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Summertime and the Living is Easy

Hedgehog SliceIt is mid-July, the very height of summer in the US.

Vacation season, or in my case, party time! Sunday we made brunch for about fifteen friends and neighbors. Among the recipes I debuted was this “hedgehog slice”. A childhood treat in Australia, my home country, I had never made it before.

Channeling my creative caterer protagonist, Camilla, in Lipstick on the Strawberry, I managed to combine a couple of recipes, swapping grams for ounces, and a slight change of ingredients to come up with this winner! I hope you like it.

By the way, I have absolutely no idea how this dessert treat got its name. Like most wonderful recipes, the first hedgehog probably came about when guests were expected with short notice and the inventive cook had to source from whatever she had to hand. Made of crushed cookies, condensed milk, coconut, butter, nuts and chocolate, it looks nothing like a hedgehog. It is utterly scrumptious.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients
I package, or 2 ½ cups mild flavored cookies, roughly broken up
½ cup shredded coconut
2 tbs cocoa powder
½ cup chopped walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans
3 blocks 70% cocoa content bittersweet chocolate, 4 oz each, divided in two
½ cup butter, salted or unsalted, depending on taste, divided in two
1 cup sweetened condensed milk – i.e. one small can

Method
Prepare a brownie pan by lining bottom and sides with parchment paper, making sure there is
enough paper to hang over the side of the pan to make removal easy.

Crush the cookies in a food processor, or place in a zip-lock bag and crush with a rolling pin till
they are the texture of breadcrumbs

In a large bowl, stir the crushed cookies together with the cocoa powder, coconut and chopped
nuts.

In a microwave -safe bowl, break up half the chocolate, and mix with half the butter and the
condensed milk. Heat until melted and creamy, stopping the microwave to stir frequently.
This should take about two minutes. Or use the old-fashioned method of heating in a double
boiler over a pan of simmering water, and stirring until melted, 5-8 minutes.

Pour the melted mixture over the dry ingredients and mix with a spatula until it all comes
together. When everything is covered with the chocolate/butter cream, pour it all into the
prepared pan, and smooth with the side of the spatula.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until firm. When ready to proceed with making the
topping, remove the pan from the fridge.

Now make the chocolate topping: Place ¼ cup butter and the rest of the chocolate in a bowl
and microwave until melted and creamy. Or double boil it as above.

Pour the topping over the hedgehog, smoothing it completely. Cover with plastic wrap and put
back in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.

To serve, lift up the parchment paper with the hedgehog mix inside and place on a chopping
block. Carefully score the surface into vertical and horizontal strips, as if you were cutting
brownies. Cut carefully into small squares. Take up from the parchment paper and arrange the
squares decoratively on a plate to serve.

The Art of Fiction

Until I started writing novels, I did not realize this. Fiction is made up. It is not autobiography.

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I had had the experiences I describe in my books. And again, when at a book festival recently, a panel of authors was asked the same question.

No, a panelist replied. I am not a suicide bomber. (One of her protagonists.) No, I replied to my friend. But I had a caveat. When one gets to our age, we’ve had so many experiences, read of so many bizarre situations, have come across so many weird circumstances in the lives of those we’ve met, that “experience” may not be personal, yet it gets immersed in a writer’s thoughts.

How does a writer come up with an idea for a novel?

Camilla, in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is the daughter of a physician who is also a clergyman. I did not know one could be both, but in England, where Lipstick is partially set, it is possible. A few years ago, I met a man who held both jobs simultaneously. What kind of person, I wondered, would choose two professions which embodied so much power over others?

And what, I wondered, would it be like to be the daughter of such a man? How could a daughter ever measure up? And how easily she could be shamed.

So Camilla was born, her conflict driven by the impossible demands for perfection by her father. Worse, her adult life was shadowed by his disapproval of her teenage love affair, making future relationships difficult. How Camilla comes to true adulthood by learning that her father was himself flawed, and therefore able to be forgiven, is how the story plays out.

On May 6, I was delighted to learn that Lipstick on the Strawberry was a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Awards. The award highlights excellence in books published by academic, small press, and independent publishers, including self-publishers.

Now on to the next book, which is in the revision stages! That too, started with an idea, and then characters who would not let me alone. More on that in future posts.

Indigo

As part of my foray into the natural world for research for my new novel, the other weekend I learned all about dyeing with colors derived from plants.

I attended the “Indigo Colloquium” at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Why indigo, I wondered as I signed up? What is it about that particular color that attracts such interest?

Turns out indigo is the color of denim. And since over a billion pairs of blue jeans are sold every year, how they are colored is important commercially and environmentally.

Coming at the subject from a level of complete ignorance, I learned that weekend that many plants throughout the world produce the color blue. Remember woad? If you were taught history in the dark ages as I was, you may remember that the Celtic warriors who opposed the troops of Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain terrified the soldiers because their faces were painted a fierce blue from the woad plant.

Woad (isatis tinctoria) is now considered an invasive weed in California. But it can be grown in home gardens to produce the blue dye.

Indigo, however, produces a stronger blue. Hundreds of different plants producing the color indigo are grown throughout the world, and the most popular for dyeing is persicaria tinctoria, otherwise known as polygonum tinctorium. The common term is Japanese indigo.

Indigo is a dye that adheres to the textile without the use of mordants. That’s a fixative produced by alum,iron, copper,or tannic acid often mixed with an acid like vinegar. For that reason, working with leaf-based indigo is safer for the home dyer.

I love the idea that over hundreds if not thousands of years, people have experimented with creating gorgeous color from plants that grown nearby. The process is a series of chemical reactions to release the color from the plant. For the home dyer, this involves heating the harvested leaves in a pot of distilled or rainwater to release the indican in the leaves, and adding a base such as baking soda, washing soda or ammonia to increase the pH to 8 or 9, which helps the hydrolysis of the indican to produce the molecule indoxyl. Then air is introduced to the mix, allowing the indoxyl to combine with oxygen to produce indigo. Finally, in order to make the color water soluble the mixture is reduced over heat with the addition of thiourea dioxide (helpfully available from the drug or craft store as Rit Color Remover). Add your previously wetted fabric to the dye for up to fifteen minutes, lift out carefully and hang to dry. The exposure to air makes the dye color fast and produces the final blue.

The color changes in the dye-in-process are fascinating. The flowers of the plant are actually pink. The composted or heated leaf brew is reddish-brown. Adding the alkali produces a yellow color, and agitating it to add air turns it to green. As the reduction process happens, and you add your fabric, your textile appears yellow green. Taking it out of the dye bath and hanging it up exposed to air turns it first turquoise, then indigo blue.

Indigo can also be produced synthetically. However, this is a petroleum based product (from benzene) and so toxic that synthetic indigo dye is no longer produced in this country. Most of the jeans sold in the world today are colored with synthetic dye made in China.

Some researchers have created a microbiology-based indigo by gene transfer from persicaria tinctoria into ecoli. It may be commercially viable in the future, but so far indigo manufactured through microbiology has not proven cost-effective.

But for now, there’s an opportunity for the revival of dyeing with natural sources of indigo to become a real alternative to synthetic dyes. If enough farmers can be persuaded to grow the indigo plants so that minimal dye batch sizes of consistent color are produced, then clothes manufacturers will be interested.

That’s the hope anyway.

In the meantime, I now know how to work the process of cloth dyeing into my story, in which there’s tension between old ways of doing things as rediscovered by a group of ageing hippies in Northern California, and the encroaching modern world. Can the old be made new again? As I learned, that is very possibly fact, not fiction.

Snow Days

Winter has much of the nation still in its grip. My many years in Boston, where snow and ice slushed and slicked the city till well into March, inspired the snow scene in Lipstick on the Strawberry. In this excerpt, my protagonist, Camilla, has just had a disastrous date.

I took the train to my stop and scurried down the two blocks to my apartment building. Dirty mounds of ice lined the street, partially obscuring the fire hydrants, so I panicked for a second about the possibility of fire in my neighborhood and wondered how quickly firefighters could knock off the ice to open the flow of water. I stumbled and nearly fell as a rocky mound impeded my way, ruining my dress shoes as I clambered over it. Trembling as I fitted the key in the lock, I slammed the door behind me and leaned against it, breathing heavily. In a few seconds, my hands and feet began to sting as the blood vessels expanded in the warmth of the foyer. Pain needled my extremities, then seemed to extend into my brain. Tears sprung into my eyes, and I knew I would just have to endure the agony until it passed.

Those needles in the fingers and toes I remember so well. While the snow scene might represent Camilla’s mood at the time – alone, frozen, frightened, – a month or so later she’s in a garden.

A gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of grass as the air warmed around us. Across the green lawn, a cherry tree spread its arms wide, clothed in a crinoline of the palest pink blossoms. Renewal. It could happen. Did.

Redemption. Another chance. All along, under the frozen earth, the ground is being prepared for warmer days, better times. Blossom will hang from the trees like confetti. It will happen.

February holds the promise of spring. Savor the cusp of the season with a book. Lipstick on the Strawberry is on sale for 99¢ through March 1.

Lipstick on the Strawberry-

Kindle Edition
iBooks Edition
NOOK Edition

Welcome Katie O’Rourke

Today it is my pleasure to introduce to you Katie O’Rourke, author of Blood & Water. It’s on sale this week for 99¢. I just downloaded my copy and hope you will, too.

Thanks Katie, for telling us about your writing practice:

1. Tell me about yourself. When did you start writing & how to you get your ideas:

I’m a hybrid author. My debut novel was traditionally published by LittleBrown in 2012. My third novel was chosen for publication by KindleScout in 2015. I’ve self-pubbed a few books in between. It was during my last semester of college that I was introduced to “creative nonfiction” and that was the bridge that led me to write fiction (after years of writing angsty, introspective poetry). People who know me well can find the sections in my novels that have been “stolen” from real life. All of my characters are created from fragments of actual people, but none of my characters are based on a single person.

2. Are you writing a series?

I write family sagas with overlapping characters, so they’re all connected. My current work in progress is my first actual sequel.

3. Do you have a writing routine?

I like to write while listening to music. I don’t focus as well in silence. I’ve never been the kind of writer to force daily outputs, but I participate in Nanowrimo most years to kickstart a project and help me get organized. I’m otherwise pretty distractable!

4. Advice for aspiring writers:

Here’s the thing: writing advice is so valuable. I love to listen to different writers share their different approaches for what works for them. It’s inspiring and it always reminds me how many different paths there are to a similar goal. The problem with writing advice is that often it’s delivered as if it’s coming from an expert who is letting you in on an absolute secret about the definitive correct way to do it.

My advice is that before you take advice (even mine), do two things: 1. consider the source and 2. decide if the advice rings true for you.

If you’re a big fan of Stephen King and you’re interested in learning how to write the kind of books he writes in the way he writes them, you might want to read On Writing. There are other helpful manuals written by other kinds of writers. Find one that’s right for you. Not everyone writes like Stephen King or Charles Bukowski or Earnest Hemingway or Anne Lamott or Ray Bradbury or Sol Stein. Not everyone wants to. I’m sure each one of those authors has helpful nuggets of wisdom to share and I think new writers should be open to all of it, but skeptical when it doesn’t resonate.

The one-size-fits-all advice is something I see more and more as writers are pressured to create content for blogs that will strengthen their “platform”. I don’t think it’s helpful and I’m especially dismayed by how-to book writers claiming to be experts so they can make money off newbie writers. I think it’s exploitative.

Writers who make it through the gauntlet to publishing should absolutely share what worked for them with writers coming up after them. The stories are as fascinating as they are diverse. Some writers get an MFA while others are self-taught. Some writers plot everything out on color-coded note cards while others begin writing without any idea where their characters will take them. Some writers work in seclusion while others rely on supportive writers groups. Some edit only when their first draft is complete while others edit as they’re writing.

The more of these stories you hear, the clearer it becomes that there are many different ways to do it. I think, especially for new writers, the biggest lesson to learn is which advice to take and which advice to ignore.

About Blood & Water

Tucson, Arizona is a place for runaways. Everyone came from somewhere else and has a story about what they left behind.

Delilah arrives on her brother’s doorstep with a secret. She hasn’t seen him in five years. He ran away from their family long ago for reasons no one talks about and she still doesn’t understand. The stress of raising his teenage daughter alone sometimes makes David envious of his deliberately childless friends, Tim and Sara, but they’re runaways too, harboring secrets of their own. Blood & Water tells their stories and traces the deep connections between this unlikely group of friends.

This novel is about family, in its various manifestations: the one you’re born into, the one you choose and the one you create.

BUY THE BOOK

Katie can be contacted on Facebook and Twitter.

Meet Susan Haught

This week I’m teaming up with some Arizona-based fellow writers. We’re all running 99¢ sales on our books. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you Susan Haught. I love that her husband built her a “she-shed” so she can write in peace!

1. Tell me about yourself. When did you start writing & how to you get your ideas?

Good morning! I’m honored to be Margaret’s guest today, so before your coffee gets cold, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Susan Haught and I’m a black liquorice connoisseur (Australian and Finnish are to die for), coffee addict, wine sipper, and brown-thumb gardener who spends a good deal of time murdering the plants unfortunate enough to come home with me. It’s not pretty. I’m also an award-winning author who writes deeply emotional stories of family, friendship, and the healing power of love. I think I’m a little handier at stories than I am with gardens. I call the central mountains of Arizona home, and spend my days training my husband of 45 years, catering to our extremely precious Shih-Tzu, Sadie, visiting our son, and spoiling his Yorkie, Ryleigh—yes, he named her after the main character in A Promise of Fireflies—how cool is that?

My interest in writing started in 3rd grade when my teacher read my summer vacation story out loud to the class. I was mortified! You see, our family rarely took summer vacations and I’d made the whole thing up, so I got away with my first attempt at telling lies for fun at the ripe old age of eight. A major children’s magazine published a short story of mine when I was in my twenties, but I didn’t start writing novels until our son was grown and gone. A small publisher picked up my first three novellas, but I chose to go a different route and self-publish my first full-length novel, A Promise of Fireflies. I’m older than dirt, so time was a major issue in the decision.

My ideas come from everywhere…small tidbits of conversation. An article. A TV show. Ads. A walk around the block, or an interesting character I come across. Something will trigger an idea in my mind and I think, “What would happen if…” The possibilities are endless. The world around me is a gold mine of ideas, little sparks that sometimes fan the flames of a story idea. Other times, it’s sitting quietly or fast asleep when the ghost of an idea will pop into my head. I keep notebooks everywhere so I never miss an opportunity to jot down an idea. My stash increased this Christmas when Santa put a waterproof note pad in my stocking. Does he know me, or what?

2. Are you writing a series?

Yes, my series is titled Whisper of the Pines. There are four books and I’ve just come up with an idea to bring back the couple in A Promise of Fireflies for a Christmas adventure. I’ve missed Logan and Ryleigh and I’m excited to live among old friends again. Whisper of the Pines is a fictional resort along Fall River near Estes Park, Colorado, an area of the Rocky Mountains that takes my breath away. Although the books don’t all take place at the resort, it does play a role in each book. I plan two more books in the series and then I’ll be ready to begin something new and different.

3. Do you have a writing routine?

My writing routine varies. I need absolute quiet when I write and when my husband retired I thought I was going to go nuts, bury his body under the house, or stop writing altogether. He wouldn’t go back to work (not very nice of him, was it?) so he built me a She-Shed. It’s complete with A/C, heat, a coffee and wine bar, and decorated with a beach theme. I named it No Boyz Allowed, and he knows he’d better be bleeding from a main artery or tell me the house is on fire if he chooses to disturb me. So far, so good. It works out nicely, and it was cheaper than a divorce! I write from 4-8 hours a day in my cozy little She-Shed, but that doesn’t always happen. Life, you know?

4. Advice for aspiring writers?

I think the main suggestion I have for aspiring writers is to learn the craft. Please don’t do what I did…finish a manuscript only to discover after all that hard work it’s a train wreck—every single car completely off the track. I knew nothing about point of view, characterization, dialogue tags, adding emotion, or how to plot without boring the reader to death. Each time I’d learn something new, I’d rewrite it. And then I’d do it again. When I was finally ready to let A Promise of Fireflies out into the world, seven years had passed. Talk about a long labor! But Fireflies went on to earn an award for outstanding fiction in self-publishing. Book 2, A Thousand Butterfly Wishes, also won an award for outstanding fiction in self-publishing. And Writer’s Digest (judge 17) gave The Other Side of Broken (Book 3) a shout-out saying it is “a novel not to be missed and placed 4th in the Ink & Insights master category book awards, and one judge said, “This is exactly what women’s fiction is supposed to be.” And I found out yesterday that I was named Rim Country’s Best Writer by the Payson Roundup (local award).

Learn the craft inside and out, keep writing, and never give up on your dreams.

Women’s Fiction: The Power of Sisterhood

The Women’s Fiction Writers Association is a nation-wide, online group offering connection, classes, critique groups, and other helpful programs for authors. It also offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels. Last year I was a judge for the Rising Star Award and enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to judge this year’s Star Award. It’s a lot of reading, but that’s what I do.

This week, I’m teaming up with two other Arizona based members of WFWA to offer a 99¢ ebook sale of our books. My novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is on sale through March 1, and Susan Haught’s and Katie O’Rourke’s books will go on sale February 19-25th. I’ll interview these writers this week on my blog.

Happy reading!

Valentine’s Victoria Sponge

Who knows why this very British cake is called Victoria Sponge? It’s not elaborate; the ingredients are simple. And it comes topped with cream and strawberries. For that reason, I’ve chosen this as a Valentine’s Day cake. Chocolate is always delicious, but so predictable on this day of romance. Strawberries are equally delicious and, as in my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, associated with love.

This cake, as with all genoise cakes, bakes up on the dry side. That’s why moistening the top of the layers with macerated liquored strawberries gives it that little extra. Or simply use thick strawberry jam mixed with kirsch to moisten in the same way.

Ingredients:

Cake

Cooking spray for the pans
1 ½ cups cake flour, sifted three times
½ cup sugar
5 eggs
¼ cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Strawberry Filling

2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
3 tbs sugar
2 tsp kirsch
1/8 tsp salt

Or, if you are pressed for time, use 2 cups best-quality strawberry jam, plus the other ingredients.

Cream Topping

1 ½ pints heavy cream, chilled
3 oz powdered sugar

Method

This cake achieves its lightness without the addition of baking soda or powder because it is beaten to an airy froth while warm.

Bring the ingredients to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray two 9 -inch cake pans, and cover the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to size.

Sift the flour and melt the butter gently.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the simmer. Your mixing bowl should be able to just fit inside the top of the pan so its bottom is over, but not touching, the simmering water.

First, mix the eggs in the bowl in a stand mixer until frothy. Beat in the sugar till it is blended with the eggs. Then put the bowl over the pan of water on the stove and whisk the egg-sugar mixture for 3-4 minutes till it is warm.

Remove the bowl to the stand mixer and beat on high or so until it becomes thick and light and the texture of whipped cream. Separate the already sifted flour into three batches, sift each over the mix and gently fold in each addition. Meanwhile, reheat the butter until hot, and pour into a small bowl. Take one and a half cups of the egg mixture and incorporate into the butter, together with the vanilla. Fold it all gently back into the larger egg/sugar mix bowl.

Pour the batter into the two pans and bake for 20 minutes until the cake starts to pull away from the sides. The top should spring back when touched with your finger. Do not overbake.

Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the cakes and invert onto racks to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the strawberry mash filling. Reserve two dozen of the most beautiful strawberries. Cut up the remainder and toss with the sugar into a bowl and let sit for one hour.

Strain the juice from the berries and reserve, to make half a cup. Pour into a small saucepan and add the kirsch. Heat gently and cook until the mixture is syrupy. You should have about 3-4 tbs. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Put the sugared berries into a food processor and chop. This will yield about 1 ½ cups.

Add these processed berries to the syrup, stir in the salt, and wait till the cake is cooled.

If using jam instead of fresh berries, heat it gently in a saucepan and add the kirsch. Let sit so the flavors mingle.

When the cakes are completely cool, take a cake platter and prepare it by cutting four long strips of parchment paper to cover it. This will keep the platter clean while you assemble the cake.

Whip the cream, adding sugar when soft peaks form, until the cream forms stiff peaks.

Carefully lift one cake from its pan and lay on the paper. Spread half of the macerated, liquored berry or jam-kirsch mix onto the cake, leaving about half an inch around the border. With a rubber spatula, carefully cover this layer with half of the whipped cream, again leaving space around the border.

Place the second cake layer on top of the first, pressing gently down. The cream will squish out to the edge of the cake. Repeat the steps of covering this layer with strawberries or jam, then whipped cream.

Now, pull out the parchment strips from under the cake, very carefully. Don’t worry, any little flaws that are caused in the cake by pulling out the strips can be hidden by a ring of berries.

Finally, halve the reserved berries and put them around the side of the completed cake.

If serving several hours after assembling, place in a domed cake carrier to protect the top, and refrigerate.