Monday, 4 May 2015

A to Z Emotional Reflections 2015

So, the A to Z Blogging Challenge is over - congratulations to those who got through the entire month, it was fun, but exhausting, wasn't it :).

For those wondering what I'm blathering on about, the A to Z Challenge is a blogging challenge whereby anyone mad enough signs up to blog every day for the month of April (except Sundays), and each blog post is inspired by a letter of the alphabet.

This is my 3rd year doing the A to Z, and it is always great fun. It's hard work preparing the posts, and a lot of effort goes in to visiting other folks' blogs, making friends and joining in the main part of the challenge in April.

There are two things, I think, that helped me this year: preparation and a theme. I had three blogs in the challenge, this one, which is my personal blog, Fantasy Boys XXX, and Wittegen Press, both of which I run with my sister, Tasha, and each of them had their own theme. I and Tash actually started discussing the A to Z in February (yes, that is how much prep goes into the marathon that is April A to Z). We decided on our themes, and we started making lists of words and ideas that went with those themes. On the sites that we shared, we them divvied up the posts so we had half each to work on.

Once the themes and post titles were in place, then we started designing banners and formats for each theme which would draw each post together and give them a common identity, and created the skeleton posts. These skeleton posts gave us permalinks we could put into the Theme Reveal posts in March. I also designed the emoticons that I used in my posts, since I wanted them to be unique and fit with the colour scheme.

Only then did I start writing my posts and I spent the end of Feb and all of March dipping in and out of them, because I have a day job and only so much time to work on the posts. That meant, that when April came around, I only had to concentrate on visiting other blogs and answering comments on my own, which took me about two hours a day.

Lesson Learned: with three blogs each (four between us in total), I think Tash and I could have done a better job of making sure the daily load for each of us was more even. Some days, I'd have all three blogs to respond to as my posts all came up on the same day, and other days, only my personal blog, because Tash had the other two common blog posts. If we'd been more organised we could have made sure that we had opposite days on Wittegen Press and Fantasy Boys XXX.

Blogs I visited and enjoyed (in no particular order). I'm sure there are some people I've missed out, because even though I kept a list, I wasn't perfect, especially towards the end - just know that if I left you a message on one or more of your posts, I liked your blog, thank you for making my April unusual and entertaining :). There was such a wealth of different subjects this year. I learnt about Cornwall, I read lots of wonderful flash fiction, I learnt about beads and what an obsession they can be, and those are just a few of the subjects, along with disasters and photo-thoughts and music and many more.

Well done to everyone who took part. 
Thank you to all the teams of supporters and organisers. 
See you again next year!

Monster Mondays - Mr Obadiah Slope

My sis, Tasha, has decided that Mondays should belong to Monsters, whether that is talking about our favourites, drawing them, writing fiction about them, or even inventing them. And, in that vein, I thought I'd join in her new venture, Monster Mondays :). If you want to join in too, then just click on the banner and head to Tasha's blog to add you post.

So, for my first Monster Monday post, I am going to introduce you to a human monster, someone who has made themselves a monster by being the most odious man in Anthony Trollope's Barchester, Mr Obadiah Slope.

Mr Slope arrives in sleepy Barchester as chaplain to the new Bishop, Proudie. He is young and full of zealous ideas, which upsets the stalwarts of Barchester's clergy - he is a cat among the proverbial pigeons. However, what sets him apart from other young men of God is his utter self-serving ambition. Mr Slope is the slimiest, most callous, manipulative toad I have ever had the joy to read, and he is also played to perfection by a young Alan Rickman in the BBC's 1982 adaptation, The Barchester Chronicles.

Mr Slope (whose name is best pronounced by Geraldine McEwan, who played Mrs Proudie, with a long drawn out 'sl', a disdainful 'oh' and a precise 'p!', sl - oh -p! :) ) conducts himself as if he speaks for the bishop in all things. He stirs feelings, he lauds his position, and he is not afraid to ruin others' lives if he thinks it will further his own position. And, worst of all, he sets his conniving cap at Mrs Eleanor Bold, young widow of Barchester and beloved daughter of Mr Harding, a soft-hearted and dear, dear clergyman! Where will his loathsomeness end? Will the lovely young widow, whose income is all the scheming chaplain is after, fall for Slope's wiles? You'll have to read, or watch Barchester Towers to find out! ;P

Tell me about an odious character you love to hate.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Mature Cheddar & Caramelised Onion Swirl Bread Recipe (This is heaven on a plate!)

I've been keeping myself busy this weekend, and one of the things I've been doing is baking. A friend, Paul, gave me this recipe for mature cheddar cheese and caramelised onion bread, and it is about the tastiest bread I have ever eaten :). So, I thought I'd share how to make it.


Bread Mix:
500g Strong Bread Flour
2 tsp Salt
12g Fast Acting Dried Yeast (approx 2 sachets)
40g Softened Butter
200ml Tepid Water (approx - you may need a little more, or a little less)
Olive oil (for kneading and non-sticking)

200g Mature Cheddar
1 Red Onion
1 tsp of Balsamic Vinegar (the syrup is great)
1/2 tsp of Brown Sugar

A large mixing bowl
A jug for the water
Cling film (plastic wrap)
A tea towel
Baking Tray x2
Baking Parchment if the tray is not silicon.
A knife
A rolling pin


Combing the Dough:
Place the flour, salt and yeast into a bowl, ensuring the yeast and salt do not touch before mixing (the salt will kill the yeast). Break the butter into small knobs and drop into the dry ingredients, mixing them all up with your hands until everything is distributed through the flour evenly. Then begin adding the water a little at a time, combining all the ingredients into a soft, but not sticky dough. If you add a little too much water, just add a smidgen more flour.

Kneading the Dough:
Once the dough is formed, spread a teaspoon of olive oil on your kneading surface with your hand, then take the dough and place it down on the surface. Fold it over and turn 45 degrees, repeat another three times so the dough is very lightly coated in the oil and then begin to knead the dough until the gluten has developed properly and you have a springy dough (about 5-10 mins). Of course, if you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can leave it to do your kneading for you (about 5 mins again). 

Prove #1:
Fold the edges of the dough under and pat it round with your hands to form a ball. Then oil your mixing bowl and place the dough into it. Oil a piece of cling film and place over the top of the bowl, sealing it. Place a tea towel over the top of this and then leave in a warm place for 1 hour (or until the dough has doubled in size, which can take slightly more, or less time depending on the warmth of your proving place). I turn my oven on low (60 degrees centigrade) and leave my bread dough in front of it with the door open.

Preparing The Filling:
While your dough is proving, chop your onion very finely. Place a teaspoon of olive oil into a frying pan over a low heat and add the onions. Sweat them down for 20 - 30 mins, until they are translucent and soft and their natural sugars have been released. Then add the balsamic vinegar and the brown sugar, stirring them in and cooking for another 5-10 minutes. Leave them to cool.

Grate the cheddar and put aside a little for garnish.

Shaping the Bread and Prove #2:
Once the dough has doubled in size, take it back to the kneading surface. Roll out the dough using your rolling pin, into a rectangle. The exact length is up to you, and will depend on the size of your baking tray, but finish rolling the dough with the longest side at right angles to you. Scatter the cheese and onion evenly over the rectangle. Then, beginning with the side nearest you, curl the dough over and roll it away from you until you have a bread swirl (like a swiss roll), finishing with the open edge underneath the bread. Turn each end under and lift the bread onto your baking sheet. Cover with the cling film and the tea towel and put back into your warm place to prove for another hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Baking the Bread:
Place an old baking tray at the bottom of your oven (I stand mine on a cooling rack) and preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. 

Once your dough has doubled in size, remove the cling film and, taking a sharp knife, make shallow diagonal slices over the top of the bread. Then sprinkle on the cheese you kept aside for garnishing.

Pour cold water into the tray at the bottom of the oven (this generates steam and helps with the crust of the bread), and then place the bread into the oven. Cook for 30 minutes (or until golden). You can check the bread is done by lifting it and tapping the underside. if it sounds hollow, the bread is ready.

Serving Suggestion:
This bread is best served warm, but you can cool and then reheat, or even toast it later. Try it with a cheese board, or olive oil and balsamic vinegar dips for a great starter, or just a snack.

Yes, I know, I had a bit of an air gap in my swirl
- that's because I didn't let the onions cool down!
The bread still tasted fantastic though :)
Mixing It Up

I used a standard white bread recipe for the dough, but, as they say, variety is the spice of life, and the strong flavours from the cheese and onion, I think, could take a different type of dough, rye, or spelt. Also, you don't have to caramelise the onion first if you don't want to, just make sure it is finely chopped. And, if you don't like cheddar, why not try a different cheese, or another filling, I might try garlic and herb soon.

If you do try out this recipe, or tweak it, I'd love to hear about your results.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions - Z is for Zest (writing discussion & fiction)

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions

This year for the A to Z Challenge, I'm investigating emotions and reactions and their use to in writing. So, I'll be talking about my first thoughts as a writer when I think about the words we use to describe emotions and my experience of their use in literature.

zest: great enthusiasm and energy / the outer coloured part of the peel of citrus fruit, used as flavouring.

The reason I've included the 'outer part of citrus fruit' definition here, is because I think this is what separates zest from exuberance. To me, zest is fresh and, in a friend, or companion, is usually welcomed, where exuberance can sometimes be too much and overbearing. Zest doesn't take over, it doesn't dominate, it lifts and supports.

I've already spoken about Maria from The Sound of Music, how her exuberance is clumsy and over excited, but the journey of her character means that the zeal for life becomes much more refined, it changes into zest, her childish exuberance becomes a adult zest, not losing any of its appeal, just becoming more controlled and directed into her love for the Von Trapp children and then their father. In short, she becomes a woman.

But it doesn't always have to be an adult emotion. Peter Pan in Hook has lost his bangerang - his zest for life - and it takes a lot of effort for the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell to return it to him. This is one of my favourite Robin Williams' performances, because he goes from man back to boy (and yes some exuberance is involved her) and then merges the love of life and the energy of Peter Pan back into the man, the father he wants to be.

Zest isn't always seen positively, though :). Hermione Granger always had a zest for knowledge, but in the first Harry Potter book, that was coupled with the almost desperate need to do well, to be the best, and her enthusiasm for learning is seen by Harry and Ron as her being a snobbish know-it-all. It's not until they get past the surface that the boys see the best in Hermione, and she never loses her zest when it comes to learning.

So, zest, for me, is an overwhelmingly positive state of mind, even if it can be taken the wrong way when combined with other traits. A zesty character makes me smile, laugh even sometimes.

And that's it, the end of the A to Z for me. I hope you enjoyed my wander through emotions and reactions in literature :).

QUESTION: What emotion, or reaction evokes the strongest reaction in you when you read or watch it?

I'm going to answer my own question today, since it's the last day, and say, I think the one that gets to me the most is hate. It's rare, it's visceral and it can tie my stomach in knots, because, when it is in a hero/ine, I worry for that character and what the hate will do to them, and when it is in a villain, so much darkness can come from it.


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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ythran - goodbye

Sorry I haven't been around on the A to Z this week (if you are looking for my A to Z post for today, it's here), but my cat, Ythran, has been ill since Sunday, and today we had to say goodbye to him. He was a great cat, an adventurer in his younger days, which did get him into trouble. He only had three legs and 1/3 of his tail due to scrapes he got himself into, but he lived a long and happy life despite his disability. 

I'm going to miss him terribly - the house will be a lot quieter without his foghorn-strength demands for attention and food, and I won't have a friend to sit on my lap and miaow at me when I'm not stroking him enough.

So, Ythran, my darling cat, goodbye and I love you.

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions - Y is for Yellow (cowardice) (writing discussion & fiction)

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions

This year for the A to Z Challenge, I'm investigating emotions and reactions and their use to in writing. So, I'll be talking about my first thoughts as a writer when I think about the words we use to describe emotions and my experience of their use in literature.

yellow: not brave; cowardly.

There are a hundred and one reason why yellow is associated with cowardice if you ask Google, the one I like the best is linked all the way back to ancient beliefs in humors. There are four types of humors (bodily fluids) that can affect health: blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile. An excess of yellow bile was associated with being irascible, choleric and sick - backed up by the fact that anyone suffering from cholera would produce a yellowish diarrhea. Thus yellow became associated with bad things, being used to paint traitors doors in France, as the colour of clothing for Inquisition victims as a sign of their heresy and we all know the yellow star forced on Jews by the Nazis to mark them out as different and bad. So too, yellow is associated with cowardice as in 'yellow-belly', a favourite term of cowboy movies :).

In older movies, a coward is usually a bad guy. We all remember the characters in the 70's disaster movies like The Towering Inferno who put their own lives in front of others, not waiting their turn to get out, cheating, fighting - and they all came to no good in the end.

There's also the traitor, the person who, out of fear for their own life, betrays the others. Beni from The Mummy is the perfect example of this type of character, he is out for himself, he does whatever it takes to stay alive and he will betray anyone if it keeps him alive. As Beni says about his sudden loyalty to Imhotep, the mummy, "As long as I serve him, I am immune [to the plagues Imhotep is raining down on Egypt]." Beni, unlike the guys in the disaster movies, is a funny character, someone we love to hate and laugh at his total cowardice. He makes no excuses for it, he's a survivor, but in the context of the movie, he is also something of a clown. The Mummy isn't the deepest of movies, but Beni's character is well written and to be admired for that.

Beni is the coward we love to hate, but there is also the type of coward we love to love, the important difference about the lovable coward is that their cowardice rarely endangers others. They will not betray their friends, but they might just run and hide when faced with something nasty. Scooby Doo and Shaggy are these kinds of loveable cowards, and, they surprise us sometimes by actually acting out of character and being brave! :)

We are indoctrinated to dislike a coward, so the accusation of cowardice can also be used to bully and deride. Nonviolent characters who refuse to engage where others are willing to be violent, who will not take on a confrontation with a bullying character can often be labelled cowards for their restraint. This may or may not be so, but eventually, the labelled coward will prove his or her worthiness. The novel, The Four Feathers, is based entirely on this point. A young man, forced into the army by his father, resigns before going to war. He is branded a coward by his friends and is given four white feathers as symbols of their contempt. He sets about proving himself not to be the coward they think he is, returning all the feathers.

So, being 'yella', can be used in many different situations and for all types of characters. Everyone, even the greatest hero/ine, have their moments of self-doubt, their risk of being a coward. Those moments can be very revealing, so too for your villains, because being bad and being cowardly do not always correlate. So, cowardice is something every writer can explore.

QUESTION: Do you have a cowardly character you love to love?


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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions - X is for eXuberance (writing discussion & fiction)

A to Z Challenge 2015 - Emotions & Reactions

This year for the A to Z Challenge, I'm investigating emotions and reactions and their use to in writing. So, I'll be talking about my first thoughts as a writer when I think about the words we use to describe emotions and my experience of their use in literature and film/TV.

exuberance: the quality of being full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness; ebullience.
Yes, I know you saw what I did there, I cheated, but then x-words are few and far between, so I went with phonetics ;).

Now, I've already mentioned the Mr Men once in my exploration of emotions in 'literature', and you might think if I am doing it again I'd associate Mr Happy with this quality. However, you'd be wrong. The Mr Man I associate with exuberance is Mr Chatterbox. And, the reason for that is, although exuberance is associated with cheerfulness, for me, it's the energy, the (over) excitement of this reaction that hits me first.

Mr Chatterbox is friendly, happy, engaging, but he won't let you get a word in edgeways, and that is the thing about exuberance, it's an all-encompassing reaction, it takes over the character experiencing it, and it can lead to them dominating the situation which they are in, either to the betterment, or detriment of the other characters.

An exuberant character can sweep others along with them, lifting the mood, winning friends, and this happens a lot in musicals. I expect most of us know the song, 'How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?' from The Sound of Music.
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find the word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!
Without Maria's infectious enthusiasm, her exuberance at the wonders of life, none of the story would happen.

Yet, there are times when exuberance can exclude. When someone is rushing along, excited, focused on something, they can stop considering how others are feeling about something, leaving them behind. Have you ever sat down with a group of friends, all who are into a new fandom, except you? They're all chattering away, excited, sharing anecdotes, ideas, crushes and you're sitting there, either unintentionally, or intentionally clueless and feeling pretty flat about it all. Now this is a trivial example, but it can be extrapolated onto other more serious situations: a discussion about battle tactics; a murder investigation, etc. And in these situations it can lead to the isolation of one, or a small group of characters, or even the exuberant character from all the others if they are so excited they don't notice everyone else's negative reactions.

So, positive, or negative, the energy of exuberance can pull a plot along, but it can also create interesting dynamics in its wake.

QUESTION: Do you ever get over excited? :)


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