About McKenna Dean

from shifters to 1950s paranormal investigators to contemporary love stories, romance lives here.

Bishop Takes Knight is a RONE Nominee–And I Need Your Help!

I hate asking for votes.

It feels pushy, for one. It also reminds me that being relatively unknown, my chances of winning anything based on my following is slim to none. But this time is a little different.

See, Bishop Takes Knight has been nominated for a RONE award! Voting in the subgenre division for Long Paranormal Romance opens Monday, May 18th and runs through Sunday, May 24th (though I’m told not to wait until the last minute as some people have been caught by time differences). The only way Bishop Takes Knight can advance to the finals is if it receives enough reader votes! So here I am, asking for your help to get to the next round…

Here are the instructions from InD’Tale Magazine:

It is extremely important that you let all your readers and fans know!  We would hate to think a superior quality book lost only because people were unaware of the time limit. Also, make sure that they understand they MUST be registered on our website at www.indtale.com in order to vote. Once they register, if they haven’t already, they will be required to click the verification link sent to them via email. If they do not verify their registration with this link, they will be unable to vote. This is very important to help ensure that the voting is fair and maintains the high-quality standards required for this top-tier award.

Once you’re logged in, you can go to the 2020 RONE Awards in the drop-down menu at the top right corner and scroll to the category (or date) Paranormal-Long. Or go to this link directly!

So you see, your vote is crucial to getting to the next step! I hope if you’ve read and enjoyed Bishop Takes Knight, you’ll consider voting for it in the Paranormal-Long category. If you haven’t read it, but you like my works, you can still vote for it, or spread the news among your friends. Your support is deeply appreciated!

 

Find Someone Who Knows Your Value: The Panther’s Lost Princess #MFRWHooks #MFRWauthor

Most people who’ve met me know I’m a big fan of Marvel’s Peggy Carter. I love the Captain America movies, but I adore the fact Peggy is competent and kick-ass without being a superhero. She is what she is by dint of training and hard work, and a healthy appreciation of her self-worth. There’s an iconic line in the Agent Carter series where Peggy says, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”

I love that line. I try to embody it, but the truth is, I’ve spent more time running myself down than building myself up. I grew up in a household where the standards were impossibly high, and I could not possibly ever be pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough… in short, Good Enough. Under those circumstances, it’s frequently easier to put yourself down before others can do so. Over time, it becomes a bad habit, teaching you to settle for less than you deserve because you don’t believe you deserve better.

One of the things I love doing is creating heroines who have this potential living in them, but they need to find it for themselves. Part of that is by giving them heroes that build them up, that believe in them. Not to rescue them. But helping them to see they can rescue themselves. I also write supportive heroes because the world is a tough place. You might be able to go it alone, but it’s easier to keep fighting the good fight when you have a support team on your side.

My SO and I currently have to maintain separate households because of the pandemic. I’m an essential worker. The SO can work from home. So we made the decision for him to self-isolate with the high risk family members in their home, while I, as an essential worker exposed to the public every day, am staying on the farm to take care of the animals.

I had a REALLY crappy day at work yesterday. Exhausting, frustrating, and incredibly stressful. I came home to find a package waiting for me from the SO. He’d sent this mug:

It immediately brightened my day, but it wasn’t until this morning that the real message struck me… by sending me my favorite quote from a favorite character, he was saying he knew my value too.

Wow. Just wow.

So I recommend to you all: find someone builds you up when you’re feeling down. Who makes things easier for you, not harder. Who knows the tribe is strongest when we support all members. Who believes in you. Who knows your value.

The Panther’s Lost Princess features just such a couple. Ellie is a waitress seeking to change her future. What Jack knows about her past changes everything. On Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Only 99 cents for a limited time!

Excerpt:

Ellie stared into her mug as though she might be able to divine her future there.

“You okay?”

She looked up sharply.

“What’s not to be okay about?” Her words had a definite snap to them. Before he could speak, she leaned across the table so she could hiss intently, “You waltz into my life, telling me that not only am I the long-lost heiress to a kingdom I’ve never heard of, but apparently I can turn into a dragon and I’m some magical musical messiah to boot. I’m supposed to just give up everything I’ve worked so hard for—hell, even my identity—and go live with people I know nothing about? Oh, yeah, and someone is trying to kill me as well. Forgive me if this is a bit too much.”

“Well, if you put it like that…” He smiled, hoping she’d see the humor in it.

She didn’t.

“Look, Ellie. I know this is a lot to take in, and believe me, I think you’re handling this really well.” Her expression registered on him and he continued hastily. “Amazingly well. Seriously. You have no idea. I wish I could have explained it better somehow. I don’t know, broke it do you more gently or something.”

Ellie leaned in over the table to speak in a low hiss. “Exactly how would you have explained that I can turn into a dragon more gently?”

Jack shrugged a little helplessly. Ellie rolled her eyes and sat back in her seat with a huff.

“Look, I’m telling you this because you need to know, but also because I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. If we get in a jam, I want you to shift and get yourself out of it, you hear?”

Ellie frowned. “I thought you—we—shifters had rules about changing in front of others. At least, that’s the impression you gave me. Isn’t that the whole reason you don’t want me at Nightingale?”

Jack glanced around the diner. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. “You’re right. The current atmosphere is pretty anti-shifter. If the US president goes forward with his plans to start internment camps, it would be bad for anyone to know you’re a shifter. That’s one of the reasons we don’t tend to shift in front of the general public. That’s why there are special resorts and compounds—so that shifters can change at will without fear of persecution. But if it comes down to protecting your identity or saving your life, you have to shift.”

“I don’t know how.”

He laughed at that. He couldn’t help it. “Honey, most people don’t know how to have sex the first time they try it but they figure it out. Instinct kicks in.”

Her face reddened. She didn’t meet his eye. Instead, she fiddled with the empty paper packet of sugar. “I don’t see what the rush to get me back home is. It’s been almost twenty-five years—why can’t it wait a few more weeks?”

“I think it’s a timing thing. Your birthday is next week. Your grandfather wants to bring you home and introduce you to the kingdom with a combined birthday celebration and coronation. And, uh, besides, there’s the Prince to meet.”

“Prince.” She spoke the word with the flat coldness someone else might have used to say, ‘spider’ or ‘snake.’

Jack coughed. “Um, yes. Prince.”

“As in my brother? Another family member I’ve yet to meet?” She tapped her spoon on the table in irritation.

Oh hell. “Not exactly. More like as in your betrothed.”

“My betrothed?” She didn’t shout the words, but she rose out of her seat and planted her hands on the table to lean over and snarl at him. A small puff of smoke released from her nostrils and she gasped and sat down again, her hands clasped over her nose. Her pupils widened into black holes, and her eyebrows climbed up into her hairline.

“I’m starting to think even the amulet can’t hold you back much longer. Why don’t you ditch it and accept who you are?”

The Panther’s Lost Princess is the first book in the Redclaw Security series, but each story can be read as a standalone. Check it out today!

This is a blog hop, so check out the other blogs on this list today! 

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McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.

 

 

 

Standing up to the Naysayers in Your Life: Ghost of a Chance #MFRWHooks

Most of my stories originate from a single question: what if…?

In Ghost of a Chance (Redclaw Security Book 2), the what if question I asked myself was what if someone was raised by parents who hid a family secret, and the discovery of that secret caught that person by surprise? What if, unprepared for the devastating revelation, that person accepted the truth as told to her by her mother, without questioning whether what she had been told was actually true or not? What if–in an attempt to fit in, to be normal–that person continued her pattern of trying to please everyone around her? Of placing everyone else’s desires and wishes above her own?

That was the set up for my heroine, Sarah Atwell. When the story begins, she’s on her way to attend a reading of her grandmother’s will, which will turn her world upside down. Snowed in at the valuable farm that up for grabs with the rival for the inheritance, Sarah must come to grips with who she really is and what she really wants out of life before a series of escalating “accidents” threatens everything she loves.

I love journeys of this nature! I love watching people grow into their own power–especially when that growth is supported by those they love. But sometimes the people who love you are the ones holding you back. There comes a time in most lives when you must stand up for yourself, even if it means telling the people who claim to love you that you will no longer allow yourself to be bullied by them.

Redclaw Security is a series of steamy paranormal romance stories that can be read as standalones. Each book features a different couple, and characters associated with the firm. Redclaw Security is an elite paranormal agency that polices and investigates matters in the shifter world. Ghost of a Chance is on sale for a limited time for just 99 cents! Redclaw Security was voted Third Place for Best Romance/Paranormal/Fantasy/Vampires & Shifters in the Paranormal Romance Guild 2018 Reviewer’s Choice Awards! It was also a finalist in the 2019 Bookseller’s Best Awards!

Available on Amazon  Barnes and Noble  Apple  Kobo

Here’s a brief excerpt:

The light faded as they approached the dip in the drive leading down to the bridge crossing the creek. Long shadows were cast from the tree line onto the drive, and as they rode into the shade, the temperature dropped as though they’d walked into a freezer. Casey pulled Indy up as he inspected the tracks. He pointed at a trail going off to one side. “Someone made a break for it here. Didn’t want to cross the bridge, most likely.”

He urged Indy in that direction, following the tracks splitting off into the woods. Indy obliged, trudging through the deeper slow, icicles gathering on his feathered legs.

The other tracks crossed the bridge. That way led to the road. The thought of Athena or the other mares potentially ending up in traffic turned Sarah’s stomach. The horses aside, some driver could get killed if they rounded a corner and found the mares in their path.

Sarah closed her legs around King’s sides and urged him across the bridge. He didn’t want to leave Indy, and balked at crossing the wooden structure. The bulk of the missing horses had gone that way, however, and Sarah thumped her heels against the reluctant gelding to follow their trail.

Ghost exploded out of the brush to block her path, barking furiously. The Shepherd favored one foreleg, and as Sarah watched, drops of blood flecked the snow around the dog.

King rocked back on his haunches, preparatory for a spin for home. Sarah pulled up on the reins and closed her legs around the spooked gelding. Behind her, she heard Indy crash through the vegetation. Casey must have turned him around.

“Go home,” she shouted at Ghost. “Bad dog!”

She clapped her calves against King’s flanks and the gelding sprang forward. Ghost scooted to one side as the horse charged, flinging snow behind him in his wake. Sarah leaned across King’s neck as he galloped across the bridge, belatedly considering the slickness of the wooden planks. Too late now. Once they were across, she’d pull up and wait for Casey.

Halfway across the bridge, a terrible shriek rent the air. Wood splintered and failed. Boards separated under the weight of horse and rider and came apart. King screamed as the footing beneath him gave way, and he plunged into the icy stream below, carrying Sarah with him.

 

MFRWHooks is a weekly blog hop, so check out the other blogs and find some interesting reads! 

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The (Almost) Lost Art of Writing Letters

Photo by Abstrakt Xxcellence Studios from Pexels

Back before the internet made sending emails so easy, I used to love getting letters in the mail. Still do, actually. I have a handful of friends who still send snail mail letters, postcards, and holiday greetings, and every time I receive a missive in this manner I’m struck again with a kind of awe. Mostly I admire the time someone took to write to me in this format. Buying stationery, envelopes, and stamps. Taking the time not only to write the letter by hand, but frequently decorate it as well with stamped images, stickers, and other things that make me smile. Walking it out to the mailbox instead of just clicking “send”.

I’m a big fan of the Jacquie Lawson animated e-cards–both in their inventive beauty and the ease of sending them to friends and family–but there is something about getting a physical, handmade card in the mail that speaks to me of a whole different level of caring because I know how much time was involved in the process. I find it interesting that the majority of my friends who are still letter-writers are also fans of pens and ink. Sharing their epistolary love is one of the ways they get to play with their fancy ink pens, and it gives them an excuse to use up (and buy more) of those cute little stickers and stamps meant for journals and scrap-booking. I understand and appreciate the hobby interests, but I appreciate even more the time involved that goes into the creation of a handwritten letter.

To me, a handwritten letter is an act of love.

I have a lovely “crafty” friend who loves making things. Her cards and packages are a thing of joy and beauty as they come decorated with images of cats, and hand cut stamps of things from her favorite sci-fi show, and embellished with drawings and other decorations. A card is never just a card. A package is often so cleverly wrapped it’s almost a shame to open it–and I frequently photograph such deliveries before I destroy the outer paper. Her handwriting is practically calligraphy (and puts mine to shame) and these letters often appear out of the blue for no particular reason except to say she was thinking about me. They never fail to cheer me up. They also always seem to arrive when I need a pick-me-up the most.

I asked her recently how she found the time to put together such fun/beautiful cards, and she said she frequently made a bunch in advance when she was playing with her craft materials, and then set them aside to fill them out and personalize them when she needed them. I love this idea! More than half the reason I don’t send hand-decorated anything is a serious lack of time. If I pull out all the craft stuff to do one project–making additional things at the same time is more efficient and increases the odds I might send something out in the future.

This past week, I received a hand-written letter from a friend for the first time. We exchange emails, and meet up on rare occasions, but living as she does in another country, she’d never written to me before. She explained that since she’d been working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt the desire to hand write letters the old-fashioned way. I found I was utterly charmed by this.

By sending me a cheerful, chatty letter, she was able to switch out inks with every sheet of paper, so that I received a veritable rainbow of colors. She also clipped the pages together with this novelty paper clip. It’s supposed to be a bunch of cherries, but as you can see, that’s open to interpretation…

I think the part that made me smile the hardest were the stickers she used at the end. I have a bunch of “encouraging” stickers myself, ones I bought from the local craft store, but nothing like these! This letter came on a day when I’d had an utterly exhausting day at work and I’d come home nearly weeping with resentment and frustration. The stickers, which I won’t post here, were about self-care and doing your best (only laced with expletives which made me LOL). Just perfect.

Which made me decide I should be writing more letters by hand as well. If I think taking the additional time to hand-write and mail a letter is an act of love, then why aren’t I spreading the love around? 

The first thing I did was dig through my stationery. I have some paper that I got from the National Wildlife Federation that I love, but not very much of it left. Sadly, it’s been so long since I’d purchased any stationery, the NWF no longer produces any.

This led to me looking online for replacement stock. I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. Lots of cards, yes. But not as much in the paper department. That made me more determined than ever to start writing letters again though.

I had a conversation with author Amanda Weaver on Twitter yesterday that drove home the value of physical letters even more. She mentioned going through a box of keepsakes and coming across old letters from a past relationship. She spoke of the value of keeping memorabilia, and then wondered what people in relationships today would keep. It made me wonder too. For the longest time I kept a voice message from my husband, until it either got accidentally deleted or didn’t make the transition to a new phone. I decided I wanted there to be some sort of concrete piece of me out there somewhere with the people I love in case something happens to me.

That, and the fact that the United States Postal Service is in trouble. Turns out there are people in the government that want this Constitutionally-mandated service to fail so it can be turned into a for-profit business. Not only would doing so fly in the face of the Constitution, but it would force the cost of delivering the mail through the roof. Many seniors and people living in rural communities are dependent on the USPS to deliver not only the mail but to pay their bills, get prescription medications, and more. Not everyone has internet access, nor do all companies allow online bill payment. Heck, even the government sent the Census out by mail this year, and until this past year, I used to snail mail my Federal Income Tax Payments. I still mail my state and local tax payments. Who has the freaking time to go down to the Treasurer’s office and pay in person? And especially now, in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we should be able to apply for a ballot and send in our votes by mail in elections.

The nice thing about mail-in ballots? It’s harder to hack than an electronic voting machine.

If everyone in this country bought stamps to mail letters, it would be like a big GoFundMe campaign to save the USPS. So go ahead. Write that letter. You know you want to.

EDIT: Speaking of the PO, there’s a twitter thread that’s gone viral about a young, ardent letter writer and her thank you to her postal carrier. I came across it the same day I posted this blog post, and it seems appropriate to share here.

Stress Busting Book Festival and Giveaway!

Stress got the best of you in these uncertain times? Escape inside these books and
watch your stress disappear at N. N. Light’s Book Heaven Stress Busting Book
Festival. 43 books featured plus a chance to win one of the following:

Enter to win a $50 Amazon (US) or Barnes and Noble Gift Card
Enter to win a $50 Amazon (US) or Barnes and Noble Gift Card
Enter to win a $25 Amazon (US) or Barnes and Noble Gift Card
Enter to win a $15 Amazon (US) or Barnes and Noble Gift Card
Enter to win a $10 Amazon (US) or Barnes and Noble Gift Card

I’m thrilled to be a part of this event. My book, Ghost of a Chance, will be
featured on May 20th! Wait until you read my cure for winter doldrums. Fated mates snowed in together with danger all around? You won’t want to miss it!

Bookmark this festival and tell your friends!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

My Comfort Reads During COVID-19

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time focusing on anything right now. I’ve mentioned in other posts the difficulty I’ve had writing, and how I can’t watch anything new, relying instead on old tried-and-true formulas.

This lack of focus has been especially true for me when it comes to reading. I normally read anywhere from 2-3 books a week. Now, it’s a challenge to finish anything. At first I blamed the books I attempted to read–but after I DNF the seventh book in a row, I realized the stories themselves were not to blame. I needed to apply the same criteria to my reading that I did to my television watching: something familiar enough not to hurt me but still powerful enough to engage. In short, my comfort reads.

When compiling this list, it occurred to me that many of my favorite comfort reads are set in the past. I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy period pieces as a rule (hence my love for Agent Carter and The Miss Fisher Mysteries), but I don’t think that’s the entire story when it comes to comfort reads. I suspect it’s because the setting is different enough that it takes me out of my current existence, and that’s one of the important criteria for a comfort read for me. I like crime dramas because I like the mystery and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle. But also because it bears no resemblance to my daily life. I can’t watch House because as compelling as the drama and the actors were, I found myself competing with the residents to solve the medical mystery before the end of the episode. Too much like the day job, thank you very much.

I think it’s also because one of the beauties of many period pieces is that the stakes are often much lower. There’s something soothing about having the biggest trauma in your life being cut dead at a social gathering or having your sister run off to Gretna Green. After struggling to read anything from my enormous TBR stack, I went back to my old favorites. And I noticed two things when I did this. By sliding back into the well-worn groove of reading, I hit that quiet zone that not only allowed me to enjoy newer material as well as old favorites, but I found myself writing again, too.

If you’re having a hard time being creative right now, I suggest turning off social media, the news, and the television. Pick up a book and read. Reading is a form of meditation, and I believe it primes the brain for writing.

And although comfort reads are intensely personal, (and what one person finds comforting is not necessarily the same for another) I thought I’d share mine. No doubt you’ve heard of or read most of them yourself, but I hope I can introduce you to some new reads.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know. I know. I can see some of you backpedaling away right now while others are nodding and smiling. But hear me out. The works of Jane Austen are probably the cornerstone of the Regency Romance Genre. I recommend going to the source to find out why the tropes are so compelling. While I enjoy all of Austen’s books, Elizabeth Bennett is my favorite of her heroines, and Darcy is the Original Grumpy Hero who is captivated by a Sunshine Heroine. Not to mention, but P&P has been adapted into movies and mini-series again and again, so not only do you get the pleasure of reading this book, but you can watch the story in all its many forms. I highly recommend the 1995 BBC mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I think due to the length of the series, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of the book. There is, of course, the famous scene where Firth as Darcy walks up in a wet linen shirt from having taken a dip in a pond to find Elizabeth unexpectedly a guest in his home. For many, this is the quintessential adaptation. And I love Ehle’s portrayal of Elizabeth–it’s probably my favorite. Ehle is also reading P&P from quarantine on her Instagram account right now. So worth watching! 

Then there is the 2005 movie version with Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen. I think they did a bang up job of condensing the book into movie form. The cinematography is breathtaking. But it is the chemistry between the leads that is truly compelling to watch. So in addition to being able to read Austen’s delicious words, you can immerse yourself in these lovely adaptations.

 

For a complete 180 on subject matter, the next comfort read I’m recommending is the In Death Series by J.D. Robb. I can hear you now: What are you smoking, McKenna? How can a series with the word “death” in the title be a comfort read? Trust me, they can. In part because the good guys win. I don’t know about you, but these days, I need to know the good guys are going to win. Unlike most of the books on my list here, the In Death books are futuristic gritty crime stories featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her enigmatic billionaire husband, Roarke. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) has produced something like fifty books in this series (while also writing under the Roberts name–her productivity is amazing), so you have a LOT of books to read.

When I was going through the worst of my personal losses, I read one of these books every 24 hours. The crime pulls you in from the first page, but it’s the characters that bring me back again and again. My favorite television shows feature teams and I love team dynamics and found families. When I finished the series, I turned around and started it all over again. It’s not without some trauma at times but overall, you know the key players will be okay. (The series is ongoing, so it may shock me at some point…)

My hope is one day to create a series as compelling. I know, reach for the stars, right? I want the same kinds of things: the team dynamics, the found family aspects, the push-me pull-you between the leads. I love case-based stories too, and by setting them in the Redclaw Universe, I can follow a team of Redclaw agents as they solve crimes, as opposed to couple-based stories in the current Redclaw Security series (each of which can be read as a standalone). I doubt most people would consider the In Death series a comfort read, but there is great comfort in knowing what to expect when you pick up a book. I’d watch the hell out of a Dallas and Roarke series too.

But in general, I reach for period pieces when I need a comfort read.

The Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. I love these books. I tend to re-read them a lot, especially the first three in the series. These are truly delightful stories. Amelia Peabody is bluntly outspoken and forthright at a time when women were supposed to be decorative, delicate creatures. Her inability to see the humor in her own statements or actions adds to the hilarity, and in the irascible Radcliffe Emerson, we find the only man that is her match. Peabody dashes in where angels fear to tread, usually brandishing a pistol and packing a first aid kit that would allow her to perform minor surgery, if called upon. I have a deep love for archaeology, and the details of Emerson’s work fascinate me, though very little progress is made on the digs due to the frequent nature of criminal activities that must be investigated each season.

A word of  warning: on a recent re-read, I became aware of a degree of fat-shaming I hadn’t picked up on before. It doesn’t come up often (and I suspect it’s generational; my mother was the same) but it’s disappointing and I can see where it may be enough to put some off the series. It’s dimmed my love of these books somewhat, and yet I still reach for these books when I need to be comforted. For the life of me, I don’t know why they haven’t been made into movies. We NEED Amelia Peabody on our screens!

Make Way for Lucia by E.F. Benson. Another period series, this is quite different from the recommended reads in that the stories center around Mrs. Emmaline Lucas (“Lucia” to her friends) who is a well-to-do middle-aged woman in England in the 1920s and 30s. Lucia is a force of nature: vain, opinionated, and pretentious. She pretends a fluency in Italian with her platonic friend “Georgie” Pillson that she doesn’t possess, claims a scholarly interest in Greek and Latin, practices Mozart on the sly so she can pretend she’s never seen the piece before when asked to play, and in general is the Queen of Riseholme, the village in which she resides at the beginning of her story. Halfway through the series, having vanquished all her foes in one small English town, she moves to Tilling, where she finds a more formidable adversary in Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Like any true Tillingnite, we wait with baited breath to see who will win the current round in this clash of the Titans. Will Mapp expose Lucia’s Italian deficiencies? Will Lucia retaliate when Mapp orchestrates the rejection of her painting to the Tilling Art Society? Newcomer Lucia is pushy and irritating, and some long to be out from under her yoke. At the same time, life would be terribly dull without her. As reviewer Phoebe-Lou Adams for the Atlantic once said, “Nothing Lucia and her enemy, Miss Mapp, did was ever of the slightest importance, but they did it with Napoleonic strategy, Attilian ferocity, and Satanic motive. It is a sad fact that Benson borrowers usually become non-returners.”

You don’t have to read the whole series–you can jump right in with Mapp and Lucia to get at the heart of the conflict–for it is not until these two meet that Lucia finally faces a worthy opponent. But to appreciate the series in delightful detail, I’d strongly recommend reading it from the very beginning.

Another series I adore (but also has some problematic issues, particularly with stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters) is the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Written in the 1920s and 30s, we follow the adventures of the younger son of the Duke of Denver, who finds his brains and his talent for playing the fool in public advantageous in solving murders. We also see the character growth of Lord Peter over the series, from a dilettante solving murders for his own amusement to the man who falls violently in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane while she is on trial for murder–and he must act to find the real killer to save her from the death penalty. The Harriet Vane books are among the best in the series, and you can start with Strong Poison if you like. The only non-Harriet Vane book that I re-read for the sheer pleasure of it is Murder Must Advertise, which in addition to a murder mystery, is a searing insight into the workings of the old-style advertising firms of the 1930s.

Gaudy Night remains one of my all-time favorite books. It contains one of the most powerful scenes of sexual awareness I’ve ever read, and I point to it as the book that taught me what healthy adult relationships should look like. I wanted what Harriet Vane had with Lord Peter, and I refused to settle for less. When I recognized the same qualities in my husband, I knew I had a keeper. 🙂

The 1987 BBC series starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is a treat, if you can find it anywhere online. 

But I can hear some of you hoping for something a little more contemporary. Well, I adore the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. I love all these books, but Pretty Face may be my favorite. As a former actress (on a very small scale) I love stories about the theater, so I was drawn to the series by the first book, Act Like It. Parker does Grumpy Hero and Sunshine Heroines extremely well, which is another plus for me. It’s not always easy to make a hero justifiably grumpy without also making him an asshole, but Parker handles this conundrum with ease.

I also appreciate the fact her characters face real challenges to being together–not the sort of misunderstandings that make me want to clack heads together and tell the leads to get over themselves. There’s character growth over the course of each book, another factor that places these stories in the re-read stack. And I’m all about the slow-burn romances! It’s also happy-making to have characters from one story turn up in another because they all inhabit the same universe. But it’s the satisfying resolution to each installment in the series that places these books on the comfort read list for me.

I could go on. I could list the horse and dog books of my youth, or the Dick Francis mysteries, always a good way to spend an afternoon. There are series that I love (like the Hidden Legacy books by Ilona Andrews, or the Psy-Changeling books by Nalini Singh) that I’ll re-read given the chance, but they don’t quite make the comfort read list. I’ve read some really outstanding books this year, and it feels odd not to mention them here, but you can love a book without it being a comfort read, if you know what I mean. Comfort reads are so personal, so individualized, and I find it interesting that my needs during COVID-19 are somewhat different than my usual levels of stress. What made my list might not make yours. But I hope you enjoy these suggestions, particularly if some of these stories are new to you.

What are YOUR comfort reads? I’d love to know what you choose and why! Make your case. Perhaps you’ll convince me to try out your comfort read. 🙂

 

The New Normal in Pandemic Times: Are You Still Writing?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time finding my balance these days.

As an essential worker, I spend most days dealing with the usual difficulties of a demanding job while at the same time, I’m in a constant state of vigilance regarding the coronavirus and whether I am doing everything possible to limit my exposure. That means wearing a mask for ten plus hours day, washing my hands after touching anything in a public space and before I touch anything else. Using my sleeves, shirttails, and elbows to open doors, turn off faucets, punch in keycodes. Wearing long sleeves specifically for this purpose, despite the fact external temperatures are beginning to soar. Disinfecting my hands to the point the skin is glassy and taut from the chemicals, and worrying about how I will manage one month, two months, three months from now if hand sanitizer and wipes are no longer available. Recognizing what a privilege it is to have access to soap and water.

Just prior to the stay-at-home orders, I’d begun watching Monk on Amazon Prime. As the pandemic spread, I went from enjoying the quirky show to being annoyed with it in rapid order, to finally accept that I had to be Monk in my daily routine now, with the exception of compulsively touching things. As a matter of fact, this pandemic broke me of a weird habit of my own: the need to place shopping carts in the correct order at grocery stores. Prior to the pandemic, I used to re-order the carts when I put my own up: putting the small carts on one side and the large on the other. It started out as the result of mild annoyance at certain shoppers who couldn’t be bothered to put the carts away properly, and morphed into a desire to make things easier for the kids who had to come out and collect the carts to bring them back into the store. But all that changed with the advent of COVID-19. Now I walk past disordered carts with scarcely a flinch. I’m not touching anything someone else has handled if I don’t have to.

This post started to be about the pros and cons of various masks I’ve tested. As someone who is a non-medical essential, I’ve tried a LOT of different masks. This morning I spent a hour taking selfies of me in various masks, and then another hour playing with filters to give myself different hair and eye colors. I can tell you that flimsy cotton fabric masks without filters probably aren’t doing you much good, but thick fabric masks with filters make it difficult to speak while wearing them because you can’t move enough air and they muffle your voice. And while N95 masks are probably the best thing to wear when you MUST go out in public (mine is one left over from when I was cleaning a mouse-infested garage last year), they suck down to your face like a facehugger from Alien, and though it doesn’t hamper speaking, within minutes of putting one on, I feel as though I’m standing outside in the middle of July in the deep South, where the air is warm and thick and hard to breathe. And this is from someone working in a temperature-controlled environment. Also, even the best fitted mask will fog your glasses at times, but a piece of tape on the top of the mask over the bridge of your nose can help with that. Like I said, originally I’d intended to write about masks, but I realized the selfies and the photoshopping are symptomatic of my pandemic brain right now. It’s easier to make bread, or watch TV, or take photographs (and play around with filters), than to do almost anything I used to do.

One thing I’m not doing much of is writing.

I know many of my fellow authors who say the same. They are finding comfort in other creative activities but not writing. Coloring in books, doing puzzles, decoupaging old bottles, felting, planting a garden. They speak of writing as something that may never come back for them, but I suspect, like me, they will circle back when the time is right. A recent conversation in an indie author Facebook forum seemed to indicate most people are falling into two distinct camps: those that are able to take advantage of the stay-at-home orders to write more and those finding it impossible to muster the energy to do the same, regardless of the demands of their day jobs. Would I be writing more if I could stay-at-home? I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect I’d need at least two weeks to recalibrate my brain and rediscover my balance before I could sit down to write. To get used to the new normal.

It’s not just writing that is affecting me like this. I normally read 2-3 books a week. These days I DNF more books than I finish. It finally dawned on me it’s not the fault of the book itself–I’m just having a hard time concentrating that hard on anything. I’m avoiding my usual comfort reads. Contemporary romances make me want to smack the MCs when they can’t seem to overcome the slight obstacles to their love. Cozy mysteries make me snarl when the amateur detective can leave her own business for hours on end to go sleuthing and yet conveniently fails to share any information gleaned with the police. Science fiction, a lifelong love, has been thrust aside as being too potentially painful. I can watch an old TV show (one that I’m not that emotionally invested in) but I suspect if new episodes of The Mandalorian aired today, I’d have a hard time watching. I stopped watching Picard because I couldn’t bear to be hurt by my entertainment right now and I felt the risk of that show wounding me was high.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to focus right now. There was a recent opinion post in the New York Times about this titled: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving. Makes sense to me. It’s a good post. You should read it. It makes me understand that even if I could stay home, I probably wouldn’t crank out forty-one novels.

Lack of focus means hour long television shows also easier for me to commit to than a movie. I paid the hefty fee to stream the new Emma and despite the apparent delight of my fellow Jane Austen fans out there for this version, I loathed it. Seriously. I. Hated. It. Would I have enjoyed it had it not landed at the same time as the pandemic? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain COVID-19 anxiety. It takes different forms for different people.

 

My characters are currently languishing in the 1950s suburban neighborhood where I left them. Instead of solving the mystery they are there to investigate, they are being appallingly domestic. In fanfic, this kind of story is referred to as “curtain fic.” A story essentially about making curtains for the home, if you get my drift. It’s Hurt/Comfort without the Hurt. All Comfort, all the time. I don’t read curtain fic as a rule, and I certainly don’t write it. I’m watching in a kind of horrified fascination as my characters bake bread, wash the dog, mow the lawn, attend cocktail parties, and play tennis at the country club.

That’s not to say stories that center around these kinds of activities are without interest. English author E. F. Benson wrote a lovely series set among the upper middle class in the 1920s and 1930s. The two main ladies of the series, Lucia and Miss Mapp, battle for social prestige with a deadly intensity that is delightful to behold. Like the other members of the community, we watch with avid interest to see which of these two formidable women will get the upper-hand this time.

But that’s not the kind of story I’m supposed to be writing, more’s the pity.

Teaching myself survival skills (such as baking, or making masks, or planting a garden) gives me a constructive outlet for my fears, but at the same time, I’m starting to recognize there are some things I’ll never be good at, and I should farm them out accordingly. I’ve survived the first few weeks of sheer panic and rising anxiety: now I have to figure out what the long haul looks like. Eating my weight in carbs every day is neither healthy nor sustainable. I’m feeling the pull to make better food choices, to get outside and get moving again. I probably will plant a garden (I fully expect it to fail hilariously and catastrophically, with everything being consumed by groundhogs). I probably won’t start making my own clothes, despite the brand new sewing machine mocking me from where it still sits in its packaging.

And I will write again. I haven’t quit entirely, but my output is very low. For now, I’m letting my characters do their thing. If I have to cut out 15 K of curtain fic out of my romantic paranormal suspense story, so be it. But for now, I’m going to leave them alone.

Eventually the novelty of playing house will pall and the mystery will call Bishop and Knight back to their assigned duties. But right now, I have to let them practice self-care too.

The Panther’s Lost Princess: On KU and on Sale! #MFRWHooks

She’s a waitress seeking to change her future. What he knows about her past changes everything.

I don’t know about you, but I love that tagline. It might be the best one I’ve ever written. 🙂

The Panther’s Lost Princess is the first in the Redclaw Security series. Redclaw is an elite paranormal agency, part police force, part detective firm, that investigates matters in the shifter realm. Though each story in the Redclaw Security centers around the Redclaw Universe, they can be read as standalones. Each book introduces a new couple, and places them in hot water to see how strong they are. Like tea bags, only sexier!

The Panther’s Lost Princess is on sale right now for just 99 cents–or if you prefer, it’s also available through KU. Check out this magnificent book trailer! I know you’ll be hooked. 

 

 

 

Be sure to check out the other blogs participating in the #MFRWHooks Hop today! 

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Pandemic Bread-Making for the Non-Baker

This bread was NOT baked by me!

There were so many different ways I could have titled this post. It started out in drafts as When Pandemic Baking Goes Very Wrong, and I still like that title but I wanted something to more closely reflect what this post is about. The truth is I’m a terrible cook and a fair-to-middling baker when I put my mind to it. The problem is I allow myself to get easily distracted, and the next thing I know, the smoke detector is going off, the food is ruined, and I am very, very frustrated about it. For baking to be done correctly, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing–or at the very least, set timers if you’re likely to wander off  to draft the next scene in your WIP.

My cooking skills are rudimentary at best. There are a few things I do well, and a few I can manage if I pay close attention to the recipe. Everything else is hit or miss without the aid of specialized machines, such as Instant Pots or bread machines, and the learning curve on them is usually steep with me. I’ve often said my life would be easier if Purina made People Chow and I could just pour myself a bowl when I was hungry.

But I love bread, and I’d been toying with making my own bread long before the pandemic hit and I began stress-eating my weight in carbs every day. A part of me is concerned about the health consequences of doing this, but the rest of me is savage about doing WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STAY ALIVE RIGHT NOW SO SHUT THE HELL UP THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Um, where was I? Oh, right. Making bread.

Now I know that I do better when I restrict gluten in my life, so what the heck am I doing taking about and baking bread right now? Well, I suspect it’s a bit like Lucy Lawless’s character in My Life is Murder. Alexa Crowe’s husband has died, she’s in mourning, struggling with insomnia, and coping by baking bread, pretending she hasn’t been adopted by a stray cat, and consulting with her former colleagues at the police department on challenging cases. Ironically, Lucy Lawless herself is either gluten sensitive or highly allergic–she described bread as being “death to me.” But watching Alexa make bread week after week inspired me to finally replace my bread machine after years without one: choosing one with a gluten-free option should I get inspired to make my own GF bread.

Mind you, I didn’t go crazy and buy a $1500 dollar German machine like Alexa did so she could make all those fancy artisan breads she sells to the local restaurant. No, I read some reviews on Amazon, looked for one that had a GF option in my budget, saved up and treated myself to one.

The machine got used maybe once or twice before the end of the year. Then 2020 came, and by early February, it was clear to me we were in for a serious pandemic. I began buying extras of the things I used most with my regular shopping–and one of the things I stocked up on was bread flour and yeast. I know, both hard to come by now. But my understanding is the King Arthur Flour website is still shipping bread flour and possibly yeast as well. AND they make GF flours too! But for the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about regular bread.

The recipe I like best for your basic white bread made in bread machine comes from a website called Julia’s Kitchen. I found recipes that called for butter instead of oil tended not to mix as well, and Julia’s recipe in particular seemed to have that crusty surface and fluffy interior that I like so much. The website says the recipe was adapted from one included with the Williams-Sonoma bread machine booklet. You can check out the link for the recipe, but I’m including it here as well with my own adaptation. It’s pretty simple:

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups white bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
Instructions:
Julia recommends sifting or aerating the flour with with a whisk, then spooning the needed amount into a measuring cup. Using the cup to dip into your flour and scoop some out will result in measuring out too much flour because it’s somewhat packed down, and you might end up with dry bread.
 
My bread machine has different settings for crust darkness and size of loaf. I found the medium crust setting and the 1.5 pound loaf worked best with this recipe.
  1. Add water and oil into the bread pan. Add salt, sugar. Add flour.

  2. Make a small indentation on top of flour and make sure it does not reach wet ingredients. Add the yeast to the indentation.

  3. Keep yeast away from the salt. I find if the salt and sugar are added to the liquid ingredients and the flour poured in on top of this, keeping the yeast and the salt separate isn’t an issue.

    My secret ingredient at this point is I add mash up half of an over-ripe banana and drop it in on top of the flour. This extra touch results in a deliciously moist loaf of bread and the amount of banana is so little that it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread. So don’t throw out those old bananas if you’re about to make some bread! And if your machine has an “add fruit setting” ignore it for this step. Drape the banana in on top of the flour around the pile of yeast and press “START.” You’re good to go!

Want to make this recipe but a wheat bread instead? Replace 1/4 cup of bread flour with whole wheat flour and you’re good to go.

I DID make this loaf of bread. Not bad, eh?

So I seem set, right? I have bread flour. I have sugar, salt, and oil. I have yeast. I have a bread machine. But I can see a time in the not too distant future where I might not be able to get yeast, so I wanted to look at some other alternatives, including making bread without a machine.

The first problem was what to do if I didn’t have yeast? Well, author J. G. MacLeod shared this no-yeast recipe for dinner rolls with me on Twitter:

See that listing of “baking powder” there? If you’re like me, you have an ancient can of that sitting on your shelf that you haven’t used in a thousand years. Fortunately, I bought some recently, so I didn’t have to worry about poisoning my family. Also, apparently, you can make substitutes for it if you have baking soda and cream of tartar–which I do because of a sour cream cookie recipe I always want to make at Christmas and almost never do. Anyway, delving into the differences between baking soda and baking powder brought me to Irish Soda bread, which doesn’t require yeast, but DOES require buttermilk. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to attempt this. I’m not planning to go to the store for several weeks. The funny thing is I came very close to buying buttermilk on my last shopping run but decided against it as I could only think of one thing that might use it: my grandmother’s fried cornbread recipe. I should have gone with my instincts. The soda bread recipe I intend to try is from the AllRecipes website called Amazingly Easy Irish Soda Bread. You can see why that title appealed to me, right? This calls for baking soda AND baking powder. Why, I have no idea. But I’ll report back once I try it.

But this got me thinking about bread starter and how I could get yeast-risen bread without yeast. I ran across a viral thread on Twitter posted by @shoelaces3, a yeast biologist on how to make starter without yeast.

I’ll summarize here: there’s yeast all around us. So it’s possible to create starter from dried fruit, all-purpose flour, and warm water. But go to the thread here for the deets. I was VERY excited when I came across this thread. I had some dried cranberries I thought would fit the bill, and I made my mixture. I didn’t have a scale to weigh the flour (and two tablespoons of water is 60 ml, not 40) but I approximated according to the directions and set my jar up in a warm place. I definitely got bubbles after 12 hours but never really saw the flour paste “loosen up” so I could repeat the process. After 48 hours, I couldn’t tell if the pinkish tinge to the concoction was due to the cranberries or the fact I was growing penicillin without a license. I chucked that batch and decided I would try again. I might steal one of my husband’s bottles of ale to see if that will make a better starter than the cranberries. I want to give this a serious attempt in case yeast becomes impossible to find.

Notice how the dogs are in focus but the starter is not. I have my priorities straight!

I mentioned this process to a friend of mine who is a former baker, and she said that most bakeries have yeast floating in the air from making so much bread, and that it practically self-generates in those conditions.

But that brought me around to an old sourdough starter recipe I’d used many years ago. It calls for using yeast in the initial batch, and then you keep it going by feeding it every 3-5 days. I’d done that before. I could try it again, right?

I dug through my old ‘recipe” file. It’s literally a manila folder where over the years I’ve tucked slips of paper with favorite recipes scribbled on them. Yeah, not much of a cook.  Not much of an organizer, either. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to have my bread recipes in one easy-to-find location. Or I could, you know, organize my files. But not today.

Right, so I dug out my old bread starter recipe. Back when I was making bread by hand, this was my go-to recipe. Fair warning: in the final form it makes 3 loaves. I’m as hopeless with math as I am with cooking but I’m looking to cut this recipe by a third unless I plan on giving bread away. I’d freeze it, only my freezer is so full right now, I have to duct tape it shut.

This recipe came from the local newspaper many, many years ago.

Sourdough Starter and Bread:

Starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast (I have no idea how much this holds: I’m guessing between 1.5 and 2 tsp)

I tablespoon sugar

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons instant potatoes

Instant potatoes? Yes, you read that right. But chances are you don’t have any at the house so save that for your next grocery run.

Combine flour, yeast, and sugar in a non-metal bowl. Mix the potato flakes and warm water, and add to the flour combo. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let stand in a warm place for 48 hours.

Remove one cup and store in the fridge. Discard remainder (or share with a friend)

Keep refrigerated and covered with foil 3-5 days. To feed starter in 3-5 days, combine 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons instant potato flakes and one cup of warm water. Mix well and add to starter. Let stand in warm place 8-12 hours. This will only bubble, not rise.

Remove one cup starter to use in making bread; return rest to fridge. If not making bread, remove one cup and discard it. Store starter in fridge in a quart jar with holes punched in the lid. Feed every 3-5 days.

Bread:

1 cup starter

1/2 cup corn oil

1.5 cups warm water

6 cups bread flour

1/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl. Place dough in separate greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover with foil and let stand overnight. Do not refrigerate. Next morning, punch down and knead lightly. Divide into 3 parts. Knead lightly on floured board and place into three greased loaf pans. Brush tops with oil and let rise 4-5 hours. Using foil, make a tent over the pans and leave room for the dough to rise.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Remove from pan and brush with melted butter. Cool on wire rack.

I do like this bread very much, but it’s time consuming and sort of implies that you’re home to do all this feeding, kneading, proving, and baking, right? Well, perhaps if you’re on a stay-at-home order, you can give this a try. Otherwise, you’ll have to time it so your feeding and baking coincide with time off work.

When I attempted to make this starter recently, the first 48 hours went like gangbusters! Lovely bubbles, perfect reaction. But when I fed the starter 5 days later, nothing happened. Nada. Zip. Nary a bubble. I suspect two things went wrong. The first is that we had a cold snap, and I don’t tend to run the heat very high. Most likely the starter never got warm enough during feeding. The other thing that probably didn’t help was I tried to cut the recipe from the get-go, using a third of the ingredients to make the starter in the first place. I’m guessing I didn’t get the proportions right, so I ended up tossing it out and starting again. I hated the thought of wasting 2 tsp of yeast (the equivalent of one loaf of bread in my bread machine) but I very much want my own starter, so there you are.

While I was pawing through my recipes, I came across a handwritten note from Mrs. Crouch, my childhood babysitter. I’d asked for her honey wheat bread recipe many moons ago because I thought it was the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE and she wrote it out for me. Seeing that spidery handwriting took me back to the child I was, sitting in her kitchen, closing my eyes as I inhaled the scent of baking bread in the oven. I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Crouch in decades, but there she was again, a tiny bird-boned woman with a mass of snow-white hair who lived in what seemed like a fairy tale cottage with a massive oil stove that heated the kitchen like a furnace. I suppose in retrospect, she was a widow in tight circumstances, living in her old house in the middle of nowhere, keeping children for their busy mothers. But I loved going to her house.

I loved her bread too. So I’m sharing her recipe with you. I suspect her special ingredient was a magic known only to her, but I hope you find it.

Honey Wheat Bread Recipe:

4 cups whole wheat  flour

3 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup non-fat dry milk

1/4 cup wheat germ

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages of active dry yeast

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of milk

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Sift flour. Mix all dry ingredients. Stir together water, milk, honey, and oil. Heat over low heat (130 degrees). Dissolve yeast in a little warm water and gradually add to warm milk mixture to yeast mix plus dry ingredients. Stir in enough flour mixture to make a soft dough, keeping 1/2 cup in reserve to spread on a pastry cloth. Knead until smooth and elastic, at least 8-10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size (1 to 1.5 hours). Punch down and make into loaves. Place on baking sheet or in loaf pans and cover. Let rise again until double in size (about 1 hour). Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

This recipe seemed so complicated, so time-consuming to me as a young woman asking for the recipe from a cherished caretaker, that I’ve never actually made it. Maybe I was afraid it would disappoint. More likely, it was because I never had the time.

So it occurs to me as I’ve spent hours writing this post–what are we looking for, we bakers of pandemic bread? I think the answer lies in my memory of sitting in Mrs. Crouch’s kitchen on a snowy day, happily anticipating brushing hot-out-of-the oven bread with butter and taking that first heavenly bite. We want the comfort that the scent of baking bread brings us. We want to be that small child again, in a world where the grown-ups took care of things and we didn’t have to worry. For many of us, food is love and there’s something about homemade bread that is both fundamental and special too, making it the quintessential expression of love.

I think the bread baking and the mask making and the garden planting are all practical steps we are taking to manage our anxiety about an uncertain future. I suspect for many, it’s easier to throw ourselves into something we might never have done before, tasks that require our full attention and take time to complete than it is to do the familiar, especially if we’re on lockdown with too much time for worry to make noise in our heads. Or maybe it fulfills some primal need to put away food for anticipated famine. Make hay while the sun if still shining because there are dark storm clouds rolling in. I don’t know. 

All I know is I’m baking a lot of bread right now. Me and Alexa Crowe. And I’m going to make that honey wheat bread at least ONE time in my life. You can count on it.