 T olive oil, 1 tsp sugar - 20 minutes or more

- Pan toast 1/2 cup of slivered almonds

- Break about 1/3 cup of fetah or blue cheese into chunks

- Rinse and dry about 1/2 pound of fresh spinach, removing any woody stems

- Assemble: mix spinach and raisins and dressing (what the raisins are soaking in), top with almonds and cheese

Are you into bottled dressings or a make-it-yourselfer? What's your favorite dressing and how do you whip it up?

Monday, July 6, 2020

Frogs legs, artichokes, and buffalo milk... memorables on the menu

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago I wrote about the Giant Artichoke t-shirt my husband used to wear that so embarrassed our daughter. Julia found a photograph of the Giant Artichoke restaurant, still operating in Castroville, California, about 50 miles north of Monterey. In the front, still standing is the 20-foot tall artichoke featured on the t-shirt.

A good portion of the menu featured artichokes. Stew. Soup. Salad. Dip. Their fried artichoke hearts were delicious with a lemony mayo.

Behind the restaurant is a warehouse where you can buy humongous artichokes that looked like the plaster model out front, along with an eye-popping variety of canned and marinated artichokes (as well as t-shirts).

The town is the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World,” and has been growing and processing them since 1922. It holds an annual Artichoke Festival--Marilyn Monroe was the first artichoke beauty pageant queen in 1948. Sadly this year’s artichoke festival has been cancelled due to covid-19, but it’s scheduled to make a comeback June 5-6, 2021.

What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever eaten and do you have a t-shirt to commemorate the experience?

JENN McKINLAY: I do not have a T-shirt but by far the strangest place I’ve ever eaten was
in Coopertown, FL (an unincorporated area with a population of 0008, if I remember right). We took the famous airboat ride into the Everglades, fed the alligators marshmallows - hey, it was 1984, we didn’t know any better - and then retired back to the cafe to try frogs legs.

Yes, they taste like chicken. What I did not expect was that they came attached, as in it was the frog, battered and fried, from the waist down. Naturally, my brother proceeded to pick one up and hop it across the table. I laughed so hard, sweet tea came out my nose. I highly recommend a visit to Coopertown if you find yourself on Route 41 in Miami-Dade.

RHYS BOWEN: I have eaten in several questionable places: in a Bedouin house in the Atlas Mountains (where the home made bread was delicious) and I’ve drunk buffalo milk in a Toda dwelling--a mud structure about four feet high and maybe eight feet long with a hole in the top to let the smoke out. Todas are an indigenous people in the mountains of South India. They didn’t allow outsiders but we got an introduction through a Toda woman who had married outside the tribe. Quite an experience. Alas they do not make T-shirts!

On that same trip we had our worst meal ever--in the primitive overnight lodge of a game park--it was the oldest chicken who had died of questionable causes (probably run over by a truck) and cooked in grease with so much grit from blowing dust that we gave up after a couple of bites. Also no T-shirt available.

Oh, gosh, the weirdest. Well, it might have been the restaurant in Florence, Enoteca Pinchiorri. Imagine elegant, then increase ten fold. Gorgeous, spectacular, five stars. The exclusivity is off the charts.
At the next table, the ugly Americans. Mom and Dad, and the two most entitled California (we heard then refer to it) blonde teenagers you can ever imagine. Don't even bother imagining, your brain does not need the sludge. Anyway, they blithely ordered, the fish I think, and proceeded to tell the waiter (who might have been John Gielgud), that they wanted the sauce on the side and no butter. And double vegetables, no butter. Without a glimmer of a response, he took their order. Very good, he said.

Five minutes later he came back.

The chef says he cannot prepare the food your way, he will prepare it his way. And furthermore, he said in perfect English, he says he cannot cook for you, and we cannot serve you, and he is requesting you leave.

They did! They slinked out, and it was all the rest of us could do not to cheer. I endlessly wish I had a t-shirt. I wonder where those people are now.

LUCY BURDETTE: This isn’t about a weird restaurant, it’s one that will linger in my mind forever. About six years ago John I attended a family wedding outside of Salt Lake City,
Utah. We took a few extra days to cruise through Utah and see a couple of the wonderful national parks in that state. I, of course, was in charge of where to eat.

In between our two days of driving and gawking at the astonishing scenery, we stopped for a night in Boulder, Utah, to eat at the legendary Hell's Backbone Grill. I made reservations months in advance for dinner. They serve exactly the kind of food I like, delicious but not fussy. I ordered a spicy meatloaf and John had a chicken quesadilla casserole that was hot, cheesy, and addictive.

Of course we had to have breakfast there the next morning, too. I chose blue cornmeal pancakes, which they served with cinnamon butter and syrup. The pancakes were sprinkled with little purple flowers. Oh, and we ordered a box lunch to take with us the next day too. Three meals in less than 20 hours – that's a great restaurant. Now the chef/owners are finalists for best chefs in the Mountain Region by the James Beard Foundation for the 2020 season! (And ps, I don’t have a tee-shirt but I did buy the cookbook.)

Here’s my rendition of Hell’s Backbone Grill meatloaf recipe.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Gosh, let me think about this one. Most, I guess, exotic would be the dinners we had while on safari in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Five-star gourmet meals served communally so we had a chance to talk with the most interesting people, in open-air tents that could have come straight out of Isak Dineson’s memoirs. We dressed for dinner! (The travel agency gave us a heads up, so I had a skirt and a couple of scarves that looked good over anything.) Truly different than any other experience, before or since.

The dining spot that seemed farthest away from anything else in the world: the Three Chimney’s Restaurant on the Isle of Skye. Ross and I went on our honeymoon, and it wasn’t nearly as famous as it is now - it had only been open a couple of years - but already had a reputation as a destination for foodies. We walked from the farmhouse we were staying at, and I’ll never forget the contrast of eating in this tiny stone crofter’s cottage (this was years before it would be expanded and have an inn added on) and being served the most amazing food and wines.It was utterly dark by the time we left, with nothing but the starlight and the occasional bleat from a sheep to guide us as we wended our well-lubricated way back to our B&B. Heavenly.

Worst dining experience ever: Chuck E Cheese’s for the Sailor’s 7th birthday. Greater love hath no parent than to dine on that flabby excuse for a pizza while an animatronic band lays waste to the very concept of music.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  No one can compete with Rhys's memorable meals! But the place that popped into my mind was a little restaurant bar in the wilds of central Florida. I was on book tour with Charles and Caroline Todd. We had several book festival events over a couple of days, so our publisher put us up in the most central location, a very (very) basic Holiday Inn that seemed literally in the middle of nowhere--it was just plunked down on the highway. There was no coffee shop and there were no restaurants except for a sort of bar shack across the motel parking lot.

With no choice, we ventured over for our first dinner. A raised walkway crossed over the shallow end of a lake and when we looked down, it was full of alligators! Big ones, little ones, all cruising lazily below us. Our hopes did not go up. But we were seated on a big open deck, and the food turned out to be delicious! Charles and I had fabulous oysters; Caroline and I stuffed ourselves on the best whitefish dip I've ever eaten. We ate every meal there over the next couple of days and at the end of the event we were sorry to go!

HALLIE: UGH, Chuck E. Cheese. And I was sure Debs was going to tell us that the featured items on the menu were... alligator!

Aren't we all yearning for a great restaurant meal, something we'd never make at home?
What are your uniquely memorable restaurant meals?

Sunday, July 5, 2020

What We're Writing - Jenn on Promo!

Jenn McKinlay: I am presently at the start of that two-weeks prior to release day mad dash of have-I-slapped-news-of-my-upcoming-release-on-every- possible-social-media-forum-known-to-God-and-man? Is there any new way I can say "Buy my Book!" without saying buy my book? about a giveaway? A live chat? A bulletin board in downtown Phoenix? A Zoom visit with every bookstore that will have me? Does everyone know I have a book coming out? It's a romcom set in Ireland, France, and Italy - coming July 21st - just sayin'! Plus, look at the cool animation my publisher did of the cover. 

At this point, I feel like the neighborhood gardener with the bumper crop of zucchini. A perfectly nice person, to be sure, but suddenly they have zucchini coming out their ears and you can't walk by their house without them thrusting a bag of the dreaded stuff on you.  Right now, I am that person with the paper sack full of zucchini. People see me coming and they run. I get it. I don't take it personally. Really. (sob)

But still, promo is a part of the job. I think I've hit every avenue available to a writer for promotion (there's even a book club kit for the novel: click HERE), but if you have any suggestions or ideas, give me a holler! 

A starred review from Publisher's Weekly! Thrilling!

Paris is Always a Good Idea is my debut trade paperback women's fiction novel. Debut! It's like starting all over and being a newbie author again -- exhilarating and insanely stressful! Because 2020 hasn't been exhausting enough. I swear every day feels like a week, every week a month, every month a...well, you get the idea. Focus, Jenn! Talk about the book!

There is so much I want to say about this book. How I wrote it in the wake of great personal loss, how the stress of writing it almost killed me with a scorching case of shingles (not hyperbole, okay, maybe a little), and how it really started to shine with such delightful promise in the beginning of the year. Then, as you all know, the world ground to a halt and the fiction industry hit pause. So now we're in a very peculiar wait and see period, which for an author releasing their baby into the world is, frankly, excruciating. 

And so, I write my silly social media blurbs, trying to lure skittish readers like wild birds to the feeder: 

Have you ever looked up your exes? (Subtext, don't look up your exes, just read about my heroine looking up hers. Much more satisfying without the potential for embarrassment or upset).

Which country would you like to travel to Ireland, France, or Italy? (Less subtle subtext: No one can travel anywhere right now, so buy my book and you can fictionally tour all of Europe. Much cheaper).

Can a person ever really let go of the pain of their past? (Not even subtext, more like a slap upside the head of -- who cares? Buy my book! It's fun and it'll make you cry - a twofer!). 

All right, Reds, how about it? What's in your secret promo sauce? Where do you focus your energy? 

And, Readers, what gets you to buy a book from a debut author? Word of mouth? Reviews? A pretty cover? Can a writer grind you down by promoting so much you develop FOMO (fear of missing out) and you buy the book or does too much promo repel you? 

Asking for a friend. Okay, it's me, I'm asking for me.