O (ceramic) Christmas tree

“Don’t touch it; it’s very delicate.” My mother warned as my three-year old eyes took in the miniature Christmas tree glowing with tiny red, green, blue, and yellow lights.

“But mommy, it’s so pretty!”

“Yes, it is, which is why you need to look with your eyes, not with your hands.” My mother firmly pushed my little arm down.

But as soon as mom left the room, Grandma came over and whispered, “you can touch, but just be careful. I made this tree just for you. This tree is just your size.”

I smiled, and with the knowledge that this was something I had to be VERY careful with, I gingerly pulled one of the mini lights out of the green ceramic tree, and gasped in wonder at the circle of light that beamed from that tiny hole.

Looking back, that is one of my fondest memories of spending Christmas at my grandmother’s house. Every year, she brought out the ceramic, 18-inch Christmas tree, covered with dozens of tiny holes. Of course, she didn’t make that tree for me, but rather for all of her grandchildren. She’d always let whoever was at her house at the time place the colorful, peg-like lights in the holes and share in our wonder when she flipped the switch and the lightbulb inside illuminated all the “lights” like tiny glowing stars.

My family has had many Christmas trees over the years, always covered with an assortment of handmade and store-bought ornaments, but that little ceramic tree of my grandma’s will live in my memory as something special.

IMG_2401Christmas cookies were always a special tradition at my house, too. Each year, still to this day, my mom bakes up a whole cookie jar (or two or three) full of Christmas cookies: snickerdoodles, peanut blossoms, spritzer cookies, sugar cookies. I’m sure she’ll get a kick out of decorating the sugar cookies this year with my two nephews, ages one and two.

Since I officially moved into my first house this fall, I decided to start making my own Christmas cookie tradition. A friend of mine at work made these cookies last year, and after one bite, I immediately requested the recipe. I made them for the second time this weekend, and they are, to put it bluntly, divine. Especially if you like chocolate, and let’s be honest, it’s downright inhumane NOT to like chocolate.

(Note- These are called Chocolate Sugar Snaps, but there is nothing “snappy” about them at all. More like warm, chocolately pillows that melt in your mouth. Mmmm…)

Chocolate Sugar Snaps 

1 cup flour

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon saltIMG_2393

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly firm (I used the Blue Bonnest stuff in the fridge, which I have no idea if it it unsalted or not)

2/3 cup sugar (for baking)

1/3 cup sugar (for rolling dough balls)

1/2 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

10 ounces fine quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted (I use Ghiardelli’s)

  1. Mix together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Set aside. IMG_2396
  2. In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy and lightened in color. Add 2/3 cup sugar. Add brown sugar and mix until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time. Blend in the vanilla and melted chocolate.
  3. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Cover with plastic wrap and chill 30-40 minutes. (DO NOT SKIP CHILLING DOUGH.)
  4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  5. Line jelly roll pans/cookie sheets with parchment paper. If using air bake pans, this is not necessary.
  6. Place remaining sugar into a bowl. Shape dough into walnut size balls and roll in extra sugar to coat. Dough will be sticky, so I chill the excess while baking.
  7. Bake 8-9 minutes for chewy cookies, or 10-11 minutes for crispy cookies (seriously, who likes crispy cookies?)
  8. Remove from oven and let rest in pan for several minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

You Had Me With … Chocolate!

I can’t believe no one has posted a chocolate recipe yet! Well, that has to be remedied right here, right now.

Personally, I like easy recipes, recipes that require few ingredients, recipes that won’t force me to spend much time in my kitchen, so here are a couple of my favorites that anyone can make. Oh, and I’ll admit right away, these are not lo-cal treats.

FUDGIES

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup) – do not use margarine!
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1 cup of evaporated milk
  • 1 cup chocolate chips*
  • 1 cup Graham cracker crumbs
  • 3/4 cup flour

Recipe:

In a two-quart sauce pan, combine butter, sugar and milk. On medium high, heat to a rolling boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add chocolate chips. Stir until melted, then add Graham cracker crumbs and flour. When mixed, fold into a 9×13 cake pan. (For thicker bars, use a smaller pan).

Refrigerate. Eat.

Then you probably want to run 10 miles to burn off the calories!

*For variety, substitute other flavors of chips. One of my favorite combinations is using white chocolate chips and substituting coconut for the Graham cracker crumbs. Delectable!

CHOCOLATE – PEANUT BUTTER BARS
(or as my family likes to call them, Uncle Geoffrey’s Fantabulous Peanut Butter Bars)

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks butter (1 cup)
  • 1/2 cups Graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 lb powdered sugar (1 box or 4 cups)
  • 12 oz chocolate chips (1 bag)

Recipe:

Grease 13X9 cake pan.

Heat oven to 200 degrees

Mix softened or melted butter with Graham cracker crumbs. Add peanut butter and stir. Then add powder sugar a little at a time. Mix will be a little crumbly. Press firmly into bottom of cake pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips over the top, then put pan in oven for 5 minutes. Remove and spread chocolate chips.

Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. (They taste good right away, but they set up even better if left in refrigerator for 1 day.)

Solitude

Solitude …

With solitude, there’s silence and to me there’s not a more Heavenly sound. It’s the sound that gets my creative juices flowing. With solitude there are no distractions. No music. No TVs or alarm clocks or ringing phones. No child yelling “Mom!” No husband peeking in the door to see how I’m doing. All those little interruptions that pull me away from writing.

Cabin RetreatWith solitude, I can focus, and it’s that focus that recharges me when I’m worn out, when I’m struggling to get words on the paper.

Retreat Work TableSo once (sometimes twice) a year I take off, all by myself, for my timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. I spend four nights alone, and that allows me three complete days of uninterrupted writing time.

Ahhh, Heaven!

I get more writing done in those three days than I can in a month at home. (Albeit, I usually have plenty of chocolate on hand too, and we all know that helps the writing process!)

Writing RetreatBecause of a scheduling snafu (mine) back in February, my retreat was cut short, and I’m feeling it now. And with a college attendee and a graduate temporarily living at home, it’s rare that I’m even alone in the house, so I’m itching to get to that little cottage in the Dells.

You know what? I’m signing off right now so I can go schedule that much needed retreat!

Never Enough Time to Read

I got Brenda’s book in the mail last Wednesday and took it to the dentist with me. While my son got his teeth cleaned, I got the first two chapters read. Even though I’ve read the book 30 pages at a time while critiquing for Brenda, I want to read the edited version in book form all at one time. Alas, I haven’t had time.

The day I got it, we had church that night. On Thursday, I worked on my final revisions before turning my book into my editor next month. That night, my son had basketball practice and since he asks me if I saw him do this or that, I can’t read at practice. Friday, I worked again and that night we ran errands. Saturday, we had basketball games – three of them.

Sunday, our son got up with a fever. He has horrible seasonal allergies and is very prone to sinus infections. Yes, he’s twelve now. But he’s the kind of child who has to be entertained when he’s sick or he’s up jumping at the ceiling in the living room to see if he can palm it yet instead of resting. So yesterday and today, we watched movies, played board games, and Uno.

Tomorrow, we have a doctor appointment. So no work or reading for tomorrow either. I’ve decided to save Brenda’s book until May 16th. The deadline for my book will have passed and my son will be back in school. Then I’ll have time to give Chain of Mercy the time it warrants. I wish it had come sooner.

A month ago, I had lots of reading time. I always take at least two weeks off from writing after I finish my first draft and before I start revising. Of course, I read Denise Hunter’s new release. I’d read the first book in the series, Barefoot Summer, last year. I’d guessed the next book would be about Jade and eagerly been anticipating it.

Denise didn’t let me down. A sweet, tender love story with great kissing scenes. I crown Denise the contemporary romance queen of kissing scenes.

Dancing with Fireflies by Denise HunterJade returns home to Chapel Springs after years of protecting her fragile heart. Then along comes Daniel, making her long to dance again.

Creative and complicated, Jade McKinley felt like a weed in a rose garden growing up in Chapel Springs. When she left, she thought she’d never look back. But now, pregnant, alone, and broke, she has no other choice but to return.

The mayor of Chapel Springs, Daniel Dawson, has been an honorary member of the McKinley family for years. While his own home life was almost non-existent, Daniel fit right into the boisterous McKinley family. He’s loved Jade for years, but she always saw him as a big brother. Now that she’s back, his feelings are stronger than ever.

As Jade attempts to settle in, nothing feels right. God seems far away, she’s hiding secrets from her family, and she’s strangely attracted to the man who’s always called her “squirt.” Finding her way home may prove more difficult than she imagined.

I also discovered a new author I really enjoy – Melissa Tagg. I loved Made to Last. Loved the heroine, all the men complicating her life, and the webs she kept spinning herself into.

Miranda Woodruff, star of the homebuilding show From the Ground Up, will do anything to keepMade to Last by Melissa Tagg the job she loves. Due to a painful broken engagement and a faith she’s mostly forgotten, she’s let her entire identity become wrapped up in the Miranda everyone sees onscreen.

So when she receives news that the network might cancel her program, she must do the very thing she fears most: let the spotlight shine on her closely guarded personal life.

The only problem? She’s been living a lie–letting viewers believe she’s married–and now she’s called upon to play wife to a sweet, if a bit goofy, pretend husband to boost ratings.

Desperate to help his family and prove he’s not a total failure, reporter Matthew Knox is looking for a breakout story. When he’s offered the opportunity to do an online serial feature on Miranda Woodruff, he jumps at the chance, even if celebrity reporting isn’t really his thing. But as soon as he meets Miranda, he knows she’s keeping secrets.

I loved the character of Blaze, so of course I had to get the next book in the series, Here to Stay. I haven’t read it yet. But it’s next on my list after Chain of Mercy.

Here to Stay by Melissa TaggAfter playing nomad for five years, Blake Hunziker has finally had enough of adventure. Not sure what reception he’ll get from everyone back in Whisper Shore, he’s stunned at not only a warm welcome from his hometown but also a job offer. The job is his if he can successfully pull off the annual Christmas Festival. If only he knew the first thing about coordinating events…

If there’s one thing Autumn Kingsley knows, it’s Whisper Shore. For years, she’s been stuck running her family’s inn when all she wants is to see the world. Now she has a visit scheduled from a potential investor who could take over the inn, as well as a dream job offer in Paris. But with just two weeks to whip the inn into shape, her chance at escape is a long shot.

The Hunzikers and the Kingsleys may not get along, but Blake knows Autumn’s the only one who can help him. She agrees to a trade–she’ll help with the Festival and he’ll help with inn repairs. But what was meant to be a simple deal quickly becomes much more than that when the guy who’s done running away joins forces with the girl who can’t wait to leave.

Sadly, at the moment, I’m not reading anything. But I have big plans starting May 16.

We’re celebrating Brenda’s release over the next two weeks. Every time you leave a comment, your name will be entered in a special giveaway for an autographed copy of Chain of Mercy, a box of Fannie May chocolates, and Phillips Craig & Dean’s “Breathe In” CD.

Chain giveaway

They forgave him for the accident that killed their son, but he will never forgive himself.

Manhattan businessman Richard Brooks was at the top of the world, drunk with

Success … Wealth … Women …

And he proudly lived that prodigal lifestyle.

Until one disastrous evening, when that world came crashing down.

Richard flees to Minneapolis where he repairs ancient boilers instead of solving corporate problems, and he’s determined to live the solitary life he now deserves …

Chained to his guilt. Blending in with the gray. No luxuries in sight. But Executive Sheila Peterson has other plans for the handsome custodian. She’s had it with serious relationships, and Richard appears to be the perfect match for the no-strings-attached romance she desires. Instead, she finds a man who is complex, brilliant, and shrouding a tormented past.

In her quest to uncover the secrets holding Richard captive, will her own secrets remain buried?

RUN, don’t walk to your favorite bookstore or online retailer to get this book or buy it here.

Question of the day: Who is your favorite kissing scene author in the Christian market?

Disclaimer: Giveaway open to continental U.S. addresses only. Giveaway ends on Friday, May 9 at midnight, central time zone. Winner chosen by Random. org.

Guilty Pleasures – an Oxymoron?

Isn’t the phrase guilty pleasures an oxymoron? Or maybe it’s just that as women, we tend to feel guilty when we take too much time doing something we enjoy. But then THAT is an oxymoron – can we possibly take too much time for ourselves with so many other things pulling at us?

But I digress. This isn’t a post about oxymorons. It’s about those things in life I love, love, love! There might be a twinge of guilt once in awhile, but for the most part – bring it on!  🙂

Ducks in a bubble bath* Long soaks in a hot bubble bath while reading a good book

* Sitting in the sun (that’s it – just sitting under a comfortably warm sun enjoying the outdoors)

* Special K Bars and Butterfinger BlizzardsDQ Blizzards

* Dinner out with my girlfriends

* Writing

* The change of seasons (yes, even into winter – which lasts until January 2 and then I’m ready for spring, which is pretty funny considering I live in Minnesota!)

Lake_Tahoe_NV* Mountains (Lake Tahoe comes to mind)

* Singing praise and worship songs (which I only do alone in my car, or in the house with all the windows closed – trust me, it’s not pretty)

* New pens, paper, journals, folders, markers, tape… (anything at an office supply store – whether I “need” it or not)M&Ms

* and of course, M&Ms – plain

Now I have this sudden need to go shopping with my girlfriends for new office supplies with a bag of plain M’s in hand. Then I’ll have to stop by the Dairy Queen before heading home to settle in for a good long soak in the tub. Sounds like a perfect evening to me!

What are some of your guilty, or not-so-guilty pleasures? We’re giving away a gently used copy of Sarah Sundin’s On Distant Shores to one lucky reader this week, and a copy of Laura Frantz’s Love’s Awakening to another reader. Every time you leave a comment over the next two weeks, your name will be entered.

The two winners will be chosen after midnight on Friday, Sept. 20 and posted on Saturday!

The Guilts

When this topic came up, I wasn’t sure if I could come up with ten guilty pleasures. But the more I thought about it, there’s wayShannon's shoes more than fifteen. I’m doing a countdown to number one to stir things up.

10. A dollop of caramel in my coffee. I’m not even going to list coffee, even though I put three creamers and three sugars and hummingbirds would love my sweet brew. It’s the dollop of caramel syrup that puts my fave beverage over the top.

9. Hallmark movies. They’re so clean and sweet. Why do they make me feel guilty? Because there’s always something else I should be doing other than watch them. But I have gotten book ideas from them. If you take a thread from five different movies and put them together, it’s not plagiarism.

8. The Chronicles of Narnia. I started reading the books back when the first movie came out in 2005. Why? Because I never read them as a kid. I finished the final book just today. Now why do I feel guilty? Because they are children’s books and I really shouldn’t be enjoying them so much. But there’s such an innocence about them, they take me back to a child’s view of the world. I think I’m going to start reading them over again. With writing books and reading inspirational contemporary romances in between, it took me so long to finish, I don’t remember what happened in the first few books.

7. Chocolate covered coffee beans. I consistently pop three at a time at least twice a day. I’ve gotten immune to regular coffee, but the beans rev me up. Plus, there’s chocolate involved.

6. Nabisco Chips Ahoy cookies. Especially dipped in a bowl of milk until they’re so soggy they almost fall apart.

5. Cedar Cove. It’s been a long time since I got hooked on a TV series. But this Hallmark series is based on books by Debbie Macomber. I looked forward to it all summer. Then as the school about to start frenzy got underway and final summer guests visited, I forgot and missed the first episode. But I’ve recorded every episode since. It’s a chick flick, so I have to wait until the roosters are gone to watch. And when the roosters are gone, this hen should be writing.

4. Lunch or dinner with friends. I have one friend I try to eat out with monthly. When we do, we linger for hours just catching up.

3. Reading inspirational contemporary romance. I should be writing it instead. But I’m studying my genre 🙂

2. Ice cream. I don’t know why something so delicious has to be so loaded with fat and calories.

1. Shoes. I try to keep my collection down to 60 or less. I even gave some away to the Rotary Club a few years ago when they were asking for donations for teens who couldn’t afford prom attire. I only have two pair I paid more than $15.00 for. And most of my shoes were less than $10.00. Last weekend, I bought a cream-colored satin pair of heels for $4.00. I couldn’t just leave them there, now could I?

Notice how many items on my top ten list involve food.

Top Picks in Romantic Flicks

Movies seem to go with Valentine’s Day . On one site, I discovered a list of the 50 Most Romantic Movies of All Time according to Time Out New York. Their list surprised  me. (See it here.) Edward Scissorhands would probably not make be on my top 10 romantic movie list no matter how cute Johnny Depp is.

So, Dawn and I created our own list. Do you need a little extra romance this Valentine’s Day? Consider curling up with a tub of popcorn (significant other optional) to watch one of these heart grabbing favorites. With so many great romantic movies out there, this list is far from inclusive. Instead, it offers a little something for everyone. Here they are—in o particular order.

  1. Somewhere in Time
  2. Sense and Sensibility
  3. Ever After
  4. 50 First Dates
  5. The Princess Bride
  6. Chocolat
  7. Titanic
  8. The Lake House
  9. Sweet Home Alabama
  10. 16 Candles or Pretty in Pink
  11. The Notebook
  12. Ghost
  13. Notting Hill
  14. Bridgette Jones Diary
  15. Gone with the Wind
  16. Any Cary Grant  movie you choose
  17. North and South
  18. Sleepless in Seattle
  19. While You Were Sleeping
  20. Pride and Prejudice

Did your favorite make our list?  Do you have another romantic movie to
recommend? Let us know. We may need to make a stop at Redbox.

 

P.S. If you haven’t watched North and South, run –don’t walk– to Netflix. Although the title makes many  Americans think it is a Civil War story, this BBC miniseries is set in England. It is a marvelous, romantic story that you do NOT want to miss.

And the Winner of Chocolate is …

Thanks to everyone who stopped by Inkspirational Messages these past two weeks, and to those who shared a comment or more with us. We love having you visit and hope you come back again.

Now, for the winner of one box of Fannie May Assorted Chocolates.

fannie mae(Drum roll please …)

!!! JUDY MILLER !!!

Congratulations Judy!

To claim your prize, e-mail your mailing address to Brenda AT BrendaAndersonBooks DOT com and we’ll get that delicious chocolate shipped right out to you.

Just Keep Swimming

I love the character Dory from the Pixar film, Finding Nemo. She’s a blue reef fish who suffers from short-term memory loss and often can’t remember what happened merely moments ago. Just think how frustrating that would be. It would be easy to find yourself confused and swimming in circles.

Dory from NemoBut Dory doesn’t let that get her down. Yes, at times she swims in circles, and it seems like she won’t make it anywhere, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She says that when life gets you down you, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

Like so many of you, the ACFW Conference in Indiana last year was a defining moment in my life. I finally got to meet most of my fellow writers/friends from Inkspirational Messages. What a treat that was. I had the honor of singing in a fabulous choir, and I learned the craft of writing from seasoned professionals. Does it get better than that?

Yet, I drove home disappointed. For the first time in five years of attending various writing conferences, I left for home without a single request for more of my work. It made no sense to me. I’d spent years writing and learning and honing, yet no one was interested. I even presented a romance, a book written out of my comfort zone. And nothing.

Had I just wasted all those years of writing? Was this truly my calling? I felt like I was swimming in circles in the ocean of publication.

And that was a very quiet place. A place where God seemed silent.

But, I knew God was there. I knew he swam beside me, and I knew writing was his gift to me. To let it lay dormant would be mocking him.

So I looked at my body of work. I had no work-in-progress and no proposals or queries to piece together, but I did have my favorite book that I’d been longing to edit for a few years. Finally, I had nothing stopping me. And I had a dozen other ideas for stories. At last I could work on them unhindered.

So, I started writing, writing, writing.

Those circles I’d been writing in created momentum and spun me forward. Writing freed me from listening to naysayers, enabling me to focus on him alone. When I put fingers to keyboard and kept typing, I could hear him again. And that place that had seemed so quiet bloomed with the pleasure of feeling God beside me, of hearing his inspiration in my imagination.

Even in those silent circles, he’d never left my side.

And for him, I’ll keep writing, writing, writing.

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 3:13b-14

Fannie May Assorted ChocolatesLove chocolate? Then leave a comment below and we’ll enter you in a drawing for a box of Fannie May Candies.

For complete contest rules click here.

Out of My Groove

I’m in a rut. I’ve been in this rut since the American Christian Fiction Conference in Indianapolis back in September. I put everything in high-gear and got all my commitments done before conference. I set my personal blog up for two weeks, sent all my interviews to the interviewers, and met all my deadlines.

After conference, I couldn’t seem to get in the groove. Every day, I have a Post It note with a list of what I need to achieve for the day. Interviews, publicity, blog posts, booksignings, classes to teach. Notice writing isn’t in there. I seem to be stuck in a publicity vortex. Every day I spin my wheels and get countless things done, but the next day, I have just as many to do. 

Part of my rut is that I haven’t had any deadlines to meet lately. Before I signed a contract, I wrote thousands and thousands of words, completing eight books with no guarantee that any of them would ever see the light of day. When I finally got a contract, writing the second book threw me into writers’ block. I worked through it and churned out the hardest book I’ve ever written. But I learned I could write under deadline. Book three wrote itself.

After I met all the deadlines, I turned in a new proposal for a potential new series. I felt like I was limbo. What to do now? I should work on the first book, but things changed. Writing something my editor may not like and won’t publish is a waste of my time. It seems I need deadlines to keep me on track. I needed a green light before committing my time to the project.

For the next month, I’m teaching an adult education course at the local two year college. My topic: Let’s Write a Novel. I hope to help writers who’ve been writing a while and are frustrated. Maybe my class will give them that piece of the puzzle that makes everything fit into place. I hope to help brand new writers just starting out. Maybe my class will give them a leg up in their journey. I hope to help writers stuck in a rut.

Hopefully, being around writers two days a week, teaching about my favorite thing will get me out of my rut. If not, the dim glow of a green light is blinking in the distance.

By the way, I learned something last week while helping my son study for a test on inventions. I hated school and really didn’t ever want to go again, but through homework, I’m vicariously in the 3rd grade again. Anyway, Spencer Silver invented a new glue, but it was weak and didn’t hold things together for very long. His friend, Arthur Fry knew about the glue. He was tired of losing his page in his church hymnal and used the weak glue to invent Post It notes. Just thought I’d throw that bit of trivia in since Lorna always shows out on what she knows.

Back to ruts and grooves: Do deadlines (not just in writing) spur you on or stall you? And remember: We’re giving chocolate to one lucky commentor.