Author Archives: Barbara Barrett

Redesign on a dime, or in our case, a few hundred dimes

While I attended the Romance Writers of America annual conference at the Dolphin at Walt Disney World in Orlando this past summer, my husband painted the bedroom of our condo. A year ago, we bought a new duvet and matching pillows and shams, which remained in the box while we decided (debated/negotiated) on a color. The duvet set was navy with white trim. The old wall color was supposedly an off-white but looked yellow. So we wanted something different that would still match the duvet. What color would you choose?

My husband wanted light tan. I wanted gray. Last spring, having reviewed at least twenty color swatches from Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sherwin Williams, we settled on one that was a blend of both. We marked it and set it aside until we returned this summer to make the purchase. However, when that time arrived, we couldn’t find the card. So the negotiations began again.

I’ll skip over this next part, the second round of negotiations, because they weren’t particularly pretty. Those concluded, back to Home Depot we went, where we each selected the colors we liked best and then attempted to find yet another compromise. Miraculously, we did manage to settle on one color. We purchased it and brought it home.

The next day was the first day of painting. Once again we learned that color swatches aren’t necessarily accurate. The walls were gray. I was elated, my husband not so much. Not to disparage the Navy, but he called the color battleship gray, and not in a nice way. But we told ourselves paint goes on dark and then as it dries, it gets lighter. Not really.

At this point, I told him to return to the store and get the color he wanted. But a gallon of paint these days is expensive and my husband is thrifty, and since he was doing the painting and was not thrilled with the prospective of doing it all over again, the gray remained.

I love it, especially with the blue bedding. But to make things better for him, I went off to the Conference and left it up to him to decide which pictures to rehang and which would now go into storage. Needless to say, all my pictures of palm trees and ferns are history.

Doing Research the Fun Way

I am working on my first mystery novel. No, I haven’t given up writing contemporary romance. In fact, my new series, UnderWright Productions, is about to launch. But I’ve long been an avid mystery reader, especially cozy mysteries. Not sure what those are? Think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series or the current Pampered Pet series by Sparkle Abbey.

Lello and Irmao Bookstore

Since I’ve only finished a rough draft of the first story, I’m not yet ready to reveal much about this series. But I will tell you it features older heroines. Women who are still quite active even though they’ve retired from previous careers.

I used the recent river cruise my husband I took in Portugal as a living lab to observe my fellow passengers and pick up pointers about this age group. Though none of my “research” was scientific, I did come away with some important impressions.

1. Many seniors in their 70s and 80s, the kind who take trips like this, reflect the same type of energy as my heroines. My cohorts did much better than I on side trips to cathedrals, castles, quaint villages and vineyards, which required significant walking and climbing.
2. Unlike me, many seniors rise early. I was usually one of the last to arrive at breakfast at eight.
3. They know what they want and like and aren’t afraid to express their views. Meals especially. If a waiter failed to bring their coffee or whatever soon enough, they went in pursuit of the supposedly dawdling server.
4. They possess sufficient disposable income to enjoy themselves and purchase memories. Especially cork. Almost every woman on the tour came away with a new cork purse; I got an eyeglass case.

5. Seniors have led interesting lives and pursued fascinating careers in engineering, chemistry, finance, interior decoration, to name a few.
6. Not all couples are married or related. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit I picked up. That will definitely find a home in my books.

The Atlantic Ocean from high in Madeira

The “fun” part of my research was the trip itself. I knew little about the archipelago (group of islands) of Madeira beforehand. I didn’t even realize how far out into the Atlantic it was. A series of hills and mountains make up the landscape, with numerous tunnels allowing internal transit. The place was absolutely beautiful. Flowers everywhere. Along with banana trees, planted anywhere there was space.

Lisbon is a port city on the Tejo River. Its inhabitants are still very proud of the accomplishments of its early explore, Prince Henry the Navigator. To our surprise and delight, we were housed for three days in the Pestana Palace Hotel. I spent Mother’s Day enjoying a Pepsi Light at the private pool. This locale will show up in future stories for sure.

The Pestana Palace Hotel

The Douro River begins in Spain and empties into the Atlantic at Porto in northern Portugal. Our actual cruise started there, after visiting many of the city’s landmarks, including the Lello and Irmao Bookstore, where supposedly J.K. Rowling received inspiration for her later Harry Potter books while she taught there.

Mother’s Day by the pool

The most notable features of the Douro are the high terraced slopes of numerous vineyards, which produce the country’s famous port.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley

At Barca d’Alva, the western border of Spain, we boarded buses and headed for Madrid, stopping off in the university city of Salamanca first to roam parts of the old city.

We only had one full day in Madrid. Much too little time to see it all. Places like the Royal Palace, the Prado, Plaza Mayor and Gran Via will have to wait for future trips. I highly recommend a river cruise for those who prefer to have others organize their itinerary.

Porto, Portugal

Blueberry Time in Central Florida

Barb and blueberry fieldAfter hearing several friends rave about picking blueberries and sampling some of the wonderful food that resulted from their excursions, my husband and I set off to do the same. Southern Hill Farms, southwest of Orlando, Florida in Clermont has been offering customers the chance to pick their own blueberries or purchase what others have gathered for a little over four years. The first crop was planted in 2010. Eight fields offer ten different varieties. Customers set out to pick with gallon buckets provided by the Farms and a map describing the sizes and tastes of each variety. Pickers can eat as many berries as they want as they go.

blueberries

Blueberries in varying degrees of ripeness

 

The Farm also offers blueberry snacks, a gift shop (I bought a blueberry-scented candle crafted on-site), a hay rack ride, another ride called the Blueberry Express, and a small playground. Their season extends from mid-April to around Memorial Day, although not all varieties are available that long. In fall, they offer pumpkins and gourds. Around Christmas, they do an outdoor showing of “The Polar Express,” complete with hot chocolate. rocking chairsblueberry field

I ventured into the fields long enough to snap shots for this article, then retired to my own rocking chair in the open air picnic area. It was one of those glorious, sunny Florida days with low humidity and a gentle breeze. My husband picked for about forty-five minutes and returned with about three pounds of blueberries.

blueberry field 2

The rows of bushes are aligned in straight rows. Note the irrigation equipment throughout.

 

For more information about the Farms, visit SouthernHillFarms.com/blueberry-u-pick.

I have big plans for making blueberry pancakes, blueberry muffins and a blueberry pie in the days ahead. Included here is a modified recipe I received from a friend years ago for Blueberry-Grape salad. Enjoy!

Blueberry-Grape Salad

 

Use a 13x9x2” pan or dish

Dissolve 2 boxes (large) grape gelatin in 2 c. boiling water

Add: 1 large can crushed pineapple, drained, 1 can blueberry pie filling (okay, so this doesn’t quite work with fresh or frozen blueberries; if you want to be a purist, there are several recipes for blueberry pie filling online)

Let this set in refrigerator until firm.

Once set, mix together until lump-free, 1 c. sour cream, 1 large package cream cheese, ½ c. sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla. Optional: 1/8 tsp. lemon juice.

Optional: sprinkle top with finely chopped walnuts and/or shaved blueberry chips (don’t go overboard on these; the bottom layer will already be sweet.)

 

Even Authors Have to Eat

 

home chef

Parsley-Capers Medallions of Pork with Warm Cauliflower Salad

Have you ever stood before your open refrigerator door and pondered to have for dinner that night? In recent years, it has become a common occurrence in my life. It’s not that I don’t like to cook. I don’t plan well. Also, when most of my brain power is absorbed in writing, I lack creativity in the kitchen.

 

Enter my salvation, the weekly meal delivery service. After hearing friends and family rave about the tasty, nutritious home-cooked meals they’ve prepared thanks to these hunger helpers, my husband and I recently signed up for two meals a week. Trial basis for now, mind you, to see if this is a wise investments. After three weeks, my conclusion is yes, definitely!

Customers of this particular company get lots of choices: number of meals per week, types of protein, vegetables, and other ingredients preferred/disliked, and day of the week selections should be delivered. For this period, we limited our protein choices to beef, chicken, and pork. We’ve already tried some of each. So far, the sirloin steak, which we’ve had twice, is my favorite.

We’ve found it works best if we prepare these meals together. Each meal has required a certain amount of chopping, slicing and mincing, just like the cooking shows you see on the Food Network. My husband has taken over that duty. While he and the knives are doing their work, I’m prepping the meat, mixing various items, seasoning and placing items in the oven or on the stove.

The beautiful thing about this process is that most of the ingredients needed for the meal arrive pre-portioned in refrigerated boxes, which will survive outside your door for several hours, if you’re not home when delivered. The only “extra” ingredients we need to provide are salt, pepper, olive oil and cooking spray plus aluminum foil and the appropriate pots, pans and cooking sheets.

We’re still adjusting to the prep process itself. For instance, our kitchen counters are in an L-shape. The oven is at the short end of the L, the two drawers that house most of our utensils, the cutting board and potholders are in the corner, the sink comes next, and at the top of the L is a small counter space. I’m learning that the chopping should be done on that latter counter space, so that I have access to everything else, including the stove and oven. The first few times, he chopped in the corner, which prevented me from getting at the items I needed. kitchen

We learned we need at least two timers, sometimes three, to stay on top of the various operations taking place simultaneously. The recipes and pictured instructions refer to meat temperature, so we also purchased a meat thermometer rather than guess. The chicken and beef were to be browned in a pan on the stove, which produced a certain amount of splatter, so we now have a splatter guard as well.

Is this expensive? It’s cheaper than purchasing a similar meal in a restaurant. If you’re used to meals of frozen chicken breasts and frozen or canned vegetables, or sandwiches or hamburgers, probably not. But it’s provided us welcome relief, at least two nights a week, from deciding what we want to eat. That’s a huge relief when you’re trying to develop a plot, strengthen a hero’s motivation or enliven dialogue.

One more thing. My husband wants me to add that a chief reason using this service for meal prep is the togetherness. Yes, we bump into each other sometimes and one may question the other’s techniques on occasion, but in the end, when we’ve been going two different directions throughout the day, this is the time for coming together.

Welcome to new followers of this blog. Hope you’ll stick around. News of my next project coming soon.

 

Something’s Coming

Having a taste“Under construction”

“What’s cookin’?”

“Under my hat”

“Coming Attractions”

Several friends are eagerly anticipating the birth of new grandchildren. We were in their place just a little over a year ago. It’s a time of dreaming dreams of what lies ahead, what could be. For some, wondering if it will be a boy or a girl.

This author is experiencing similar dreams, not as lofty and heartwarming as the birth of a child, but exciting, just the same. My last romance novel, Not Your Mama’s Mambo, was released in November of 2016. Since that time, I’ve been very productive, working on a new series of romance novels, which I’ll be announcing in the weeks ahead. I also finished the rough draft of my first mystery. I wish I could tell you more, but just like expectant parents, I’m withholding additional information about my “babies” until I have more specifics to share.

under constructionCheck back in a month for more details.

Midwest Musings: A Flood of Memories

I started the third and final installment of my “Matchmaking Motor Coach” series, Keeping It Casual, with a memory from my final days of high school. That year, just prior to graduation in my hometown of Burlington, Iowa, which is directly on the Mississippi River and where most of the action of these three books takes place, the town and surrounding area suffered one of the worst floods in its history, surpassed since then only by one in 2008. untitled

In my story, the hero, Geoff McKenna, returns to the motor coach customization business he runs with his two brothers exhausted after a tough night of sandbagging. Sandbagging is one of the major defenses against the rising water. Geoff has multiple sclerosis and has overextended himself physically. Later in the story, rested, he takes the heroine, Alexandra Appleby, to Crapo Park, which overlooks the river, so she can see how far the river has overflowed its banks on the flatter, lower Illinois side.

The flood from my high school days was a far off memory. To ensure credibility, I went to members of my graduating class for their recollections. Here, in their own words, are some of their reminiscences.

Craig WoodI do remember being let out of school to go sandbag. I think we went to the Burlington Basket Company, or one of those factories just north of downtown. They must have called the high school for help or something. It was pretty warm, but I think it was early May. My favorite part was that somebody kept bringing us doughnuts (well, that and getting out of school). I remember being a little in awe of looking over the top of the wall of sandbags and seeing the river at eye level.

Bryan R. AlexanderI remember the 1965 flood…it was one of the worst floods. The river was 8 miles wide at Burlington, Iowa. The water got up to Front Street and in some situations up to Main Street. Some of our classmates that lived north of Burlington and in Gulfport, Illinois – we had some classmates that paid to go to the Burlington school – when the levee broke their family farms were flooded. My parent, I and other stood on the bluffs overlooking bottom land [to] watch the area flood.  

John McCartneyThe National Guard took the lead in the 65 flood. My Dad was in the guard. He was on the helicopter that almost crashed. It didn’t, just a hard landing. Citizens did volunteer to sandbag and help the guard.

Alta Masterson CookWe farm bottom land by Mississippi River and have had flooded land more than once. Most all of the people that helped sandbag in our area was volunteer citizens.

Rita CarlsonI remember Butch Thornton and others from our class sandbagging in May of 1965.

Judy ZachmeyerI was in Green bay bottom at the time and we had the Fort Madison prisoners sand bag during the day time. They couldn’t do it at night but were great during the day. Farmers did the night shifts. The levi down there held.

Bryan R. AlexanderTo see the Illinois flood damage my parents, their friends and I took a Sunday afternoon car trip on U.S 34 to Gladstone after the flood waters receded from the highway. I recall seeing a red and white 1957 Ford 2 Door Sedan buried in mud over the hood and trunk of the car…all you could see of the Ford was the windows and roof. Evidence that the flood waters had brought a lot of mud with it. In the middle of the flood waters there were houses above the water on built up mounds of dirt with docks coming from the top of the mounds with motor boats attached. Apparently, numerous farmers and home owners had prepared for the possibility of flooding…these homes which in some cases are still there became known as “Flood Mushrooms” in 1965.

Thank you, guys. I think I got it right.

Midwest Musings: In-between Television Seasons

It’s no secret that I’m a TV addict. Sometimes I refer to this habit as my interest in cultural anthropology. Anyway, it’s that time of year when the TV series I follow end for the season, or in the case of “The Good Wife” and “Castle,” forever, other than in syndication. In recent years, some cable TV series start their new seasons in the months between May and September while network television shows reruns, specials, or revisits game shows of old. In other words, finding much of anything to watch other than something I’ve seen before is a bit of a challenge.

This year is a bit different. I’ve discovered the LAFF channel, which is part of my basic cable offerings. This has come just in time, because I’ve pretty much seen so much of the old sitcoms on Lifetime, Nick at Night, and TVLand where I can recite the lines before they’re delivered. I tend to hit these channels from ten at night to 1 in the morning, later if I can’t sleep. LAFF offers old episodes of “Cybill” and “The Drew Carey Show.” The former features earlier versions of Christine Baranski, Peter Krause, and Alicia Witt, all who appeared on network shows this past season. The latter shows a heavier version of Drew Carey, a much younger, pre-late night, pre-game show Craig Ferguson, and Christa Miller and Ian Gomez BEFORE they were teamed in more recent years on “Cougar Town.”

Perhaps you share the same weird interest in tracking the careers of celebrities as I.

I’m also becoming better acquainted with other TV options. We recently purchased a Blu-Ray DVR, which offers options we have more or less avoided, because of their additional cost, like HBO, Showtime, and Netflix. We are making our way through episodes of “The Newsroom,” which I think is one of the best series ever released. Thus far, I’m not a binge watcher, although I sense the possibility as we finish up the final season.  I finally took advantage of my free benefits of Amazon Prime with the “Doctor Thorne” series. As a writer of contemporary romance, viewing Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Trollope’s novel has been an interesting visit to storytelling of another time.

My Watch List, to be pursued after we finish “The Newsroom” includes “Veep” and “Mozart in the Jungle.” Guess my interests tend toward comedy, although also on my list is “Game of Cards.” However, I probably won’t get to them until the conclusion of the last season of “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Royal Pains.” But then “Suits” starts in two weeks.

Although the networks are doing their best to lure me back to their new summer offerings with “Zoo,” “American Gothic” and “Murder in the First,” I’ve already decided “Zoo” is a little too far-fetched for my tastes. I’m still deciding on “Brain Dead.”

So many options, so little time. But I’m having a great time exploring. How about you? Any recommendations for me?