Monday, August 23, 2010

Celebrating--Italian Style

I received an impromtu invitation last night to join the family party a friend of mine was hosting as a farewell to her cousins from Italy. They come from the same area of Italy as my paternal grandmother (Avellino), the setting for part of my novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons.

It was pouring rain and approaching darkness when I decided to take her up on the invitation. I threw on a raincoat, grabbed an umbrella and headed across town. It wasn't hard to find her mother's house--dance music was throbbing, the backyard was lit up and a tarp extended from the garage to protect guests from the rain. I was instantly embraced, kissed, dragged to meet all the relatives and handed a glass of homemade wine and a plate piled with gnocchi, meatballs and green beans sauteed in olive oil with wild mushrooms.

Three generations filled the backyard; my friend's brother, a musician, acted as DJ; everyone was dancing or singing. I looked around and felt as if I had been transported to my grandmother's house. Overhead was a grape arbor. Half of the backyard was a vegetable garden. In the basement, a second kitchen--not unlike the ones my grandmother, my mother and my aunt each had--served as the center for preparing meals for a crowd. As the evening wound down, someone pulled out an acoustic guitar. A father played while his daughters sang.

Everything about the evening was an affirmation and a reminder of my heritage. It echoed a scene from my book, Across the Table--a graduation party for Rose and Al's oldest son. When I went back tonight to read the passage, I was struck by the similarities:

"What a party! We received permission from the city to use the vacant lot behind the building. We strung Christmas lights and hired a band to play live music. Al's cousin welded some oil drums together and made us big grills to cook the sausage and peppers. We had all of Al Jr.'s favorite foods--lasagne, eggplant parm, sfogliatelle, even big tubs of lemon ice from Mike's Pastry Shop...The kids danced. My aunts sat on their plastic beach chairs, fanning themselves and pinching Al Jr.'s cheeks as if he were still a little boy. Papa and my uncles sat at a back table playing pinochle."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Craft/Making the Abstract Concrete

This is another wonderful exercise adapted from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Take one of the abstract concepts below and, using sensory details, give it life.


Friday, July 9, 2010


Yikes! I've been away a long time--enmeshed in the exhilarating and sometimes exhausting process of launching my new book, Across the Table. I've been traveling, meeting with readers and answering mail. As I've told the wonderful people who take the time to send me a note, I cherish every word. Knowing that my book has touched someone is one of the special rewards of being a writer.

I want to say a special "thank you" to my first Amazon reviewers. Here are a few excerpts:

"This is a story about families. Their love, struggles and their bond. The descriptive writing makes you feel like you are part of their world. You feel Rose's love for her family and Toni's pain to become her own woman. When you read Linda's stories you feel like you are inside the story. You become a part of her characters world. It is a must read and you won't want it to end."

"Linda's fluid writing style mixed with a touching personable doorway into cherished family stories captivates her audience and warms the heart in ways unexplainable."

I'm now off to a family wedding in New York. Lots to write about when I return!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Encounters/Book Expo America

More than twenty years ago, as a newly arrived expatriate living in Germany, I took advantage of my proximity to Frankfurt and spent a glorious day at the legendary Frankfurt Book Fair. I wandered from floor to floor, awed and excited about the range of human creativity contained between the covers of the thousands of books on display. By that time I was a published author in nonfiction, but still nurturing the dream of one day writing fiction. I left the Book Fair inspired (and exhausted!) and began writing my first novel the next day.

Fast forward to another book fair--the ongoing Book Expo America currently underway in New York at the Jacob Javits Center. I'm incredibly excited as I type this, because I'm about to leave for the city to attend the event as a signing author. Tomorrow, at the Harlequin booth at 11:00 in the morning and at the Romance Writers of America booth at 2:30 in the afternoon, I'll be autographing copies of my new release, Across the Table! If you are in New York and love books, please stop by for a chat, a book and some delicious biscotti.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Food/Pasta e Fagioli

I came home late this evening after a brain-numbing day reviewing my organization's Form 990--the tax return for nonprofit organizations. Traffic on the Mass Pike was at a standstill for awhile, an ominous reminder that my Friday evening commute lengthens as the weather turns warm. While waiting for things to start moving, my stomach started growling and I began to long for the comfort of a bowl of pasta. When I arrived at last in the kitchen, it was easy to pull together a staple of my mother's repertoire--pasta e fagioli--or, as it is commonly pronounced, "pasta fazool." A can of chick peas, a jar of chopped tomatoes, an onion, some garlic, basil and parsley, and a pound of pasta. We lingered over supper, as I hope you will too. Here's a simple version:

Pasta e Fagioli

1 pound shaped pasta, such as shells, elbows or ditalini
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 15.5-ounce can chick peas

Cook pasta according to directions.
In a deep saucepan, saute onions in olive oil until soft.
Add garlic and continue cooking for 1-2 minutes.
Add parsley and basil and stir to blend.
Add tomatoes and chick peas.
Simmer for ten minutes on medium heat, stirring frequently.
Serve with pasta.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--More First Lines

I've been busy building my new website (soon to be launched--stay tuned), so today's writing prompt has been pulled from the pages of The New York Times. Some writers cull their ideas from the headlines; these prompts are the first lines of news articles. Have fun.

By age 12, she knew how to bake bread from scratch, braid a horse's mane, pin a kilt and set a dinner table correctly.

He clambered up and then down a narrow, rocky footpath that snaked around some hills, paying no heed to coffins that, in keeping with a local funeral tradition, hung from the surrounding sheer cliffs.

The monks, stifling their rage, mumbled a Tibetan prayer for the dead.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In the last two weeks, I've encountered three widows--one a dear friend, another the writer Elinor Lipman, and the third a woman I know only by name who works in my building. They are all young by the standards one usually expects among the widowed. I cannot fathom the loss and the sense of unreality that shrouds their experience. My husband is standing at the kitchen sink right now, washing the dishes as he has done throughout our marriage. I drank from his glass as we sat at the table tonight, batting back and forth a decision our youngest child needs to make about traveling home from college after exams. Later on this evening, I know with assurance that I will be wrapped in his arms as soon as I climb into bed.

As a wife, I don't want to consider widowhood. But as a writer, I find myself in awe of the women who, confronted by such loss, try to find their way in this new and unwelcome role. My close friend, widowed only six months ago, is astounding in her reaching out to others not for her own solace, but to offer with grace and wit the friendship and mentoring that has been her trademark. She continues to give as she always has. A group of her friends--about 30 of us--celebrated her birthday in January, and everyone of us had a story of the influence and impact she had had on our lives.

Have you experienced a loss as profound as widowhood?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Inspiration/Marathon Running

My daughter ran the Boston Marathon on Monday, the culmination of months of training and incredible focus, not to mention the realization of a goal that probably had its origins when she was eleven years old and joined her middle school's cross-country team.

I'm in awe of her accomplishment, her dedication and perseverance. Her achievement makes one acutely aware of the possibilities open to us if we commit to the work and the practice. Running a marathon truly is putting one foot in front of the other--a phrase I often repeat to myself when I feel overwhelmed.

In writing, it's putting one word after another.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--Using a Photo as a Trigger

Forgive me for being a little out-of-sync today. It feels like a Monday because I live in Massachusetts and we celebrated Patriots' Day yesterday, the commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere's ride. It's also the day the Boston Marathon is run, about which I'll blog later in the week.

Given that I've mistaken today for a Monday, here's a note on craft:

I keep a folder in which I store images that intrigue me, that lead me to ask "What's the story here?"

I tear them out of newspapers and magazines, scan them from family photo albums. Sometimes they sit in the folder for awhile, but if the image is compelling enough I find myself continuing to go back to it until I've figured out what it's trying to tell me.

It was just such an image that was the seed for my novella, "A Daughter's Journey." The photo, a portrait of a young woman reporter during the Vietnam War, became the inspiration for Mel Ames.

Start your own collection. And in the meantime, take a stab at creating a story from the photo above.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Food/Frittata of Onions, Potatoes and Eggs

One of the first challenges Rose Dante, my heroine in Across the Table, faces in the early days of her marriage is cooking. Not learning how—which Rose had absorbed growing up in her mother’s kitchen—but coping with the unfamiliarity of the barely edible on a naval base in the middle of the Caribbean.

The base had a commissary where we could get tins of evaporated milk, peas, potted beef and Spam. But I longed for fresh, so soon after I arrived I walked down to the little village that was halfway up the hill between the base and the harbor. I’d seen chickens pecking around a yard the first day, and vegetables I didn’t recognize growing in a field. I knocked on some doors, talked to the old Mama who had the chickens, and walked away that first day with a basket of greens, some eggs, and a packet of spices—cardamom, cilantro, some dried chili peppers.

They eat spicy in Trinidad. I knew Al was used to Calabrian cooking and that was spicy, so I gave a try with the local things. If I had to open another can of Spam and make it into something recognizable, I thought I would shoot myself. Or we’d both starve.

But fresh eggs I knew what to do with. I had some potatoes and onions and made a nice pan of frittata, with the greens on the side. Al came into the house and smelled the familiar aromas. He ate that night with gratitude and pleasure.

Frittata of Onions, Potatoes and Eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium potatoes, cooked and sliced

4 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Sauté onion in a heavy, ovenproof skillet until translucent.

Add potatoes and brown lightly on both sides.

Blend eggs and parsley and add to skillet.

Cook over low heat until eggs are almost set.

Sprinkle shredded mozzarella on top of eggs.

Place under broiler for a few minutes until eggs are set and cheese has melted and golden in color.

Cut into wedges to serve.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Inspiration/Mother Campion

I was musing the other night with my friend Ann, whom I've known since we were 14-year-old freshmen in high school, about the influence of our teachers at the School of the Holy Child. She prompted my memory of Mother Campion, who taught us not only Latin, but rigorous thinking. She took her name from Edmund Campion, a brilliant 16th century Jesuit scholar and martyr who had not yet been named a saint when she professed. In reading a brief biography of him, I understood why she would have chosen him. It was said that Campion had "bearing, beauty, and wit," and that "his preaching, his whole saintly and soldierly personality, made a general and profound impression."

Mother Campion was an imposing and substantial figure, demanding of us intellectual discipline and challenging us to question and analyze, not simply accept what we were told as passive sponges. At the same time, I remember her warmth and sense of humor. She believed intensely in our potential to be great women and pushed us to meet that potential. We were blessed to have her as a teacher.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Discoveries/A Stack of Books

One of the perks of teaching a workshop at a writers' conference is that I come home with a totebag full of unexpected treasures. At every meal one finds a book on one's chair, courtesy of the speaker of the hour; giveaways abound as raffle prizes--bags and baskets filled with chocolates, writing implements and lots of books; and the book signing that closes the conference provides lots of opportunities to scoop up a stack of books by one's favorite authors.

I came away from the New England Chapter-Romance Writers of America Conference with an eclectic collection. Some were by authors I know and love--Brenda Novak's The Perfect Couple, a chilling and emotionally gripping story that kept me up at night turning pages; Judith Arnold's Looking for Laura, whose unconventional heroine made me ache with recognition and cheer for her determination and grit. Other books were complete strangers to me, but having roared with laughter at 7:30 in the morning listening to MaryJanice Davidson, I couldn't resist reading her Undead and Unemployed, a most unlikely book for me but which entertained in surprising ways. I'm now in the midst of Night Swimming by Laura Moore, who happened to sit next to me at the book signing. It's a complex story, rich with political and ecological conflict as a backdrop to the relationship between two childhood friends reunited after many years.

I'm always struck by the range of stories that fall under the definition of "romance." It's an extraordinary collection with such different perspectives--and every one of them a good read.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt-Emotional Honesty

A couple of months ago I enjoyed a spirited discussion over lunch with a group of writing colleagues. One of them spoke about struggling with a story until she had an epiphany about emotional honesty. She realized she'd muffled how she truly felt about an experience from her past that she was trying to translate for her character. It was only after she pealed back the layers of her own history that she was able to create an effective and authentic moment for her heroine.

Think about a moment in your own life that was particularly harrowing, enraging or thrilling. What about it made your emotions so raw? Mine those feelings. Describe what precipitated them in specific detail and how you responded.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Food/Easter Pie

At my Uncle Pal's 90th birthday party last week, conversation drifted to the recipes of our Aunt Susie, the most extraordinary baker in the family. Each of us has a few fragments of her repertoire, and a story I had heard many years ago was repeated that afternoon. Susie "left out" ingredients when she passed on a recipe, the family insists, because nobody has been able to replicate her amazing culinary feats. In addition to the missing item, Susie's recipes often don't contain measurements, just a list of ingredients. She was a magician, unwilling to reveal her secrets.

Somehow, many years ago, I managed to extract from her the recipe for what we called the "sweet pie" at Easter, complete with amounts. It seems to work, so if something is missing, I haven't detected it. I'll be baking it tomorrow for our Easter dinner. The recipe that follows is reduced by half from Susie's original.


(Susie made a pastry crust, but I tried this cookie crumb crust one year and have continued to use it.)

1 ½ cup fine crumbs from either macaroon cookies or anisette toast cookies

6 Tablespoons butter


1 lb. ricotta cheese

½ cup sugar

4 eggs

½ cup heavy cream

Zest of one lemon, grated

Zest of one orange, grated

½ cup orange juice

1 tsp. vanilla

Melt the butter and blend with the cookie crumbs. Spread mixture over sides and bottom of a 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Bake for 15 minutes at 300 degrees. Cool.

Beat the eggs.

Combine all filling ingredients and stir until smooth.

Pour filling into pie shell.

Bake for 1 ½ hours at 350 degrees until filling is firm.

Squeeze lemon juice over top of the pie after baking and sprinkle with sugar.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Encounters/Pal's 90th Birthday

My father's youngest brother turned 90 on Palm Sunday and we gathered to celebrate. Uncle Pal was born on Palm Sunday and hence named "Palmino." The party was the first time I'd seen many of my relatives since the funeral of another of my father's siblings, and it was truly wonderful to be together at an occasion that wasn't associated with someone's passing.

As expected, the food and wine were abundant, the conversation lively and full of reminiscences, and many of the moments were touching as faces and names from my childhood crossed the room to reconnect. Pal and his wife, Rita, were surrogate parents to my sister, brother and me. Every winter, my parents took a vacation in Florida and Pal, Rita and their two daughters moved into our house to care for us while my parents were away. It was a vacation for us as well--filled with laughter, Rita's delicious cooking and the tumult of five kids around the kitchen table.

My father's youngest sister, my Aunt JoAnn, was also at the party, looking beautiful and brilliant as she recounted to my husband tales from my childhood.

Such encounters fill me up and nourish me as much as the pasta with broccoli and chicken francese on the buffet table.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Inspiration/Counting the Sunsets

The photo at left is not to be mistaken for a sappy attempt at recapturing the cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is also not a stock photo. It is, instead, the view from our cottage on Chappaquiddick, and one of, by now, hundreds of photos of the sunset taken by my dear husband.

It is something of a mission for him every summer, capturing the nuance and texture of the sky as night approaches. Collected in one place, the photos are an extraordinary testament to the ever-changing nature of sky and sea. Not only from night to night, but from minute to minute, the scene on the horizon is dynamic. Look away and something is different--the color shifts from vibrant to muted, a cloud obscures, the wind ripples the reflection. There is nothing quiescent or dormant about the sunset.

What is continually changing in your world?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Discoveries/The Checklist Manifesto

A colleague recommended this book to me last week and I found its premise intriguing: the discipline of a checklist can have a profoundly liberating effect on one's work. It is less about ticking off accomplishments on a to-do list and more about the systematic steps--the seemingly unimportant details--that together add up to a job well done.

So often we think we can skip a step, skim over a minor point. But in life, as in writing, those details matter! I'm presenting a new (for me) workshop this Saturday at the conference of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. It's about the process of developing engaging characters through the "telling detail"--particulars that inform and shape the approach they take to the world, the choices they make and the consequences they must deal with.

I attended a meeting today with OR nurses and medical researchers. Before any of them spoke I was acutely aware of how they presented themselves--the choices they had made in interpreting the "business casual" suggestion for dress or in selecting items from the breakfast buffet, the style of their cell phones or purses, the length of their hair. Such observations become a rich library from which to pull the details that are the building blocks of a character.

What choices did you observe today?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt-Extreme States of Mind

This is a challenging exercise from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, a text I turned to time and again when teaching creative writing.

Write three short paragraphs, the first "fear," the second "anger," and the last "pleasure" without using these words.

The objective is to create emotional states with precision and freshness.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--Layering

Choose a scene you've already drafted and go back to it with the intention of adding a layer of sensory images. Focus on only one sense; for example:

the ripple of the wind through a stand of cottonwood trees or
the bellowing of a frightened animal in the middle of the night;
the blue of a lapis necklace against a milk-white throat;
a coarsely woven blanket crumpled stiffly in a corner.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


One of the pleasures of my life as a writer is speaking to groups about my books. A few years ago I was the featured speaker at a "Festa Italiana" held by the women's club of a small village just north of New York City. Most of the women were of my mother's generation and, like her, were the daughters of Italian immigrants. During the course of the afternoon I had the opportunity to speak with many of them individually and listen to the memories that my book, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, elicited.

Of all the women I met that day, one in particular has retained a special place in my own memory. Her name was Ida. She was 80 years old, dressed in chinos, a pale blue shirt and a colorful vest, with short white hair in a stylish pixie cut and eyes that danced. She was full of energy and curiosity, always moving and engaging others in conversation. She was both a delight and a role model.

More and more, I find myself drawn to women who have lived long and full lives. They are passionate and generous and funny--traits that seem to me to be a fine way to live.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Inspiration/Reading Aloud

For many years I served as a lector in my parish. The role of a lector is to read aloud during the first part of the Mass--a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle. The canonical years rotate the gospel among the four Evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--and the remaining selections are tied to the theme expressed in the gospel of the day. (And yes, it is no coincidence that my two sons are named for Evangelists.)

I don't remember how I came to be standing at the pulpit one Sunday morning. More than likely, I got tapped to fill in when someone didn't show up. But I found the opportunity compelling. Reading aloud from sacred texts was a kind of calling for me, and a role I embraced. Some of my favorite passages are from the Book of Revelation:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud.

...the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, "Write down all that you see in a book...."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Discoveries/The History of Chappaquiddick

I am in the midst of creating a new story set in a very old place. Cape Poge is a strip of barrier beach on the sometimes an island/sometimes not of Chappaquiddick. As some of you know, I spend part of my summer in this isolated corner off the New England coast and I have finally decided to write about it.

Last summer I found a book in the house where we stay--a beautiful, thick, cream-colored volume filled with photographs and memories and geology. It is a priceless history, compiled with both passion and precision by the Chappaquiddick Island Association, and a window into the lives of families who have lived there for hundreds of years. Finding the book reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to the library in the city where I had grown up and where my immigrant grandparents had settled. The library had a local history collection, a locked room filled with the minutiae of daily life in the city's past. I had to make an appointment to use the room--an excursion that I fit into one of my trips back to the states. I was researching the time period in which my first novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, was set. I'm not sure what I expected to find--dry tomes and dusty maps, perhaps. But what that room--wooden-panelled, windowless--revealed to me that day was a treasure.

There were file drawers filled with original documents organized by family--mine included. There was microfiche of a century of the city's newspaper, The Daily Argus. There were photographs of the neighborhoods in which my characters lived. I mined that material to create a sense of place and time that was essential to my story.

Discovering the Chappaquiddick history in the cottage was a similar treasure. Descriptions of meals created from what grew in the garden or came from the sea; childhood games; even the evolution of the ferry service that connects Chappy to Edgartown--all will find their way into my story to give it texture and particularity.

What are your sources for the details that shape your characters' lives?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--First Lines

Here are a few "first lines" to use as prompts for some timed writing:

Cristina was scribbling notes in the back of a linguistics class when, in an instant, everything went black.

He said he had never been happy until he met the Egyptian chess player.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Food/Pot Roast

When Toni Dante, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, Across the Table, starts dating blonde, 6'2" Bobby Templeton from Belle Arbor, Indiana, his mother, Hazel, gives her a cookbook for Christmas, thoughtfully bookmarked with Bobby's favorite recipes. As Toni describes:

I grew up watching my mother cook with no recipes at all except what was in her head. She would taste and adjust, with a handful of chopped parsley or a fragment of cheese hand-grated and tossed into the pot. I used to think that she had been born with the knowledge of how to cook, something she had absorbed in the womb.

Following a cookbook was a new experience for me, but I threw myself into learning how to produce the dishes Bobby had grown up with. Once a week I took the T to his apartment in Kendall Square near MIT, carrying a shopping bag filled with ingredients I’d never seen in my mother’s pantry.

One of the first dishes she learns how to create is pot roast. Here is my favorite version. The secret to its rich flavor is the combination of garlic, thyme and red wine:

Pot Roast

1 large onion

2 large carrots

3 large cloves garlic

3-4 lbs. beef chuck roast

3 tablespoons flour

½ cup olive or canola oil

2 cups beef broth

1 cup red wine

1 tablespoon thyme

1 large bay leaf

1. Peel and chop onion, carrots and garlic into small dice.

2. Pat the beef dry. Place flour in a plastic bag and season with salt and pepper. Add beef and toss until coated with a layer of flour.

3. Heat oil in a Dutch oven and brown the beef on all sides. Remove from pan.

4. Add chopped onion, carrots and garlic to pan and sauté until onion is golden, scraping up bits of meat from bottom of pan.

5. Add beef to vegetables.

6. Add beef broth, wine, thyme and bay leaf.

7. Bring liquid to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer.

8. Cover and cook on low heat for about two hours.

9. Serve with noodles.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Encounters/Women with Curly Hair

The rain in my corner of New England has not stopped for days. Roads are flooding, the ground is soggy and everything is shrouded in a monochromatic nothingness. It is the sort of weather that drives women with naturally curly hair to desperate measures and binds us in a sisterhood that transcends rank.

This evening, my organization held a symposium and dinner at which the chair of our board was to give the welcoming message. I'd written her speech weeks ago and when she arrived for the event I met her at the podium to review the details. Before we jumped into the speech however, she had something far more important to discuss with me.

"How's your hair holding up in this weather?" she asked. "Let me tell you about this new treatment I tried last week..."

This wasn't the first time we've shared war stories about our love/hate relationship with our curls, and she isn't the only woman with whom I've formed an instantaneous connection simply because of what's growing on our heads. Like Frieda in the Peanuts comic strip, we feel a certain "otherness," and it's such a relief to find someone who understands on the most intimate level what we go through with our hair.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


At dinner this evening (farfalle pasta with white beans, spinach and chopped tomatoes for my vegetarian daughter and with meatballs in a tomato sauce simmered with sausage and bracciola for my carnivore husband) our conversation drifted to strong, independent women.

My grandmother Theresia was one of them. An immigrant from southern Italy, she raised ten children, the last of whom was a boy with Down's Syndrome. To protect him from the taunts of their city neighborhood, she and my grandfather moved with him to the country. On a plot of land with towering weeping willow trees, a rippling brook and room for both a vegetable and a flower garden, my mason grandfather built a house of stone that became "home" to three generations of my family. After both my uncle and my grandfather died, Theresia remained in the country, living there alone for over thirty years until she passed away at the age of ninety-six.

She never wanted to move in with any of her adult children. She would visit with each of them a few days around the Christmas holidays, but steadfastly and robustly continued managing her household. She was funny, insightful and riveting in her ability to ferret out the truth.

We loved her intensely, and she loved us back, giving each one of her many grandchildren the gifts of her laughter and her belief that we were wonderful. "You're a good girl," "You're a good boy," are phrases that we all heard from her and that to this day, we recall with fondness when we gather together as a clan.

Theresia was the inspiration for Rose's mother in my upcoming novel, Across the Table.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I recently stumbled upon an article in the Sunday New York Times about the field of eco-psychology--the relationship between human well-being and the natural world. Because I'm currently developing a new story that is deeply concerned with my characters' connections to a particular landscape, I found the article both fascinating and reaffirming. Fascinating because the idea that we derive our emotional and spiritual health from the physical world intrigues and excites me. Reaffirming because along the journey of writing my books I have often discovered seemingly unrelated fragments of knowledge that tie back to my original themes in unexpected and very satisfying ways.

What unexpected fragment of knowledge made its way into your life recently?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Craft: Writing Prompt

The Thousand-Word Sentence

Many years ago, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a serious writer, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with the novelist Jill McCorkle. Our first assignment was one which Jill described as "cleaning out the cobwebs in the attic." She sent us away from class with the task of writing a thousand-word sentence.

I was in Boston for a week after living abroad for many years and had foolishly scheduled dinners almost every night with old friends whom I hadn't seen since moving away from the city, thinking that I'd work all day at writing and spend my evenings enjoying the pleasures of friendship . The night of the thousand-word assignment I returned to my hotel room after a long and wonderful dinner and stared at the blank yellow legal pad I'd left on the desk. I wanted nothing more than to crawl between the covers.

But I sat down, picked up my pen and did what writers do. I wrote.

When I finished, I was exhausted and empty. But I had produced something of emotional honesty, freed of the restrictions of punctuation and editing.

Try it. Write a thousand-word sentence.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--What's in the Trash

When I lived in Germany, our region instituted some stringent recycling rules in order to cut down on the amount of trash that was being collected and deposited in landfills. Food wrappers fell into the category of items to be washed and recycled, and suddenly, people began bringing their Tupperware to the deli counter in the supermarket to hold their weekly order of sliced ham instead of having the butcher wrap it in waxed paper. One day, as I rolled my garbage bin to the curb, I met my neighbor doing the same and we struck up a conversation about the time-consuming task of sorting through our debris. It turned out that she was washing the paper that her butter had been packaged in, in order to recycle it. It was one of those telling details that says so much about a personality, and I tucked it away.

You can learn a lot about a character by what she throws away. Describe the contents of someone's trash as a way of revealing something significant about him or her.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Food/Chicken "Salmi"

When my heroine in Across the Table needs to orchestrate an important conversation, she stages it with food. Rose Dante takes her husband to an isolated beach north of Boston to recreate with sun and a spicy meal the early days of their marriage on the island of Trinidad.

I spread the blanket on the sand near the shoreline. It wasn’t the azure blue of the Caribbean, but the sun caught the water at just the right angle and broke up into thousands of pinpoints of light. It was like my brother Jimmy’s girlfriend Marie, the Sicilian, had snagged one of her gaudy dresses and all the sequins had spilled across the ocean.

Al pulled me down next to him, and I swear, I would have done anything with him at that moment. But he whispered to me.

“I just want to hold you, Rose. Rest your head on my chest so that I can breathe in your perfume.”

We lay like that for a while, quiet, just listening to one another breathe, me feeling the weight of his arm draped over me and knowing with certainty that’s where I wanted to be.

When both our stomachs started growling, I stirred.

“How about some lunch?” I murmured.

“As long as you promise to lie down again with me after we eat.”

I set out the dishes I’d prepared the night before: chicken salmi that had absorbed the flavors of wine vinegar and garlic and oregano overnight and that we ate with our fingers, the olive oil slick on our chins; string beans and potatoes with some chopped up tomatoes from Uncle Annio’s garden; and the fried bananas now soaked through with rum and brown sugar. I even had managed to put a couple of bottles of beer in the basket.

What my mother called "chicken salmi" when we were growing up is a pungent dish, simmered for hours so that the chicken falls off the bone. She didn't leave the recipe, and I couldn't find one in my search through my cookbooks. But here is a close approximation.

1 chicken, cut up into pieces

Olive oil

½ cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1 teaspoon dried basil leaves

3 garlic cloves, chopped fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a heavy, ovenproof casserole and brown the chicken pieces.

Add the remaining ingredients, cover the casserole and bake at 350 degrees for one hour, basting the chicken every 15 minutes.

As Rose explains, this tastes even better the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to meld.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Encounters/The Honey Dew Ladies

I have a sixty-mile commute to work, which I share with a colleague. We've been carpooling together for almost five years and have developed certain rituals to ease the ride. One of those rituals is stopping at the Honey Dew Donut Shop for our morning tea (mine) and coffee (hers). The early morning shift at Honey Dew is staffed by two warm and gracious women who welcome us with smiles and friendly banter. They look out for us, know exactly how we like our drinks and send us off on the road with good wishes.

We probably spend no more than a few minutes with them, but starting our day this way is a simple pleasure.

What or who gets your day off to a joyful beginning?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Inspiration/The Gesture

I've just returned from a dinner honoring donors who support research seeking a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a progressive neurodegenerative disease. They were a close-knit and dedicated group, almost all of whom had family members who had been touched by the disease.

In attendance was one member who has ALS. He is still able to sit in a wheelchair, but he requires a respirator. One by one, the other guests stopped by his table to greet him and talk with him at length. With him was his wife.

At one point during the evening, I watched her get up from her seat and reach into a pocket on the back of the wheelchair. She retrieved a soft white cloth and gently wiped her husband's face. His own hands were motionless on the armrests of the chair, unable to make even the slightest movement.

Her small gesture--thoughtful, loving--was an inspiration.

Have you ever witnessed an inspiring act?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Discoveries/Chris Guillebeau

I started reading Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project blog about a year ago on Slate and it became my daily lunchtime fix. One of the things she does that resonates with me is how she organizes ideas. I've learned a lot from her, including something as simple as illustrating my blog posts with a colorful image. Through Gretchen I discovered Chris Guillebeau. On the surface, Chris is a writer and a traveler. But a few weeks into reading his newsletter and sporadic epistles that pop into my mail box, I've realized what a gift he brings to his readers. As he puts it, he gives people the courage to do something remarkable with their lives.

Yesterday, his message truly struck home with me. Essentially, it was this:

You have to do. Not just think.

Our intentions have no impact. Our actions can effect change--for ourselves, for someone we love, for the world.

What will you do today?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Craft--Writing Prompt/The Crabapple Tree

I had dinner on Friday night with one of the Margies in my profile, a childhood friend with whom I had spent many a lazy summer afternoon playing games of jacks, rescuing injured birds and climbing the gnarled limbs of the crabapple tree that straddled the boundary of our backyards. We kids in the neighborhood had named every branch; it was a place to hold "meetings" or hide with a book.

Take a tree--outside your window or buried in your memory. Create a scene in which it stands at the center.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Craft/Recharging and Catching Up

I've gone missing a few days, between dental surgery, family gatherings (my aunt's wake and my husband's birthday) and taking down the tree (yes, we keep it up this long because we don't mark the end of our holiday celebrations until the birthday).

I'm back again, trying to recharge my dormant creativity. Yesterday I wandered from room to room, teacup in hand, not quite able to summon the words and the discipline that sustain me. I decided to allow myself a few hours--my mouth hurt from the stitches, my brain was rebelling. I even took a nap, curled up with a comforter on our down-filled blue velvet (don't ask!) couch in front of the wood stove.

When I woke up, it was to music. My husband was listening to Bono on YouTube, singing "MLK." In the way that often happens, we found ourselves moving from Bono's version to the Heartland Men's Chorus rendition, which then led us to several other songs by the HMC. I shook off my fatigue and mental paralysis, touched by both their music and their history.

I did two things last night to get back to where I wanted to be: I made a list and I played the piano. The list set out what I wanted to accomplish in the next week, with very specific next steps for each item--even if it was something as simple as printing out an email from my editor. The piano playing was practice in the Zen sense of the word. I empty myself of everything except the notes when I play.

Tonight, as I write, I'm on my way again.

How do you recharge when you falter?