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Quick, Grab The Lipstick!

People always ask me about my book’s title, Lipstick on the Strawberry. I came across the idea while researching a caterer’s daily life. My heroine, Camilla, has a catering business. She hires a young woman who is training to be a food stylist. The girl grabs an unripe strawberry, swipes red lipstick across its green surface and snaps a photo. The picture shows a luscious, shiny fruit.

My story involves a family secret hidden under a gloss of respectability. How often does that happen in real life? Even in families with perfectly ordinary lives, there are often stories best left kept from the world.

Camilla is English. The story is set partly in Boston, where I lived for many years, and partly in Cambridge, England, where I’ve spent months at a time. I wanted to capture Camilla’s sense of “in between-ness” as she contemplates whether to stay in the U.S. where business opportunities are better, or to try to reconcile with her estranged family in England. Her romance complicates these decisions.

Cambridge, England, is to my mind one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is the home of one of the world’s oldest universities and of some of the world’s finest minds. So to an ordinary person like myself it can seem intimidating. Camilla feels shut out of this world because unlike her academic family, she struggled at school. All she wants to do is to cook.

I took the above photo of King’s College, Cambridge. I think it illustrates Camilla’s mindset – and as
the book progresses, she becomes more self-accepting.

Now For The Thank Yous

As I go into launch week for my debut novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, I want to thank everyone who helped it happen.

First, (and they all know this) my wonderful, wonderful writer’s group, led by the generous and insightful Marylee MacDonald. I’ve been in writers’ groups before, but this group is by far the most productive and supportive. We’ve produced several books between us in the past few years and more are in the pipeline.

Secondly, The Wild Rose Press. This amazing small publisher has a devoted stable of authors. Why devoted? Because TWRP creates a community amongst its writers with weekly online chats, a very active marketing director who answers questions promptly and kindly even though she must be asked the same question a thousand times over, and a fabulous editorial team, including my own editor Sherri Good. And Debbie Taylor, the cover artist, created a cover which exactly captures the essence of the book.

Thirdly, the talented Kristen Burkhart Ferhati, who designed my website and helps this technologically challenged writer put up the blog.

Finally, my friends and family, particularly my dearest John, my husband, for their interest, support, and patience as I birthed this fourth baby of mine (The others are human. I could have told you that characters in books don’t answer you back, but that is actually not true. Those pesky characters often surprise the author and do exactly what they want – just like human offspring!)

I’ve also been honored to be a guest on several author blogs. So if you would like to pop over to the delightful Peggy Jaeger’s site, Writing Is My Oxygen, please do. She’s featuring an interview with me on Wednesday, 6th July.
Also check out Bonnie McCune’s blog, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. My piece, Jury Duty, appeared on Bonnie’s site in February.

August 15, I’ll be engaging with fellow women’s fiction writers at the WFWA’s Launch Party and also appearing on the writer and photographer Clancy Tucker’s charming blog.
 
July 4 falls on a Tuesday this year and many people are taking an extra-long weekend. Enjoy, and eat an extra serving of ice-cream. Strawberry of course. 🍓

Lipstick Launches!

Lipstick on the StrawberryI am so excited that my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, will be officially launched by The Wild Rose Press on July 5! Its been wonderful to work with this small publisher, which has consistently been named best book publisher by author websites.

People always ask me about what my title means. Photographers do weird things to make food more visually appetizing. They spritz a cake with hairspray, decorate a pie with shaving cream, and swipe a pale strawberry with lipstick to make it glisten. When I learned that, I knew I had my book title. My caterer protagonist, Camilla, always felt unable to live up to her family’s expectations. After returning to England for her father’s funeral, she finds that beneath the veneer of respectability lie imperfection and secrets.

Here’s an excerpt, to give you the flavor:

My fingers searched the back of the drawer and felt something glossy. I pulled, and saw in my hand a colored photograph of a woman who looked to be about the age I was now. She had hair the color of fallen leaves. Only the woman’s shoulders were visible below the head, she was wearing a scarf of blue and green, which reflected the color of her laughing eyes. In the background was the blurred green of a field. I flicked the photo over. The penciled initials N.B. were the only notation.

A cold prickle ran down my back as I stared at it. I tucked the photo into my pocket. How peculiar was it to find this woman’s image stuffed in the back of a drawer? Daddy had gone to pains to hide the picture. In one hand, I lifted the plastic bags of trash, picked up the passport in the other, and went to find Tilda.

“Would you mind if I went home and rested?” I asked. “I feel a headache coming on.”

“Yes, of course. What did you find in there? Oh, good, Daddy’s passport. I’d like to keep that. How thoughtful of you. Anything else of interest?”

I turned so Tilda couldn’t see and fingered the pocketed photo. The letters N.B. intrigued me. Was this just the acronym to remind our father of something important? Or did it mean something else?

Lipstick on the Strawberry, by Margaret Ann Spence, available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, nook, bookstrand, kobo and itunes.

What Makes A Book Cover Great?

Lipstick on the Strawberry“A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way,” says writer Kyle Vanhemert in Wired Magazine’s September 23, 2014 article, “What Makes for a Brilliant Book Cover? A Master Explains“.

When my manuscript of Lipstick on the Strawberry was still at the querying stage last year, I learned that it was a finalist in the Author U’s novel competition. As a result, I got to go to the Denver, Colorado, conference put on annually by Judith Briles, the brilliant author mentor and publicist.

The Author U conference is primarily for self-published authors, and among the panel discussions was one on designing a book cover. A writer held up his jacket, which featured a skimpily clad, twenty-something woman brandishing a rifle. A male fantasy, no doubt. Independent publishing expert Amy Collins (newshelves.com) asked the author who this book was written for. He replied, “Soccer moms.”

Ms. Collins asked him if he was open to suggestions on the cover, and the writer said, “Possibly.”

To which Amy Collins replied, “That’s like telling a cancer doctor you’d be open to chemotherapy.” After the nervous laughter died down, she continued, “Authors have no business designing a book cover. Leave that to the professionals.”

I’m pleased to tell you that my book jacket has been designed by a true professional, Debbie Taylor, an artist working for my publisher, The Wild Rose Press. It is exactly what I had in mind, except for one thing.

It is even better than I anticipated.

In my cover, the lipstick and the strawberry dominate, but the addition of a cup with smudged lipstick next to the strawberries and lipstick adds mystery, a sense of something interrupted, and the hint of imperfection to this serene scene.

Which captures the theme of my book. Exactly.

I hope you’ll want to read Lipstick on the Strawberry when it is released in July 2017.

Thank you to The Wild Rose Press.

For Love of Libraries

Saturday morning has always been my favorite time of the week. That’s because when I was a kid, this was my special time with my father. I’d accompany him on his errands, and one of our favorites was going to the Library. It was Dad who intervened when the librarian said I could not take books out from the general fiction area because I was only a child. I protested that I’d read most of the kids’ books and found the grown up books more interesting. Note that I don’t say “adult” books because that has a different meaning in today’s culture, and besides, our municipal library’s selection was on the tame side. These memories surfaced this week because National Library Week occurs April 9-15. April is School Library Month, and the 12th of April celebrates National Library Workers and National Bookmobile Day. Finally, April 23rd, the day of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616 was chosen in 1995 to be UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. It’s a month to celebrate writers and readers everywhere. In his wonderful book, The View from the Cheap Seats, the British writer Neil Gaiman describes how he spent his school vacations at the local library. His parents dropped him off on their way to work and he happily spent his days in the children’s section, working through the card catalogue. Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite authors, now has rock-star status with his fans. This week he’s doing a multi-city book tour throughout the United States. I was thrilled to go to his packed-out presentation Saturday night. Every one of the 1,600 seats was filled, there were calls of “we love you!” from the audience, and the line to purchase his books after his talk snaked out into the parking lot. Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology. His genius is to make the fantastic believable. His empathy for his characters, his humor, and his gorgeous cadences make his work spell-binding. This is a writer who clearly became intoxicated with the English language through deep immersion in children’s literature. That’s what libraries do for children. For all of us. And they’re free.

The Dying Beach

By Angela Savage Text Publishing 2013 Jayne Keeney is not your typical detective. As her author so deftly puts it on page 1 of this page-turning book, even her physical description defies the stereotype. Jayne, in her lover and partner Rajiv’s arms, has a moment of narcissistic pleasure when she thinks, “Being soft, white and fat had never felt so good.” People, place and purpose of the story are set in this first chapter. We learn that Jayne, a private investigator based in Thailand, has gone into business with her boyfriend, and they’re now on vacation in the resort area of Krabi, on the Andaman Sea. When they go to book a day trip with their favorite tour guide, they learn she is dead. Bodies pile up, the police aren’t interested, and Jayne’s relationship becomes frayed. That’s all classic detective drama, yet Savage keeps reminding us that Jayne is no typical private eye. With a nod to those of us who find expectations for female dress and behavior suffocating, even in fiction, this author gives us a wonderful picture of Jayne. A man named Paul “expected someone glamorous, not the frump who met him at the guesthouse reception desk…She couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, but her clothes were the sort his grandmother might wear.” Jayne isn’t the slightest bit interested in feminism, or its opposite, glamour, but just gets on with the job. One of the glories of Angela Savage’s writing is her gift for physical description. We see  dazzling beaches, snake farms, orchids, braziers sizzling with barbequed food, mosquito-deterring curtains of stringed shells. Dialogue is interspersed with Thai phrases whose meaning is apparent. Corruption and beauty intermingle. It was in her class on scene and setting that I met the delightful Angela Savage. She was visiting the U.S. for the very first time, she said, as a presenter at the Arizona State University’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. (See Angela’s blog on the conference and shared on my Facebook post) Angela, a former community aid worker in Asia, started winning awards with her first book, Behind The Night Bazaar, before it was even published. The Dying Beach is her third novel. I hope there will be many more.

How Book Club Questions Can Help The Author As She Writes

My experience with book clubs has been enjoyable, but as guides to reading fiction, they’ve tended to go off the point. Depending on the quality of the food, or let’s just blame the wine (both always necessary!), the discussion meanders into participants' marital problems, politics, or neighborhood gossip. Great, bonding evenings. Many book groups have lasted for years. It matters little if participants like the book or pan it, the novel is often just the excuse for getting together. That’s all wonderful, and was for me, too, until a friend suggested me that being a writer must spoil the experience of reading, because it would become too analytical. Not true. I can get swept up in the power of good prose just as much as I ever did. It’s just that now I know that every sentence did not get there by magic – it was planned. Now that I review fiction and try to write it as well as I can, I’ve found that “book club questions” (for those that actually ask them) really help in thinking about a novel. I found these from a site called LitLovers.com. The most interesting thing for me as a writer, is that these questions sharpened my thinking about how to put a story together, or at an even earlier stage, how to pre-write a novel. LitLovers.com questions 1, 4 and 7 are questions only the reader can answer. But as a writer I can see I have to ask questions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 before I even put a word to paper. Do these questions help you in figuring out how a novel works? 1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to “get into it”? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored…? 2. Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities. • Why do characters do what they do? • Are their actions justified? • Describe the dynamics between characters (in a marriage, family, or friendship). • How has the past shaped their lives? • Do you admire or disapprove of them? • Do they remind you of people you know? 3. Are the main characters dynamic—changing or maturing by the end of the book? Do they learn about themselves, how the world works and their role in it? 4. Discuss the plot: • Is it engaging—do you find the story interesting? • Is this a plot-driven book—a fast-paced page-turner? • Does the plot unfold slowly with a focus on character? • Were you surprised by complications, twists & turns? • Did you find the plot predictable, even formulaic? 5. Talk about the book’s structure. • Is it a continuous story… or interlocking short stories? • Does the time-line move forward chronologically? • Does time shift back & forth from past to present? • Is there a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? • Why might the author have chosen to tell the story the way he or she did? • What difference does the structure make in the way  you read or understand the book? 6. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas? (See the free LitCourses on both Symbol and Theme.) 7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there’s a particular comment that states the book’s thematic concerns? 8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not… and how would you change it? Thanks, LitLovers.com for putting together this thoughtful list!

Christmas Traditions Observed or Ignored

The 26th December was Boxing Day. That is, the day after Christmas, and in the U.K and the Commonwealth countries, a public holiday. A sort of gathering-of- wits-after- the-madness day. Boxing Day’s origins go back hundreds of years. The word “boxing” allegedly refers to boxes of money or other gifts being given to those who perform various services throughout the year. But why call the day by a present participle – “Boxing” rather than the more active “Box”? Perhaps if the gifts were things rather than money, it would take a long time to pack them up and so a whole day was allowed for this. I can relate. We’re doing a renovation here, and in preparation, I’m packing and packing boxes and boxes and boxes. Books, clothing, Christmas lights and ornaments, and kitchen knickknacks have all gone to Goodwill. I did not inflict my Christmas cake on my family this year. I have given up. After years of trying and often failing to concoct this nutrition – filled fruit cake according to various family recipes, I decided enough was enough. It’s too time consuming. It’s too expensive. It’s too calorie-laden. And Americans hate fruit cake. Now that’s because they have never tasted the true British, alcohol-soaked, immensely satisfying cake. If you don’t have a family recipe, one of my favorites is Nigella Lawson’s from her book, Nigella Christmas (New York, Hyperion, 2009). But it’s too late for all that. Christmas cake must be prepared at least six weeks ahead so the liquor can drench the fruits and preserve its soft, dark richness. I think the problem with those store-bought cakes that everyone claims to hate is that the crystallized fruit stays hard as plastic and about as appetizing in a dry, light colored cake. No wonder it is shoved into the trash can. This year I made a pavlova. If you’re Australian, as I am, the pavlova is a favorite special occasion dessert. It’s rich but not too rich, and actually very easy to make. All you need is egg whites, whipping cream and red berries such as strawberries or raspberries or both. The colors fit the Christmas spirit. Pavlova 6-8 egg whites (depending on number of guests) 1 cup super fine sugar (make by whizzing granulated sugar in the blender) 1 tsp distilled white vinegar Filling 1 pint whipping cream 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar 3/4 lb fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries etc. washed and dried with a paper towel. I like to macerate the fruit in 2 tbs sugar for an hour or two before serving, but this is to taste. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Take a pizza pan or cookie sheet and line it with parchment paper. Cut the paper into a 9 inch circle. In your stand mixer, whip the egg whites to a froth, then till soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly, then the vinegar. Whip it all up till the mixture stands up in stiff peaks. With a spatula, place a big glob of the egg white mixture onto the middle of the parchment circle. Spread it out and create a hilly circle with the rest of the egg whites around the circumference. (Because the whites have been so thoroughly whipped this won’t fall down.) Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then without disturbing the pavlova, turn off the oven open the oven door a little bit and let the pavlova sit in the cooling oven for at least another 30 minutes. This means it’s quite okay to go away and forget it for a while. When ready to serve, whip cream with 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar until stiff. With a spatula, lay over the pavlova to the edges. It will look hilly. Then put your fruit in the middle of the cream and serve.

Comfort Cookies

cookies-1I think we can all agree that the anxieties of the past week have fueled a need for comfort food. So I spent Sunday afternoon baking cookies. With the holiday season around the corner, I’m experimenting with ginger. In particular, ginger cookies. A little spice and all things nice. The Joy of Cooking  was my baking guide in earlier years. But I’ve come to love a lesser known cookie, the Cornish Fairing, from England. Classic ginger cookies call for up to 3 3/4 cups of flour, two eggs, 1 1/2 sticks of butter, as well as molasses, sugar and spices. I tried these. They turned out floury and unappetizing. Sunday, I tried a batch with less flour, but still, they didn’t have the pizazz I was looking for. Then I found my old recipe for Cornish Fairings. These eggless, light-as-a-feather cookies baked up beautifully. The Cornish Fairing is from Cornwall, where the sweet “biscuits” were sold at fairs. They can be whipped up quickly without the need for an electric mixer. The recipe calls for less than a cup and a half of flour and spices, a cup of sugar, a half stick of butter, and a cup of ginger syrup. American ginger cookie recipes use molasses to provide a rich dark sweetness to the dough. The English recipe is lighter. Traditional recipes call for “golden syrup”. If using, use 3 tsp. ground ginger in the recipe. If you use ginger syrup, use 1 tsp. ground ginger. * Cornish Fairings Adapted from a traditional English recipe. This recipe has no eggs. 4 oz butter 4 oz light brown cane sugar. Could even use a little less sugar if you like. 4 oz ginger syrup or golden syrup 12 oz plus a little bit more of all purpose flour 2 tsp baking soda 2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp. mixed spice or pumpkin pie spice 1 tsp cinnamon ½ tsp salt 1 tsp ground ginger if using ginger syrup, 2 tsp. if using golden syrup. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix up the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Sieve or whisk to bring up the air in the bowl. Meanwhile, heat the stick of butter, the sugar and the syrup in a saucepan until melted. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix. Then, working quickly with floured hands, shape dough into balls about the size of a walnut. If you need more flour, add my tablespoon till the texture feels light yet not runny. Place on parchment sheets on cookie pans. Leave quite a bit of space between each biscuit as they flatten and spread.Press the back of a fork into the dough as it rests on the cookie sheet. Bake for 8 minutes, then move to lower shelf of oven and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from oven, carefully bang the pan on the counter – this causes the cookie to crack attractively. (It is not really necessary to do this but the recipe says to.) Let cool and harden on the parchment in the pan before removing to a parchment paper lined plate to cool completely. *Both golden syrup and ginger syrup can be found at import stores. I get mine at Cost Plus.

News and Potatoes For Halloween

I have some exciting news. My novel, Lipstick On the Strawberry, has been contracted to be published by The Wild Rose Press. Can’t give a publication date yet, but I love working with the team at Wild Rose, so supportive and professional! With that in mind, I’m changing the focus of my blog. My heroine, Camilla, is a British- born caterer. Much maligned, British food has been re-invented in the past generation. As well it should, because the natural ingredients were always there. So watch this space for a new take on old foods, or a revival of some British food treasures. Potatoes For Halloween I’m making mashed potatoes for Halloween. Of course if costumed kids come to the door, they’ll get to scrabble in the big bowl of wrapped candies and chocolates and take as much as they like. But potatoes are actually a treat for us, full of carbs as they are. In fact, they are a pretty nutritious food, which is why, in Ireland, where they grow so well in the cool damp climate, the people came to rely on them as their major source of sustenance. In the 1840s a fungus attacked the crop, with disastrous results. I have three Irish great-great grandmothers. They all emigrated during the Great Famine. In honor of them, I will eat the potato dish “Champ” this Halloween. It’s an old Irish tradition. In ancient Ireland, all the potatoes and other crops were gathered as deep fall set in. The New Year was set to start on November 1, and on its eve, the Celtic people lit huge fires. Praying for survival through the long winter, the Druid priests made sacrifices, possibly even human sacrifices. It seems to have been a night of some terror. On October 31, the souls of the departed left their graves, it was believed, and haunted the living. The people wore costumes (maybe animal heads in the beginning, later more elaborate), to try to trick the ghosts or to disguise their own nasty deeds. The next morning the Celts scraped up of the ashes of the fire and the Druid priests lit new ones to bring in the New Year, Samhain. Feasts were part of Samhain, and on its eve the fairies needed to be fed too. So boiled potatoes were mixed with scallions, chives or parsley and mashed with milk and butter. A bowl of the delicious mash would be lain under a hawthorn bush for the sprites/spirits to devour. Champ is similar to Colcannon, another Irish dish. Colcannon swaps chopped cabbage for chives or scallions, but any way you make it, the creamy dish is perfect for a cold evening. Champ – to serve 4 2 1/2 lbs Russet potatoes 4 oz butter divided into two pieces. 1 cup whole milk or half and half (if making for company, why not go for the rich stuff?) 2 tsp salt 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine 2 tbs chopped parsley Place the scrubbed, unpeeled potatoes in a large pot and fill with cold water to a level just above the potatoes. Add 1 tsp. salt and bring the pot to the boil, covered. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes can be pierced with a knife. Now heat 2 oz butter in a small pot, and in another pot place the diced scallions and pour the milk over them. Bring to a simmer, but do not boil. Drain the potatoes, saving the water in case the milk is not quite enough for a good mash. Peel the potatoes. (Use gloves if they are too hot!) Put the potatoes back into the large pot and mix in the melted butter with a wooden spoon. Adding the butter before the milk allows it to bind to the potatoes, making them more flavorful. Gradually add the warmed scallions and milk and 1 tsp. salt, and mash. Toss in the chopped parsley. Traditionally champ is served in a large communal bowl. Make a well in the center and place the other 2 oz of butter in the middle. Absolutely yummy! Beats candy any time.