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So That’s Where the Can Opener Went

So That’s Where the Can Opener Went

So that’s where the can opener went.

That was my first thought when I cleaned out the dishwasher at our son and daughter-in-law’s house not too long ago. It was the can opener of my childhood and a good one at that. The narrow end made prying the caps off pop bottles on the rare occasions when there was pop in our house. The wide end made short work of opening mason jars filled with the fruits and vegetables Mom canned each summer. That end was put to use almost every night before supper.

But those memories weren’t the second thoughts that sprang to mind as I stared at it.

My second thought was of the jars of jelly and jam mentioned in See Jane Run! Teaching duties and solving mysteries don’t leave much time for Jane to make decent meals. She frequently resorts to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Her mother insisted on sending plenty of home canned jellies and jams with Jane when she moved. Her mom was quite sure that grocery stores didn’t exist in sparsely populated Tipperary County where Jane had accepted a teaching job. And that home canned fruits and vegetables were nowhere to be found.

Jane’s mom was wrong on both counts.

Tipperary County had three grocery stores, and almost every cook in the county spent August through September canning and freezing garden produce and lugs of fruit purchased from those three grocery stores. In See Jane Run!, she’s busy figuring out 1) how to teach country school, and 2) who the murderer is that she’s unaware of the county canning culture.

Which led to my third thought while staring at the can opener.

See Jane Can! would be an intriguing title for a future book in the West River Mystery Series. Canning could be a launching pad for flashback memories of canning with her mother. A broken canning jar or a purposefully damaged pressure cooker could be a murder weapon. If Jane has a can opener like the one pictured above, it could unfold more of the story of her dad’s illness.

That thought, the fourth if you’re counting, sobered me.

The writing on the can opener says it came from the Glenwood, Iowa Lumber and Coal Company. Glenwood is in Mills County, Iowa. My dad was the county extension director there when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The story of how the disease impacted Jane’s dad and his family is based on our family’s story.

“Mom,” my son said. “Why are you staring at the can opener?”

“It reminded me of something from when I was a kid.” I laid it on the counter and took a picture with my phone.

“Something good?” he asked.

“Something hard.” I smiled and put the can opener in the utensil drawer. “And very good.”

Mom’s Apple Dumplings Embraced by a New Generation

Mom’s Apple Dumplings Embraced by a New Generation

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.

Mom’s apple dumplings (as in author Jolene Philo’s mom and not fictional protagonist Jane Newell’s mom) were mouthwateringly good. My mom learned how to make them from her mother, who made them in a huge, metal dishpan to feed her large family. Neither Mom or her mom used a recipe. At some point in my adulthood I badgered Mom into writing out a recipe so I could make them for our kids. They loved them.

So much so that last Saturday my adult daughter Anne said she was craving apple dumplings. She asked where to find the recipe. I pointed her to the electronic version from a 2015 post at this website. She made them Saturday evening, and she served them for dessert after Sunday dinner. They were eagerly devoured by all. My heart was as full as as my stomach as I watched my grandchildren (ages 5 and 3) become fans of Mom’s apple dumplings. Once Mom can come visit again, Anne and I will make a batch for her to enjoy with us. I think she’ll like seeing an old tradition being embraced by a new generation.

Mom’s Apple Dumplings

Step 1: Make a batch of Grandma Conrad’s Never Fail Pie Crust. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes.

Step 2: In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons butter (or Earth Balance Vegan Stick for a non-dairy version), and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Bring to a rolling boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

Step 3: Peel, core, and slice 6–8 cups of apples. Put them in a large mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix together until apples are coated with sugar and cinnamon.

Step 4: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Take 1/4 of the pie dough and roll it into a rectangle about  15 inches long and 8 inches wide.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.   With a paring knife, cut the dough into 6 pieces.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.Fill each section of dough with as much of the apple mixture as it can hold.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.Fold the dough up and around the apples.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.Place 12 dumplings in a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Pour the syrup over the dumplings.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.Bake the dumplings at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Continue baking for 30–35 minutes until the apples are soft when a fork is inserted into one of the dumplings.

My mother made the most delicious dumplings. When a friend called to offer us free apples, I pulled out Mom's recipe. They were as delicious as I remembered.

Cool and serve with ice cream, milk, or half-and-half or dairy-free alternatives.

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It Could Be Worse. It Could Be -45°.

It Could Be Worse. It Could Be -45°.

It could be worse. It could be -45°.

That was my first thought when I scrolled through Facebook and saw the low temperatures my friends, both near and far, were posting. Curious, I checked the local temperature on my phone.

“It’s -21°,” I told my husband.

He shook his head. “That’s cold.”

“It could be worse. It could be -45°.”

We silly grinned at each other as we remembered the stupidest thing we ever did in the coldest weather of our married lives.

It was a February Sunday in 1982.
We were a young and foolish.
We’d been married for 4 years.
We lived in Camp Crook, South Dakota.

Someone called to say church had been cancelled because it was -45°. I wanted to know what -45° felt like. The inner door worked without a hitch, but the screen door barely moved. It wasn’t frozen shut, but the lubricant in its push/pull mechanism had congealed. It took some muscle to open it. I poked my head out for maybe a second and pulled it right back in. -45° is cold. Really cold.

But not cold enough to say no when our friend Craig called. “Liz and I are going out to eat in Spearfish. Want to come?”

“It’s -45°,” we said.

“We’ll warm up the car,” they said. “We’re not leaving until noon. It’ll be warmer then.”

They was right. It was only -30° when we crawled into Craig and Liz’s car. The sun was shining. The car was toasty. Dinner was tasty, and we all returned home safely. So why do I say the trip was the stupidest thing we’ve ever done? Consider the following details:

Camp Crook is 100 miles from Spearfish.
There are only 2 towns between where we lived and where we were going.
I was 5 months pregnant.
That’s why I know it was 1982.
Now do you see why it was the stupidest thing we ever did?

Then again, it’s a shared memory that makes us grin and say, whenever the temperature dips into the double digits below zero, “It could be worse. It could be -45°”

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Jane Threw Her Bible Away

Jane Threw Her Bible Away

The Forest Service Ranger Station in Camp Crook. The brown house in the background is similar to the one where Jane and Pam meet.

Jane threw her Bible away years before she moved to Little Missouri. Her lack of faith is a major player in See Jane Run! Finding a way to show rather than tell readers why Jane threw her Bible away was a real challenge. My daughter, who is doing a final consistency read through before the manuscript goes to the publisher, says a recently added flashback rose to the challenge.

The flashback is based on something that happened during my high school years. I had forgotten about it until about 10 years ago when my uncle–the inspiration behind Uncle Tim in the novel–invited me to look through the journals he’s faithfully kept for decades. I chose the one for 1973-74, which was my senior year in high school. I scanned pages for mentions of our family. One described a phone call to my uncle after I got home from school and found Dad on the bathroom floor. My uncle came over. He cleaned Dad and dressed him in fresh clothes. My uncle’s journal account ended with these words, not written out of pity but with deep compassion: Poor man. Poor wife. Poor family.

To be clear, I didn’t lose my faith after the real event. However, I used it in a fictional flashback to show why Jane threw her Bible away and abandoned her faith. The excerpt you’re about to read is an early scene. It takes place a few days after Jane moves to Little Missouri. On a walk around town she meets Pam, who shows her around the Forest Service campus. Here goes:

After the tour ended, I declined Pams offer of more tea. 

Then would you join us at church tomorrow and come to Sunday dinner?”

I wanted to say no. After all, I had wasted years going to church, following every thou shall” and thou shall not” in the Bible. Every night at bedtime, I asked God to heal my father. I prayed the same prayer night after night. But Dad didnt get better. He got worse. Even so, I prayed up a storm. Until the day I walked the bathroom and found him huddled on the floor by the toilet, feces smearing the floor.

 He gazed at the wall and spoke in a monotone. I fell off the toilet.”

Its okay, Dad. Ill call Uncle Tim.” 

His jaw clenched. Its not okay. A daughter shouldnt see her father like this.”

Uncle Tim got there as fast as he could and took over. While he gave Dad a bath, I went to my bedroom, found my Bible, and threw it away.

I opened my mouth to say I didnt go to church, but opted for Iowa nice. I dont want to put you out.”

Put us out? Dans grilling hamburgers, and Im making potato salad.”

My mouth watered. 

What do you think of the scene? Does it showing rather than tell why Jane threw her Bible away? You can leave your feedback in the comment box!

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To Take an Editor’s Advice–or Not–Is Tricky Business

To Take an Editor’s Advice–or Not–Is Tricky Business

To take an editor’s advice or not is, at least in my book, is a tricky business. In this case, the book is See Jane Run! I cut my fiction writing teeth on this story. Writing the manuscript took the better part of ten years with interruptions due to the births of 4 grandchildren, authoring 4 non-fiction books, a hand injury that limited my typing to hunt-and-peck for several months, surgery on a broken foot for me, back and hip surgeries for my husband, the commencement of our multigenerational living arrangement, and moving into a new home after 25 years in the previous one. In the process, I listened carefully to feedback from several editors and came up with 4 questions to determine whether to take an editor’s advice–or not. Here they are:

  1. Have other editors or readers, independent of one another, said the same thing? When the answer was yes, I made revisions to take care of the issue.
  2. Does this feedback have the potential to solve a niggling issue I recognize but couldn’t figure out how to resolve? If so, I applied the suggestion to the manuscript, perhaps tweaking it a bit in the process.
  3. Does the suggestion enhance my vision for the story? If so, I used it.
  4. Does the editor have experience to back up a suggestion? If so, I was more likely to incorporate it.

Now, here’s are illustrations of how those questions helped me decide whether or not to take an editor’s advice.

Question #1

No less than 5 editors kind enough to read what I thought was the completed manuscript (that was at least 5 revisions ago), said the characters, setting, and dialogue were good. They also said the plot needed work. Their feedback led to major revisions, including the cutting of several early chapters.

Question #2

About 2 years ago, I paid a well-known editor a lot of money to give what I thought was the completed manuscript a thorough going over. She said that See Jane Run! had nearly all the elements of the cozy mystery genre rather than the historical mystery genre. Her words solved my ongoing niggling uncertainty about the manuscript, and the entire series, genre. I revised the manuscript yet again, following her suggestions about how to make it a full-fledged cozy mystery.

Question #3

The same editor also advised setting the story in the present day rather than in the late 1970s. She said books set in the 70s don’t sell well. After much consideration, I chose not to change the time frame because doing so didn’t align with my vision for a set in a remote area that forced people to rely upon one another rather than on modern technology. Also, the community is so remote that it feels more like the 1950s and 60s than the 70s. Books set in those decades are hot right now.

Question #4

Another editor also commented that the isolated, 1970s community where the story takes place didn’t ring true. She divulged that she was only a baby in the late 1970s, but all the books she read from that era included hippies and the Viet Nam war because that was what people talked about back then. As a young adult, I lived in a community similar to the book’s setting for 7 years starting in the late 1970s. The picture above is of Main Street. In our town in ranch country and populated by cowboys, hippies and the war were rarely mentioned. Based on my personal experience and the editor’s lack of it, the manuscript doesn’t mention them either.

The manuscript, which this time is very close to its final revision, is now with an editor who will make more suggestions. Will I use all her suggestions? No. Will I use some of them? Yes. Thanks to my 4 questions, deciding to take an editor’s advice–or not–while I read what this editor has to say won’t be quite such a tricky business.

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