Friday, December 17, 2010

Must-Have Book for Writers

My friend Jeff Gerke, a talented Christian writer and the developer of Marcher Lord Press, has a new book out on writing from Writers Digest Books, and I'm so impressed with this one that I just have to share. PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER is an excellent guide in developing both of these crucial elements in writing. I used his process in developing the book I'm writing now, Judgment in Plain Sight, and it really helped me in integrating a complex suspense plot with character development.

With PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER, A BALANCED APPROACH TO WRITING GREAT FICTION, Jeff Gerke presents an answer to the age-old question of writers: which comes first, character or plot? Whether you love developing complex characters but struggle to find something for them to do, or excel at developing intricate plots, only to find your characters are made of cardboard, you’ll find solutions to your problem in Gerke’s book.

Gerke’s entertaining, friendly style, full of concrete examples, will keep you reading, finding insights you can apply to your story on every page. Whatever the level of your writing skill, this excellent book will help you take your writing to the next level.

If you're a writer, or if there's a writer on your Christmas gift list, I highly recommend PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER by Jeff Gerke.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Baking

Marta Perry’s Rolled Sugar Cookies

Generations of Pennsylvania Dutch women have spent long, tiring, but happy hours come December in baking Christmas cookies. No home would be complete without at least several kinds, but the crowning achievement in Christmas cookie-dom has to be the traditional rolled sugar cookie. Each group, maybe each baker, has its own particular take on how these are to be done. The Moravians typically use confectioners sugar instead of white sugar in their recipes. Sometimes the cookies are baked with a sprinkling of colored sugar, but our family tradition has always been the iced cutout cookie. Shapes vary with the cookie cutters that are available, but stars and trees are probably the most common. My own children loved a particular reindeer cutter, despite the fact that the reindeer legs were very fragile and might break during the icing process.

The following recipe has been popular in my family since before I can remember. My mother made rolled sugar cookies with me when I was a child, and I did the same with my three kids. Now, I’m making them with my grandchildren. The oldest, ten-year-old Bjoern, loftily explains to his younger sibling and cousins, “It’s a tradition.”

In the photo you'll see Estella, complete with Santa hat, making Christmas cookies with me. This is a special picture for me, because my husband and I were at her house, awaiting the arrival of her little brother, Tyler. We filled in the time making Christmas cookies!

Rolled Sugar Cookies
1 Cup Crisco
1 ½ C sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
4 C flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
4 to 6 T milk

Cream the shortening and sugar. Add eggs; beat. Add other ingredients and mix well. The dough may be refrigerated at this point for ease in handling. Roll out very thin on a floured surface. Cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 350 degrees for about six minutes, until very lightly browned.
After the cookies have cooled on a rack, frost them with the following confectioners sugar icing. The children can then decorate still more with icing tubes or colored sugars, if you really want that extra dose of sweetness.
This recipe makes a very thin, crisp cookie that is not overly sweet, contrasting well with the frosting.

1 box of confectioners sugar
½ C butter or margarine, softened
3-4 T milk
1 t vanilla

Combine and beat until smooth and creamy.

It's best to let the icing dry a bit before storing the cookies. Then store them in tight containers with wax paper between the layers. I promise, they'll go fast!

Friday, December 3, 2010


I'm deeply involved in Christmas preparations right now, as I'm sure you are. Gifts to buy and then wrap, decorations to be put up, cookies and special holiday treats to bake, and Christmas parties and dinners, enough to send an introvert like me into hiding!

We'll have fourteen people around our Christmas dinner table--but that is nothing compared to the numbers when an Amish family gathers for their holiday celebration. Because of the large families and the fact that extended families typically live close to each other, a Christmas family gathering might have sixty or eighty people!

Usually that large family gathering is not held on Christmas Day. Instead, celebrations are spread over a longer period. Some families might have their get-together on Second Christmas, the day after Christmas which is usually reserved for visiting friends and relatives. Other might choose to have a family celebration on New Year's, or some other day that works well for the entire family.

As for that gift list of mine, which sometimes seems to be getting out of hand-- The Amish give gifts to each other during the holidays, but they are typically small items, often something that is handmade for the recipient to treasure. Most Amish schools have a gift exchange, and in areas where home schooling is more popular, the children who are home-schooled might get together and exchange names for a holiday party. And of course, the teacher must receive a gift--again, usually something handmade or baked.

Most Amish do not take their children to see Santa, although some do, depending upon the particular community, and Santa doesn't leave presents under a tree, since there is no tree. But it's common for children to receive small gifts on Christmas morning, followed no doubt by other gifts as they visit, or are visited by, their grandparents.

The fact that they don't put up a tree doesn't mean that there are no signs of Christmas in an Amish household. Here in Pennsylvania, with our strong Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, it's common to see greens and candles in the house as the season approaches. The children may pounce on every Christmas card that arrives, eager to add it to a string or tape it to a door frame so that everyone can enjoy it each time they pass.

The school Christmas program is a huge part of the celebration in Amish communities which have their own schools. The children spend excited weeks preparing for the presentation, which is done in English. Teachers may spend even more time, collecting the poems, readings, and songs which the children will learn! The poems and readings focus on the meaning of the season, often stressing the importance of having an attitude of thankfulness and the joy of doing for others. By the time every scholar's parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, and other relatives file into the one-room school, it's crowded with an uncritical audience ready to enjoy every minute of the program, even the occasional error or forgotten line!

And what would Christmas be without baking? Most families have their special Christmas cookie traditions, and during the days and weeks before the holiday, the house is filled with those special aromas which say Christmas in any language.

Wishing you all the joy and peace of the season,