Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Patrick's Day Sneak Peek: Novel excerpt

It seems a bit frivolous, in these difficult times, to wish you a Happy St. Patrick's Day--we're all far more worried about our loved ones' health and our own, and if we have groceries in the cupboard, than the way all the St. Paddy's celebrations have been cancelled.

This week, I'm working on a little gardening book, which, given the potential of food shortages, seems far more important these days, instead of plunking around with my Irish stories. But if you're game for a little distraction of the Irish kind, I offer you a taste of my upcoming novel: part of The Fairy Cottage mini-series, and Book 5 of my Irish Village of Ballydara series.

If the character of Hazel seems familiar, you've probably read my short story The Christmas Visitor. This novel centers on her sister Emma, but Hazel plays starring role--it's a warm and tender story about finding love and home and family in the most unlikely of places.
Part of my Fairy Cottage mini-series

Chapter 1

If you’re a creature of habit, rather than impulse, you carry on with your regular routines day in and day out, no problem. However, if you’re keen on routines but at the same time have a tendency to be a bit disorganized, like Emma Carey, recently arrived from Ireland, you might try out all sorts of systems and apps to keep yourself on track. So, although Emma has often struggled to say focused, every time she tried to use one of those organizing apps with their timers and buzzers and flashing updates only made her want to toss her mobile phone into the nearest bin.

Was it that her brain didn’t work like other people’s, Emma wondered, people who had no trouble relying on their mobiles (and adoring them) with a life-and-death ferocity? Or that she’d inherited her short attention span from her mam, who flitted (actually, more like lurched, Emma thought) from one idea or activity to the next without completing any of them? Or that she was, at heart, an old-fashioned girl like her younger sister Hazel? Whatever it was, when Emma started working at Ireland Place, a non-profit hub of Irish arts and culture based near Seattle, she’d been so desperate to create some structure for herself she went old school: she created a chart that she cellotaped to the half-size fridge in her studio apartment, upon which, at the end of each week, she could afix gold stars to the various categories if she stayed on the straight and narrow.

So Emma would give herself stars for doing the elliptical for one hour at the gym Monday through Friday, eating absolutely no desserts except for a gluten-free cookie on Sunday, and keeping her regular hair and nail appointments with Helen at Nugyen’s Salon at a strip mall on the other side of town. The gold star thing was something she’d started for her sister Hazel, when she was little. Given her sister’s tender age, the stars hadn’t anything to do with eating or exercise, but Emma had been desperate to do the right thing for her.

Emma’s most reliable tendency, though, wasn’t one you’d want to reward with shiny stars or even a modest pat on the back. It was the kind you didn’t want to admit even to your best friend, which in Emma’s case was Hazel: she had the unfortunate habit of falling for her bosses.

Emma was like a Swiss train schedule:  you could tell time based on how long it would take her to fall for her male supervisors. Two weeks, max. These blokes didn’t need to be handsome, or charming, but as soon they’d given Emma an approving smile on a project well-begun, a compliment on her progress, even held a door open for her, she was in love…

I plan to have my new gardening guide ready in another week...until then, be well, stay safe, and I'm wishing you all the Irish blessings you can hold.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Homestead Time Management: First in a Series

Whether homesteading is your job, your hobby, or your passion, I should put this out there right away: Folks, there’s no such thing as time management on your homestead.

As someone who writes for a living, I’ve always been fascinated by ways to carve out time/create time/manage time to get more writing done. Convinced you can “take control of the clock,” I figured there was a "special sauce" for the whole idea. So I devoured articles, attended workshops, and created schedules about how to fit writing into a busy life—and if they included special tips, charts or spreadsheets, all the better!

But really, all that effort was for nothing. Because despite a gazillion strategies, there was no getting around  the truth: writing fills the time you allot to it and then some, and you never get as much done as you think you will.

I’ve learned the same about homesteading chores. I’m an optimistic person, but no matter what you’re doing: weeding the beds, chopping wood, caring for chickens, processing your harvest, I have learned every task takes three times as long as you think it will. Sure, you can take that with a grain of salt, and maybe I’m just inefficient or using the wrong techniques. Still, I give you Exhibit A:

The Cider Press Experiment

With 17 apples trees on our acreage, John and I planned for years to get a cider press. Finally, after an insane harvest a couple of years ago, we had come up with the funds and really, we couldn’t hold out any longer! So…what kind of press to buy?

Committed to the “slow life,” we are big on doing things by hand. In the kitchen, we forgo a blender or food processor to chop fruits and veggies or grind nuts with a chef’s knife. Despite my sister’s repeated urgings to get a bread machine, “they’re so easy!” I like to knead bread by hand. We’ve thought about buying a countertop flour mill, and had come across readers in Mother Earth News recommending electric models. The general consensus was that a manual model is far more work than you want.

Still, after pricing cider presses, electric ones seemed way out of our price range. So John bought us a small, manual model: made of a lovely light wood, it was very attractive and old-fashioned-looking, with a tub designed like a fruit barrel. We could hardly wait to put it to use.

So one day at harvest time, with many piles of apples to process, we finally gave our new press a whirl. After washing and chopping dozens of apples, washing the necessary press components,  and filling the tub, I figured we’d devote a couple of hours to our cider project. All that was left was turning the handle!

I tried it first and got exactly nowhere. “John,” I said, “maybe you could get things started.”

John’s a strong guy. He can hand-split massive logs, and harvests almost all our trees with a hand saw. But even he could hardly budge the handle. We took turns pushing and pulling on that dratted handle, but produced only the merest trickle of cider. “The apple chunks are too big,” John concluded.

So we squeezed what we could from the fruit in the tub, and started over with a fresh batch of apples. This time, we cut them up as finely as we could and started in again. Then we did it a third time. We got a tiny bit more traction trying to turn the press handle, and a few more ounces of cider, but even after a couple more hours of hard labor, not making much more progress. Finally, my arms throbbing from exertion, I suggested, “Let’s call it a day.” With both of us really putting our backs to it, just trying to turn the handle had taken all afternoon.

Now, all we had to do was disassemble the press, wash all the parts, soak the cheesecloth filter, pasteurize the cider and sterilize a jar for it. As dusk fell, when all was said and done, we had about 3 cups of cider to show for our day.

How about a Cost-Benefit Analysis? 

To sum up: $150 plus shipping to buy the press, about 7 hours of work, to make less than a quart of fresh, homemade apple cider.

Worst of all: we didn’t drink it. The jar of cider is still sitting in our freezer.

If you have some tips for success with a manual cider press, I hope you’ll share them here!

P.S. For the last three months, I've spent every spare moment working like mad on my latest novel--more news on that soon--but I will be posting here regularly again. Next time: another DIY project that got overwhelming really fast!