The Mystery of the Five Empty Peanut Shells

To celebrate the completion of “Sherlock Holmes Edwardian Parodies and Pastiches II: 1905-1909,” I’ve been running stories that for one reason or another–mostly because the book reached 125,000 words–didn’t make it in.

There are several stories from various schools in the 223B Casebook series, including three from Groton, the elite boarding school. This story came from the files of The Troubadour, the student newspaper of The Portland Academy, a private high school in Portland, Ore. Before it closed in 1916, the school’s most illustrious alumni was John Reed, the Communist writer whose book on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, earned him a crypt in the Kremlin.

Sherlock Holmes at Portland Academy: The Mystery of the Five Empty Peanut Shells

“Not by A. Conan Doyle”

sherlock holmes portland parodyIt was in the winter Sherlock Holmes spent in Portland that the case of the five empty peanut shells occurred. In looking over my papers I find it followed shortly after the mystery of the lost class pin, the peculiar circumstances surrounding the incident of the duplicate topic papers, the disastrous results following the research into the numerals on the roof, and several other interesting episodes connected with the same school.

But this case presents several unique points such that it may be of some interest to the public.

One rainy Wednesday, as we were passing by Portland Academy, we decided to take refuge there from the coming storm. It chanced to be the day of the Rhetoricals, so we went up to the chapel and took a seat near the back. Just as the exercises were about to begin, a small girl with red hair announced that two of her rings had been stolen and that she could not speak without them. As she was the first one on the program, this, of course, put a stop to the exercises.

One of the principals turned to us and said: “Perhaps you will help to solve this mystery, Mr. Holmes.”

Holmes said he would do all in his power, and required an interview with the girl, in order to ask her some questions.

“When did you first miss these rings?” asked my friend.

“Just before chapel,” said the girl nervously.

“Are you sure you put them on this morning?”

“Oh yes, I am sure I had them when school began.”

Then she gave a description of the rings, and told us where she had been each hour that morning, saying, however, that she had no idea where she was robbed.

Holmes paced up and down the room in deep thought for a short time, then asked suddenly, “Do you like peanuts?”

“No,” said the girl, deeply startled. “I can’t bear them. They make me sick.”

“That will do. You may go.”

It was evident that Holmes was somewhat puzzled, but I had no doubt that he was on the track. He wore that alert look, always his, when he is deeply interested.

He turned to me and said: “You see, no doubt, the importance of that last remark in the case? No? I may be mistaken, of course, but it seems to me to throw a great deal of light on the case. Come, Watson, let us take a walk down the hall.”

He led the way slowly, looking about him keenly in the now-deserted hall.

“Ah, what is this?” he said, suddenly, stooping down and picking half the inside of a peanut off the floor. Not one only, but as many as four or five did he find nearby. Then he searched the floor narrowly for footprints, rising soon with a smile of satisfaction.

“We are beginning to see the light, hey Watson?”

“I confess I do not see the bearing these nuts have upon the case,” I answered.

“Oh, Watson, you are hopeless. But, no doubt all will be revealed shortly.”

Holmes would say nothing more. Then, his curiosity seemed to be aroused by the sight of a small black box, similar to a mailbox fastened to the wall. A boy passing that way informed us that it was a box for contributions to the school paper.

“Oh, I see, and who has the key, may I ask?”

“I have,” and smiling at our surprise the boy explained he was editor of the paper.

“But no one ever opens it any more. There is never anything in it but old transfers and stamp-pictures and chalk. Certainly I will open it if you wish.”

He drew a much-rusted key from his pocket and applied it to the dusty lock. After some difficulty, the door swung suddenly open. As was foretold, there were no contributions in the box, but numerous other things. Holmes gathered them all carefully in his handkerchief, much to the boy’s amazement, and my own as well, he then left us, and I saw no more of him for an hour.

At two we went into the office, and requested that the girl be summoned.

Soon she came eagerly in and asked, “Have you discovered who has my rings, Mr. Holmes?”
“I have.”

“Who? Who?” we all asked, much surprised that the mystery was solved.

“You, yourself, my young lady,” was the grave answer.

“I? Absurd!” she said turning white.

“Say no more. I know all. This morning, fearing to speak in chapel, you conceived the idea of hiding your rings and having the exercises stopped on account of a supposed robbery. While considering a hiding place for them, you thought of the Troubadour Box as the last place one would look, so hid them there.”

“It is true! I confess,” cried the now-hysterical girl, eyeing Holmes with looks of fear.

We returned the rings to the unfortunate owner, and slipped quietly out, leaving the repentant girl to the mercies of the kind-hearted principals.

“A very simple case, Watson, but with some points of interest,” Holmes said on the way down to the car. “It all hinged upon the peanuts. When the girl first came into the room with me, I noticed morsels of peanuts on her dress, and as I knew that girls with that particular shade of red hair rarely ate peanuts, I was puzzled, I admit. When I found out by asking her that she never ate peanuts, the only thing to do was to trace the peanuts.

“As you remember, I saw the insides of several peanuts in the hall. Then I understood that her object was the shell. By examining the floor with a magnifying glass, I discovered the print of a pointed-toe shoe like the one she wore. What more simple piece of reasoning than that she wished the peanut shells to conceal something in, and that something was the lost rings? The most conspicuous place is the best hiding place, and the Troubadour box was seldom disturbed. As I expected, among the buttons, advertisements, scrap paper, transfers, and other similar articles, I found five peanut shells, in two of which were the lost rings in place of kernels.

“A little observation, Watson, is all that is necessary to solve the most bewildering of mysteries.”

How to Make A PDF CreateSpace Will Adore

(2015 edition using Word 2007)

If you are impatient with carefully written explanations and confident in your ability to navigate Windows 7 and Word 2007, jump to the end for the summary.

This is a frequent topic on the CreateSpace boards: “Why does CS reject my PDF because my images are less than 200dpi? I’m sure they were 300dpi. This sucks!”

I know, I know. I’ve been there myself. Repeatedly. A few books back, I thought I finally found the answers I needed, and I’ve been meaning to write this essay to spread the word.

Fortunately, I never got around to it, because this week, after submitting the interior PDF for “Sherlock Holmes Parodies and Pastiches II: 1905-1909,” I got this message back.

PDF CreateSpace

My foolproof method just made me the fool.

(Worse, CreateSpace’s bots told me I had misspelled the book’s title on the cover. I had typed “1904” instead of “1905.” I’m glad their robots caught the mistake, but galled me because I have been working on this book for six months. I’ve typed “1905-1909” I don’t know how many times. To put the wrong year on the cover and on the spine AND on the freakin’ back cover reminds me once again: Don’t get cocky. Double-check everything.

Ahem, let’s get back to making sure your interior illustrations are 300dpi. I based my instructions on Word 2007, since that is what I use.

Format Your Art Correctly

Each piece of interior art should be consistently formatted:

1. Convert it to black and white, assuming there’s no color art in your book. Do this even if it’s clearly a black-and-white photo; it might still be in a color format.

2. Set the dpi to 300.

3. Resize the art so it fits 100% on the page. That is, if the maximum width of your page is 4.5 inches, your art should not be wider than 4.5 inches.

Don’t insert a big piece of art and then resize it on the page. This retains the original size of the file and results in a much larger PDF. CreateSpace has an upper limit on the size of the PDF file it will accept and will reject anything above it.

4. Perform other tasks on the art you feel is necessary (contrast, brightness, adding text, etc.).

5. Save the artwork as a JPG into a new folder. The reason why is explained in #6.

6. When you have finished formatting all the artwork, check to make sure they’re at 300dpi. There are two ways to do it:

a. Right-click on each file, choose Properties, click on the Details tab, and scroll down until you see “Horizontal resolution” and “Vertical resolution.” Both should say 300 dpi.
b. If you have a lot of files, an easier way is to open the folder and add the options to view the files by Horizontal Resolution and Vertical Resolution. Here’s how:

1. Open the folder containing the art. Select the Detail view. It should look something like this:

CS-art-1

2. Place the cursor above the list of files, where it says “Name”, “Size”, “Date” and “Type. Right-click to bring up a menu. It’ll look something like this (Ignore the red rectangles; I had to use someone elses art since I couldn’t snip a photo of an active menu):

CS-art-2

See where the cursor points to “More” in the image? Click on that.

CS-art-3

Now you can choose the details of each file to be displayed. Scroll down and select “Horizontal resolution”

CS-art-4

Scroll down and select “Vertical resolution.”
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Click OK.

CS-art-6

Now you can see which files have the correct 300dpi resolution. Fix the ones that do not and re-insert them into your file.

Decompress the Artwork (.DOC files)

We’re going to jump ahead to where you have finished your book. If you’re like me, you downloaded an interior template file from CreateSpace, pasted your copy, used Styles to define the body text, chapter headings, captions, copyright notice, etc. You’ve placed and positioned your artwork, spell-checked, looked everything over again and are ready to create the PDF to send to CreateSpace.

But first, a word about Word. The software has a nasty habit of compressing pictures, reducing their dpi below 100. This is ideal if you’re creating a document for work, but terrible if you’re making a book.

So let’s tell Word not to do that.

The procedure is different depending on the file format you’re using. It can end in .docx (that is, created by Word 2007 and later) or .doc (pre-Word 2007). I use CreateSpace’s templates, so even though I have Word 2007, its files end in .doc, so I follow the procedure below.

Right-click on any picture in the file and choose Format Picture.

CS-art-7

Click the “Compress” button in the lower-left corner.

CS-art-8

In the “Compress Pictures” screen, click “All pictures in document” and “No Change” and UNCHECK the “Compress pictures” box. The result should look like the screen below.

CS-art-9

Click OK.

Decompress the Artwork (.DOCX files)

Before we move on, let me give the alternative to those working on .docx files:

1. In the Format Tab, click “Compress Pictures.” On the next window, click “Options.” That will present you with two menus (the Compression Settings box would cover the Compress Pictures box so I moved it out of the way before taking this picture):

CS-art-10

2. Uncheck the options to “Apply to selected pictures only” and “Automatically perform basic compression on save.” Click OK on both menus.

And now, back to the regular instructions.

Printing the PDF

At this point, you’ve told Word not to compress any pictures in the file. Before Saving, let’s make the PDF. (Remember to save the file afterwards.)

Word 2007 offers a “Print to PDF” option. Give it a try. In the past, I’ve had inconsistent results. My books have 6-inch by 9-inch pages, but the PDF would display 8.5 by 11-inch pages.

I couldn’t figure out where the problem was, so I use the free PDF995 printer driver and have been happy with that (warning: while downloading it, you’ll be asked if you want extra stuff, such as a search bar, email alerts, and other kinds of adware. Always decline, even when it implies that the software will not work if you don’t accept. Stay strong and say no, and it’ll be fine.)

Here’s the weird thing: After I wrote the above, I decided to try Word’s “Print to PDF” option one more time to remind me of why I don’t use it. Result: It worked fine.

So try the “Print to PDF” option in Word before going to the trouble of using third-party software. And if you’re already happily using some other software, keep on using it, too.

The important point to remember is to follow the uncompress instruction immediately before creating your PDF. This ensures that your pictures will not be compressed when the PDF is uploaded to CreateSpace.

(“But, Bill, what if I Save first and then make the PDF?” I don’t know. Once I found a procedure that worked, I didn’t feel compelled to find out. If you do, let me know.)

There. It’s a little complex, but it works.

To summarize:

1. Revise your art so it’s black-and-white, 300dpi, and that it fits on the page without shrinking or enlarging. Save this art to a new folder.

2. Examine all the art in that folder to make sure it’s 300dpi, either by clicking on them one at a time, or choosing the options to display Horizontal resolution and Vertical resolution.

3. Choose the option to decompress all of the art in the file. Do not save the file yet.

4. Use Word’s Print to PDF option or your favorite third-party option. Now save the file.

5. Upload to CreateSpace and celebrate!

UPDATE: Follow the above procedure, and this is what you get to see:

SH-01

Mindful Energy Savings

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new-suburban-stockade-introWe’ll cover lifestyle choices first as they cost the least and can be implemented immediately.

At the head of the pack is turning off things you aren’t using. Are the lights and ceiling fan on in an empty room? Is your porch light on at high noon? Get into the habit of turning them off when you leave the room. For maximum energy efficiency and conservation, train yourself and your family to walk over to the switch and turn it off with your hand rather than installing devices that do it for you, devices that will cost you money to buy, install, use, maintain and then require an energy source of their own to operate 24/7.

mindful energy savings
This is why the insulation value of a window is measured in U values rather than R values. If they did it with R values, the window industry would have to reveal how terrible the insulative qualities of their products really are.
Close your drapes at night in the winter. Any window treatments, even mini-blinds or plantation shutters, will slow down heat loss better than that hole in the wall (window) is doing alone. Glass alone won’t do it. Even the finest of triple-pane glass isn’t much better than a hole in the wall. This is why the insulation value of a window is measured in U values rather than R values. If they did it with R values, the window industry would have to reveal how terrible the insulative qualities of their products really are.

Turn down (or up!) the thermostat: Do you have to heat and cool your house to 75 degrees year-round? We set our winter thermostat to 64 degrees during the day and let it drop to 55 degrees overnight. Our summer air conditioner is set to 81 degrees during the day and at night, when the AC doesn’t have to fight the sun, I drop it to 76 degrees.

If the weather outside is good, open the windows! Let in warm sunshine and air during spring and fall. Let out the heat overnight during the summer and cool off naturally. Does this always work? No, those July nights don’t cool off enough to make it possible to cool off the entire house without added work.

However, I regularly see while walking my dog houses shut up tight, the AC roaring away, when the outside temperature is 70 degrees. I also see houses with the furnace roaring away on a sunny fall day when the outside temperature is 70 degrees and all the blinds tightly closed to keep out that warming sun.

A previous blog post on the subject of windows goes into detail about opening and closing windows and using window treatments to manipulate the temperature of your house.

Dress for the weather: In the winter, I wear a sweater over a turtleneck, with long pants, knee socks, fingerless gloves and possibly a hat or a jacket. I am the person in my household who suffers the most from the cold and the heat and if I can do it, so can you. In the summer, I wear lightweight cotton shirts, shorts, and walk about in bare feet. I drink plenty of cold water in the summer and in the winter (hot tea is very warming). At the change of seasons, I may change my clothes, adding or removing a layer to accommodate what the weather wants. When a family member whines to me that they’re cold, standing in front of me in a tank top and shorts in January, my response (and yours should be too) is to put on a sweater. Don’t turn up the heat.

Job together your cooking: If you’re making the main course in the oven, what else can you cook with it? A potato side dish? Cake or bread? You’ve already heated up the oven so don’t waste that heat. Cook ahead for tomorrow if you can, doing a lot of cooking on one day so you can then eat off of it for several more.

Plan your trips: I combine as many of my errands on the same day as I can to minimize the time and gas spent driving around. I plan, in advance, the most efficient circuit I can make so I spend less time as well as less gas driving back and forth. This isn’t hard; it just means being thoughtful.

When you have many errands, can you park at a central location and walk from one to another? This may take more time, maybe, as you can’t discount the time you spend getting in the car and moving it from parking space to parking space. This time spent is more than compensated by the additional exercise (which I always need), the reduced gas and wear and tear on the car, and the opportunity to see where you are rather than driving by. You don’t know who you’ll meet, or what you’ll see when you’re on foot. I find change on the street this way, along with mongo and obtainium.

Be thoughtful: Ask why you are doing something. Are you stopping at the gym on your way home from work so you can walk on a treadmill? If so, maybe you could come home, saving the time and gas and money, and walk around your block at a brisk pace. If you have a more complex routine, are there things you could do at home with exercise tapes from the library or the Royal Canadian Air Force fitness program? This may not just save you time, money, and gas. Every gym has huge amounts of energy invested in it. Do you receive enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile?

Be thoughtful: Are you taking advantage of services already available? Many kids, I know mine are, are routinely picked up and returned every day by a school bus. I don’t drive my kids to school and I don’t pick them up unless I have to because of an appointment. I have a friend who drives her kids to the school bus stop that’s down the street in their quiet housing development. Let me say now that their legs are not broken.

If you have to pick up your kids after school, then park and walk to the building. I never fail to see people sitting in the pick-up lane, sometimes half an hour early, with the engine running. Don’t waste that time and gas. Park in the lot, walk up, get the offspring, then walk back to your car, start it up and drive away. It doesn’t take long and it uses much less gas than sitting and steaming in the pick-up lane waiting on everyone else.

Be thoughtful: Do you routinely let your electronic equipment entertain empty rooms? If you aren’t watching or listening, turn it off.

Be thoughtful: Is the dishwasher always full when you run a load? Do you routinely wash partial loads of clothes rather than save up to a full load? Why are you washing a load of towels several times a week anyway? Give each family member a towel and have them hang it up to dry on the towel rack. Towels aren’t dirty after you use them (if they are, you’re doing something wrong in the shower) but they are wet. Hang them up to dry and use them again the next day.

Be thoughtful: Do you run the water at the tap until it gets cold enough? Put a pitcher of water in the fridge and use that.

Be thoughtful: Do you take showers long enough to empty out the hot water heater? It doesn’t take that long to lather, rinse, repeat, and condition your hair, even long hair. Unless you work in the bilges of a ship, you aren’t that dirty. It may feel terrific to stand for twenty minutes in a hot steamy shower but that’s a lot of water you’re paying for to buy and heat, going down the drain.

Be thoughtful: Everything you do should be evaluated. Do you need to do this? Are there alternatives that use less energy? The savings are there and they are real. The problem is that the results aren’t as apparent as thinking about every bite of food you put in your mouth is (if you’re dieting) or the money you spend on a shopping trip. It’s easy to cut your spending by 5 percent, even 10 percent just by paying attention to what you’re doing and deciding if you really want that item. Planning your car trips may result in needing to buy gas every 12 days instead of every 10. The savings in energy and dollars are there, but they don’t show up unless you’re paying attention. Plenty of lifestyle energy savings are small, but they add up over time.

None of these things are hard to do, but they do require that you pay attention. If you want more, the internet and save money books such as the The Complete Tightwad Gazette are full of helpful tips on reducing your energy usage on a personal basis. What we’re trying to do here, besides not wasting energy, is cultivating awareness. The more aware you are of what you’re doing day to day, the less you tend to waste, whether it is time, money, calories or energy. Going through the days without paying attention to what you’re doing is a guarantee that you won’t achieve your goals.

Next week: Energy efficiency, heterodyning your success, and why you shouldn’t be giving money to terrorists.

The Power of Tribes in Marketing

career indie author

career indie author introduction

tribes in marketing lillian jackson braun book signing
Lillian Jackson Braun
One way to approach marketing your book is to think of the tribes out there that not only would be interested in it, but want to know more about it!

Yes, there will be people who are curious about your book if it reflects their interests. I learned that lesson at a cat show.

My wife and I love, well, tolerate cats. Love them when they’re purring in my lap, not so much when I step on someone’s hurked-up breakfast in a darkened hallway. Years ago, a cat group in Charlotte held a show, and Teresa and I went to see the kitties.

The show was exactly what you’d expect: a room full of people with their cats. Lots of noise, meowing, cooing, and judging. But there was a sideshow going on down one of the hallways. A line of people holding books, patiently waiting to see an elderly woman seated at a table.

The woman was Lilian Jackson Braun, the author of more than two dozen mystery novels featuring a newspaper reporter and his two Siamese cats. She was already a best-selling author, yet three decades after her first book appeared, she was in Charlotte, signing books.

Think about the types of people she reached that day. Cat owners who read mysteries; cat owners who don’t necessarily read mysteries, but who were curious about her books, or who wanted a unique memento of their day; mystery fans who learned of her appearance and were there specifically to meet her.

Best of all, she was the only mystery writer in the building. Heck, she was the only author in the building. Talk about a monopoly!

Not only that, but by tapping into a group that shares an affinity for the same subject you’re writing about, you’re spreading the word to a group of people who love to talk about that subject. They’re always looking for something new to discuss, and you’re giving them that. “Ever hear of Braun? She appeared at the cat show I was at last weekend.” “Really? I never heard of her. I’ll have to check out her books.”

So one amazingly effective way to market your book is by reaching out to groups who would be naturally interested in it, but who don’t get much love from authors. These can be the groups you work with regularly, as well as those you haven’t but who share your enthusiasm and interest.

I learned this lesson from Paul Bishop, the retired detective and author of more than 15 novels. In an interview with the Author Biz podcast, he described the various ways he asked groups for help to promote his latest police procedural, “Lie Catchers.”

According to Bishop, it takes a certain set of skills to be an effective interrogator. It’s like being an improv actor, only you’re working with someone, the suspect, who might know something about the crime you have to ferret out. Depending on the crime, your goals, your knowledge of human behavior, you have to figure out how to apply the right amount of pressure to get the information or confession you want.

To promote “Lie Catchers,” Bishop listed the groups that he was involved with who might be interested in the novel:

* Police officers were a natural fit, so Bishop wrote articles about interrogation techniques for “American Police Beat,” a magazine with a large nationwide circulation.

* A member of the Mormon church, he wrote an article for the denomination’s online magazine on how to write interesting books that meet the church’s standards.

tribes in marketing Paul Bishop
Paul Bishop, center back, talking with Martini in the Morning.
* An aficionado of jazz and lounge music, he used his mention of the online radio station Martini in the Morning in the book to snag a two-hour interview with them.

* His audiobook version of “Lie Catchers” was used as gifts and reviews on audiobook forums.

* A local used bookstore he frequented in Ventura, California, agreed to host a signing that was promoted to its customers in the store’s newsletter.

* At his blog on the Huffington Post and on his website, he wrote about film noir, hoping to lure search traffic looking for material on that subject. As a film noir fan, he also sprinkle details about his favorite films in the book.

* Even writers and podcasts (including the Author Biz) were approached to discuss the lessons he learned from marketing his books.

When using this technique, remember that the book must satisfy the tribe you’re marketing to, and that your article, interview, or blog post, is tailored toward their interests.

As Paul puts it, “tell the members of each tribe specifically what was in it for them to part with the cost of one to three Starbucks visits. This isn’t selfish on their part, it’s simply predictable human behavior.”

And if there’s anyone who knows something about human behavior, it’s an expert interrogator.

Home Energy Efficiency (Part 1)

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new-suburban-stockade-introAll of the goals here at Fortress Peschel lead to one ultimate destination and that is financial independence. Being financially independent, or at least closer to it, means

home energy efficiency pearls before swine jinxies
Being more resilient makes you less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It does not make the bad times go away.
having some degree of control over your life. When you owe piles of money, you owe your life to your creditors. When you can’t grow some of your own food, preserve it and cook it, you are at the mercy of fully stocked grocery stores that are available at all times (plus the money to pay for it). When you don’t have money in the bank, (and you have those piles of debt), you are totally dependent on having your salary continuing, whether or not your job exists next month.

Everything we do here at Fortress Peschel is to make us less dependent on various supply chains that are thousands of miles long and beyond our control. Being more resilient makes you less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It does not make the bad times go away. It does not keep the hurricane offshore or the wolf from your door. You can still meet the Mack truck at the intersection. You can still get cancer. Bad things will still happen.

But what we do get from our hard work is being less harmed by bad things. Having two weeks of food on hand means you can eat, at least for a while. No debt and money in the bank means you can stave off the wolf, at least for a while. Good diet and regular exercise leads to better health, so you can better deal with illness and injury. To be succinct, the closer you are to the edge, the less margin you have for error. No matter what idiocy you hear, failure is always an option.

Being energy independent means two things: you spend less money in the long run (hooray!) and if prices rise through the roof, you spend much less money than you otherwise would have.

Being energy independent does not keep crazy people from blowing up oilfields making the price of oil quadruple overnight, nor does it keep the hurricane from flooding your basement, forcing you to replace your furnace years earlier than you planned. It doesn’t make the winters warmer nor the summers cooler.

What it does do is make it easier to cope with all of the above. Every dollar you don’t spend on energy costs is a dollar you can apply to something else. If you apply them to your savings, they’ll accumulate tax free. Remember that you get taxed on what you earn, not what you save (at least, not yet!).

We’ve saved a lot of money at Fortress Peschel by reducing our energy usage. It required us to spend some money up front and to do some hard, dirty work ourselves. It meant we had to make lifestyle changes. But they worked together, feeding off and reinforcing each other. At our house, we call them heterodyning.

Here’s an example of heterodyning in action:

1. If you heavily insulate your house, you will save money.

2. If you lower your thermostat in the winter and put on a sweater, you will save money.

3. But if you do BOTH, you will save much more money than either one alone.

The side benefit of energy efficiency and conservation is that you have the pleasure of knowing that less of your money spent at the gas pump ends up in the pockets of terrorists. If that doesn’t matter to you, then about reducing our country’s need to build fewer polluting power plants so with every dollar you don’t spend?

Since these things matter to me, so I hang my laundry on a clothesline year round. It’s non-polluting and free after paying for poles, clothesline, clothespins, and a bag to put them in. Standing outside hanging clothes gives me some sunshine every day, which improves my health and attitude.

home energy efficiency washer
Buying, installing, and maintaining solar panels to power a dryer is stupid.
Buying, installing, and maintaining solar panels to power a dryer is stupid. Use a clothesline and save the solar power for something you can’t do as easily, i.e., generate electricity for your TV or computer.

The difficulty in practicing energy efficiency is something called the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons was a Victorian British economist and he noticed that technological improvements in the use of coal did not lead to a drop in the use of coal. On the contrary, it lead directly to using more and more coal as its usage got cheaper and cheaper.

This is just as true today. Electricity used to be expensive and scarce. People didn’t use it for much as it cost too much to do so. As the technology improved, the cost dropped, and more and more usages for electricity developed until here we are today, with electronic picture frames. The picture changes for you! Regularly! You don’t have to do a thing! Does each electronic picture frame use much power? Nope, not at all. Add up a few million, however, plugged in 24/7, and you’re talking a power plant. Just so we don’t have to look at the same boring picture of our kids all the time.

While I’m on the subject of digital electric picture frames, don’t forget that they come with a huge amount of consumed energy in each one: the energy used to mine and refine all the materials used in manufacturing the picture frame, to actually make the frame of said materials, energy to ship, warehouse and sell the frame, and the power plant needed to run it 24/7.

To be truly energy efficient, you need to wring out every drop of usefulness from a fuel source and then you still have to use less! That is, you switch to the most fuel-efficient car you can find and then you still have to drive less! You don’t get to drive more because you’re doing it in a Prius. You don’t get to turn up your thermostat in the winter because you installed a more efficient furnace. To get the most benefit, you should still turn it down and put on a sweater.

Conservation is just as important as efficiency. It doesn’t matter how efficient you are in using your fuel, if you keep on using more than ever. So how do we do this? We improve our efficiency (so as to wring out every drop of power from a given unit), we cut out waste (i.e., energy we carelessly spill on the ground), and we make lifestyle changes that let us use less overall.

You end up doing all of these things kind of at the same time, but that’s not how we’ll talk about what to do. We’ll address it in sections. Reducing waste and lifestyle changes can be easy and cheap, even free, but not always.

Improving energy efficiency usually means replacing (i.e. a shopping choice and spending money) some piece of equipment with another one that uses less energy. This choice can also be made (but rarely is) by getting rid of a piece of equipment altogether. That is to say, you stop using a dryer and start using a clothesline. The most energy efficient dryer in the universe, one that comes with a gold plated energy star to wear around your neck, will still use more electricity than a clothesline ever will.

Next week, we’ll look at the lifestyle choices you can make that will start saving you money instantly.

Sherlock Holmes parody: “A New Padlock Holmes Story” (1905)

Production on the next volume in the 223B Casebook series, covering the years 1905-1909, is nearly finished! I expect to have the book out during the first week of January. So to celebrate, we’re running stories from that time period, but which had to be cut from the volume for space.

This one featuring Padlock Holmes has never been seen since since its original publication 110 years ago. I rather like this one because of the period slang.

A New Padlock Holmes Story

“A. Coining Doyle”

This parody from the May 7, 1905, edition of The Washington Post is told in an American patoise, with references to bootjacks, 2-fer cigars, go-to-meeting boots and other bits of slang.

Padlock Holmes was resting on his laurels and a Morris chair when I begged his assistance to unravel a baffling mystery.

“Before proceeding further I will briefly state the case under the following heads: First—Nine murders had been committed in the immediate neighborhood. Second—The police said it was off their beat. Third—Who had men murdered? Fourth—Who was the murderer? Fifth—Everything not included in the above.”

The great detective listened to the recital of the meager facts while he blew smoke rings, then he made this succinct and anxious inquiry: “Did the police who were on the case wear gum shoes?”

“They did,” I replied.

“Bad,” he mused. “That proves something has been done to arouse the suspicion of the murderer. We have difficult sailing ahead of us. However, to take up the first head,” he continued, “you say there have been nine murders?”

“Yes,” I responded, lost in admiration of his perspicacity and red tie.

“Then,” he said, propounding the axiom, “there must be nine persons missing!”

I knew nobody else could have thought so deeply on the subject, so I nodded assent.

His next question came like a shot from a cannon: “How many cooks have you missed this week?”

“Fifteen,” I replied.

“Two a day and one over for Sunday,” I heard him mentally subtract nine from fifteen, and saw the ashy pallor overspread his countenance when he realised his inductive, seductive, reductive method had failed. But he was game and bluffed it out.

“Good night,” he said, looked me hard in the face, and abruptly left me.

The next morning Padlock Holmes met me with a bright smile and a 2-fer cigar.

bootjack
Bootjack
“Ha,” he said, “I have solved the mystery. The first murder was committed in the alley between your house and the next. The instrument used was a bootjack.” He paused to allow his words to sink in on me, while I muttered a muffled “You don’t say?”

“The second murder,” he sternly continued, “took place in your own back yard. A knob is missing from your closet door. This gave me the clew to the means employed.”

Another pause and another confirmation of his invincible method.

“The third,” he continued, while I quailed before his glance, “was perpetrated in the middle of the street, and the water pitcher which came from your room accomplished the deed.”

What could I do? What could I say?

“The fourth life,” he announced, fixing me with his eagle eye, “was taken in the yard of your rear neighbor. The cries were plainly heard by the whole block.’’

Again I bowed before the wonderful logic of this great man.

“The fifth victim was struck dead by your military brushes. The touseled condition of your hair tells me so.”

I hastily arranged my locks, but it was already too late.

“The sixth,” remorselessly continuing, “occurred next to you. I may add that your Sunday go-to-meeting boots are missing.”

Trying to curl up my toes inside my trousers, I forebore to speak.

“The seventh innocent existence winked out on your front steps,” he proclaimed. “The assassin used a heavy cut-glass smelling bottle. By a strange coincidence, I observed that your wife has only one, of what was obviously a pair, remaining on her dresser.”

What manner of man was this to whom all things were as an open book? I wearily nodded my head up and down.

“The eighth victim of this uncanny series,” said the merciless logician, “fell before an onslaught of coal. There is even now a trail of soot from your scuttle to your window; deny it if you can!”

I couldn’t.

“The ninth life,” he concluded, “was taken by means of the coal scuttle itself. The cat is dead!” Could anything be more faultless than the train of circumstantial evidence thus shown step by step? I doubt it.

In conclusion, I asked the sage if this was positively his last appearance.

“No,” returned Padlock Holmes, grandly, “It ain’t! I’m going to see Adelina Patti and go her one better.”

adelina patti
Opera singer Adelina Patti

Footnotes

[Back] Gum shoes: Shoes with a rubber-like sole, similar to a sneaker, enabling a person to move quietly. A “gumshoe man” was originally a thief, but by 1908, the word was applied to police detectives, then to private detectives.

[Back] 2-fer cigar: A deal in which two cigars are sold for the price of one. Websites that sell cigars offer 2-fer, 3-fer, and even 4-fer sales.

[Back] Bootjack: A tool used for helping you take off your boot. It features a U-shaped piece of metal or wood that nestles the back of the boot. While standing on the back end, the wearer slides the boot into place and pulls upward. A cast-iron bootjack can make for a handy and effective weapon.

[Back] Smelling bottle: A small bottle used to store perfume or smelling salts. A cut-glass bottle has deep lines cut into the thick glass for both aesthetic reasons and to make it easier to hold.

[Back] Scuttle: A hatch through which coal was dumped down a chute and into the basement of the house. The homeowner or servant would shovel the coal into the furnace to heat the house.

[Back] Adelina Patti: Another reference to Adelina Patti (1843-1919), the opera singer who made several farewell tours before her permanent retirement from the stage in 1906. See the footnote in “The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes” for more details.

Indie Writing as Vaudeville

How is indie writing like vaudeville? Let me start with a history lesson.

It’s been said by people cleverer than myself that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. I rather like that, because the longer I’ve lived, the more I see certain things coming around in a slightly different form or from a completely unexpected direction, but it’s pretty much the old thing with the numbers filed off, a new mask pasted on, and the same human beliefs and motivations driving it.

For example, society has been collapsing morally ever since the animists saw the druids coming over the hill with their menhirs and said the equivalent of “there goes the neighborhood.” After that, it was the appearance of clothing, colorful clothing, short skirts, comic books, video games, rap, “The Simpsons,” the Internet, “South Park,” and smartphones.

That’s what history teaches you; there’s nothing new under the sun; and someone’s always going to beat the panic drums over everything except what will actually get you. The price you pay is that pointing it out does not convince many people that you’re correct. They’ll even dislike you for appearing to be such a smarty pants.

That’s especially true as I see each new generation coming up behind me, and I realize that the behavior and attitudes that I thought was so cool when I was their age made me look like a blithering idiot to an adult. Fortunately, there are very few adults around these days so it seems to matter much less.

Anyway, Big Idea time. It concerns the entertainment world and the Internet, and especially indie authors. It’s important to understand this Big Idea because it’ll give you a 50,000-foot overview of the industry, where it is headed, and where you might find your place in it.

Dig it: The Internet is vaudeville reborn.

indie writing as vaudeville
What was playing at the Palace, New York City, 1921. These acts only had to perform twice a day instead of more in the smaller towns.
If you know what vaudeville is, skip ahead to the next section. For the rest of you, settle back and pay attention.

Once upon a time, there was no Internet. No cable television. No over-the-airwaves television. No radio. No movies. Not even silent movies. No digital music; no compact discs; no cassettes; no 8-tracks; no albums; no wax cylinders; no recorded music.

In short, no recorded anything. If you wanted to be entertained, you had to go to another human and watch them do something.

So there was vaudeville. I’m not going to teach its history, its origins from medicine shows, minstrel shows, religious tent-revivals and all that. Visit this site, or try that site or even that site over there..

Vaudeville worked like this: every city had at least one theater where you could pay a dime and consume as much entertainment as you could stand. A theater would have as many as a dozen acts, and they would perform continuously during the day (this way, a patron could walk in anytime and get their money’s worth). At its height, in the big cities, some theaters would never close.

There were hundreds of these theatres across the country. Even the small towns could sport at least one of them. The life of a vaudeville performer was tough. They toured the country by train, ate terrible food, slept in flophouses, get paid for shit (or the manager would run off with the proceeds), face hostile crowds, as well as the temptations of booze and sex and despair over an uncertain future. It was worse than the guy who cleaned up behind the elephants, you know, the one who replied when asked why he stayed “What, and give up show business?” At least that guy had a steady job.

Despite the terrible life, there were thousands of men and women eager to get into vaudeville. Everybody wanted to get into the act. Sure, many would get discouraged and quite, but at least they could say they tried it, and collect a few stories to dine out on later in life.

marx brothers indie writing as vaudeville
The Marx Brothers, Chico on piano, Harpo on harp and Groucho playing the teacher (center), in “Mr. Green’s Reception” (1914).
The ones who survived the circuit went on to be big stars. W.C. Fields performed as a “tramp” juggler and trick-shot pool player; Buster Keaton was a child star, literally thrown around by his father on stage; the Marx Brothers performed a “schoolroom act” with Groucho playing a German teacher and the rest as smart-alecs talking back to him. Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and Eddie Cantor all honed their skills on the circuit and went on to become big stars in other media.

Indie Writing As Vaudeville

So what does this have to do with indie writers? Both share a number of similarities:

writing as vaudeville
Both also had marketers ready to instruct you on how to make it big.
* There’s nearly an unlimited number of competitors. Take a look at the number of books published on the Kindle, as of Dec. 26, 2015.

* Arts & Photography (228,835)
* Biographies & Memoirs (176,653)
* Business & Money (247,266)
* Children’s eBooks (310,406)
* Comics & Graphic Novels (103,280)
* Computers & Technology (64,999)
* Cookbooks, Food & Wine (68,028)
* Crafts, Hobbies & Home (84,153)
* Education & Teaching (156,850)
* Engineering & Transportation (56,671)
* Foreign Languages (811,821)
* Health, Fitness & Dieting (267,804)
* History (273,884)
* Humor & Entertainment (106,946)
* Law (52,228)
* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender eBooks (100,235)
* Literature & Fiction (1,336,596)
* Medical eBooks (97,803)
* Mystery, Thriller & Suspense (224,487)
* Nonfiction (1,981,635)
* Parenting & Relationships (69,408)
* Politics & Social Sciences (252,727)
* Reference (128,085)
* Religion & Spirituality (410,209)
* Romance (338,281)
* Science & Math (225,416)
* Science Fiction & Fantasy (253,857)
* Self-Help (113,567)
* Sports & Outdoors (74,753)
* Teen & Young Adult (188,457)
* Travel (66,086)

* The bar to enter is low: A vaudeville act could only perform in one theater at a time. There were so many theaters, and such a high turnover of acts that even inexperienced or bad performers could find work. By performing several times a day, vaudevillians learned their craft as they went, starting in the smaller houses and as they got better move up to bigger and better-paying theaters.

Failure was an option, but it was not permanent. If they were fired from one theater, they could head down the road and get hired there. If word spread that they were terrible, they could change their names, change their act, steal material from more popular acts, sleep with or bribe the manager.

Same thing with indie publishing. If you’re willing to go the full DIY route, you can publish a book for free and put it up for sale on the biggest store in the world: Amazon. You’re playing on the same field as the great writers of literature and genre fiction.

* The Type of Content Doesn’t Matter, Only the Quality of the Response: The sole purpose of vaudeville was to entertain the audience. Period. A punter entering the theatre could see comic acts, dramatic recitals, musicians, and dancers, some of them veering into the strange and unexpected. A child singer dancing with his pet duck; a cowboy comedian who also did rope tricks; a quartet of virtuoso musicians performing in blackface; a man who swallowed and regurgitated kerosene, set it afire, and put it out with regurgitated water: Anything was fair game so long as it drew a crowd.

Indie authors are equally free to write and publish what they want or think will sell. They can write noir cozies; erotic romances about dinosaurs or Bigfoot; blend genres far beyond the comfort zone of a New York publisher; or come up with a new take on a genre such as Westerns or horror that would be difficult for an agent to represent.

In short, if you can think of it, you can write it and publish it.

The Future of Indie Publishing

Looking at the history of vaudeville, what can we expect to see? And more importantly, what can we do to meet these challenges?

* Consolidation: There’s safety in numbers. As vaudeville matured, astute businessmen bought up individual theaters and turned them into “circuits.” Acts could be signed onto a circuit and moved from city to city. Standardization brought down operating costs and made it easier to schedule acts, while the performers could count on a steady paycheck and the opportunity to move up to the biggest circuit, run by B.F. Keith, and play the Palace Theater in New York City.

Indie writers are starting to learn develop ways to take advantage of consolidation as well. They’re banding together to publish their books as bundles, bringing their fans together and exposing them to writers in the same genre. Some writers have created multi-author blogs with the same purpose in mind.

It’s possible to see this idea expand in new directions. Take the idea of a publishing house, in which someone sets up a business, announces that it will accept manuscripts for consideration, then take on the publishing and marketing duties in return for a share of the proceeds. A group of writers in the same genre could adopt the same idea, banding together with one person handing the publishing duties on behalf of the group.

* Ability to Invest in the Long-Term: Indie authors share with their vaudevillian cousins the luxury of time to develop their skills. A low-selling book will not kill your career. You can try again and again, even change your penname if you have to, as you learn the trade and what works for you. If you feel you need to, you can even hire developmental editors, line editors, and marketers to back up your work.

* Look Out for Disruptors: Vaudeville survived the silent-movie era and the beginnings of the recorded music industry, but the introduction of sound movies in the early 1930s was too much. It became more profitable for theaters to show one movie several times a day than deal with a dozen acts.

Can we see the same thing with ebooks? Maybe. We’ve already passed the first stage, when Kindles were novelty items. In the second stage, we’re seeing ebook newsletters such as BookBub and BookGorilla, acting as middlemen offering discounted ebooks to hardcore readers. There’s also been an uptick of interest in audiobooks, and indie authors will have to decide if they want to invest in converting their books to the audio format.

But the biggest challenge indie authors face is this:

* They Must Get Better: This is the perennial challenge, and I admit that there’s nothing new there, but let’s dig into what it means to be “better.”

1. It means learning to write better. There are the basics, such as learning how to spell and to use the right word in the right place. Those are the basic tools.

2. But more important, I mean learn to write in a unique voice and tell your story in a way that’s uniquely yours.

Put it this way: There are thousands of stand-up comedians, but only one Richard Pryor. Only one Eddie Murphy. Only one George Carlin, or Joanne Rivers, or Rita Rudner.

There are thousands of fantasy writers, but you could read a passage from Tolkien and tell it apart from George R.R. Martin. You could read a passage from Douglas Adams, and recognize it instead of Tim Holt or Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett. You could be given a paragraph from a Janet Evanovich book, and tell it apart from a Sue Grafton or a Sara Paretsky or a Patricia Cornwell.

I don’t mean that you should copy their styles, but to learn from them and come up with a voice that is uniquely yours.

I want to get into that in a later post, because I’ve been looking at a lot of indie books lately, and I’m discerning a sameness to them, a narrative style that is grammatically correct and moves the story along, but cannot be told apart from many other books in the same genre.

The reason why you want to learn to develop a unique voice takes us back to business: There are thousands of writers in your genre, but only one you. If you’re books are so unique that only you can write them, that means that you have a monopoly.

Think of Terry Pratchett. Can anyone else write a Discworld book like him? They can’t. Writers have written books in the world of James Bond, Jeeves and Wooster, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Hercule Poirot. Some were good, others not, but not one of them reached the level of their original creators.

If you can craft your voice so that it becomes as unique as a thumbprint, you will have created a market that can only be served by you.

It’s not a recipe for guaranteed success. It’s only one tentpole to keep up your circus’ main tent. But it’s a damn good start.

Cooking From Scratch

Suburban Stockade Banner

new-suburban-stockade-introAnother part of cooking from scratch is changing what you think a meal is. Omelets, sautéed vegetables, and toast for dinner? Sure, why not? We do it all the time. Pancakes, bacon, and heaps of fruit, canned or fresh? You bet. If you don’t feel up to omelets yet, substitute scrambled eggs for dinner.

As you expand your repertoire, look at basic cooking practices from other traditions. I do a lot of vaguely oriental cooking. I sauté a heap of chopped onions, peppers, celery, carrots, and other things if I have them, add chopped meat (ground meat doesn’t work well for this), add a jar of some Asian sauce from the supermarket, and serve over fresh rice. Easy, other than the time spent chopping all those vegetables, and everyone likes it. Is it authentic Chinese cooking? Not on your life. It’s different every time, depending on what I throw in and how I season it. I’ll bet it was different every time for the peasants who cooked like this, too.

King Arthur Faux-Oreos cooking from scratch
We made Faux-reos from King Arthur’s baking book.
I have a book that promises to teach French cooking in ten minutes. You read that right. This is a reprint of a book published in 1930 by Edouard de Pomaine called “French Cooking in Ten Minutes, or Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life.” The recipes are basic and to the point and they put food on the table in a hurry.

There are probably “learn to cook fast” books for every cooking tradition in the world, but they all share a common technique. The seasonings and the side dishes change chicken from something Italian to German to Indian to Chinese to Mexican. Chinese cooking doesn’t come with a side of fries but some of French cooking can (pomme frites). Pasta sends an Italian signal, not a Mexican one. Rice, depending on how it’s seasoned, says Asian or Mexican; it doesn’t say German.

When you’re searching for recipes that meet these standards, look for short lists of ingredient that you recognize. Be wary of recipes that ask for small amounts of exotic ingredients. Half a tin of smoked baby octopus can sit in the back of the fridge for a long, long time, before you give up and compost it. Capers are another one of those things that you buy a jar of for a recipe and then you have the jar for the rest of your life.

As your cooking skills improve, branch out into desserts. The easiest dessert, bar none, for variety, low-cost, number of servings and ease of preparation, is store-brand ice cream. After that, it’s instant pudding and Jello. Add canned fruit to Jello to improve it.

Believe it or not, you can buy ready-made Jello! A box of Jell-O brand gelatin costs a dollar. Ready-made must cost three times as much considering the size of the servings.

If you buy ready-to-eat Jello or pudding, check out the rack of tiny boxes over in the baking aisle in your supermarket. You do have to boil water to make Jello, but you can do it in the microwave. Instant pudding, despite it being chock full of bizarre ingredients not found in nature, is as easy as it comes. Don’t buy this stuff ready-made.

Should you make your own cookies? It depends. I make cookies and all of them, hands down, are better than anything I can buy. They cost less, sometimes far less per pound, than the commercial variety but they take plenty of time as compared to ripping open a box of Keeblers.

There are exceptions. We have made Faux-reos from King Arthur’s baking book. They were terrific. They cost the earth, took hours, and destroyed the kitchen. Buy Oreos instead.

Chocolate chip cookies? Use the recipe on the bag (with butter!) and the resulting cookie is superior to anything that comes from the cookie aisle including those gaspingly expensive Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Do I make traditional pie crust? I do not. I use the refrigerated ones from Pillsbury. Do I make graham cracker crusts? Yes I do. They are easy, cost less, and taste far better than those stale ones from the store.

As you explore the world of cooking, compare what you’re learning to do with what is available ready-made in the supermarket. Almost every item in a supermarket started out as a real food item make in a real kitchen. This is true even of snack foods like pretzels and tortilla chips.

This leads to another avenue of cooking: making things you thought you had to buy. There are a LOT of books on this topic, old and new. A recent one that we really enjoy (it’s funny!) is Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch–Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. It has the best hash brown potato recipe that we have ever tried and was worth the cost of the book for this recipe alone.

There are plenty of others books like them; I have many of them. You discover when reading them that you can make your own granola (easy! and cheap!), your own tortilla chips, your own big fat pretzels, your own pancake syrup, your own pastrami, your own marshmallows, your own chocolate syrup, your own cream cheese, and your own ginger ale and fig Newton’s. Look for titles that say “make your groceries from scratch” or “cheaper and better.”

Your big fat cook everything book will have some of this stuff as well. Every basic cookbook has numerous recipes for pancakes. You do not have to buy “pour out of a spout ready mix” pancake batter, or, shudder, frozen pancakes. If you have flour, butter, eggs, leavening, and some milk, you have pancakes. It isn’t hard.

Drop biscuits are similar. They are much, much easier than those Southern-style flaky ones with the steep learning curve that have to be patted out and cut with a biscuit cutter. Drop biscuits are so easy that you won’t ever buy the whack-em-on-the-counter variety ever again. And, as with everything else you make yourself, you will not get an extensive list of stabilizers and preservatives that allow a biscuit to be made in a factory months ago, stored in a warehouse, stored at the store, sold to you, and wait in your fridge a while before baking and come out, well not fresh, exactly. Something like it though, due to miracles of modern chemistry.

As you branch out into this new world of cookery you also get recipes for things like liquid soap.

Liquid soap is amazingly cheap to make compared to even the cheapest bargain brand. You’ll need a box grater, a one-quart glass jar (or larger) and a small bar of Ivory soap (other kinds are okay too). Grate the soap and scrape all the bits into the jar. Cover the contents with boiling water. Let it cool, and shake. The grated soap dissolves into the boiling water and you get, yes, liquid soap. A small bar, on sale, is about 25 cents. This bar will make a quart or more of liquid hand soap, suitable for refilling the fancy container or using in the shower. Since even a small container of store brand liquid soap is $1 or more, you can see the savings. It’s quick, too.

The make your own groceries books are full of this kind of recipe. It is both surprising and empowering to see what you can do yourself.

Will you do it all? Probably not as it all takes time. But if you have time and not money, you can make the money you have go further. I don’t do it all as I keep running into that pesky time-management issue. If I’m writing this, then I’m not growing tomatillos to process into jam.

But you can if you want to. And at a minimum, by learning how to cook, you can take control of what you and your family are eating on a daily basis. Even if you never make your own pancake syrup or liquid soap, you can make your own pancakes and your own casseroles and your own chili.

Next Week: Advanced Cooking Hacks.

How to Cook from Scratch

Suburban Stockade Bannernew-suburban-stockade-introSo you’ve decided to learn how to cook from scratch. If you’ve never done this before, the place to start is not with gourmet magazines or cooking shows. The stuff there is more like festival, special-occasion food, not what your mother or grandmother put on the table, three times a day, seven days a week. You want basic, utilitarian cooking. It doesn’t cost that much, and it doesn’t involve exotic cookware or specialty skills.

Where do you find such cooking? Start with your family and friends. See if someone can start showing you the basics of eggs and stoves.

If your mother or grandmother aren’t around (or they don’t cook either) we can turn to the old ‘teach yourself how to cook’ books. Quite a few people learned how to cook from books. I know I didn’t. I’m mostly self-taught. The key is that way back when, no one expected you to have a fish poacher, five kinds of oil, or cilantro.

A very nice book that I like is a reprint from Dover Publications. It is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners”. It’s a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 book called “You Can Cook if You Can Read,” and the book proves it on every page. Yes, it’s dated. It doesn’t have any pictures; not even a line drawing. But it has a sense of humor and assumes you know nothing about cooking.

There are plenty of cookbooks on learning how to cook. Betty Crocker has made nice ones. If you don’t feel like buying a book right away (and you don’t have Aunt Sukey on call) go down to the library. Look for words like basic and beginner and “learn how to” in the title. Children’s cookbooks are a good resource, too, but watch for trendy or cutesy recipes such as sandwiches that look like clown faces.

You can also turn to the industrial-agricultural food complex. Your grocery store is full of “make a meal” products, both shelf-stable standbys like Hamburger Helper and modern freezer-case products with lots of vegetables in them. They get you used to standing while facing the stove and seeing what happens as things simmer, boil, and bake. Follow the directions exactly at first until you get used to using a stove and a pan. When you’re comfortable with using Hamburger Helper, add your own ingredients to the mix such as onions and peppers, cooking them with the meat.

placenta helper cooking from scratch
Just make sure you get the right brand of Hamburger Helper. Accept no substitutes.
Don’t expect to eat with Hamburger Helper the rest of your life unless you want too. This exercise is designed to get you comfortable with turning raw food into cooked food. You’ll notice that a can of sauce and a box of dried pasta cost way less per pound then HH does and they’re less salty and processed-tasting. That’s when you can turn to the grocery store, which is jammed with alternatives that can be combined in new and inventive ways.

The grocery store will usually sell some basic cookware. Otherwise, go down to Wal-Mart. Start with a 2-quart saucepan with a lid, a 1-quart saucepan with a lid, and a non-stick frying pan. As you get better at cooking, add what you need when you need it.

I use the same pans over and over. I have two non-stick frying pans—ideal for scrambling eggs—several saucepans in various sizes, a Dutch oven, and a stock pan. I have others but they don’t get used nearly as much. One of my cast-iron skillets gets used only for cornbread, and I use my double boiler less than once a year. If you buy one of those big sets of cookware, you might discover that you’ll never use some of the pieces. But if you’re gifted one, take it joyfully and add to the set as you discover what you need.

All of the “teach yourself how to cook” books will have lists of suggested pots, pans, mixing bowls, utensils, measuring cups and the like. Read over the list to see what you already have or can get from well-stocked relatives before you buy anything. Even a list as basic as the one in “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” has things on it that I don’t own such as pudding molds and food mills. I’ve been cooking for 30 years, and I’ve never felt the need for either of them.

Start cooking, a bit at a time, using simple recipes and find out what you will use before spending the money on more pots and pans. Keep in mind what you have the space for in your cabinet. Plenty of lists recommend candy thermometers, but if you aren’t going to make fudge, you don’t need one.

Baking desserts such as cakes and pies is something to work at after you’ve become comfortable cooking with the stove. A casserole, although it is baked in the oven, is basically stew with a topping and in terms of how it is assembled tends to be similar to many of the things you cook on the stove. For casseroles and oven-fried potatoes, you’ll need to add to your cookware collection a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and a cookie sheet with sides.

As you cook, you’ll develop a list of easy-to-make foods that your family will eat. Stick at first with easy and quick; there’s no reason to learn to make Beef Wellington. There are plenty of cookbooks that specialize in simple minimal ingredient stuff. The ones to be wary of are those that claim to be few ingredients and then the ingredients turn out to be pricy or weird, leaving you stuck with leftovers that no one will eat. Again, your library is the place to borrow these books and try them out in your own kitchen before you purchase them.

If you find that you like only a few recipes in a book, it may be better to Xerox them and leave the book at the library. If you find yourself checking out the book over and over and using many of the recipes, then buy the book.

peg bracken how to cook from scratchAnother old book that I like and cook from is Peg Bracken’s “The Complete I Hate to Cook Book”. These recipes date back to the early sixties and are simple, basic, and unconcerned with the amount of fat, calories, or salt. Most of them are pretty good too. The book is a hoot to read, and it shows that plenty of women never liked or wanted to cook. They did it because they had to.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. My mother cooked that way and so did Dear Husband’s mother. Two or three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. For decades. They put food on the table for the family, and it got eaten. It didn’t win any prizes but the job got done with minimal fuss and expense.

As you get better at cooking, you may want to get fancier on holidays and weekends. This is entirely up to you and your energy levels.

As you get better at cooking, you may want to plan your meals so that you make plenty, allowing for leftovers (or “planned overs” as some twee foodie writers call them). I do this a lot. I like to make plenty so that I don’t have to cook every day. Does this mean that we eat the same thing sometimes for several days in a row? Yes, it does. It can also mean that if I cook intensively for several days, we get a fridge packed with a smorgasbord of leftovers, offering real variety at the evening meal.

Leftovers also mean cheap lunches to take to work and easy breakfasts if you don’t feel like cereal, boiled eggs or toast in the morning. There is no rule that says you can’t eat leftover spaghetti for breakfast.

When you plan for leftovers, make sure to use them! They don’t save you time or money if they get shoved back to far corners of your fridge. If I see too many containers in the fridge, I don’t cook until the leftovers get eaten.

Next: Advanced Cooking from Scratch

Distraction-Free Writing

career indie author

career indie author introduction

A writer these days needs more than Virginia Woolf’s “money and a room of one’s own.” She would probably add “and tools for distraction-free writing so I can stop spending the day on Twitter and Facebook.”

Coping with distractions is an important part of the writer’s job. The same inventions that have allowed us to be more productive have also given us the sirens that keep us from doing it.

Word processors make it easier to write and revise text; it’s also given us ways to distract ourselves by hunting for the perfect font and the ability to store (and lose) articles that we must have before we can continue writing this story. The Internet opened new avenues for research and galleries of Kitler photos. Smartphones keep us in touch with people and fresh announcements of each post and tweet and email.

No one is immune to the short-term pleasures of the Internet. As a species, humans are easily distracted. We find it difficult to focus and tune out our surroundings. So we try various tools and see what works.

nick hornby distraction-free writing
Nick Hornby, English author of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.”
On the recent Nerdist podcast, Nick Hornby revealed an unusual way to refresh himself when he is fatigued from writing. This eight-minute clip from the podcast describes his solution in detail:

Transcription from The Nerdist podcast:

Hornby: This is a very dark secret, but it’s something I’ve discovered relatively recently. It’s jigsaw puzzles. … So I’ve got a desk like this and another desk here, and this desk has a jigsaw puzzle on it. So I turn round, and I start fiddling, and it’s so cool because it’s just enough to occupy your mind, but it leaves great chunks of your mind free, whereas before what I was doing was messing around on the Internet and I’d get right out of the zone completely.

The rest of the clip talks about his latest puzzle, the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

distraction-free writingNor is Hornby alone in finding ways around the lure of the Internet.

* Many writers, such as Will Self, write their first draft by hand.

zadie smith distraction-free writing
Zadie Smith
* In her 2015 novel “NW,” Zadie Smith thanked two pieces of software, Freedom and Self Control, for “creating the time” in which to write. (Note: Freedom is available for Mac and PC; Self Control for Mac only.)

* Prolific genre writer Dean Wesley Smith uses two computers, one attached to the Internet, the other one not.

* There are also distraction-free or writing software available. They tend to have few options and a plain interface, usually just a blank page and a cursor. Gizmodo recently published a list of 9 products. More can be found by Googling “distraction-free writing.”

[Return]Yes, I know she was writing about women and that it was meant to be taken metaphorically as well. Work with me here.

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries