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Humanity Highlight: Redeeming Toxic Land with Lavender

I came across this story today, and wanted to share it: In the US, coal mining used to be big business; but with the move away from fossil fuels toward solar and other less destructive sources, companies have been in decline; before the mid-1970s, mining companies could just abandon the scarred land, but laws were passed that would require the companies to revitalise the wasteland; but if a company simply went bankrupt, the land sat barren, polluting the surrounding environment for decades, as rocks and minerals that had been buried forever were exposed to air and water, releasing their substances into groundwater and the air. Millions of acres of scarred land are the result.

Now, Appalachian Botanical Company in West Virginia has begun reclaiming the land in a beautiful way: Hiring ex-miners who’ve lost their jobs or other people who need a second chance just like the land, such as ex-drug addicts, they are now working in fields of flowers. Lavender is a hardy plant in the mint family that likes to grow in poor soil; it’s a perfect match for the rocky wastelands around coal mines. Every part of the plant is used: The flowers and upper stems are distilled down to make lavender essential oils that are then also used to make various creams and lotions, honey, salts, and hand sanitisers; when it’s done, they transform the biomass into compost to revitalise the land. The lower leaves are first removed, dipped in rooting powder, and planted to make the next harvest.

It’s an amazingly holistic approach to the problems: Creating jobs in the regions that have been hard-hit by economic downturns; revitalising the land through restoration – lavender will help prepare the land for other less hardy species to take root; and on a larger scale, it provides an example of what could be done with scarred land. To watch the Business Insider video, just click here. To check out the ABCo website and their products, click on the image below. Enjoy, and if you’d like to support what they’re doing, check out the pages on their websites, too.

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History Undusted: Rabbit Holes & Licorice Candy

This week, I did a major shopping at a couple Asian food stores; I stocked up on the ingredients I know, and some I didn’t; I like to get things I’ve never heard of, and do a bit of research on how to use it in cooking; things I picked up in that category are Iranian Kashk, which is a tangy fermented, yoghurt used as a condiment; canned palm hearts, which make a nice topping on desserts; and fermented black beans, which can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, including in a black bean sauce. I also bought several fresh vegetables and herbs to dehydrate and turn into a greens powder for adding flavours to dishes (I have a more usual greens powder with standard greens, like cauliflower leaves, spinach, etc. that I use daily).

One of the herbs I used was acacia leaf: When I opened the package, a pungent, sulphur-like smell hit me, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it. But when I began de-leafing it (much like you would thyme, though carefully as it’s got some vicious thorns!), it began to smell like mint! As I added lemongrass, Thai water spinach and other herbs, you can imagine the cacophony of fragrances in my kitchen – which filled the house as they dehydrated.

So what does this have to do with licorice? Well, one of the fresh herbs I also processed was Thai basil; I’d never used it before, and when I opened the packaging, a wave of anise- or licorice aroma hit me. And as usual, that set my mind off, thinking about the history of licorice!

Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Asia and Europe; its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means “sweet root” (the linguistic roots are related to words like glycerine and rhizome); it is the ingredient that gives the signature flavour to black licorice, though today anise oil is often used as a substitute because the Glycyrrhiza can have toxic effects if ingested too much.

In looking into the history of this flavour, I came across a fascinating documentary: Ostensibly, it covers the history of the Switzer Licorice candy company. But in truth, it’s a fascinating historical insight into the history of Irish immigration, social unrest, the Irish famine, Irish revolution and exile, union labour foundations, World War 1 through the eyes of a family, the economic upheavals of war, rations and the company’s creative solutions, the history of sugar, post-war recovery, the Great Depression, the American Dream, candy-making, the rise of a family from Kerry Patch (the Irish ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri) to the suburbs, the history and development of St. Louis, and the demise of a family company resurrected by later generations. All in a 55-minute video!

 To watch this fascinating slice of history, click here. To check out the company’s website, click here.

I hope you enjoy this short history, and while you’re at it, enjoy a piece of licorice!

Image Credit: Switzer website (see link above)

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Cutting Room Floor

I’ve been squirrelled away, editing. Editing. Editing. Once in a while, I come up for air or a tea. Then back to it. Then take a walk. Cook dinner. Back to it.

Everyone has their own writing techniques, and over the course of my career, I’ve tried most of them: I’ve outlined a plot and characters to a T; I’ve written out scene cards on post-its and rearranged them until I had the story down. But my tried-and-true method is to open a Word document and make use of their post-it function (that’s what I call their review/comment function), then type out 10 scenes that cover the arc of the story. After that, I toss my characters into the room (parameters of the scene) and let ’em loose. That comment function is worth its weight in gold, as I can slice out something and pop it in a comment off to the side, move it, scrap it, or take out the core and put it somewhere else. I can put reminders to check continuity in there, along with plot development thoughts, what-ifs, alternatives, etc. and try them out whenever it’s time, then delete them and move on. I tried the popular Scrivener program once, and it ate a manuscript for lunch (fortunately, I’d saved a Word version!)! Besides, I’m more organized than that program will ever be!

In my current manuscript, which is science fiction, I tossed the characters on an alien planet (a character in its own right) and let them figure it out. As they talk and move through the scenes and through time, they ripen and develop into full characters with a deeper story as a result. But that can also result in a chunky manuscript, that then needs to go through the toning process – cutting away the excess fat of characters, scenes, and dialogues and making them lean… in the film industry, it’s called the “cutting room floor” process. And that’s the current stage I’m in. When I started out, I had no idea how I’d reach my goal: My starting point, which was the completed manuscript in December last year, was a whopping 148K! My end goal, with a marketable science-fiction range of 100-115K, was over a few hills. But every journey begins and ends with small steps. I started going through my usual edit/proofing list, and I’m now in sight of the goal, just under 117K, and I’m not done yet. The trick is taking off my writer’s cap and putting on my editor’s hat; that means letting go of favourite scenes, plot points, and even characters when necessary. If it doesn’t serve the main- and sub-plots and character development, then out it goes. My husband, who was once a black belt in Lean Six Sigma, has called it my “lean sigma process”.

Sometimes I feel like this squirrel… and that’s where that comment function comes in handy again!

So… I’m off to make myself lunch, then dive back into the editing. I’ll reach my goal, with a comfortable margin, within the next week!

If you’re a writer, what is your approach? Copious amounts of pre-notes and hundreds of questions to develop characters and plot in your mind, or winging it? Please spill the beans in the comments below!

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Rabbit Holes

These past few weeks have flown by so quickly, I’ve hardly had time to look up from my keyboard! Except when I went to the optometrist for new glasses (there might have been a slight connection between the two). I’ve been editing my final sci-fi draft. When I need a break from editing, I’ve been reading into articles by the new ebook company I’ll be working with, Draft2Digital, which has recently merged with Smashwords (my current and former platform). And in the context of editing, I’ve been down several rabbit holes:

Dashes

Back when I learned English, we had the good ol’ hyphen and the dash. Somewhere along the way the en-dash and the em-dash moved in, and they turned out to be worthy additions to the conversation. Now to make things confusing, 2em-dashes and 3em-dashes have elbowed their way into the punctuation party. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but their definitions seem to have squeezed the others so close that they often overlap or exchange places on the definition and usage dance floor. Until I need them to fix me a drink, I’ll probably ignore the party crashers.

Strunk and White’s The Element of Style is a cornerstone of grammar and writing style and is widely considered timeless; in fact, it was listed by TIME in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. The irony of this cartoon is that when I recently pulled out my copy to find out the nitty-gritty of using en- and em-dashes in dialogue, I found not a jot or tittle about them in the entire book. It covers hyphens and dashes, both briefly, but nary a word beyond. Every website that I looked at had contradictory definitions and usages of all types of dashes; so until an authoritative source comes up with a defined set of rules, I will continue to use them the way I’ve learned them, and just be consistent in my punctuation within my current manuscript.

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Tags

Another rabbit hole I went down was a learning curve on the two types of tags. On one hand, I’d never honestly thought about the fact that there could a difference in punctuation between the two; on the other hand, for the most part, I’ve intuitively done it right, though not always, which is why I’ve added it to my checklist of edits – and something I will keep a closer eye on in the future. Here’s an example:

He said, “Oh, the irony of ignorance!” – This is a dialogue tag with its attending punctuation. Dialogue tags are any verb that can be spoken – said, cheered, whispered, etc.

He nodded. “I hadn’t thought about it, but that makes sense.” – Nodding is something done, and this is, therefore, an action tag. Notice that its attending punctuation is a period separating the action tag from the dialogue.

Two things make less logical sense to me; if you have insight on them or experience using them or reading them in novels, please comment! [Keep in mind that these are American English rules; I am writing my current novel in American English, though until now, I’ve written in Commonwealth English (I use that term rather than British English because it is used beyond Britain).]

  • How often have you spoken and laughed, chuckled, or smiled simultaneously? These are, for me, nuances in spoken vocabulary, and not action tags. Would you rather write: He smiled, “I thought you might say that.” or He smiled. “I thought you might say that.” ? In this particular instance both would work, but there are times when it has the potential to break up the rhythm of a sentence or scene too much. Which do you prefer?
  • When an action interrupts dialogue, it needs to be separated with (IMHO) rather odd punctuation, for example: “From what I’ve read about these dwellings” –he looked at the woman kindly– “they’re far from mud huts.” My years as an English teacher mean that missing commas and attached en-dashes hurt my eyes; maybe that’s why I needed new glasses!

Euphemisms

Another tangent this week has been looking for creative swear words. Nothing irritates me more, when reading a book, for the author to fall back on standard F-bombs. That just says too lazy to be creative to me. It’s unimaginative. It doesn’t make a character stand out from the rest of the lazy crowd. There are so many fun alternatives, there really is no excuse! Here are a few I’ve come across and found myself smiling:

  • People cussing in a foreign language; it sounds better to them.
  • Fart knocker (e.g. “you little fart knocker”)
  • Sun of a nutcracker! Sun of a biscuit!
  • Cheese n’ crackers!
  • Shoot a monkey!
  • Shiitake mushrooms!
  • Well, butter my bum!
  • Clusterfluff!
  • In a type of Chinese Whispers, “Hells bells” became “hells bells, conker shells”, misunderstood by kids as “hells bells, taco shells” – now that family just yells, “Taco shells!” when they’re upset!
  • Names as swear words might backfire if you happen to meet someone by that name; here are a few: Christopher Columbus; Gordan Bennett (in Scotland); Gottfried Stutz (here in Switzerland – I actually taught English in a company that had an employee with that name!)
  • Sugar Honey Ice Tea!
  • Sunny Beaches
  • Fudgenuts
  • Someone I used to know would say things like “bug knuckles” or “dog feathers” or “ants pants” when she was upset.
Credit: Getty Images

These are just a few of the areas I’ve delved into in the past few weeks; I’m still deep in the editing/proofreading process; once that’s complete, the “behind the scenes” checklists begin – those are the things readers will never see: The number of hours put into finding the right images and designing the best cover art possible; choosing the right fonts; formatting for the various mediums online and print; writing blurbs, preparing marketing bits and bobs, and setting up all the dominoes in a row for the final push of publishing!

Clusterfluff! I’d better get my fanny in gear!

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Just for Fun: Back to the Office

I don’t know what the current situation is like where you live, but here in Switzerland, Covid restrictions were officially lifted 17 February; that means that, if people want to, they can return to their desk jobs rather than working from home. My husband used to say that he’d never like working from home because he liked the stimulation of the office; but after working nearly 2 years from a cushy home office a few steps away from the kitchen and the coffee machine and home-cooked lunches, he’s decided to do half-weeks from home. Someone from work sent him a funny skit by Foil Arms & Hog, an Irish comedy group, about returning to the office. Just click on the image below! Enjoy!

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How It’s Made: Umbrellas

Before we dive into our virtual tour of the world of umbrellas, I’ll take a moment to let you know what I’ve been up to the past fortnight: Editing. I’ve been working on the final draft of my next novel, and I call this phase the “cutting room floor” phase. If any of you have written a novel, you know that there are many ways an author approaches a story. I personally tend to toss my characters into a room and see how things develop. I start off with an idea of where it will end, but how it gets there is the fun part! Once the story is fleshed out, character arcs and story arcs complete, it might be too wordy; and every word needs to count, so tightening the dialogues or prose is a necessary step in the process. My current manuscript needs a fairly good “chop” to bring it into market norms for Science Fiction. So that’s what I’ve been working on. Looming on the future horizon is the fact that BOTH companies that I’ve been working with in the past have been acquired by other companies, meaning that I will now need to chuck out everything I’ve learned about their formatting requirements and processes and reinvent the wheel… Joy. But hopefully, working with the new companies will be a positive experience.

When I need a mental break from writing, I read, or I watch something interesting on YouTube. Recently in our local news, I came across a story about the only umbrella repairman in Switzerland, Erich Baumann. Every one of us has an umbrella; but I’ve never really stopped to think about the fact that each one is different – different mechanical parts and different tools needed to bring them all together. When I lived in Scotland, umbrellas (“Brollies”) were often considered “one-use” objects – the wind would swirl and suck the umbrella’s canopy upward with such violence that the ribs and stretchers would often snap. It didn’t matter whether it was a cheap or an expensive one – they didn’t last long.

Today, many umbrellas come from Asia; that means that replacement parts are hard to find if you live elsewhere; that also means that umbrella repairmen need the spare parts of those throw-away brollies. If you have a moment, go and get one of your umbrellas, open it, and take a good look inside. Appreciate how complex such an everyday object is. And now, take a look at two videos: The first is how an artisan umbrella is made by hand; the second is a look at how they’re repaired. Enjoy!

Learning something new every day keeps us on our toes!

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Virtual Tour: How Candy is Made

Way back when in grade school, we used to take tours of local factories; it was one of the highlights of the year for me, because I’ve always had a curious mind, wanting to know the hows and whys. Have you ever wondered how candy is made? Let’s go on a virtual factory tour today! Just click the image below to watch a fascinating guided tour as they make candy canes and other hard candies. What I especially enjoy about this tour is the obvious love of the craft and the philosophical perspective of the candymaker himself. Passion for what you do is an essential ingredient, no matter what your occupation is.

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History Undusted: Bessie Coleman, Aviation Pioneer

I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.

Bessie Coleman, 1923 – Photo Credit: George Rinhart, Corbis via Getty Images

Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.

Robert Sengstacke Abbot, Photo, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.

Jesse Binga, Credit: Wikipedia, John Schmidt

She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.

With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.

“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.

Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.

Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.

William J. Powell, Pioneer aviator and civil rights activist

Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”  Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.

Mae Jemison, Photo credit: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.

In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.

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A New Year

Happy New Year! I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to leave 2021 behind me! On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I sit down and review the last year, and talk about what we’d like to see or do in the following; this year, when we reviewed the last 12 months, we had to say, “what did we experience unrelated to health issues?” and we were hard-pressed to come up with anything substantial: Holidays were a non-topic, as my husband was in and out of the hospital, sometimes emergency, with complications that delayed his chemotherapy; finally, that got started – which meant that either he had little energy for taking day trips, or we couldn’t go because he had appointments. If anyone has had it themselves or has a family member who’s had cancer, you’ll know the “routine” – if you can even call it that.

In the midst of all that, with my energy and focus on him, or on communicating with friends and family, everything else seemed to fall to the back burner, including regular blog posts. In the past few months, if I wrote at all, I worked on my next novel; I finished the final draft in mid-December! Then I immediately did a straight read-through and began the work of fine-tuning and editing. I have Beta readers for feedback, but because I’m an Indie publisher, I do all of the nitty-gritty myself, the work of graphics, formatting, editing, and a long list of to-dos that could fill a book by themselves. Those are what I’m tackling next – after the feedback is in and incorporated where needed.

Now that chemotherapy is behind us (his last ended on Christmas Day!), we’re still not out of the woods but at least we can see the skies through the thinning trees. Also in December, I had my 2nd Covid vaccination and have noticed a marked drop in the long-term symptoms that had been slowing me way down, some days stopping me altogether, since March 2020. The end of those two issues gives me more hope for the coming year! It also means that we can look forward. Last year, it was impossible to plan; at the worst times, we couldn’t even plan an hour ahead. Of course, Covid complicates things, with travel restrictions or threats of lockdowns, but I think we’re all used to that by now.

Have you made any holiday plans for the coming year? If we could fly anywhere, without Covid complications at the airport or crossing borders, ideally we would love to go back to Scotland, where I used to live and where we met back in the day! But we live in one of the other most beautiful patches on Earth, so we’re hoping to take the Grand Tour route of Switzerland this year instead. In the past, we’ve often rented a motorhome for holidays, whether in New Zealand, Norway or Scotland, so perhaps we’ll do that here, too. Every plan is qualified these days with a maybe, perhaps, or we’ll see.

My hope for this blog in the coming year is that I can take control of time and energy once again and begin posting regularly. I have a few ideas, so keep an eye on this space!

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History Undusted: Advent Calendars

This month has flown by! Last weekend was our church’s annual advent market, and I was present with tables full of crafts, as well as marble-iced cookies, Spitzbuben, cheese cookies & apple chips (dehydrated). Before it took off, I was preparing, baking, labelling, and doing all the little bits and bobs to get ready; it went off well, considering the limitations of Covid. I also got our own Advent calendar completed – I talk about that more in a previous post. But the whole topic of the market got me wondering where Advent calendars started, so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve discovered: As you probably know, advent calendars today can take any form you choose; the only common factor is that they usually cover 24 days and begin on 1 December (as opposed to following the 4 Advent Sundays – this year, the first Sunday fell on 28 November). The first calendars weren’t: In the early 1800s, German protestants began marking chalk lines on a wall or lighting a candle each day of the Advent season; they sometimes accompanied the act with a devotional reading or with an image centered around the advent, or coming, of Jesus (traditionally celebrated on 25 December, though that was hardly his birthday – but that’s another topic). The first actual calendars were made of cardboard in Germany, and appeared in the early 1900s; they often had either a poem or a picture behind each door, and were produced until World War 2, when the Nazis banned their use on the excuse that cardboard was scarce – and then, in 1943, they promptly sent out advent booklets to every mother in the land – but they seem to have missed the point: their versions had images of German soldiers blowing up Russian tanks and sinking allied ships!
The Nazi’s idea of Advent celebrations… the less said, the better!
After the war, Richard Sellmer, of Stuttgart, was able to get permission from the allied officials to begin printing cardboard Advent calendars once again, and his company still produces them today – click here to visit their website. After the war was over, the American soldiers took the idea back to the States; their popularity took off in the 1950s after a photo appeared in a newspaper of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren with a Sellmer calendar.
Image from the Sellmer website, showing President Eisenhower’s grandchildren opening a Sellmer calendar
I guess you could say that the rest is history! With Advent beginning, I hope yours is ready for Wednesday! And Christmas is coming soon! If you’re interested in knowing the history behind Santa’s red suit, just click here!

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