Monday, August 17, 2015

En Vacances

Greetings, readers!  Today marks the beginning of a six week vacation that I'll be taking from the blog, à la française.  It has been a busy year and I will be taking some time off from blog posting to work on a few other projects I have going.  Posts will resume in October with some super stellar guest posts and regular posting will resume by November. (Just in time for NaNoWrimo)!  In the meantime, feel free to poke around the blog and take a look at some of my older posts on writing, culture, and food.

Enjoy!  And happy writing!


Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Life: French Muffins

I usually don't bake a lot of muffins - when it comes to carbohydrate goodness, I tend toward either a savory bread or a sweet (but not too sweet) pastry like cinnamon rolls or scones.  It's probably because I've had so many disappointing muffins in my life, purchased at airports or coffee shops in the hope of a not-too-sweet snack only to find that the so-called "muffin" was more like a cupcake in sugar content.  I have nothing against cupcakes, but they shouldn't be sprung on the unwary.  (Blueberry muffins are especially egregious in this regard.)

And that, perhaps, is one reason why I like this muffin recipe, sent to me by an aunt some years ago.  (The original recipe, I believe, was from a Seattle paper.) It's a sweet muffin, but it doesn't pretend to be anything else, and the sweetness is primarily contained to the cinnamon sugar topping.  The muffin itself has a delightfully light texture; a far cry from those sickly sweet, dense store-bought muffins.  I like these for dessert, although I'll admit to having them for breakfast more than once.

French Muffins
makes 18 medium muffins

3 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 1/4 c white sugar
1 Tb baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 eggs
2/3 c melted butter (may substitute half oil)
1 c milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease your muffin pans.  If you have large muffin tins you can probably get away with a 12 cup pan.

Combine dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl, mix eggs, butter, and milk.  Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the liquids, then stir until just combined.  (You don't want to mix too much or your muffins will be tough.)

Pour batter into your prepared pans and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden-brown and a toothpick comes out clean.  While muffins are baking, prep your topping: melt another 1/3 c butter (and keep melted) and separately, combine 2 Tb cinnamon with 2/3 c sugar in a large bowl.  Turn muffins out onto a cooling rack (or pry them out gently with a spatula if necessary).  Working quickly, while the muffins are hot, dip the tops in the melted butter and then roll in cinnamon sugar.

Devour quickly before your roommates get home and eat them all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky

Ah, Stravinsky.  Modern, sharp-edged, in-your-face music that once caused riots.  I'll admit I don't do a whole lot of listening to Stravinsky - I tend to prefer pre-1900s composers - but the flute and piccolo excerpts from "The Firebird" are some of my favorite working pieces.  They're so ridiculously hard in so many ways (rhythm, fingering, speed, those huge jumps) but so much fun at the same time. 

So here, for your listening pleasure, is Stravinsky conducting "The Firebird" as performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Monday Writing: How to Present Effectively

I am not a professional presenter - let's just get that out of the way right now.  But over the years of school, teaching, and professional life, I've had many opportunities to both present and be presented at in a variety of settings and I've picked up a few tips along the way.  Here are my top four steps for an effective presentation (or lesson).

1. Outline
Know what you're going to say - not just the nitty-gritty, but the big picture.  What is the theme of your presentation?  What one idea do you want people to walk away with at the end?  Once you have that, brainstorm the smaller steps to getting to that idea and then organize them in an outline so that you know what you'll be saying (and in what order).  For example, if you're discussing research for historical fiction and you want to focus on teaching people to find reliable sources, your overall goal is for each person in your presentation to walk away knowing how to identify a reliable source.  Break it down a little further to come up with ways to identify reliable sources (primary vs. secondary, peer-reviewed journals, following up on citations) and organize those steps into your outline.  You might begin by discussing Wikipedia research and the problems therein, then move into the steps to take to evaluate a source ( has great resources for this, by the way) before providing some examples of reliable and unreliable sources for your audience to evaluate.

2. Practice
Once you've got your outline with both the big picture and the smaller steps, do a few practice runs or five.  It's a good idea to go through it a couple times on your own, then present to a small group of friends, especially if you're expecting to get questions or have some measure of audience interaction.  You want to be so comfortable with your material that you can, if needed, speak off the cuff in response to questions and still be able to return to your outline.  This is crucial.  Your outline is the framework of your talk for the audience and it will allow you to be effective at conveying your point.  Some people are excellent extemporaneous speakers; if this is you and you have no trouble staying on topic without an outline, kudos.  For the rest of us, stick to the plan or the audience is going to leave disappointed that the talk on historical research devolved into the presenter's personal opinions on historical revisionism and the concept of feudalism.  Fascinating, perhaps, but your audience came to learn about how to do their own research, not hear about your pet project.  Stay on target.

3. Be Visual
Yes, you can do the ubiquitous Powerpoint if you want, but use it sparingly and only to illustrate key points.  You do not need a slide for every point in your outline, nor should you slap your outline up onscreen and call it good.  Use your visual to show examples or to drive home a point, and use related images if you can.  In the example of historical research, you could put up a list of ways to identify reliable sources and a picture or two of both reliable and unreliable sources.  Alternatively, you could provide a handout for folks who came without notebooks or laptops.  One way or another, get eyes as well as ears engaged.

4. Engage
Audience engagement is going to depend on a ton of variables, including the culture and make-up of your audience, the environment in which you're presenting, the topic, the time of day, the structure of the presentation, the size of the crowd, etc., etc.  Set expectations early by informing the audience how you would like to take questions (should they raise their hands?  Shout things out?  Queue at the microphone for the last ten minutes of the presentation?) and then provide opportunities for feedback (either during the presentation or at the end).  Some presenters like to try to engage the audience by asking questions of the audience, and if you're going to do that, make sure you really know how to ask the right sorts of questions.  Initially, your questions should have an obvious answer and should not be so open-ended that the audience is paralyzed by choice.  For our example on historical research, don't ask your audience what they think makes a reliable source.  That's what they're here to learn, plus it's so broad that you could spend the next ten minutes coming up with answers.  Look for something more specific.  You could ask how many people use Wikipedia or, if you have a Shakespeare crowd, if anyone knows the ratio of English to French at the Battle of Agincourt according to Henry V.  (Both examples of iffy sources that you can expand upon as you move into evaluating historical sources).

Presenters and presentees, what are your tips for a good presentation?  Any panels or talks that stand out in your mind, and why?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday Life: Sombis

During the summer I spent in West Africa, breakfasts usually consisted of a fresh baguette with a faux chocolate spread (Chocopain).  Every once in awhile, though, a sweet porridge would make an appearance.  That porridge also showed up in the afternoons for the after school snack (along with the fresh-made beignets) and it was always a delicious treat served hot or cold.  Some investigation proved it to be a form of rice pudding albeit without the eggs, and my host mother was more than happy to share the recipe with me.


2 c dry white rice
4-5 c water
1 c powdered milk
sugar (to taste)

Boil rice in water.  When the rice is well-cooked and kind of soupy, remove from heat.  (You'll need to eyeball this - you don't want to cook the rice dry, so don't follow the conventional rice-cooking method - boil it uncovered and watch the consistency, tasting rice kernels every now and then to make sure it's cooked through).  Mix powdered milk in with the rice and add sugar to taste (probably about 1/2 cup).

I've seen other recipes that add mango or coconut, but at my house it was always served plain and usually hot.  

Bon appétit!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Water and Sky (Found Photos)

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Once of the great things about the internet is the way it allows us to take part in a common narrative.  In this case, a seventy or eighty year old mystery involving breathtaking photos of women at the shore.  The full set, posted here, features a hauntingly gorgeous series of photographs of women in and around the water at dusk.  The negatives were found by photographer Meagan Abell (see link to her professional page above) in a thrift shop and have launched a hashtag - #FindTheGirlsOnThe Negatives - in an effort to learn more about the pictures and the models featured.  If you would like a little bit of breathless stillness in your day, I'd recommend checking out the full set.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Monday Writing: Three More Sites for Writer Procrastination

As a follow up to last week's list of four places for writers to waste time research on the internet, I've got three more sites for you.  These three sites, all of which begin with the letter "W", aren't quite as rabbit-holey as last week's list, but still provide a nice reference for things you might need to know while writing.

5. Wolfram Alpha - Like Wikipedia, but so much more.  Wolfram Alpha isn't just an online dictionary/encyclopedia; it's an engine that can assist with basic and complex math, translate to Morse code, find rhymes, anagrams, or Scrabble words, provide socioeconomic data, look up star charts, and more.  Much, much more.  Oh, who am I kidding, this is probably more rabbit-holey than Wikipedia.  But think of how much you'll learn!

6. What Should I Read Next - Does exactly what the title says.  Put in a book or author you enjoy and receive a (long) list of recommendations for your next read.  Invaluable for that pre-vacation book search.

7. Wordnik - Ever wanted to know where the phrase "balls to the wall" comes from?  This site will tell you.  Look up the origin and definition of any word or phrase here.  The site isn't infallible, and unfortunately it doesn't provide key data like when said word or phrase came into popular usage, but it's a nice place to start.