I’m taking a brief diversion on what was to be a triple-play on “Writing What We Know” for a very good reason – I had a photo op.

If you have or know cats, you know nothing makes them as happy as a new box or bag. They find it irresistible. So having just that – a new bag – I offered it to her highness for exploration.


First, let’s see if there’s anything inside. This might take a while.


Next, let’s see if it has the right amount of room for comfortable sleeping.


And, of course, let’s give Mom the money shot!

Never fear, animal lovers, this is a plaything for Jazzy under supervision only, lest she get her head caught in one of those pretty handles and set off to running with it caught about her neck, thus causing panic and overall, anything but the fun experience we’d been hoping for.

One day later? It’s already old news. There’s no forgetting – Jazzy’s a cat.

This started out to be about three aspects of writing what we know, but I see that it would be a ridiculously long post. So I’ll divvy it up and start with a fairly recent example. I received a lovely personal response from an editor at one of the publishing houses represented at an NJ SCBWI event. I am very appreciative to receive such a thoughtful and detailed reply, although, of course, I wish it were better news. She complimented me on tackling a difficult subject, but found it a bit melancholy and added that quiet stories were not selling much in the picture book market these days. Happily, she was also very encouraging about my writing and my pursuing it.

Simon's Secret Illustration by JeanneBalsamThis is where writing what we know comes in. What I know – one of the things, anyway – is about animals and their ability to affect us profoundly, both personally and through literature and imagery. This particular picture book story has a wonderful magical element to it and healing on several levels. While I don’t see it as melancholy, it still behooves me to pay attention to the perception and opinion of one who lives and breathes children’s books. But what stops me is the “quiet story” part.

I like quiet stories. I like funny stories, too, but I also like something that touches the heart and soul in some way, something that’s real, that’s a reflection of what children go through in their young lives. I get that kids like funny and action-filled, but what about the other aspects of a child? Are we no longer looking to feed that as well? Are our increasingly fast-paced and digital lives crushing the inner lives of picture-book age kids? (OK, maybe that’s extreme, but then again …)

As writers, we certainly need to be aware of the trends in the industry and what the market is looking for, otherwise we can be twirling about in our own stew of ideas that will never get published. At the same time, we need to consider what “writing what we know,” (the advice we are always given by editors and agents), actually means and where it fits in what’s being published.  It’s a challenge to all of us. So I look at the body of work I have to date. Maybe it’s time to let some of my stories go; maybe I haven’t sent them out often enough and/or to the right publisher/agent who will appreciate a particular “quiet story.”

So where does the rubber hit the road? Where do writing what we know and what’s being published intersect?


Simple Things

Living simply is nice. And being able to enjoy a few simply made items of wonderful quality is also quite nice. Today I’m talking about soap. Not that long ago I discovered that the small place where I often buy my coffee was now carrying these gorgeous soaps made of pure ingredients. I first purchased the Apple Crisp, a mouthwatering aroma to be sure. I’ve purchased a bar or two as gifts here and there, and enjoy sampling some of the other scents myself.


While they may initially seem price-y as soaps may go, (and I mean compared to the commercially made/mega-corporation produced soaps in the supermarket), considering the quality of the ingredients and how long they last, they’re really not that costly at all. They are solid and a good chunk in size. The other day I treated myself to an Almond Goat Milk bar and an Apple Crisp, as I was just about out of soap in kitchen and bath.

I decided to visit the maker’s website – their name is  SallyeAnder, located in a small town in upstate New York near Lake Ontario. The soaps were originally formulated in response to a family member’s allergies, so here is their promise – they:

  • Always use olive oil or soy as our base
  • Always use pure, edible ingredients
  • Always formulate with the finest essential oils
  • Never cut corners with our recipes or ingredients
  • Never use coconut or palm oils
  • Never test on animals
  • Never use parabens, alcohols, sodium laurel sulfates, artifical dies, synthetic chemicals, or foaming agents

HandmadeSoap-SallyeAnderB2Everything the mainstream soaps are not, plus they smell simply heavenly.

All their soaps are listed on their website, but what I did find is their web prices are significantly higher than what I paid at the local shop, so if interested, you may want to check out the dealer locater on the SallyeAnder home page for a place that carries them near you. So once again, I promise I am not a shill for anybody, just grateful when I find pure, simple and healthful products that also please the senses, and am sharing my small good fortune with those of you who are of a like mind.

We can easily be unaware or forget how strong kids have to be sometimes, or to remember how strong even we needed to be at certain points growing up. I don’t know anyone who had a totally blissful childhood, and even those who claim to have had one? It becomes apparent in further conversations or getting to know someone better that that’s the way they prefer to see it or maybe need to see it. We all have had our share of problems and pain growing up – some more, some less.

AlmostHome-JBauer2But if we were lucky, we had something or someone to hold onto – a best friend, a pet, a trusted teacher or adult, or a passion that saved us. And that was the saving grace of Sugar Mae Cole.

Reading Almost Home by Joan Bauer, reminded me of how some kids need to be the strong ones, maybe even the parents, when really all they want and need is their parents to take care of them. In this middle grade novel, Sugar and her mother Reba found themselves evicted and homeless. Sugar’s father, who she refers to as Mr. Leeland, failed repeatedly to be responsible to his family, gambling all their money away instead. Sugar, 12 years old, got it. Her mother, in her delusion, still believed he was their knight in shining armor who was always going to come through, but never did.

The story at first reminded me of Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle, her autobiography, in which her mother always believed that everything was going to turn out just fine.  She chose to see and never failed to point out the bright side in everything to her children even though they were suffering horribly. In either case, being the adult is a lot to ask of a kid when one or both parents aren’t grounded in reality.

Almost Home was a great story that drew me in the more I read. Sugar accepted a puppy name Shush from another little girl who foisted him upon her because her father was abusing him. Shush became an important constant in Sugar’s life, as pets often do for a child. The unconditional love offered by an animal is a phenomenally powerful form of healing. Sugar had something else – she wrote. She wrote poetry about what was happening in her life, and she wrote thank you letters to people frequently. She believed in the sweetness in life, though she found herself often struggling to find it during this time. She also had a teacher who believed in her and kept in touch even though Sugar and Reba had moved away.

What made this story such a winner is that I could easily relate to Sugar. I’m sure her reading audience does as well. One doesn’t have to be homeless to understand conflict and loss. Holding on to your dreams and hope in the midst of it all is the challenge, and getting to know this young heroine who wasn’t about to give up is what made this read so worthwhile.


Each year in my town, something wonderful happens – you can put anything you no longer want at the edge of your property and the town hauls it away for nothing! That day is this coming Saturday. And this morning it put me in a panic.

Last Saturday was the townwide yard sale where people tried to sell that same stuff. At the end of the day, some of it is taken inside and the rest is left there for the carrion pickers who start cruising the neighborhood in their pick-ups and vans. You can put anything out for those folk, but no items containing freon, electronics, and lead-based paint kind-of-stuff for the town pick-up. I’ve watched my neighbors put out bookshelves, office chairs, an air-conditioner, two small stools, and it’s already been picked up and gone.


I took these this morning – so lovely.  (They are actually here just to break up the text — enjoy.) 

It’s a great deal, so why panic? I already knew what I was putting out – a bunch of items that are beyond ready to go – my ancient sewing machine, (yeah – from high school!), an equally ancient vacuum whose motor just won’t die, but ran out of intact attachments, a broken lawn chair – you get the idea. When I woke up, however, it was apparent that my mind had already been running amok with what else I should put out on the curb.

I started mentally racing from closet to closet, back down the basement – what WAS in those 2 large cardboard boxes? Did I really need that old heater? Back upstairs – my turntable died about 6 months ago – it could go, too. Was I going to replace it? If not, how many of those LP’s do I need to keep? And into the pantry – did I need those canisters on the top shelf? What about the indoor electric grill – I haven’t used it since I lived here … and suddenly it dawned on me. I could get rid of maybe 10% to 15% of my belongings and it would make no difference in my life.

Wow. I was blown away – what a concept. Then back into panic mode – how much of this stuff could I conceivably get on the street in time?

OK, whooooaaaaaaa. Slow down, Nellie. It doesn’t have to all go out this Saturday. Or ever. We can think about it.

On my own behalf, I’ll say none of this is new stuff that I just got tired of – it’s stuff that I’ve gathered and used over the years, some of which genuinely needs replacing, (like the sewing machine.) And to think, I have very little storage space – a tiny basement, no attic, and no garage. My home is neat, and clearly I’ve learned to maximize storage space.

It’s time for a change – I’m ready to start letting past parts of my life go, whether 3-dimensionally or maybe metaphorically. The not wanted, the not used, the not needed. I’m ready to feel lighter, and unbound by things and ideas which populated my past, and … someone will take it away for free.

My breathing has slowed – I’m feeling lighter already.


GirlWDragonTattoo2What a writer! Oh, my. Talk about books you cannot put down.

I just finished The Girl Who Played with Fire, not all that much later after reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo*. Is it any wonder Larsson won so many awards? He was truly a masterful writer. Not only does he have that whole end-of-the-chapter-page-turning thing going on big time, but he is able to effectively flip back and forth into different places and characters’ situations in rapid succession, never losing, but rather only building, the momentum of the story.

The fact that the names of the characters and frequently referenced locations are all Swedish and unfamiliar to the English-speaking reader still does not slow one down. Larsson periodically goes into paragraphs of description, such as in his providing the background of each member of the murder investigation team under Bublanski in The Girl Who Played with Fire, but that doesn’t seem to slow you down either. The information proves to be relevant later on in the story, but in the hands of a lesser writer, such descriptions might leave one meandering and lost down some other path. Larsson’s twists and turns keep you turning the pages and reading far later in the night than you should.

GirlPlayedWithFire2His characters are engrossing, particularly, of course, the main character, Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker with a profoundly painful past. She can be violent, yet is at the same time, highly moral, and always complex and challenging. Mikael Blomqvist, the investigative journalist, is also compelling in his own way, but more so, I believe, in his relationship to Lisbeth. The trilogy is classified as crime thrillers/murder mysteries, and, of course, this is true, but for me, I also found them fascinating character studies.

Sometimes we have to be in the mood for a certain kind of book – I don’t always feel like reading a crime thriller any more than I do any other genre. But if you are in the mood, these are books you will not easily put down. I was lent the first two by my neighbor, but for the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I will need to go to the library in town. Starting Monday morning, I am committed to being home for the tree people to come at a currently unspecified time to remove a very large and threatening dead branch high up on an older spruce next to my home. Start a new book? Wait to get to the library? All life’s decisions should be this enticing.

* The movie version of this book with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig is also outstanding, in my opinion.

I won’t lie. Baking makes me feel good. Just thinking about baking actually makes me feel good … looking at yummy recipes, the photos that make me want to drop everything and run to the kitchen, considering the ingredients … all part of the process. (And I like to blog about baking!)

OBars-Ingredients2First, we gather the ingredients together. You might, (correctly), surmise that I collect recipes for eons, as this one, in a copy of Woman’s Day, carried a 2/3 page cigarette ad!  You won’t be finding
that in its recent history.

I committed to making a dessert for a volunteer picnic this Sunday for the local equine rescue I help. I wanted to also make something vegan, in keeping with my own direction, and also because when a bunch of people gather who are committed to the mission of rescuing horses, often from slaughter, (and becoming horse meat), there’s always a fair amount of vegetarians, and some vegans. I went searching OBars-Flour2through my recipes, and selected one without eggs and where I could easily replace the butter with Earth Balance vegan margarine. All other ingredients are vegan.

All you eagle-eyed bakers may have noticed something missing in that top photo – flour. NOW I have all the ingredients.

I’ve made this recipe before, but with butter and different flavors preserves. This time I also mixed it up and used brown sugar for half the sugar, as it’s such a natural with oats and cinnamon.This recipe is incredibly simple and whips up in no time.


After mixing the margarine, flour, sugar, baking powder and oat mixture together, the next step is pressing the mixture into the bottom of the pan.


Next, spreading the preserves to within a half inch of the edges.


Sprinkle top with reserved crumb mixture and coconut.


Voila – Done!

One of the things that is most difficult for me is the concept of baking vegan. I don’t have a problem with not eating meat. I know enough about what happens to animals, particularly in the factory farming system, to not want to participate in it. But eggs and dairy, particularly when it comes to baking? Now this is rough.

OBars-OnePiece2Established vegans say that once committed, you won’t miss the eggs and dairy in food. Maybe not in some food, but in baking … I don’t know. As I go through my many clipped recipes and cookbooks, I can envision making a vegan version of some, but others? Simply not possible. I am in a quandary.

But for today, I made something simple and vegan, which, of course, I had to taste to make sure it’s safe for consumption.

Because I have modified this recipe significantly, I am including it here, should you want something fast and easy, vegan or not, (just use butter.) Enjoy!

Strawberry Oatmeal Bars

3/4 C. butter or margarine
1-1/4 C. each rolled oats and flour
1/2 C. sugar I used half cane sugar, half brown sugar)
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 C. strawberry preserves (or peach, apricot – anything seedless)
3/4 C. flaked coconut

In 13 x 9″ baking pan, melt butter while oven is heating to 350˚; cool.
Stir in oats, flour, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon until blended. It will be crumbly.
Reserve 1/2 c. crumb mixture.
Press firmly onto bottom of pan.
Spread preserves to within 1/2″ of edges.
Sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture tossed with coconut.
Bake on center rack for 25 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool in pan on rack. Makes 36 bars. (per bar – 12 mg cholesterol with butter, 0 mg cholesterol with margarine.)

And now for me … back to the picture book I’m working on.


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