January 31, 2015

Sweet New England


While the icy winds of winter blow against my windowpane my mind travels back to a summer not long ago. I was in the editing phase of Sweet New England and it was the heart of summer, the perfect time to do a cover shoot in, of course, New England. For a few days I pulled my eyes away from the computer screen and looked out over the sea with more than my imagination. A book has but one cover and choosing the right photograph, from the many collected in the shoot, was difficult. It seemed every picture was more beautiful than the last. And so it is with New England. We shot photographs of Cape Cod with its beautiful beaches and quaint cottages and weathered seaports. 

We looked up into the masts of tall ships and stood dizzy on their decks.

Of course no photo shoot in New England would be complete without a lovely lighthouse.

New England is the birthplace of my husband and the location of my most pensive novel. It is a story of survival. When I went looking for a cover I wanted something beautiful and those pictures were easily found through every angle of the camera. But for Sweet New England I wanted more. More than the feeling of rich history and sea breezes against the skin while walking along rugged beaches. It was not until returning home, through careful and thoughtful searching, that the right picture from the collection emerged. In my book the sea captain has named his ship the Baroque. In my mind it is a pearl upon the sea. In life we can float or we can sink. 

We can live in the most beautiful of places, simple or grand, but it is up to us to find our own way in each of our hearts. To choose happiness, joy and perseverance. Or darkness, loneliness and defeat.
I find these pictures both thoughtful and uplifting. To me they are friendly and welcoming and illustrate the promise of warmer days and summer winds. I'm a sucker for promise. It fills my heart and shines light on all of my days. Like New England it is sweet and rugged.

I hope these pictures bring you the promise of the warmth of summer winds. Please come again next week and perhaps, next summer as well.

January 28, 2015

Taking on Granny

   The crocheted Granny Square pattern is a joy it is to create. It’s easy enough for someone just getting a handle on the craft and fast enough for the pro to find satisfying. Over the holidays I knocked out a few granny-style projects and was delightfully reminded why crochet lovers have kept the pattern alive for generations.

      With handcrafting I am always learning. I love knitting and crochet and similar hobbies because they help me to stop running around and sit down, and yet still do something valuable with my time. The granny square is perfect for just the right balance of distraction and relaxation. If you crochet you might consider giving that lovely granny pattern a try.

      First you will need some basic crochet skills. Crochet is very easy to learn and the internet is loaded with instructional videos. An instructor in a video is infinitely patient. You can play their demonstrations again and again and they never give up on you. If you've always wanted to learn, why wait? I won’t give crochet lessons here, but I will put a link at the bottom of the page and offer a few suggestions if you are just starting out.

     Get a new yarn in a color you love. One solid color, not variegated or multi-colored. Forget that dusty ball left over from the kids' projects. Get a new ball that inspires you. Find a good 100% acrylic at any craft store and look for the words Worsted Weight on the label. That basically means how thick the yarn is. A reliable brand is Red Heart and it's an inexpensive choice. Crochet hooks come in many sizes. Get a basic aluminum one in a size H. The combination of the size of the hook and the thickness of the yarn will make your crochet fine or chunky. It’s pretty simple really. Don’t fall for some fancy, sparkly yarn that shimmers in the fluorescent lighting of the yarn aisle with dangling sequins and long eyelashes. Leave that for the expert who wants a real challenge. Keep it simple and give yourself a fighting chance to learn. Get some quiet time in front of a good instructional video, take a deep breath and dust off your brain. Remember that many people learn to crochet at about eight years of age. If an eight year old can do it so can you! 
      First learn how to make a chain. Conquer that. Make it until it looks even and the little loops are consistent. Then chain some more. When you can chain stitch without thinking about it, learn a single crochet stitch, which is abbreviated as sc. It's a good idea to also learn the abbreviations for the stitches as you go. This will take you from just making the same scarf over and over again to being able to read a pattern. All crochet evolves from one chain stitch into more stitches until you can crochet anything. Like learning to walk, once you develop the muscle memory you will be a crocheting fool and can accomplish anything. Put that ball of yarn and hook in your handbag and take it everywhere. Practice while you sit in a waiting room, at the train station, in front of the TV. Whenever you have a few minutes, crochet. Oftentimes people around you will smile and ask what you are making. You will likely meet other crocheters along the way. Most of all you will be enriching your life.

      Alright. Now that you can crochet, it's time to take on a Granny Square. Don’t psyche yourself out. Break it down. This is how I really became an expert at knitting and crocheting. Find the logic in the design. Imagine what your stitches are building. The lovely granny is built much like a block wall. Here is a look at a Granny Pattern:

This example is a closeup of a Granny Square done in several colors:.

  Look closely at this pattern diagram:

Now look at it this way, seeing each group of stitches as a block.

Imagine that each pink block is solid and each green block is clear, then close your eyes and build a wall in your mind using solid and clear blocks. It should look like a checkerboard. Now look at the example again. The orange block in the center is the beginning of your checkerboard. Imagine that your blocks are built in rounds. All around the center you will build a row of blocks alternating pink and green with a clear green block at each corner. Each solid block is above a clear block and each clear block is above a solid block. Checkerboard. Voila, the lovely Granny Square.

Now look closely at this square made all from one color yarn. See the pattern?

Here’s one made from different colors but the pattern is the same. Each row around the center is one color. The gold yarn is one round of blocks, the bright orange another. The lighter orange yet another.

     Once you learn a couple of stitches the granny is really very simple. Get your yarn and try following this pattern. You will need to know how to chain (ch), slip stitch (sl st), how to do a single crochet (sc) and a double crochet (dc). Remember our granny is built on rounds. Before you begin, notice that the first stitch of the block in each row is made using chain three. It takes the place of the first double crochet that makes up a block. That first chain three takes us up into the next row. Each double crochet is represented as a T with a slash through it. Each chain is a circle and each join is a solid dot. (These are universal symbols in all crochet diagrams). Like so:

Try to understand the chart before you begin. It really helps if you get the logic of the pattern first. Three double crochets make a solid block. Two chains make a clear block. You can follow the instruction below or work from the chart.

Basic Granny Instructions:

Round 1:  Chain (ch) 4, join with a slip stitch (sl st) in the first chain to form center ring. Chain (ch) 3 (counts as first double crochet), 2 double crochet (dc) in ring. (You made one block!) Chain 2 (one clear block), 3 double crochet in ring (Block two!). Chain 2 (clear block). 3 double crochet in ring (Block three!). Chain 2 (clear block), 3 double crochet in ring (Block four!). To end, chain 1, single crochet back at the beginning into the top of the first chain three which makes the last clear block in the round.

     If you did it right you should have a nice little square of four solid blocks with clear blocks at the corners. Don’t get discouraged if it looks wrong. It’s yarn and easily unraveled. Try again. Once you have that first round, venture on.

Round 2: Chain (ch) 3, 2 double crochet (dc) in ch 2 space (one block), ch 2 (one clear block), work 3 dc in same space. (This makes one solid block, one clear block and one solid block in the corner. Now you have chain two clear block corners, chain one clear blocks in the middle of the round and still have three double crochet blocks.).  Work around making your corners and flat areas like the chart. At the end of each round finish the same way as the last step in round one. If you understand how your pattern works you won’t be a slave to the paper thus freeing up your mind to focus on what you are making. If you make a mistake you can more easily figure out how to go back and fix it. Understanding builds confidence and better projects.

    I hope that this explanation will inspire you to take on a Granny. There are tons of variations you can create by incorporating a few other stitches. Grannys with leaves like this:

Grannies with fat bobbles like this:

     Try a big Granny Square, like this one. I made this for my youngest daughter from inexpensive Red Heart yarn from wonderful Woolworth's over thirty years ago. I never imagined it would hold up so well over time. It was my first Granny Square and to see it today makes it worthwhile to have learned how to take on that Granny that fist time.

     If you get stuck, don’t be shy, ask for help. There are crocheters all over out there who love to pass on the art. Or post here, or email me. I love the feedback I get from my readers.
Granny on folks!

To see my projects, visit my page at Ravelry.com. It's a great place to find patterns and inspiration for free. You'll find me there as Veil.

Ravelry Link

A basic crochet instructional video:

January 24, 2015

So You Want to be a Writer?


Chickens Reading Stavewood
Photo by Stephen and Bonnie Moore

      Well hello! It's nice you've come by to visit. I like the fact that you're here to see what I'm up to and I truly enjoy all of the messages and emails and all the hits I get at this blog. Everyone who knows me knows I read them all. I'm often asked how I can do all that and still have time to put out a weekly blog and regular novel. Some people tell me how much they love to write. Some ask for advice on their own novels and what is my "secret to success". Some send me partially written works they can't seem to finish and ask what they should do to get their book completed. I don't have answers for everyone, but I'll share what works for me.

      Maybe you have that next great novel in you somewhere or that powerful memoir tucked away inside of your heart and mind. Many people want to write. The hard part is getting it done. Recently someone sent me a link to a site that has a gadget that will turn off the notifications on your computer so you can focus and they asked if I used it. Sorry, but nope, there is no easy fix. Like anything, it's all up to you.

      I know what works for me and it is not a gadget. It's pure focus. Here are a few pointers that might help you get your novel written, or your studying finished or maybe even help you find a bit of time for a hot bath or nice cup of tea. Decide what you want and make it happen. The power for success or failure is all in your hands.

  • Decide what you really love. The world is full of exciting and attractive adventures that beckon the creativity in all of us. With so many choices how can you decide? For me the answer has always been to try anything and everything. Don't be afraid of something just because it's new. Embrace it. Immerse yourself and discover the joys it has to offer. But be prepared to apply yourself too. Success isn't achieved without some measure of work . If you feel that the rewards are worth the effort then you're on to something. Stick with it. But don't fool yourself either. If your new passion slowly turns into a dreary responsibility that drags you away from other things that make you happier then move on and let it go. 
  • Do what you love.  I love to write. It's an escape to a perfect world. Why would I not do everything possible to enjoy that? No time spent crushing candies or watching TV should rob that from me, or you either. If you love TV that's great. But remember you shouldn't wonder after binge watching six hours of TV shows, why you didn't do what you really wanted.
  • Find some motivation. I like money. I make money writing. I make it here and when anyone buys my books. It's certainly no get-rich-quick method but it pays. It didn't pay when I wrote my first novel but I stayed focused in that hope and I wrote. As a result it changed my life and I can say I am a successful, professionally published author. Just typing that gives me chills.
  • Block it all out. I wear headphones and/or play instrumental music while I write. It does not shut out the world entirely but it pulls in my focus. I never have my email, messengers or any games etc. set on notifications. When I work I work and when I play I play. Shut off every alert and leave the cell phone out of the room or turn it off.  
  • Put yourself in the right environment. I recently watched a film where the handsome author took his lovely apple pad out onto the dock at his beach house to write. It's a nice idea but I have never found it to work. If you're at the beach or a coffee house then your mind is probably not where you are in your story. Close the office door and put on some music that's appropriate to your story's setting.
  • Keep a schedule. When you work a job you have hours. If you love writing give it the same consideration. Make a separate schedule for socializing, networking and phone calls. Good friends who support your success will understand and wait to hear from you. I do have days where I have meetings with my publisher and other responsibilities but on most days I write. If you love it, live it. 
  • Get into the Zone. I always reread the last chapter or two of my project when working on a novel. It puts my mind and heart back into the story and helps shut out the real world. Once I get into the zone I become lost there and it is hard for me to stop for anything. Should I have an interruption it can take time from what I love. Is it a welcome break? If the break is more inviting, enjoy it, but don't kid yourself if it eats up your writing time.

      For the record, I don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, stories, poetry or any other writing. If you send them to me I won't read them or even open the attachments. I'm not a publisher or an editor and I'm not looking to partner or co-author any works. My publisher is very strict about this and I understand the reasons. I'm happy to help you out in other ways whenever I can. Thanks!

Now on to life and thanks again for coming!

January 17, 2015

Stepping Up the Process

      Before my first book was published I considered my writing incredibly important, but only to me. Writing is very private, especially in the genre I enjoy most. I write stories that reflect my innermost thoughts, dreams and fears even though they are complete fantasy. To imagine that anyone else would enjoy reading my work as much as I loved writing it, seemed like a dream. Every day I find that I was shortchanging myself and I am very thankful to be sharing my stories with the world. Now as my career in writing grows and develops, it seems that even the little things I do to put together my books have become vastly important. One of those things is my method of organizing my notes.
      I am essentially an organized person, for which I am often grateful, and I have developed a routine that I go through before beginning a new book. It starts when I develop my characters. Once they are sketched out in my mind I get a notebook and put a few categories down on paper. One section has the names of all the people in the novel. The first few are the main characters. After each name I write a brief description of that person including who they are in the story, their age and relationship to other characters. I also name all the animals. I set up a timeline as well. For characters like Mark and Louisa from Stavewood, who start out as children and grow to adults, it’s important to know their ages at each point in the story. As I work on my novel, other, lesser characters appear. A character like the local sheriff, for example, might not seem terribly important at first, but as the story develops he will need a name, and maybe his deputy will too. That sheriff might even have a wife that works into the story for some reason. All of my novels begin with a basic outline, like a skeleton of sorts, and building the characters helps to flesh out the story.
      If I add that sheriff in chapter twelve it’s very distracting to try to go back while working on chapter twenty-two to find out what I named the guy. With him in my notebook, his name is right there and I don’t waste time trying to figure out what the heck I called him.
      Before I begin any book there are other lists I make in that notebook as well. I list locations, such as town names and, if it’s relevant to the story, things like what type of trees grow in the setting, which flowers, and so on. In a book where there’s a bit of a mystery to be solved, like The Secret of Stavewood, I also make sure that any questions that need to be answered in the story are wrapped up so that there are no loose ends. I strive for a story that is complete when you read the words, The End. If the novel is part of a saga then I usually begin taking notes for the following novels as well.
      When I wrote my first novel, and several since, I used whatever notebook I had on hand. Later I picked up a new one when I saw something pretty that caught my eye. After nine novels, and a few that were test-runs, I acquired a stack of miscellaneous styles and sizes of pads. I had recently purchased a good old-fashioned tablet of lined, letter paper at the supermarket for an unrelated project, and I began to use it for my notes of my current book. It had no cover and the pages came loose quite easily and I found that it was not a good tool. I needed to get even more organized.
      I got online and ordered a box of a dozen, good old composition notebooks. They have been consistent and available for years. Since I always have basically the same list of things in all of the notebooks it would be easy to dedicate a composition pad to each novel and tuck them away neatly together when I’m finished.
      While shopping for the notebook I ran across composition book covers. There were some lovely leather bound versions available. I suppose I could treat myself to a fine bound container for my future notepads, but I had to wonder how long it would be before I set down a pen or a cup of coffee onto an expensive leather cover. I just don’t want that kind of pressure while my mind is off in the Yukon on an adventure. I also found handmade composition book covers designed by creative college students and decided to design one of my own. 

If you'd like to make one for yourself you will need:

About a yard of a lightweight fabric
Scraps of lace and other fabrics, buttons, ribbon etc. for embellishments
A pencil for marking
The notebook you plan to cover
A sewing machine
Iron and an ironing surface

(You can click on the pictures for a closer look.)

Iron the fabric and lay your notebook open and flat onto the wrong side of the material. Be sure to allow for the fabric to wrap around the spine and both sides of the book. Draw around it with your pencil for a stitching line. If you like, leave a little space for wiggle room:

Cut around the outline, leaving about 5/8" to 1/2" for a seam allowance:

Mark and cut two more pieces that are a couple of inches narrower than the covers of your notebook. These are the flaps that will hold the cover in place:

Sew a narrow hem on the long, straight edge of the flaps:

Now is the time to add some of your embellishments, before you assemble the cover.  I decided I wanted a book title but I didn't want to make a new cover each time I started a new notebook. I used a business card for a template and drew around it onto a plan scrap of cotton muslin. I folded over the edges, adding two strips of ribbon on each side for holders and stitched around, including a little lace ruffle.

The materials:

Trimmed with  the edges folded and pressed and ribbon pinned on:

 Sew around the edges. Before I stitched, I added lace. The business card or whatever card I want to slip inside is held by the strips of ribbon at each end:

I then attached the label by sewing it to the outside of the cover with a second row of stitching. Here it is with the business card removed and attached to the cover piece:

Next put the right sides of the fabric together and pin on the flaps matching the pencil lines you drew on all pieces. Sew around the outside leaving the flat edge of the flaps open like this:

This is a good time to check the fit. Put the notebook into the cover before turning it inside out:

 If it fits, now's the time to clip the corners like this: (Do not cut too close to the stitching. This clipping will take out some of the wrinkles when the cover is turned right side out.)

Turn your cover right side out, pushing
 out the edges until they are a smooth and give it a good pressing with your iron.

I decided I wanted a ribbon bookmark attached and sewed it to the top after pressing.

I also added a button on the front and back, and a bit of cotton twine to tie the cover closed.

 Now I 'll get back to writing my next novel. Maybe this would be a good time to begin that one you always swore you would write!

Have fun and see you next week!

January 10, 2015

For the Birds


      When I can't get out and dig in the soil during the cold winter months of Pennsylvania there is a bit of gardening I can still enjoy from inside my warm and cozy house. My bird garden. In a way it blooms all year around. I don’t recall the first time I set out a bird feeder or a birdbath. It just seems as if I have always had them in my yard. Over the years I've gotten better feeders and a larger variety of them. And I have learned some feeder lessons over time. Lessons like the fact that sunflower seed hulls are natural growth inhibitors, thus killing anything that tries to grow beneath the feeder. And now I know that squirrels can jump incredible distances and get into practically any feeder ever made. Feeders that do keep flocking birds and squirrels away may seem expensive when you purchase them but will soon pay for themselves in seed over time.
      Every year new and returning visitors come to my yard and I enjoy it immensely. When you walk into the backyard on a warm summer day it is like walking into a fairy-tale woodland with birds chirping and flying overhead and fat squirrels chattering on the fence. Over time I figure I have seen over twenty varieties of birds in my yard, some more welcome than others. Every one is entertaining. Wild bird feeding to me is like having living flowers in the yard and I strive to enjoy them all year round.

      A few years ago, when we installed the big deck in the yard, I took what I have learned about wild bird feeding over the years and set to making a bird garden. Far in the back of my patch of land is a lonely place along the property line that borders the driveway. It is deep in shade during the warmer months and, try as I might, I have never been able to grow much there. It is removed enough from the lawn and the deck and any neighbors and a good place to contain the shells from the feeders. It borders a bit of a wild space with brush and safe places for the birds to nest and hide and yet is still within view of the deck and the house.
      First I drew up a bit of a plan for my vision of my bird garden. That was the easy part.

        Then came the real work.
      I had some feeders and I invested in a few more. I added special spaces around the property for the squirrels to enjoy, to distract them from eating up all the sunflower seeds, and went to work. To inspire myself along the way I did a bit of work every day.
      There were mountains of soil piled up from clearing space for the deck and it was a brutal and laborious job to move the heavy soil away. I would move a few dozen bucketfuls and then set to leveling out one section and putting in a couple of bird features. I wanted to be able to offer up a variety of things the birds might enjoy. The one thing I know that draws birds all year around is water. As I worked I added birdbaths, flat surfaces and hanging feeders.

In the beginning:

      As the work progressed:

      I planted silver lace vines, or wild clematis, as I went along, to grow up over the fence and give us privacy. It took a couple of weeks to get in all of the bird features I wanted but eventually I moved away all of the soil and reached the end of the garden. By June the vines took over and the birds had become completely comfortable with the new space. 

      While I worked I filled the feeders as I installed them and kept them full every day. Chickadees would flit over and stealthily grab a few sunflower seeds, swooping over my head or close to my shoulders as I dug. The cardinals would chirp loudly in the morning, waiting for me to leave, but eventually became less shy, returning later in the day and eyeing me cautiously as they munched on black oil sunflower seeds. A fat robin joined my efforts early on, getting so familiar with me he would follow me into the garage and I had to hustle him out ahead of me to close the door at the end of the day. As I found fat earth worms in the piles of dirt I would toss them onto the lawn for him and in a few days he was underfoot as I dug, waiting for another fat worm. He even returned the following spring with a youngster and began to follow me around again. One day I saw and heard no birds at all as I dug and in the eerie quiet I looked up to see a stately Cooper’s Hawk eyeing me from a nearby branch. He stayed until sunset but did not come back the following day. Then the garden was alive again with hungry birds.

Chickadee in a birdhouse on the fence:

      Over that summer I was visited by sparrows, wrens, mourning doves, goldfinches, purple finches, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. When the snow fell in the fall there were woodpeckers and juncos, shuffling the snow beneath their tiny feet.
      If I put out cheap food I got grackles and crows and starlings and once even a very tiny field mouse. Now I rarely put out cracked corn and if I do it is only in small amounts for the peaceful mourning doves.
      I put millet mixes into the hopper feeders and a sunflower and safflower mix in the squirrel-proof feeders. They are equipped with a spring mechanism that closes the feeders when a squirrel or larger bird lands on the perch. For the goldfinch I put out nyjer seed in a finch feeder. I buy dried meal worms from the home center by the bagful and it is very popular with the robins in the spring and the wrens who have taken up winter residence in the overhung roof of my mudroom. I tried growing my own worms once until I found that the icky, live worms grew into fast, black roaches. That was enough of that. On the feeding table I have a couple of short screws that I sometimes use to impale an apple or half an orange. Birds love peanut butter and cheap grape jelly in little soap dishes and dried heels and toes of bread loaves in old teacups. I bring home popcorn leftovers from the movies and tear up cold pizza as well. The suet feeders are often visited by woodpeckers of several types.

A curious nuthatch in the tree behind the bird garden:

     In my squirrel feeders I stick a dried corncob in the late winter and fill the jar feeder with peanuts for a treat that is enjoyed by the squirrels and the cats watching from the nearby window enjoy the show.

      On lovely days when the breezes of summer warm the skin or on bone chilling days in the snow as well, there is always a myriad of birds outside my window to be enjoyed and appreciated.