The Great Pumpkin—Exploring the Senses

horror tales by Barbara Custer and other authors

Amidst my counting masks, paper products, and other supplies to wither the Great Pandemic, my butterfly Mylar balloon whispered, “How about baking a cheesecake? A pumpkin cheesecake. After all, it’s that time of the year.”

“What time of the year?” I rolled my eyes.

“The Great Pumpkin’s coming.”

My balloon had it right. So I started the balloon floating with a pumpkin-flavored latte at Starbucks. Next, a trip to Bath & Body Works for pumpkin-scented soap and hand sanitizer. If I have to use it, I might as well smell like pumpkin.

I’ve got pumpkin-flavored coffee, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin Cheerios. The pumpkin cheesecake tasted better than I remember. I will make a stop at Wawa for the pumpkin smoothies. I’m going for all the senses, so I’ve got room deodorizers and beads to keep the pumpkin scent going between baking brigades. There’s pumpkin-flavored ice cream for sale somewhere. I’m also contemplating a recipe for pumpkin soup. Last year, when I volunteered at the Ben Wilson Senior Center, someone made pumpkin soup. It smelled oh, so good, but it was made with regular flour, so my version will be GF.

Why the fixation with pumpkin? The smell of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — a historically prosperous time of year. Pumpkin connotes comfort and warmth as we head into fall and colder weather. Pumpkin pie has become a traditional family recipe, so I think family and love when I smell pumpkin. Contemplate a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past,” where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie, and it seems as if he’s transported back to another time and place. Perhaps this happens to me when I have my pumpkin treats. Pumpkin spice takes me back to Thanksgiving as a child, when my mom baked pumpkin pie from scratch. In those days, we didn’t have to worry about Corona. Mom and Pop stores were thriving, and you didn’t have to go through a lot of rigmarole to buy stuff so long as you had the cash.

It could be I just love the smell of pumpkin spice.

With that in mind, I’ll keep my eyes open for pumpkin-shaped Mylar balloons, and I shall continue to enjoy my pumpkin treats through Thanksgiving. Do you have any favorite pumpkin treats? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Traveling, Balloons, and Geographical Therapy

featuring walking skeletons, zombies and a new twist on vampiresYesterday, I headed to Reading Terminal Market and bought delicious cheeses, baked goods, and a gift for someone. The ride was my Mylar balloons’ idea.

The discussion began with my forthcoming trip to Atlantic City, where I’ll indulge in geographical therapy to spur the writing muse. Since I’m taking a Greyhound bus, I decided to confirm the trip. It took me three tries to find the confirmation number.

That was when a balloon’s cheery voice popped up. “Are you having a problem?”

“No!” I snapped. “I just needed the confirmation number. I’m good to go.”

“Uh, huh.” The butterfly balloons bobbed. “When was the last time you rode a Greyhound bus?”

“I’ve taken them many times when my mom and I used to travel back in, um, 1975.”

“1975, huh?” The balloons congregated around me. “That’s over 40 years ago. Shouldn’t you read their FAQ? They may have changed their guidelines?”

“Right.” So I studied the FAQ and learned about the tagging and baggage restriction, something not mentioned in 1975. “Guess I’d better bird-dog the station.”

“Dat’s wight, wabbit.” The balloons patted me on the head. “While you’re at it, how about walking through the Reading Terminal Market and Di Bruno Brothers? You plan to do some running around at the shore. See how that would work with your neuropathy.”

“Aw, shucks, why’d you have to mention that?” I groaned, knowing better than to argue. “Why don’t I just take a day trip to Atlantic City?”

“That won’t be necessary, but when you do go, take a cab to the hotel instead of walking. Betcha there will be cabs lined up, offering rides.”

With the balloons’ suggestions duly noted, I headed downtown. The ride to the bus station went without a hitch. Because the humidity had made yesterday a low spoon day, I needed to sit between every store I visited and I was pretty sore by the time I finished. Nevertheless, I got gf treats at the Flying Monkey Bakery. At the Pennsylvania General Store, they’ve got holiday ornaments, Philadelphia souvenirs, and other goodies. Reading Terminal Market has great cheese shops, but because I’d gotten there early, they were closed. If I don’t get my cheese, I’m gonna be an unhappy camper, I thought, so I headed off to Di Bruno Brothers. There I got my cheeses and prosciutto. After that, I went home to rest.

I got three takeaways from this: first, you can find anything you want at the Reading Terminal Market and Di Bruno Brothers, and yes, most of the shops cater to food allergies. If you leave hungry, you’ve done something wrong.

Second, bird-dog a place you’d like to visit if you’re not familiar with the area. This can apply to your writing if you want to create a realistic setting. I may bird-dog some places while I’m at the shore for my work in progress.

Finally, if you have neuropathy or any kind of health issue, travel light and consider the benches your best friends. I’ve decided to forego my laptop and opted for a journal and pens I can stow in my suitcase. Geographical therapy aside, it will be interesting to see how writing by hand affects my creativity.

Stay tuned. 🙂

The Pumpkin Bug

I’ve been infected with the pumpkin bug, and so I must do my yearly duty with pumpkins. As one who loves pumpkin spice, I baked over a dozen pumpkin cupcakes, and 12 pumpkin muffins. I’ve got pumpkin spice flavoring to add to my coffee. What’s more, I chose the above graphic to feature my posts for the October Frights blog hop. I’ve earmarked Wawa and probably Starbucks for pumpkin flavored shakes and lattes. Finally, I went and bought pumpkin sauce to use instead of traditional tomato sauce for some of my spaghetti meals, for the pumpkin rules. My Mylar balloons understand because they deal with my fever every year.

Food aside, the pumpkin is an important ingredient for Halloween. We have the Irish Festival Samhain to thank for Halloween as we know it. Samhain marked the passage from the summer harvest season to the dark of winter. People believed that fairy spirits, and not the nice kind, lurked in the shadows. To distract these spirits, people would carve faces into large turnips and set lit candles inside them. They would then place these lanterns among roadways and gates to light the way for travelers and caution the fairies.

The immigrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived around the mid-1800s, and these folks found the pumpkins useful for the jack-o’-lanterns. Thus this Halloween ritual was born.

My other upcoming blogs will have three discussions on writing issues and one short story. My tales don’t contain any scenes involving pumpkins, but you can sure make some delicious treats. Since people are always hungry, you might want to stop by King Arthur Flour to check out their pumpkin recipes. For gluten-free diets, you can substitute their Measure-for-Measure flour for regular flour.

I know of a lot of folks who set up pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns, but I’d much rather buy canned pumpkin and bake. Carving involves a lot of hard work, and some pumpkins weigh as much as 25 pounds. That’s not to say I won’t indulge in pumpkin Mylar balloons—I’ve got about two or three of them now.

Today, I found a pumpkin cupcake in my lunch kit. I must give the pumpkin his due.

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This zombie novel was written by Gerald Browning

Great tale to enjoy with your pumpkin bread!

Identifying with your Characters?

Barbara Custer's Life Raft: Earth features suspenseful science fiction.I’d gone quiet for awhile because I’ve had to temporarily relocate due to major termite damage. Among other things, I feel as if I’m walking in one of my characters’ shoes.

About two years ago, I released a novella, Life Raft: Earth, in which protag Natalie and other humans face an exploding star hurtling toward the earth. After lengthy negotiations with politicians, Chibale, a kindly Trittonite, uses his technology to tow the Earth out of harm’s way and toward a benevolent galaxy. Without his help, Natalie, her family, and everyone else would die. Still, the trip is inconvenient and creates hardships for the humans and the Trittonites. How does my termite problem relate to Life Raft: Earth? In the spring, I learned that termites had eaten away the joists under my living room, kitchen, and office.

Because the homeowners’ association is responsible for termite inspections and the structure of its properties, they’re paying for the repairs. The damage was bad enough to warrant them moving me to a different location while their contractors worked. The process necessitated lots of preparation on my part, too; I had to pack away enough medicines and supplies to last a month – more than that, in case the repairs take longer. I brought several Mylar balloon trees with me, so they required a miniature tank. I worry about the ones left, for the extended stay studio apartment can only accommodate so many balloons. Much of my writing time went into packing, transporting, and storing boxes. Without the homeowners’ interventions, the floors might have caved in under my weight, as you can see from the photo to the left.

This got me to thinking about Life Raft: Earth and the preparations Natalie had to make. Her ride included radical changes in weather, requiring the purchase of pressurized suits and sophisticated heating systems. That included a doggie suit for her beloved Brutus for his outside walks. The Trittonites’ evil leader tries to sabotage the transport. Because her father’s political connections made Natalie a target, she lived out of a suitcase on Chibale’s ship, where she learned ways to protect herself. Of course, Brutus came along, so that meant packing dog food, along with human-friendly treats, clothing, etc. Frequent fires and droughts, along with pictures gotten of the star left Natalie with no choice but to put her life in the hands of strangers and dealing with an antsy dog. She misses her job and her home and winds up leaving the ship, despite protests by Chibale and his companions.

I myself have snuck back to the house a couple of times to scope out the progress. Mike and I have lived in that house almost 30 years, so it holds a lot of memories. I miss my bed, my oven, and other conveniences. The outcome is where Natalie’s story and mine differ. I’m in a safe place, and when the repairs have concluded, I anticipate having a new kitchen and rebuilt floors. Natalie’s traveling through hell, and her chances of surviving the trip are iffy. But when it comes to homesickness, the inconvenience of relocating, and having to trust strangers, I can identify with her.

Have you ever found yourself identifying with your characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

 

Salami and Writing – to Self-Publish or Not

Barbara Custer enjoyed salami and cheese at the writing workshop.

Yesterday, I got to attend the Philadelphia Writer’s Workshop at the Sonesta Hotel. I began my day with salami and provolone cheese sandwich for breakfast; then I headed downtown. It was an excellent conference, but the classes that struck home related to the dos and don’ts of self-publishing (loved that class) and the advantages of traditional publishing versus self-publishing. I had my lunch over at De Bruno Brothers and took advantage of the opportunity to buy cheese. When you’ve tasted their fine cheeses, you’ll want to buy more.

Chuck Sambuchino discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both kinds of writing. With traditional publishing, there are no startup costs. The company will edit, handle the cover illustrations, and may even hire someone to provide marketing. Whatever money you get with your advance is yours to keep, and perhaps later, you might get film options. It carries an air of legitimacy; ergo people will be more agreeable to review your book and interview you.

Ah, but since the company is fronting the money, that leaves you at the whims of others. After the advance, the royalties run about 10 percent, and it takes a lot of time from contract signing to book release.  Assuming you get an agent’s attention right away, it could take several months before the contract between you and agent is signed; months before that agent signs you with a publisher; a total of two to four years before the book is released.

Self-publishing gives you control over the editing, illustrations, formatting, price, etc. The royalties are decent. The length of the book and genre don’t matter; self-publishing would be ideal for someone who’s focusing on a unique interest and has a ready market for their book. What’s more, depending on the company, you could have your book released in a week. It took me six months to a year for each self-pub work because the book went through an editor before I got into formatting.

The downside is, you become your own agent, editor, marketer, etc. or be ready to pay upfront fees for these services.  Self-publishing still carries a stigma; bookstores and reviewers will shy away from your book. There’s no help with marketing or subsidiary rights, and without a platform, promotion is an uphill battle.

The time factor mention hit me where I live, and that was why I self-pubbed many of my books. Up until February 2013, I queried agents and lined up at seminars for pitches, but in 2013, I had two admissions to the hospital for water on the heart. Last January my husband died, and recently the homeowners’ association discovered significant termite damage in my floors. I’m healthy now and have had no mishap with the floors, but my takeaway from these events is this: Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. With that in mind, I’ve had a rough time wrapping my head around the idea of waiting four years for a book to go live. Thankfully, I’ve found ways to work around some of the disadvantages of independent publishing. I’ve also published with small presses; this helps with the time element.

That’s not to say I’d never try traditional publishing again; I may change my mind years from now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you feel traditional publishing is best or do you prefer independent publishing? What have your experiences been like?

In the meantime, there’s another salami and cheese sandwich with my name on it.

Revisiting “Where’s the Bread”

These Italian gluten-free pizzelles taste like my mother's.

Gluten-free pizzelles

I spent my recent days holiday baking. Unlike previous years, my gluten-free pastries were reminiscent of my Mom’s recipes, and my Mylar Balloons whispered, “Shouldn’t you blog about your baking?” No, I’m sleepy, I thought and promptly dozed off on my computer chair.

Then yesterday, I photographed my gf anginetti (Italian lemon-flavored cookies) and pizzelles, and people began asking how I came by these recipes. “You see?” my balloons crooned, “Better Batter and King Arthur cup-for-cup flour worked for you, right? And you’ve been posting some of your recipes in Night to Dawn. How about sharing your experiences with your followers?”

The balloons had a point. Back in 2014, I posted a blog titled Where’s the Bread. There were no photographs of bread or other treats because whatever I attempted tasted awful. My cheese rolls hardened like baseballs. Though I contented myself with my homemade chicken rice soup and Udi’s bread; I continued to try different recipes.

I found a user-friendly method with Pamela’s Pizzelles, and these taste like my mom’s version. I use anise extract for flavoring. They’re hard to tell from the regular pizzelles, so I had to mark the containers carefully.  I also tried recipes provided by Nicole Hunn. She posts a blog and has written several books on gf cooking. Whatever food sensitivity is the issue, she can suggest ways to work around it. When I made cheesecakes, I substituted gf crust; there was Mike’s cheesecake, and he got a hearty slice with each visit. I haven’t been able to bake cheesecake since he died but found a lot of treats with Nicole’s recipes. I also tried her cheese bread recipe, but that didn’t turn out well. Italian cheese bread, called “pitz” (spelling?) is the Holy Grail in my family. I bake it every Easter but have yet to manage a gf facsimile that works.

These tasty gluten-free pastries were baked by Barbara Custer.

Gluten-free anginatti

I found tasty recipes on King Arthur Flour’s website, particularly their chocolate chip cookies. Last time I made them I substituted coconut for half the chips and they were awesome.  This past year, King Arthur came out with a Gluten-Free Measure for Measure Flour which you can substitute for regular flour to convert traditional recipes to gluten-free.  I used it to make butter cookies and anginetti, using concoctions similar to my mom’s. You might wonder how come I didn’t go with my mom’s recipes. Mom never measured flour, and neither did I. I’m not ready yet to try gf baking without measuring. The butter cookies taste like Mom’s; the anginetti came a little heavier than I liked but decent. For the anginetti and wedding cake cookies, I had to use more liquid than the recipe specified. So if the recipe called for one cup of orange juice, I used 1.5 cups. Better Batter Flour advertises as “cup for cup”, but they recommend that you add extra liquid.

Barbara Custer found a way to doctor a bread mix to get these delicious gluten-free rolls.

The bread’s over here!

Oh, by the way, I found my bread – Pamela’s bread mix has worked for me nicely as you can see in my photo to the left. And I will continue posting my recipes on Night to Dawn’s “Pickings and Tidbits” page. Even writers and connoisseurs of Mylar balloons and fiction have to eat sometimes! 🙂

Have you had to alter ingredients or find new recipes to accommodate a food sensitivity? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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