How to Make Dandelion Jelly

Time for a confession: I am going to let you in on one of my deepest, darkest secrets:

I love dandelions.
dandelions
Don’t tell my husband – PLEASE don’t tell him. It’s a betrayal, I know. I KNOW. But I cannot help myself. They are such smiley, happy little flowers. Like little bits of sunshine sprinkled throughout the lawn. And I know they are a weed, okay? I get that they have no place amidst his carefully cultivated lawn! This is just how far I’ve fallen.

Are you ready for this?

Sometimes, I … I … make wishes and blow the whispery white little seed pods into the wind.

STOP JUDGING ME! I can feel the hate! But I … Just. Can’t Stop.

Fortunately for me, my sweet son loves to pick them for me. He’s been bringing me dandelion bouquets every day.

with dandelions2

And since I hate for wonderful things to go to waste, I use them up. When life gives you dandelions, make dandelion jelly.

In my book MOTHER MONA, my protagonist travels to Spruce Island near Kodiak, Alaska, where life is totally off the grid. Mona’s family basically has to can or dehydrate everything so it won’t go bad. Mona’s family would have canned blueberries or salmonberries, which grow abundantly on Kodiak and its surrounding islands. We make jelly out of the berries on our property in Alaska also – mostly golden raspberries and cranberry/rhubarb. But dandelion jelly is a light and delicate alternative that is perfect for topping toast or biscuits – if you can keep your kids from eating it straight out of the jar. (It’s also a killer addition to a glass of herbal tea).

dandelion jelly outside 1.75 oz

Here’s how to make it:

1. Send the kids out into the yard to pick a heap of dandelions. You’ll need a bucketful in order to end up with the 2 cups of petals needed for the jelly – about 5 cups of flower heads. (Note: make sure your yard or wherever they’re picking from has not been sprayed with pesticide or is not right off the road, because … yuck). Pop the heads off, and wash them well.

2. Now pull the yellow petals out (a wee bit of green and/or white is okay) and put them into a sauce pan with 2.5 cups of water. Bring the whole thing to a boil for about 10-15 minutes, or until the water turns bright yellow.

3. Turn off the heat and let it cool. Strain the petals out and measure to make sure you have 2 full cups of dandelion water left. If not, add more water.

4. Pour the dandelion water back into the saucepan and add 1/4 cup lemon juice and 4 cups sugar. (Yes four cups. If you think sugar is the devil, well you’re probably right but in the meantime go have some broccoli with chia seeds and please ignore the rest of this blog post.) Bring it to a boil again and add in 3 ounces of liquid pectin. Boil another few minutes or whatever the directions on your liquid pectin tell you, and then ladle into jars and can in a water bath or label and put whatever you don’t eat immediately into the refrigerator.

5. Now, I will tell you that I often have to add another 1/2 packet of pectin (with the corresponding amount of additional sugar). It is a difficult jelly to gel sometimes. In any case, you’ll want to make absolutely sure it has set up before going to the trouble to can the jars in a water bath. Ask me how I know (by canning 24 jars of dandelion syrup, that’s how).

Here’s the recipe in full:

  • 2 heaping cups of fresh dandelion petals (that’s about 4-5 cups whole flowers)
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 3 ounces liquid pectin

Boil petals in water until water turns yellow and equals 2 cups. Add lemon juice, sugar and pectin and bring to a boil for two minutes. Let cool, then ladle into jars.

So that’s that! Let me know how it goes!

Writing: A life of discipline and hard work

In my last post, I noted that one of the best (and least fattening) ways to survive the querying process with a wee semplance of sanity intact is to keep on writing.
Yeah.snoopy

Toward that end, I’ve been working on a new project. Two new projects, actually. One is another novel that’s been stewing in my brain for a long time, a historical fiction set during the time of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Ever since we moved to Alaska (almost a quarter century ago – how is that even possible?), I’ve been sort of obsessed with it, and the tsunamis that wreaked major destruction all over the state. I’ve been doing research for months now, and I’ve even unearthed some pretty cool firsthand reports that to my knowledge have never been published. Being what writerly people refer to as a plotter (as opposed to a pantser – one who writes by the seat of their pants and goes back to fix plot elements later), I spent months planning and tweaking and plotting before I even wrote a word. But I must say it feels so good to be writing again.

The other project I am working on is a middle grade book about a boy whose stuffed moose accidentally gets dropped off at the Goodwill. I wasn’t planning to write a kid’s book, but this one basically slammed into my head – the whole thing – while I was thinking about something else. What can you do? I said to myself, “Self, stop it. You do not write children’s books.” And my brain said, “Oh yeah?” and WHAM! Up popped the idea for a sequel. Then a third book. Alright, already.

The more I thought about, the less crazy it seemed. For one thing, a million years ago, I was a kid. Who loved books. Some of my very favorite books of all time are middle grade books (more on that later). For another thing, I have five kids who love books like heroin, so I have done my fair share of reading to them.

baby-geek-reading-glasses

So now my brain is on overload with wanting to write. And what happens? Summer happnes.

If you don’t live in Alaska, you may not understand the burning desire to get outside the moment actual sunlight happens. After seven months of snow and dark, we get a little manic about it. Our last two summers were rather crummy. But this year – wow. It’s been gorgeous. Perhaps if I had a nice windowless attic to work in, I could buckle down and get these books written. But no. Look at this:

photo (2)

This is the view from where I write.

I thought perhaps if I went outside to work on the balcony, I might get something done. But it just gets worse when you go outside.

photo (3)

Outside, you can smell the fun-ness and feel the warmth and hear the kids playing. A dragonfly flew by and laughed at me. I think he also called me an idiot, but I’m not sure.

The bottom line is this: being a writer means making tough decisions. It means being serious about your work and disciplined about your writing schedule.

Therefore, I’ll be up late tonight. Writing. For now, I’m headed outside to do this …

photo (4)

Because summers in Alaska are way too short not to.

How to query like Bilbo Bagginses

So my last post was all about finding the courage to send out query letters to literary agents for my novel, MOTHER MONA. I finally found a little bit between the couch cushions, and so I actually went for it. (scream)

You know those action movies where there’s a skinny little guy who takes on the world…

115186601_348382c“I’m going on an adventure.”

… and then he proves himself in battle and thinks he’s done, but whoa, no – he’s just getting started? And as the movie progresses, there are always bigger hills to climb and scarier monsters to battle? Kind of like, it never ends and the poor little guy is on his knees screaming, “DEAR LORD HOW MUCH MORE CAN I TAKE?”

Yeah. Querying is a lot like that. I’ll show you how. There are specific steps involved.

1. First, you find the agents you adore: the ones which your extensive research has showngandalf are compatible with your kind of writing, are open to queries, and have compassionate-looking avatars on Twitter and/or share your bad eating habits. You compose an email to each one containing your query letter. You personalize each one (Dear Agent is frowned upon but I think Hey You Sweet Thang is okay in some circles), and go to each agent’s website and review their submission guidelines (even though you’ve already cut and pasted them onto your handy-dandy AGENTS spreadsheet on Excel). You say a quick prayer, cross yourself, stop and re-read your email for typos, cross yourself again, stop clenching your fists and shake your hands until you can feel your fingers again, remember to breathe, eat a chocolate chip for luck, and hit “send.”

2. Immediately after hitting “send,” go to your inbox. Did they reply yet? If so, see the steps below. If not, check your “sent” folder. Is it there? If not, check your internet connection. Wonder if you remembered to pay your internet bill, and then realize … of course you did, you have that agent’s profile up on Twitter right there. If it is there in your “sent” folder, re-check the email address. Oh bless us and splash us, is that the right email address? Pull up the submission guidelines on their website again. Whew. Wait … did you remember to paste the appropriate agent’s name into the salutation? OH GOD!!! Wait, okay you’re good. Remind yourself that some agents can get as many as 100 queries or more every day. Give them at least a couple hours to read yours.

Gandalf reading

3. This is where you’ll need to have an iPhone, because it is important to check your inbox regularly, and you won’t want to be tied to a landline. If your teenager spies your phone on the kitchen counter next to you while you’re doing dishes after dinner and tries to stealthily grab it to check her tumbler blog, or her own email account, or call 911 or something equally not-nearly-as-important-as-your-incoming-agent-email, just yell “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY PHONE!” – but make sure you’ve already dried and put away the sharp knives first because they might jump back a few feet. That’s okay – keeps them on their toes. Nothing like a little healthy fear of the mom. =)

gollum

4. Soon, In a day or two, Eventually, Finally, your iPhone will make that wonderful little “You’ve Got Mail” sound as you’re tucking your toddler into bed, and the Old Lady will go straight from swallowing-the-bird-to-catch-the-spider to well-she-should’ve-stayed-a-vegetarian-anyway-so-goodnight, and you will bang your head on the top bunk in your haste (but what’s a little blood for the sake of art?) and you will check your inbox and find a response from one of the agents you queried.

gollum happy

5. Now, agents can respond to queries with anything from “My eyes are bleeding, don’t ever email me again!” to “This is wonderful, you are the next Emerson, when can we do lunch?” The responses generally fall into one of four categories: form rejection; personalized rejection; hmm, how about you send me a bit of your manuscript (partial request); and dang girl – send me the whole darn thing right away! (in the writer biz that’s called a “full”). If you get a good old-fashioned form rejection, be proud: you’re in good company. I hear CS Lewis was rejected like 7 million times for Narnia. Still, it hurts. Vodka helps. So does chocolate. Cry a little. Cross that agent’s name off your spreadsheet (or at least change their name to an unflattering shade of medium grey, so there) and tell yourself they really aren’t as awesome as you always thought they were. Eat another bite of chocolate and decide that yeah, they are, but that’s okay.

OR

6. If you’re really super lucky, you’ll get a personalized rejection. This is awesome because then you can brag about it to all your writerly friends. The personalized rejection means a Real Life Agent thinks you don’t Totally Suck Completely, and you’re worthy of taking the time to convey a smidge of hope to. Understand that it is a wee smidge, because after all, it’s still a rejection. Print it out nevertheless. Put it in a folder so you can frame it later. Have some more vodka. Resume iPhone vigil, but stay away from heavy wood furniture.

The-Hobbit-Azog

One semi-scary monster down …

7. Now, one day you might check your inbox at 5:35 in the morning (because agents do not sleep or eat but subsist off words alone) and find – cue the Hallelujah Chorus – a note from an agent requesting a partial or full manuscript from you. When you’re done screaming (why should the rest of your family sleep in anyway? You’ve been meaning to get them on a schedule), eat a bite of celebratory chocolate. You just killed the dragon. You’re IN THERE, buddy. A Real Live Agent likes you. Do the happy dance, pour yourself a cuppa coffee and send that baby right on over. Then, take a deep breath – because you’re gonna need it – and proceed to the next step.

The-Hobbit_01-e1359736343240

8. Yeah. Here’s where that bigger hill happens where Bilbo has to kill another dragon (or similar scary creature). One that makes the first one look like a cute fluffy bunny.

imagesCAZT5MN6

Because now, the stakes are amped up, and agents can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to read manuscripts. Go ahead and add a little Baileys to that coffee. I’ll wait.

And wait. And wait.

9. It only gets better, and scarier, from here. Assuming you’re one of the 3-4% of requested manuscripts agents fall in love with (and requests only constitute a fraction of a percent of the amount of queries they receive), and the agent calls you and you both decide you’re a perfect fit for each other, and you actually become an AGENTED WRITER, guess what? The whole thing just starts all over again (oh, and did I mention revisions yet? Heh heh heh. Have a Snickers bar). Your agent turns around and tries to sell your manuscript to publishers … wait for it … by writing a pitch letter very similar to the query letter you wrote them.

 hobbit-benedict-cumberbatch-smaug

I’m told being “on sub” – that excruciating time when your agent is out there trying to sell your book – is even more frightening than querying. I wouldn’t know (yet!), but I believe it. To be so, so close to the very tip of the mountain, only to fall back down again if a publisher rejects your book, has gotta really hurt. And, you’re no longer in control – it’s all up to that super awesome agent of yours.

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  It is in Men agents that we must place our hope.

Through all this though, I have discovered a pretty good way to deal with the pain and fear of querying a novel. You’ll never guess what. Okay you guessed it. By writing another book.

Bilbo-Baggins-in-The-Hobbit-An-Unexpected

More on that in my next post. 😉

For Mother’s Day I Want A Heap of Guts

write-1

People in your works of fiction always think the story is about them.

It is.

And, it’s not.

For example, I have spent hours (okay a lot of minutes) trying to convince my mother that my novel MOTHER MONA is not about her. It really isn’t.

She’s in there though – just a wee bit of her. So is my beloved mother-in-law. So am I.

MONA, my main character, is a woman who’s lived her life restrained by fear. Fear of connecting, fear of leaving her comfort zone, fear of leaving an alcoholic husband. Fear of germs. Of spiders. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of fear.

See, there’s me in there. Certainly not that bad, but one of the perks of having a vivid imagination is that not only do you view the world in a way that makes people think you’re at least a little bit nuts, you also have the capability to imagine every little possible thing that can go wrong. And, I hate spiders.

So here I’ve gone and written a novel. Now, Mother’s Day is in a couple days and if you follow any kind of media whatsoever, you’ve been inundated with gift ideas for Mom. My kids have been asking me what I want (clean house, long nap, vacation to someplace warm, lots of hugs and kisses – not necessarily in that order). Then that Little Voice said, “What do you want? Guts.” Not the moose kind (been there, done that) or the fish kind (done that too). The writerly kind. Yeah.

So my Mother’s Day gift to me? The guts to query. For you non-writer types, that means I’ve spent months writing a novel, and weeks and weeks polishing it until my eyeballs bled, and now it’s time to send a blurb about it to literary agents to see if they like it well enough to represent me. The blurbs are called queries. So “to query” literally means “to rip your heart out and wave it in front of the whole wide world to criticize or reject or maybe even laugh at.”

Gulp.

I went bungee jumping once. Years ago, in Florida. Bouyed by copious amounts of liquid courage and the effrontery of my husband, who said I’d chicken out. I showed him. From 1,000 feet, I jumped. It was terrifying. And wonderful. And ever since, I’ve been able to look back and say to myself, “Ha! You did that! You can do anything!” and “I told you so” to my husband (which is also fun because it doesn’t happen often).

Today, I’m jumping. Leaping off the big fat, scary query cliff is my Mother’s Day gift to me. Tawanda!

But I still want all the hugs and kisses from my kids. And the long nap.

May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month

bigstockphoto_My_future_sibling__738782In my novel MOTHER MONA, my main character Mona travels to remote Alaska to help her daughter who is hospitalized with preeclampsia.

What the heck is preeclampsia? A lot of people have never heard of it. Neither had I, until I had it.

The first time I had preeclampsia, I thought the swelling in my legs and face and the headaches were just a normal part of pregnancy. Thankfully, my doctor thought otherwise and put me on strict monitoring and bedrest. A few days later, my daughter was born.

The second time – being seen at the hospital on base this time – I showed up for an appointment and my blood pressure was 250 over 210. Yeah, you could say that’s high. Because of a mistake on the appointment calendar, the front desk people almost wouldn’t let me be seen. Fortunately an on-the-ball nurse saw the state I was in, and my baby was delivered by c-section that afternoon.

The third time I had preeclampsia (back to a civilian provider) I ended up on strict bedrest for three months (with four young kids. Yeah.). At 34 weeks into the pregnancy, things started going downhill. My baby still wasn’t due for another month. Initial test showed I had protein in my urine and I looked like the Michelin Man, but my doctor wasn’t too concerned. However I had a feeling of complete dread – headaches, dizziness, I *knew* something was horribly wrong. My doctor knew about preeclampsia, but in my opinion didn’t fully appreciate how deadly it was. At 36 weeks I was back in her office, in tears, begging her to do something. To humor me, she re-did the tests. She called a few hours later. I was scheduled for a c-section the next Monday. When I showed up at the hospital, they re-did the tests again. I was worse. My doctor said, “(Bleep bleep), get her on the mag sulfate and in the OR now!”

I am incredibly fortunate blessed. At 36 weeks my baby was born healthy, his lungs fully developed. It was determined that I had severe preeclampsia and also had acquired HELLP Syndrome, a complication of preeclampsia that attacks the liver. Having the baby is the only cure for preeclampsia (although it can also attack after delivery), and within a few days my blood pressure had dropped to the point I was no longer in imminent danger. Yet, it took months for my body to return to normal. Five years later, I still have residual liver and kidney problems. I am just thankful to be alive.

When I was sitting around on bedrest for those three months, I came across a group called the Preeclampsia Foundation. Literally, they saved my life. Talking to their experts, and the encouragement and support from other women on the forums, gave me the confidence to insist the tests be repeated. If I hadn’t had that encouragement, if I had waited another few days, I could have lost my baby or even died.

The takeaway is this: sometimes doctors and nurses are up to speed on the symptoms and complications of preeclampsia – sometimes they’re not. It is up to every woman to learn for herself what the danger signs are, and to stand up for herself if the health care system isn’t listening. This holds true, I suppose, in all situations, but with preeclampsia, often the mother just knows something is wrong. That feeling of impending doom that had me questioning my own sanity? A major sign preeclampsia is getting critical. During my pregnancy, the the preeclampsia Foundation forums I got to know a lot of women all across the country who had preeclampsia. Some of the friends I made lost their babies. One of my friends had to deliver at 26 weeks, and I watched with tears for updates on the forums every day. Happily, her baby survived – a miracle if ever there was one. But there is a section of the forums dedicated to moms and babies who were not so fortunate. The testimonies of surviving children, spouses and parents will rip you heart out. Especially because so often, their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented by a better understanding of this disease.

The Preeclampsia Foundation reports that “by conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year” around the world. And that’s not just in underdeveloped countries. Preeclampsia affects 5-8 percent of all pregnancies. Doctors don’t know what causes it, although they have identified a few risk factors. The point is, it is unpredictable. It usually starts after the 20th week of pregnancy. But not always. Know the symptoms:

  • No Symptoms (surprise! yeah, that’s why this disease is so evil. You can have it and not even know)
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Proteinuria – protein in your urine. That little stick you dip every prenatal visit? This is why.
  • Edema (Swelling) – beyond the usual swollen feet. I gained 70 pound of water with my first.
  • Sudden Weight Gain – again, beyond the obvious
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach area) and/or Shoulder Pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Headache (worst headache of your life? Go to the ER immediately. I mean now.)
  • Changes in Vision
  • Hyperreflexia – overactive or over-responsive reflexes
  • Last but not least, my personal “favorites:” Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom

The Preeclampsia Foundation is an incredible resource. Check them out. And while you’re there, please donate a little something in honor of Preeclampsia Awareness Month. And in honor of all those who didn’t make it through.

Everybody, duck!

IMG_5094One of the fun things my main character Mona gets to do in my novel MOTHER MONA is feed the family ducks at her daughter’s cabin on Spruce Island, Alaska. When our family last visited Spruce Island, we were rather surprised to see locals keeping ducks rather than chickens. We personally own 11 pet chickens – and I say “pet” chickens because they haven’t given us any eggs in months. My guess is they are waiting for Lent, when we give up eggs, meat and dairy. Our chickens are sarcastic like that.

If you’ve never had farm-fresh eggs, you’ve practically never had eggs. When our chickens started molting (that’s a poultry-esque term for turning into a diva and eating lots of expensive chicken feed for free), we had to go back to buying store-bought eggs. It was kind of like switching to diet rootbeer … not even close.

So when we learned that breakfast would include duck eggs, we were definitely intruigued. They were delicious. If we hadn’t known they weren’t chicken, we never would have guessed – although they are quite a bit larger than chicken eggs.

duck-eggsThe great thing about most domestic ducks is that they aren’t food snobs. In fact, one of their favorite meals was the slugs that grow so abundantly in Southeast Alaska. Every morning, the kids would walk the plank-covered paths, plucking the slimy little dudes from the grass at the edges, getting slug juice under their nails. The ducks went crazy for them, and the kids had a blast holding the slugs for the ducks to gently grabble with their beaks. Yes, I just made up the word grabble, but it suits.

The ducks poor Mona had to contend with are nothing like the sweet-tempered creatures we visited. Generally, most domestic ducks are very nice. My fictional ducks Quick and Quack are Indian Runners, and Bear, ironically, is a Buff Orpington Duck – known for being sweet and docile. In a novel, where’s the fun in that? In real life though, they ar4353579009_6dc7ee490b_ze two of the most popular domestic duck breeds, producing on average around 200 eggs a year. Sometimes even more.

My characters – like our friends on Spruce Island – own ducks rather than chickens for several reasons, but primarily because they are more cold-hardy than chickens. They’re usually quite affectionate too, and on a frugal homestead, 50% larger eggs are a definite plus.

And, they eat slugs. What’s not to love about that?

For more info on raising ducks, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks.

Research is vital (and fun!)

Research is an important component of writing – even in fiction. Of course the common advice is to write what you know, and that advice is absolutely dead on. However, details matter. So for a writer, it pays to educate yourself.

stove

Toward that end, I spent a wonderful afternoon at a friend’s house learning how she cooks on her woodburning stove. Mona, the main character in my novel MOTHER MONA, is a city girl who rarely cooks for herself at home. Most of her meals involve take-out or the salad bar at the local organic grocer. However, when she travels to a remote Alaskan cabin to be with her sick daughter, there’s no grocer for miles. Nor is there any electricity, gas or running water. Mona has to learn to cook on her daughter’s woodburning stove. And Mona learns, as I have today, that it involves as much art as science.

Luckily for me, today’s lesson involved baking three loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread. YUM! My friend Athanasia has been cooking on a woodburning stove for years. She’s lived the off-the-grid lifestyle for much of her life, and let me tell you she makes it look easy.
bread
It’s not. And we didn’t even go into the wood-chopping part.

I took notes on when to close the main regulator, when to turn the bread so it doesn’t all brown on one side (because the fire is hotter closer to the wood box), how to manipulate the burner rings on top to accomodate your tea kettle or fryer (cast-iron cookware is heavy!) and how to make your house smell pretty simply by adding a bit of dried lavender buds to the bread-warming drawer.

Of course, any good researcher will tell you thoroughness is of vital import. And so, as I drove home I tore off and ate about a third of the steamy warm loaf of whole wheat she sent with me. Oh yeah!

Sadly for Mona, her first few tries at woodstove cooking come out looking nothing like this. But let’s just say that’s an area in which I already have plenty of expertise. I’ve already done that research, thank you very much.

kettle

NOTE:                                                                                  (It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the bottom of this kettle is actually inside the stove here. The fire box is directly below it. That round piece you see normally lies flat, but can be removed so the bottom 1/2 inch of the kettle fits directly over the flame. There is another ring that also can be removed to accomocate a frying pan. How cool is that!)