Monday, May 22, 2017

Let them eat cake! :-)

Of all the hobbies I've attempted the one I excelled at the least was cake-decorating. I had taken a class with my friend Cindy who, of course, turned out to be a natural--brilliant with buttercream, a Michelangelo of fondant flowers. Although I tried and tried to pay attention in class, my roses flopped over, my crumb layer was uneven and my frosting palette looked like a psychedelic album cover from the 60's. By the end of class I had more frosting in my hair than on the cake, in vivid streaks of neon green and screaming purple. Twenty years before people dyed their hair like that on purpose I was a trend-setter. I forgot to mention the homework, LOTS of homework, namely, baking a cake hours in advance so it would be cool enough to frost in class.

By all measurable standards I was a failure, although there is one person who wouldn't agree. Not my teacher, he knew I was hopeless. No, it was my wonderful husband, who forced himself to stay awake until I came home from class so he could "help" me into the house with my Frankenstein cake. He praised each of my creations as if it were a Monet instead of Picasso in his Cubist phase before shyly asking if he could have a piece. He LOVED my cake-decorating class.

I've since given away all the tools I bought for that class keeping only the cake container I used to transport the cakes back and forth. I remembered the teacher telling us about elaborate wedding cakes he'd created and how he prayed on the way to deliver them that they wouldn't fall over. Likewise, when I had a cake perched on the back seat, I drove like a little old lady on her way to church, barely hitting the gas, stopping carefully at each red light, nervously checking my precious cargo through the rear-view mirror. As a result I've become a more understanding driver, inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt instead of laying on the horn. Now, when I'm stuck behind a slow driver, I just smile to myself and think they must have a cake in the backseat. And maybe if I'm extra nice they'll give me a piece.  

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Fabulous review of "Jeopardy in July" & Giveaway! :-)

One of my favorite blogs, "Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book", has just published a fabulous review of my latest Jamie Quinn Mystery, "Jeopardy in July". Oh, happy day! And along with this gem of a review is a chance to win one of three copies of my book.  Hurry, the contest ends May 25th. Thanks, Lori!

http://www.escapewithdollycas.com/2017/05/11/review-giveaway-jeopardy-july-jamie-quinn-mystery-barbara-venkataraman/




Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Extra Key :-)

Of all the mysteries in my life, the one I someday hope to solve is the mystery of my extra key. Like most people, I have a ring of keys, the keys to my own little kingdom. There's a key to my house, shiny and silver; a key to my sister's house, a bronze colored key that always sticks in the lock and takes all my strength to turn; two keys to my office, a square one for the door, another for the front gate, and my extra key. For the life of me, I don't know what it's for but I'm afraid to throw it out in case it's critically important, the one key I need for an emergency yet to be imagined. 

I've wracked my brain trying to figure this out. Is it a key to my neighbor's house? No. Is it a key to my former neighbor's house? No. (Apparently I'm the go-to girl for spare keys to your house.) Is it a key to a suitcase, a safe deposit box, a jewelry box, a bicycle lock? A treasure chest, a magic closet, Pandora's Box? What is it for and why is it here? I don't remember putting it on the ring, let alone why it's there. Am I losing my memory, or even my mind? Is this how Alzheimer's starts?

I wonder how I can figure this out. Maybe a Facebook post to my circle of friends asking if anyone needs their key back? A lost & found ad on Craigslist? Maybe I could reverse-engineer the problem, try the key in every lock I find in all my usual haunts. I could undergo hypnosis and return to the time I acquired the key, maybe resolve some phobias along the way. Or I could do the unthinkable--take it off the ring and stick it in a drawer. (You thought I was going to say throw it out, didn't you?) No, I won't do that. I'm going to keep it on my key ring and imagine it's the key to my happy place, my refuge from the world, my cozy corner. There's a rocking chair there with a soft tattered quilt, a purring cat, and my favorite book, its pages dog-eared. It's always raining outside in a steady downpour that taps on the window as I stay snug and dry. Nobody has a key to this secret room except for me. And every time I see my extra key, I'll smile a secret smile and think about my secret room and what I'll do the next time I go there.




Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Don't Mind Me--As I Read Over Your Shoulder :-)

I'm afraid I have some bad news, Big Brother really is watching you. It took a while for George Orwell's dystopian world of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to come to pass, but here we are. Your computer is watching your every move, your phone tracks you--heck, even Uber knows where you are after you've deleted the app. And no, you're not paranoid if you think your toaster is judging you or your fit-bit is giving away all your secrets, it's true. Welcome to the "Internet of Things"! Here's some more bad news, I've been watching you too. I never meant for it to happen, I swear, but the temptation was too great. If Big Brother is watching you, Little Sister is right behind him.

It started innocently enough. I wrote a few books and self-published them to Kindle. I eagerly agreed to be part of the Kindle Unlimited library in order to gain exposure for my books. Then KU switched from paying authors by the download to paying them by the pages actually read. You probably don't know this, but Kindle is watching you read every page--and so am I. I have an up-to-the-minute website telling me which of my books is being read, how many pages, and what country you're in! It's astounding, it's fantastic, and it's terribly addicting. Like watching the clock in Times Square tick down the seconds to the new year, I can't stop watching you read. It's lonely for me, I wish we could talk. I have so many questions for you. "Did you like that part? Were you surprised by the ending? Did my corny joke make you laugh?" You're so close, yet so far away...

Anyway, I didn't mean to freak you out. Please keep reading and don't mind me as I look over your shoulder. I'll be cheering you on! 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Return of Gadget Girl! :-)

As some of you may recall, I used to be Gadget Girl, a person so enamored of the latest kitchen gadgets that I had to have them all. Unfortunately, I had conveniently forgotten the second law of physics--that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. When I couldn't open my kitchen drawers because they were stuffed to capacity I had to part with my dear ones and simplify my life. 

But the siren's call of new gadgets soon lured me in again. First, I convinced myself that I had to have a battery-operated hands-free can opener because of my sore thumb. Then I had to have a Spiralizer because it was fun and it made zucchini so much more appealing. One thing led to another and soon I couldn't open my drawers again. Maybe I can start hanging gadgets on the wall, like the tools in the garage. I'll get started on that right away, but first, I'm going to need a new drill! :-)

Check out the original Gadget Girl essay below. For more (cheap) laughs, check out my book: Quirky Essays for Quirky People: The Complete Collection, available on Amazon as an e-book and audio-book, narrated by the wonderful Carrie Lee Martz.

https://www.amazon.com/Quirky-Essays-People-Complete-Collection-ebook/dp/B00KC7BNNY/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1493130053&sr=8-11&keywords=barbara+venkataraman

GADGET GIRL            
If the opposite of “hoarder” is a person who despises clutter, knick-knacks, gewgaws and tchotchkes, then I am that person, with one notable exception. Although I worship Minimalism as a philosophy, and also as a house-cleaning technique, I admit I have a weakness: I love gadgets–specifically, kitchen gadgets. I can’t help it. While I can easily ignore the siren call of an infomercial (Seal in flavor! Juice it! Grill away fat!) and I’ve never purchased a Ginsu knife (who wants to cut their sneakers in half?), I just can’t resist a cool gadget. Maybe it’s the way they solve problems I didn’t know I had, but my online dictionary got it right, a gadget really is an “ingenious device.”
            
Let’s start low-tech with the apple slicer. Now, tell me this: who wouldn’t enjoy eating a crisp Fuji, Gala or Granny Smith apple cut into eight perfectly symmetrical slices? Nobody, that’s who. When Eve took a bite of her first apple, she had to be wondering, “Isn’t there an easier way to eat this thing?” She would have appreciated the apple slicer.
 
Of course, if you want to bake your apple, you should put away the slicer and take out your apple corer. Once that pesky core is gone, you can fill your apple with yummy deliciousness like honey, raisins & cinnamon, and then top it off with vanilla ice cream when it's baked. See what you’ve been missing? Luckily, both of these gadgets are inexpensive and fit neatly in your kitchen drawer.

Things start to get tricky if you’re a garlic-lover, and honestly, who isn’t? The first gadget you’ll need is a garlic keeper so your garlic stays fresh as a daisy, er, just fresh. Next up, you’ll want to buy a garlic roaster because-- what’s the point of eating fresh-baked, crusty bread if there’s no roasted garlic to spread on it? You’ll need only a few more gadgets to complete your set: a garlic peeler, a garlic press, a garlic slicer, a garlic dicer and a magic soap bar made of stainless steel to take away the garlic smell. Personally, I enjoy the smell of garlic. I’d like to create a garlic perfume called “Delicioso.” A light spritz would make you smell like a world-class chef and, in the event of a culinary crisis, you could also spray it on your food. All of these gadgets are essential, but don’t worry, they won’t take up much space, only half of a kitchen drawer.

Since you still have some room in the drawer, you should consider adding these beauties: a tomato stem remover, a corn stripper, a lemon zester, a grapefruit segmenter, an herb snipper with a stem stripper, an avocado slicer, a strawberry huller, a cherry pitter, an olive stuffer, a ravioli stamper, a calzone mold, and my absolute favorite, an egg-cuber, so you can make square hard-boiled eggs that won’t roll off your plate. Genius!

Now that your drawer is full, let’s talk about the fun stuff. You can’t live without a Popsicle maker if you have kids--that’s a fact–and you just can’t beat the smell of fresh bread wafting from your automatic bread maker.  If you pour the ingredients in at night and set the timer, you’ll be dreaming you live in a bakery as you bake fresh bread in your sleep. If you’re health-conscious, then an electric yogurt-maker is perfect for you, and you can always beat the summer heat with your electric ice-cream maker. Think of the exotic flavors you could invent, like bourbon with cornflakes, or candied bacon--you can’t find those in the store! And how about those fancy Paninis you can make with your Panini Press?

But we aren’t done yet! Just think how much you’ll enjoy the gentle gurgle of seltzer water flowing from your Sodastream and the Belgian waffles you made in your waffle iron, not to mention the fries you fried in your Fry Daddy, the coffee you ground with your coffee grinder, the noodles spiraling out of your pasta maker and the perfectly prepped lettuce leaves shooting out of your salad spinner. When you’re done with all that, you can bathe in your chocolate fountain. Isn't life good?
 
You may be wondering where to put all of these amazing gadgets. It’s simple really, just get rid of your knick-knacks, gewgaws and tchotchkes, and any other useless clutter, like dishes, pots & pans, and all the food in your pantry, and you’ll have plenty of room for all this neat stuff. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Everyone is a Character! :-)

I used to be so careful. After all, every how-to book on the art of writing provides the same advice--don't base your fictional characters on real people. While it's okay to borrow a trait or a habit or a quirk, you should never borrow the entire personality or persona--at least according to the experts. It only leads to trouble and who wants trouble? Thus were born my composite people; I was Dr. Frankenstein and they were my creations, cobbled together from spare parts, leftover remarks, and funny anecdotes from long ago. My technique had three steps. I would start with a picture from a magazine of what I imagined my character looked like, usually it was an advertisement. Next, I would choose a name, working hard to ensure that it wasn't already taken, that it wasn't the name of someone famous or notorious (Google to the rescue), and, finally, I would invent a backstory for my character hoping it was original enough to pass muster. Not only did I want to avoid basing my characters on real people, I also wanted to avoid basing them on fictional characters. Considering that I've read thousands of books in my life I could have easily lifted a character unintentionally, believing it came to me in a dream.

That's the challenge--to take traits from real people, incorporate those traits into fictional characters and make them seem like real people. Don't think about it too hard or you'll give yourself a headache--I know I do. It's all about capturing an essence, like lightning in a bottle. Unlike some authors, I focus on dialogue more than physical description because characters can reveal so much of themselves by what they say, what they leave unsaid and by their body language. An emotion can be conveyed by simply raising one perfect eyebrow or by walking away. It's difficult to portray realism in an artificial setting like a novel because most of what real people discuss is not novel-worthy--nobody wants to read about the weather or your Aunt Sally's gallstones. The rule to remember is: Less is more. Every word of dialogue should pack a punch by furthering the plot or developing the character. Ideally, it would do both.

I must confess that one of my best characters I've created is Grace Anderson, BFF to my protagonist Jamie Quinn. To bring Grace to life, I demonstrate her sense of humor and her concern for Jamie through examples. The two women have been friends since law school and in a flashback Jamie remembers some of the practical jokes Grace pulled back then. When Jamie's disabled cousin gets into trouble in the present, I show how Grace swoops in to help in concrete ways through her actions. Grace combines many of the qualities of my closest friends. As a result, my friends all see themselves in her. Grace is funny and smart, loyal and intuitive, she's a blast to be around--who wouldn't want to be Grace? But, although my girlfriends are all Grace, none of them is Grace

Now my husband is a different story, he is fair game and he knows it. If Jamie's tree-hugging, romantic, smart-aleck boyfriend Kip resembles my husband, then my husband shouldn't have been such a tree-hugging, romantic, smart-aleck. Whenever my husband says something funny, I write it down. I used to be sly about it, now I don't bother. To be fair, I write it down whenever anyone says something funny, ironic, or crazy, but he is just a good source of material. Here's an example: ever since our kids moved out, I barely cook; Suzy Homemaker has left the building (if she ever in fact lived here). One night, after I brought home take-out for dinner, my husband thanked me for doing that. To which I said, Of course! It was the least I could do. To which he replied I'm pretty sure you could've done less…

For those of you familiar with my body of work (and I love you, whoever you are), you may recall that my children were the protagonists of my first book, "The Fight for Magicallus". That book started out as a joke, a motherly tool, you might say and came about because my boys wouldn't stop playing video games. So I did what any mother would do, I wrote a story in which they were sucked into their video game and had to figure out how to escape. Ultimately, their only way out was to read a book. Not sure if they learned the lesson, but they did enjoy starring in their own adventure and I know for a fact that they read at least one book!

And so, family members notwithstanding, I have been conscientious about not pilfering people's personalities for my books--until one day when tragedy struck. My cousin's daughter died suddenly of heart disease at the age of twenty-seven. I flew to the northeast to be with them a few weeks after the funeral and it was then that my cousin's husband asked me if I would do him a favor. I couldn't imagine what it might be. When he asked if I could make Jessie a character in one of my books I was honored but also nervous about getting it right. I spent time with him poring over pictures and videos, learning more about my young cousin. I wanted to portray her accurately; she was such a free spirit despite her life-long battle with heart disease. Incorporating her love of dogs and preference for music from the sixties, I created a girl with purple hair who favored tie-dyed shirts and owned a rock-and-roll-themed dog rescue. Since her first appearance in "Engaged in Danger" Jessie has become one of my favorite characters and she makes me feel closer to the cousin I wish I'd known better.

Jessie's character opened a door I didn't know existed. Suddenly, friends and relatives were shyly coming forward to ask if they, too, could become characters in one of my books. I said, sure, if you write your own back story, pick your own name, and provide your physical description. You can be whoever you want to be, I'll make it work. And that's how my sister Jodi, a high-ranking executive at a cable network, became a master gardener at an assisted living facility happily tending to her plants in my current book, "Jeopardy in July". What Jodi doesn't know is how she will help Jamie Quinn solve the murders happening around her. All I can say is if Jodi wants to find out, she'll just have to read the book.


Cozy mysteries are the perfect vehicle for me because I enjoy writing about funny, smart, quirky characters who sometimes make snarky remarks but who always look out for each other. Their situations may not be realistic, but their relationships are and their realistic and snappy dialogue is the reason. 

Funny Oxford Comma! :-)

People debate the usefulness of the Oxford comma and fret over the use of any comma, but one little comma can change everything.

Here's a charming example from a t-shirt I saw:
"I love barbecuing my friends and my family." Underneath it said "Don't be a cannibal, use a comma!" lol!

Last week, on Jeopardy, the Oxford comma was one of the answers. The question was:  "I greatly admire my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman." Unless you're a superhero (and maybe you are), you need an Oxford comma after the word Superman. 

Who says grammar can't be fun? For more grammar tips, check out my book "Teatime with Mrs. Grammar Person," which is free on Kindle through April 16. :-)