‘Tis The Season . . .

The Christmas season is definitely upon us. If you’ve shopped (I laugh at this – of COURSE you’ve shopped!), you’ll know that Christmas stuff is on the shelves along with Halloween. If you have a Hobby Lobby in your life, you’ll know that there are some Christmas things out year-round. And that’s OK. Crafters can’t wait until October to start projects.

My projects at Christmas revolve around two areas – decorating and cooking.

2016-12-03-23-08-38For some reason I feel the need to decorate most of the nooks and crannies of my house. Every year I say I’m going to cut back, not have my house look like North Pole South, but once you get all those boxes OUT, I mean, you may as well do SOMETHING with it, right? I pick up a Santa or a Snowman and remember where I got it, a funny anecdote that happened in years past. When the ceramic nativity scene comes out, I remember that my sister-in-law got that for us early in our marriage, and that it was crafted by a special-needs sheltered workshop in the area. The mantle just doesn’t look right without the Holy Family in the center.

2016-12-03-23-08-08And then there are the Christmas tree ornaments. SO. MANY. ORNAMENTS. We’ve had to start putting them on from most important to least important. For some reason the Cracker Barrel store and the Scrabble board ornaments always make their way on to the tree when I’m not looking.

But the cooking – I’m talking fudge, peanut butter snowballs, truffles, spiced nuts, party mix, cookies. It’s the candy I love the most, although I have a new recipe for spiced pecans that are out of this world. Really.

spiced-pecansThe best part of the holiday prep, though? Getting ready to have both my daughters home for the holidays. This week the youngest finishes her next-to-last semester of college and will be home, and next week my oldest and her boyfriend will be flying in from NYC.

So, I have candy to make, more spiced nuts to make (because my husband and I have demolished the first batch), gifts to wrap, Christmas music to sing and play, and a house to prepare.

Then, I will rest. I will enjoy my family. I will sit on the couch and look at the twinkly tree and Nativity on the mantle. I will love the life God has so graciously given me.

I hope you all have a Merry, blessed Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Warm hugs,

Regina

merrickchristmas2014P.S. Selfies and bifocals do not mix well – but I love this pic of us!

 

Christmas- the Ultimate Comfort Zone

Before you really get started reading this, close your eyes for just a minute, and picture yourself on Christmas morning. Really. I promise I’ll be here when you get back. One, two, three, close ‘em.

Open again? Okay. So where were you? What were you doing. What did you see, hear, smell?

I’ll share first. I am at my grandmother’s house. The house is quiet, except for my Granny’s humming as she cooks. I can hear the clicking of her basset hound’s toenails on the linoleum floor as she follows Granny around the kitchen. The smell of corned beef hash wafts through the living room. The little aluminum Christmas tree glows brightly in the reflected light of the round multi-colored light machine. Unwrapped toys still sit under the tree, with neatly folded bathrobes and slippers and other warm clothes nearby. We would have a quiet breakfast, just my Mom and sister and me and Granny (and Sam the Basset hound). Soon, my aunt and cousins will return for dinner and playing outside in the South Central Kansas snow.

Your memories are probably much different. But it is not hard to conjure up a Christmas memory. They stick and stay in our heads, and we bring them out when we need to be in a happy place.

If I try again, and fast forward to when our kids were small, the scene will be similar. Some presents are unwrapped under an artificially green tree in our living room, but Santa’s special surprises: a Cabbage Patch doll, a Pound Puppy and a new pair of cowboy boots wait proudly for the first sleepy-head to emerge from the bedroom. I sit with my cup of hot tea and soak up the precious silence. Santa had come through once again, though my husband and I had wondered how he would manage with our meager paychecks. Outside, the Arkansas sun shines brightly, and I am actually thankful that there is no snow. Here in the foothills of the Ouachitas, slick roads would keep the grandparents from coming over later to watch the kids enjoy their new things. The big dinner the night before had been at their house, and I will most likely serve sandwiches today, along with any leftovers that might arrive with them. For now, heavenly peace.

Yes, the faces around the tree change, the size and value of the presents vary, but there are constants. Things seem familiar, comfortable.

Now  that our kids are grown, our new normal is that we very rarely manage to have all of our offspring in the same room at the same time. We enjoy each one when we get to see them, no matter the date on the calendar. The tree goes up earlier, stays up longer, to accommodate their schedules. That is fine for me, as I have more of those quiet moments, more time to remember Christmases past.

Not everyone adjusts to changes in the Christmas routine as easily. The same memories that bring us joy, also cause pain. The absence of familiar faces diminishes our joy. We need to be aware of this, and reach out to those who suffer during the holidays.

The first Christmas was not comfortable for the young couple who had traveled a great distance to find a “No Vacancy” sign, and a baby who was born in a building intended for animals. They knew, though, that something amazing was happening, having heard from angels, and visitors who came to gaze in amazement at the future king. This story is the constant that keeps Christmas so special for all of us. The realization that no matter what else happens in this world, God keeps His promises. Whether in a festive room full of friends and family, or alone in the flickering light of a fireplace, Christmas encourages us, prompts us to look around, to reach out to each other. Let’s remember the hope that filled that tiny, smelly stable so long ago. Comfortable or not, enjoy your Christmas celebration this year!

 

 

The research behind the writing

Have you ever read a story that is so immersive in the time, place, and setting, that you could swear the author must have lived through what they were writing about?

First off, that’s the sign of a good writer. And secondly, that means the writer did such a fantastic job of researching their subject and setting that nothing ever jarred you out of the story because it felt out of place. In fact, it felt natural.

Honestly, as an unpublished writer, research is something I both love and hate.

I love it because, hey, I love to read! I love to learn new things! I will happily spend an hour diving down a rabbit hole about Henry VIII’s wives, and emerge on the other side knowing far more than I ever needed to about cleaning practices in the 16th century.

But I also hate it because it takes time away from the actual writing of a story, making that dream of publication seem even further out of my grasp.

However, if I want that dream to become reality, I have to make sure my story won’t be picked apart by a well-meaning editor just doing their job.

A lot of people think that historical writers are the only ones who need to research. And while, yes, historical fiction writers bear the brunt of research, since the setting of their stories is critical before they even put one word on the page, almost any kind of writer benefits from a helpful librarian, a good search engine, and free time to browse Wikipedia.

mistletow-webFor example, I’m working on a Christmas romance novella that takes place in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon. I wanted a specific landmark to be covered in mistletoe, but then I had to stop and think: Does mistletoe grow in Oregon? (Yes, it will grow pretty much anywhere.)  There is a snowstorm brewing that strands a few characters in my fictional town for several days. I had to do a quick search of typical winter weather in that area, because the last thing I need is for the whole thing that sets the story in motion to not be possible because Oregon only gets an average of two feet of snow a year (it doesn’t, by the way). Even the livelihood of one of the characters has to be researched: I want the hero to be an Iditarod competitor who trains dogs and takes tourists on dog sled excursions during the off-season. But wait– is that even a thing outside of Alaska? Thanks to Google, I now know that it does, and that I need to convince my husband that we need to take another trip to Oregon in winter so we can take a dog sled ride (all in the name of research, of course!).

violin-webAnd don’t get me started on my symphony murder mystery! A lot of the research in that story has taken the last four years, because it’s literally the job I do of a living every day. I’ve learned so much about my field, and I can channel that into my story. However, the only things I know about murder are what I’ve read in other murder mysteries and seen on TV, so that part of the story definitely requires some research. (You all will vouch for me if the FBI confiscates my computer for disturbing web searches, right?)

So, the next time you fall down a rabbit hole in the name of research, just tell yourself: it will make your story better in the long run.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am thankful for all of our bloggers and readers here at Inspirational Messages!

 

 

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping is one of those great movies you can watch over and over and never get tired of it. At least I can’t. But then, if Sandra Bullock stars in a movie, there’s a good chance I’m going to like it.

This movie is one of my all-time favorites, and the Christmas theme makes it even better. The sentimental moments, humor, and love of family (even when it’s not your own) make this movie a keeper.

If you haven’t seen the movie but plan to, consider this a spoiler alert and go wrap my Christmas present instead. Just an idea. The following paragraphs pretty much spell out the entire movie, so don’t say I didn’t warn you:

On Christmas Day Lucy, played by Sandra Bullock, rescues her heartthrob, Peter Callaghan, from an oncoming train after thugs throw him on the tracks. She visits him in the hospital only to find him in a coma. A nurse misunderstands a remark she makes and thinks Lucy is Peter’s fiancé and announces it to the family, though the unconscious man doesn’t even know she exists.

Lucy is caught up in the moment and doesn’t clarify the misunderstanding to his family. Not having a family of her own, she relishes the love and attention the Callaghan’s give her, despite the guilt she feels about misleading them.

WhilesleepingposterOne night while visiting Peter in the hospital, she thinks she’s alone with him and confesses her actions to the still comatose man. However, Uncle Saul Callaghan hears every word and confronts her but agrees to keep her secret because she has brought the family closer together.

The Callaghan’s adore Lucy, all except for Peter’s brother Jack. From the moment he meets her, he is suspicious of the whole fiancé deal, but she still stands by her story. As the two begin to spend time together, they fall in love, though they neither one admit it to the other.

Peter awakens from his coma after New Year’s Eve and when he doesn’t recognize Lucy, the family assumes he has amnesia. Uncle Saul convinces Peter to “propose again” to Lucy. She accepts because Jack won’t give her a reason not to. On the wedding day, Lucy can’t go through with the charade any longer and confesses everything to the entire family and tells them she loves Jack, not Peter. She then walks out of the ceremony.

Later when Lucy is at work, she absentmindedly accepts tokens from the passengers, making no eye contact with them. To her surprise, an engagement ring drops into her tray. She looks up to see Jack smiling at her through the window.

After an official proposal, Lucy and Jack leave on the train for their honeymoon.

Peter is curious as to when Lucy fell in love with Jack and she tells him it was “while you were sleeping.”

Merry Christmas to all!!!

Meet Me in St. Louis

There’s a lot of movies I love watching around Christmastime: It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, While You Were Sleeping.

But I find myself coming back year after year to a Judy Garland classic: Meet Me in St. Louis.

This 1944 musical is about the Smith family of St. Louis, excited for the World’s Fair that will be coming in spring 1904 to their fair city. Opening in summer 1903, the film follows the family through the summer, fall, and winter leading up to the fair, and through their (mis)adventures and trials.  Meet-me-in-St.-Louis-familyThere’s 16-year-old Esther (Judy Garland) who is love with the boy next door, John Truitt, and her older sister Rose, wanting desperately to be grown up. There’s tomboy Agnes and precocious 5-year-old Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). College boy Lon just wants his sisters out of his business. Heading up the family is Mr. Smith, a lawyer trying to move up in his firm so he can better provide for this family while Mrs. Smith holds everyone together.

When an opportunity arises to move the family to New York City, the Smiths face a crisis: leave everything they hold near and dear (and the coming World’s Fair) for a better life?

Meet-Me-in-St-Louis-TrolleyThere are so many great moments and songs in this movie: the irresistible title anthem, Judy Garland’s wistful longing for “The Boy Next Door,” Tootie and Agnes’ Halloween pranks, the moment the family comes together as their parents sing around the piano, the exuberant “Trolley Song” when Esther realizes John loves her back (“Zing zing zing went my heartstrings!”), and the sweet Christmas Eve dance when Esther’s grandfather and John Truitt come through for her.

The climax of the story takes place at Christmastime, just days before the family is to leave for New York City. Esther returns after midnight from the Christmas Eve dance to find little Tootie waiting up for Santa Claus. Tutti wonders if Santa will be able to find them the next year in New York, and Esther comforts her sister by singing a song that instantly became a classic: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (Cue the waterworks!)

Have Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasHave yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years 
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself A merry little Christmas now. 

What I love about this moment, and this movie in general, is the importance of family. Even though they bicker and argue with each other, deep down they all love each other. Even though they don’t want to leave their beloved St. Louis, they know that if they are all together, then they can make it through anything. It’s a bittersweet moment and a bittersweet Christmas song, but its a reminder of what is really important.

I hope you have a chance to be with your families this Christmastime. Merry Christmas!

Christmas with a Camel + book giveaway

The Christmas book I’ve chosen to highlight this week is A Star for Me by Jean Fischer, a fellow Camp Club Girl author. (Way to go, Jean!) Though I haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, the book sounds delightful. Here is Amazon’s description of the book:

A Star for Me is a count-your-blessings story that will soon become a beloved bedtime tradition during the holidays. At the beginning of the Christmas season, your children will look forward to reading the book and hanging the ornament on a bottom branch of the Christmas tree. Then your family can enjoy the entire story at once or read a few pages at a time as an Advent countdown.

Each night, children can read a bit more about Oliver, an adorable little camel who is part of the caravan traveling toward Bethlehem. As Oliver learns about God’s blessings on each new page, young readers are prompted to talk about their own blessings and then move the star ornament a bit higher on the tree each night. On Christmas Day, children can move the star all the way to the top of the tree and remember the greatest blessing of all—Jesus!

sweet on cowgirlToday Rose is giving away a copy of “Sweet on the Cowgirl.” Leave a comment for your chance to win.

Christmas with Anne + Book Giveaway!

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories is a book I pull off the shelf every Christmas season, mainly because of three things:

  1. It’s by my favorite author, L.M. Montgomery (regular readers of this blog know of my love affair with the Anne of Green Gables series!)
  2. It’s a collection of 16 short stories, which are perfect to read when time is short and the busyness of December prevails.
  3. Every story takes place during Christmas!

L.M. Montgomery was actually a prolific short story writer, writing over 500 stories that were published in magazines, newspapers, and all sorts of periodicals, all before her first (and most well-known) novel was published in 1908. Many of her stories have been recovered and collected into themed collections, such as Christmas with Anne.

Christmas with AnneThe title story in the collection is from one of the best chapters in Anne of Green Gables, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” in which Matthew finally fulfills Anne’s lifelong wish to have a dress with “puffed sleeves.” It’s his Christmas gift to her, and the humorous tale illustrates how much he had come to love the chattering redhead with a big imagination. Another story in the book returns to the world of Anne, taking a chapter from Anne of Windy Poplars in which Anne brings the surly Katherine Brooke home to Green Gables as an act of charity, only to turn her into a true friend. I’m not sure if these stories work outside of the context of the books from they were taken (since I read them both in their respective books first), but it’s always nice to revisit those particular chapters and relive the Christmas magic.

However, most of the stories in Christmas with Anne stand alone, and are entirely appropriate for young children. They share sweet, simple messages of Christmas: family, love, giving, peace, sacrifice, and even a bit of romance. One of my favorites involves a trio of sisters who travel to their uncle’s house to cook up Christmas dinner, only to discover they had made themselves at home in the wrong house. “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” involves a girl and her aunt on a train that becomes snowbound on Christmas Eve. The niece had always been embarrassed of her aunt’s habit of toting a large basket full of Christmas goodies, but after sharing their bounty with the strangers on the train and making their holiday merry, she realizes her Aunt Cyrilla’s habit isn’t so bad after all.

Book Giveaway!

Don’t forget we’re doing a book giveaway every day for the next two weeks on the blog! Leave a comment below along with your e-mail address for a chance to receive a novel, novels, or a novella collection.

Fund Raiser Cook Books

This is my ‘go to’ cook book. I’ve had it for 34 years and made many delicious recipes. In my opinion, these are the best kinds of cook books because they are someone else’s tried and true family favorites.

I have many of these kinds of cook books. One has our favorite quiche recipe. One has our favorite rhubarb pie recipe. But I must admit the one that I’m sharing is my favorite cook book. Why? Because I found a cookie recipe that when I make it becomes everyone favorite. As you can see…I even renamed it!

Cookbook 1

I make these cookies almost every Christmas. You can change up the frosting. Caramel pecan is yummy! You can sprinkle the frosting with decorator sugar or crushed candy canes.

Do you have a fund raiser type cook book?

 

 

Making a List…and Checking It Twice!

What tops this writer’s Christmas list? Therapeutic items to relieve my body of the rigors of sitting for long periods of time.

 

 

The first item is gift certificates for a massage. If you’ve never had a massage, you will be surprised to find the Christmas massagetight muscles the massage therapist finds during your massage. You will also be relaxed and rejuvenated to get back to your writing. The added bonus to a massage is you have one hour filled with quiet to think about your story, characters and plot.

 

 

Second on my list is Chai Latte pods for my Keurig or any type of Chai tea. Chai tea isn’t simply a drink to sip. It has health benefits to boot. The milk or milk substitute supplies protein and calcium needed to build muscles and bones, while the chai tea contains healthy antioxidants that may help prevent disease.

The third item is something I’ve never tried, but would love to. A shoulder warmer! I try to wrap quilts around Christmas Shoulder warmermy shoulders to keep them warm however the movement of my arms while typing makes it slip off. This is a perfect solution to my problem, don’t you think?

 

 

Have any of these items made your list?

 

 

Quilts!

So far this year, I’ve made four quilt tops.

Two are gifts and two are for me!

Do I need another quilt? Not really!

Does that stop me from making them? Not really!

 

Quilt for blogThe last quilt I made is my Epiphany quilt. I have several Christmas quilts, but this one is for the twelve days after Christmas. Why? Because the fabric has the three Kings looking for Jesus. When I found the printed fabric, I knew what color I’d use for a coordinate fabric and what quilt block pattern I’d use because they are significant to the Epiphany.

The block is a Zig-Zag pattern. I chose this to signify the Kings returning via an alternate route(s) so King Herod didn’t find the Christ child. The coordinate fabric is purple-the color of royalty. I don’t have a quilting machine so I hire someone else to finish the quilt. I told her the story and she chose a wandering quilt stitch, again to signify the different return paths of the Kings.