Monthly Archives: October 2014

Writing energy boost # 1—Ink & Blood


When one of our writing meetup members—I’ll call him Rafe*—mentioned that he was planning to participate in an Ink & Blood writing duel, my first question was “what’s that?” followed closely by my second: “why would you ever do it?”

Answer the First: Ink & Blood/Chicago holds writing duels at G-Mart Comic Books on the third Saturday of most—if not all—months. Writers are paired off and given a writing prompt and ten minutes to write something based on it. At the end, the winner is decided by audience vote. Heckling, Rafe said, is encouraged.

Answer the Second: Why, I asked Rafe, would anyone volunteer to write something off the top of their heads in front of other people, only to be heckled? And how does the “loser” feel once the winner is declared? He shrugged. “It’s a good exercise.” He’d done it before, and had not been declared the winner; he still planned to do it again. I decided I had to see this for myself.

The Event

BK keeps one eye on the TV schedule during college football season (the Vols were on TV the night of October 18), so I begged Cookie to go with me. As she’s the definition of a good sport, she not only agreed, she drove. The duels started at 8 p.m. There were costumes (because, you know, October). There were also masks. I got the impression there might be masks even if it wasn’t October. Writers were identified by such catchy monikers as Writer A, Writer B, Writer C, etc.

There was also beer, which was pretty much free, though they did accept contributions for it. I’ve discovered a stout I like: New Holland Brewing Company’s Oatmeal Stout. But that’s beside the point. The point is: writing duels. You’re still wondering how they work.

Two writers sat at laptops behind a large screen so the audience couldn’t see them. In front of this masking screen were two monitors, each linked to one of the writers’ laptops. Also in front of the screen stood the evening’s emcee. The emcee’s job was to get the audience riled up and to elicit writing prompts from the crowd. It being the Halloween-themed event, there were many prompts along the lines of blood and graveyards and ghosts. The emcee would choose one, and the writing would commence.

Three preliminary match-ups ran, after which we drank (more) beer and voted for the writers we wanted to see in the final round. Then there was a costume contest. The winner was ghost in a white tuxedo and top hat, wearing a monocle. (S)he looked fabulous!

One of the writers who made it to the final round had written a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style narrative in the first round, which simply begged for audience response. Great tactic. The other writer did an excellent job sticking to the topic and finished her writing with a flourish which tied everything together in a satisfying way.

For this final round, each writer ran true to form. The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure writer wrote in that style again, while the other writer went for unity and stuck the landing.

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style was fun, but when the same writer did it again, it felt gimmicky to me. If the second writer had a gimmick, it was artistic unity. I always like that, so she got my vote. I know this writer was a woman because in the end she won and came out front to claim her accolades. All the writers were good, though. She might have been the named winner, but I wouldn’t call any of the others losers.

On the topic of heckling

When Rafe first described the event, I told him I couldn’t imagine participating in a writer’s duel on account of the heckling. He said it didn’t bother him and afterwards I understood why. The audience behavior didn’t seem exactly like heckling. It was more like egging the writers on and offering “helpful” suggestions, like “don’t correct your typos!”

The advice not to correct typos came in particularly handy in one instance. The writer had one character offer another character a cup of cider and then wrote that there was a strange odder coming from the cup.

A few people called out variations of “don’t drink the cider!” (assuming the writer meant odor rather than odder), but some more ironic audience members said things like “What kind of otter? River or sea? That must be one big cup of cider, if it’ll hold an otter!”

The writer used these comments to advantage, explaining in subsequent paragraphs that the creature in the cup was a miniature sea otter, and so adorable that many people preferred to call it an “awwwder.”

I can now see how heckling, if you’d call it that, could energize a writer. I’m thinking of giving writers’ duels a try. After November. Because as we all know, November is National Writing Month, and I’m woefully underprepared.

However, events like Ink & Blood duels have really pumped some writing energy into me lately. I’m definitely writing more than I have for a while.

I’ll talk about my other writing energy boosts in upcoming posts. We’ll need that because, you know. November.


Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month: be there or be square

I don’t write as much as I should. I have managed to pump out over a million words, but that sounds like more than it really is, especially when some of what I’ve written is sheer navel-gazing. Not to put too fine a point on it.

November is the one short window of time when I can’t help but write a novel. It may not be much of a novel…scratch that. It definitely won’t be much of a novel, at least not without buttloads of revision. However, it’s one more novel than I might otherwise write. For me, any anxiety that it might not be the best thing ever is entirely beside the point. One of my writer buds, Todd, shared a story that appears in the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. In this story, a ceramics teacher divided his class into 2 groups. One group was told they’d be graded entirely on the quantity of the work they produced while the other was told they would be graded on quality.

If someone in the quantity group made 50 lbs. of pots, they’d get an “A”, 40 lbs. would earn them a “B”, etc. The ones in the quality group only had to produce one pot, but it had to be “perfect” to get an “A”. If it needed a tweak or two, the pot would get a “B”, etc.

So what happened? When it was all over, the “quantity” group ended up producing more pots of greater quality. They had plenty of opportunities to practice and learn from their mistakes. The “quality” group had a lot of theories about perfection, but the theories didn’t appear to translate to better work. Makes a person think. Anyway, this November, as I have since 2010, I’m throwing 50,000 pots…er, 50,000 words or so at a story idea I have, and seeing what I learn from doing it.

I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy. Writing 2000 words a day, give or take, will take a lot of will power or ego strength or something. A lot of other things might not get done—like vacuuming or meals cooked from scratch. Luckily my sainted sister always hosts Thanksgiving, so I won’t have that issue. And there are a few days—like Cookie Day or Thanksgiving—when I may write fewer words, and which I’ll have to make up for on another day.

chocolatechipcookies   radishes-342932_640
Hmmm…decisions, decisions

I also intend to be especially good to myself—mostly cookies and almost no radishes. That is some stellar advice I got from another writing bud, Jen.

Jen and Todd and a lot of other fellow travelers/Nanowrimos are a huge part of why I know this is doable. If you want to write a novel in November, I can’t say this strongly enough: do it with friends. I’m hosting a couple of write-ins in the Chicago suburbs on November 1st (and 22nd) and you’re thoroughly welcome to join us there.

What if you want to write a novel, but live in a galaxy far, far away from Chicago? I’d still love connecting with you via the National Novel Writing web site. My handle there is Cee-Bee.

You in? Please leave a comment below with any questions (or fast-novel-writing tips) you’d like to share.

Pure Michigan—Post Three of Three: Fun!


Tallulah* at the trail head

On Friday morning Cookie and I rode the Leelanau TART trail for 20 miles. Easiest 20 miles imaginable. Where we began, near Suttons Bay, there’s a slight uphill, but for the most part, the Leelanau TART trail is flat, well-maintained, and splendid. It’s part of US Bike Route 35.

Cookie & Serenity** on US Bike 35

Did you know there were US Bike Routes? I did not. Part of 35 is on roads Cookie and I wouldn’t brave, but this section is entirely dedicated to non-motorized traffic. Sometimes along the trail, people would put things out for you, like apples and water.

Apple break on the TART trail

We cleaned up, collected Sis, got some lunch.

Dock in Leland, where we broke for lunch

After lunch, we drove to Charlevoix to see the hobbit houses. They are not actually hobbit houses. I hate to break this to you but hobbits are fictional characters; real people live in these houses. They were built in the 1930s and 40s by architect Earl Young, and there’s a slew of them in Charlevoix. They’re also called mushroom houses. We had to check them out.

Hobbit1   Hobbit4

Hobbit2    Hobbit3


After imagining ourselves in Middle Earth for a while and trying to decide whether to rent one of these for our next trip to Michigan, we headed a few miles up the road to Big Rock Point.

The Big Rock Area, au naturel

I especially wanted to visit Big Rock Point because BK worked on a big decommissioning project there. It was once the site of a nuclear power plant, but now it’s been returned to its natural state. They did a great job; the area is beautiful. We stopped in two spots—a park where you can see—you know—Michigan’s natural beauty, and a commemorative area where the old plant entrance used to be. At the latter spot there’s some information about the plant and its decommissioning, including a plaque and a list of people who worked on the project.

BR_Plaque   CBpoints
The plaque; I point out BK’s name among those who helped

We only caught one sunset this trip.

CharlevoixBeach   CharlevoixSunset

We barely made it back to Charlevoix to enjoy said sunset before heading to Traverse City for dinner and thence to The Snowbird Inn to ogle the Milky Way (sorry, no pictures of that) and fall into bed.


You’d think we’d be exhausted after all we did Friday. Hah! Ye of little faith. On Saturday, we went to a winery and out for a swell, fancy dinner (See previous post) but that was at night. We had to work up a thirst and an appetite somehow, so we spent the day seeing sights—most notably Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Bridge   CookieDuneGrove   CookieCBshoulders
Covered Bridge; Cookie being pretty; and Cookie pretending to stand on my shoulders
Dunes-Farm   2Lakes
A farm you can see from the big dune; a view of Little Glen Lake with Big Glen Lake just beyond

DuneShore   LakeMichOverlookDunes
If you descend to the water it may take you 2 hours to get back up; Lake Michigan view

ECLBCB_Dunes   CookieDryad
Cookie, Sis and me; Can you spot Cookie doing her dryad impression in the Beech/Maple forest?
Schoolhouse    MissionPeninsula
LIttle red school house seen on the drive; a couple of vineyard area homes we wouldn’t mind owning


Before breakfast, Cookie and I walked down to the beach.

 InnRoad   WalkToBeach
The road in front of the Snowbird; trail down to the beach

We met a nice couple and their dog.

KayakDog   DogWades
Couple kayaking as their water-shy dog follows; dog trying the water out for herself
CookieToes   ArmyGuyRocks
Cookie putting her toes in crystal clear, icy Lake Michigan; Army man and rocks on a stump

After a sumptuous Eggs Benedict breakfast, we sadly left the Snowbird Inn. As we headed home, we stopped in Traverse City for pie and a look at one of several native American trail marker trees you can find in the area.

The Nishnabe reshaped trees to serve as trail markers

In both Traverse City and Charlevoix we saw black squirrels, which of course put me in mind of Mordor. Maybe I just thought of Mordor because of the hobbit houses. You know how it is.

Black squirrel—shy, speedy little suckers!

We saw a bit of early fall color on the way home, too, and here’s some of it:

DriveColorReturn    DriveColor

So, is Michigan fun as well as relaxing and delicious? Hellzyeah. We packed a lot into a short weekend. We could have picked a focus—sightseeing, biking, winery and/or brewery exploration, shopping—easily filled up our 2.5 days, and yearned for more. We chose to sample bits of the area in different ways and ended up with the same result: yearning for more.

So…we came on account of the Pure Michigan ad campaign (okay, not totally) but we’d return just on account of Michigan!

*Tallulah is what I named my bike.   **Serenity is what Cookie named her bike.

Pure Michigan—Post Two of Three: Food

Sis and Cookie at The Green Well Gastropub

While in Michigan, we ate. A lot. None of it was bad, as I recall, though a bit of it was what my dad used to call Howard Johnson’s food. You won’t get food poisoning, but you won’t get fat either. If we got fat, it was on the fabulous food. That is my story and I’m sticking to it.

The just okay food (for me) included lunch at Village Cheese Shanty in Leland. They were out of their famous pretzel bread, which is supposedly the main reason anyone goes there. And everyone goes there. The line was out the door (there was no place to sit inside anyway; you snagged a picnic table in the historic Fishtown section of Leland if you wanted to eat nearby. We got bag lunches, but I doubt I’d do that again. The sandwiches were huge (yes, we were warned, but none of us wanted the same kind of sandwich as anyone else). If I were to go back, I might have a sandwich (half a sandwich, if possible) and a local brew. Bellaire Brown, if I could get it. The cookies were okay, but I’d save my calories for beer, or for one of several other desserts we had on the trip.


Green Well Gastropub in Grand Rapids—Loved the cheese tasting, which included artisanal cheeses, interesting spreads with fresh bread and other baked items to put underneath them; also nuts and fresh and dried fruit. The sweet corn spaetzle was also notable, but as their menu changes depending on what’s available, it might not be there if/when we go back.

The Bluebird Restaurant in Leland—the bread pudding was fantastic.

Short’s Bellaire Brown at Scovie’s Gourmet in Charlevoix. Though I understand you can get this ale at a lot of places in Michigan. I just can’t find it since returning to the Chicago suburbs. We also had a nice berry crumb bar and some cherry pie, but the brown ale was the most wonderful, you ask me.

North Peak Brewing Company  in Traverse City. The standouts were the specially designed ice cream flavors (vanilla malt and chocolate stout). The ice cream was made for them by Moomer’s—another Traverse City institution. Sis liked their Oktoberfest beer. I liked the Portobello black bean burger.


Chateau Chantal Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City. Best parts? Our tasting server who was personable and polite (some of the other servers appeared grumpy) and the view.

Old Mission Peninsula View

I bought several things to serve at Christmas: Celebrate, a semi-dry sparkling wine, the Late Harvest Riesling for dessert and Twilight for Cookie’s Mom, who will only drink rosé. And I picked up the Naughty Red just to drink sometime. I also really enjoyed the Gewurtztraminer (it’s the wine of some of my people, who hailed, back in the day, from Alsace-Lorraine) and the Cerise Noir, which is rather like a port, only it contains cherries. Sis and Cookie loved the Cabernet Franc, which I thought was just okay.

Cookie, Sis and me at Trattoria Stella

Trattoria Stella in Traverse City. The service and the tortelli (Bartlett pear & ricotta filling, Gingergold apples, lemon, toasted walnuts and sage) were—you should pardon the expression—stellar. This was our splurge meal, meaning it was not cheap. We made a reservation and everything. Was the tortelli vegetarian? Yes. However, I believe my entrée was voted the best of all the ones we ordered. We all enjoyed a pre-dinner appetizer of Bruschetta (house stracchino cheese, roasted black mission figs, vanilla, cracked black pepper—they left the pancetta off as a favor to me). Sis and Cookie shared a duck liver paté ( with parmesan frico, sundried pear and apricot mostarda, date and onion puree, crostini).

The other entrées were Sis’s lamb stir fry and Cookie’s was a spicy tagliolini, and they each enjoyed them, but again: mine was the best. We drank a Malvira Nebbiolo which in my opinion was just okay, though it may have worked better with Sis’s and Cookie’s entrees. Desserts (a chocolate walnut crostata with cherry sauce & sea salt gelato; and an apple cake) were fine, but what made us happiest was the reappearance of vanilla malt ice cream with the apple cake. Sadly we couldn’t finish dessert, but we lapped up every last spoonful of the vanilla malt ice cream.


Lakeshore Berry Crumb pie ala mode

This particular food highlight deserves its own heading. The Grand Traverse Pie Company is the purveyor of, as Sis said, “the best store-bought pie” she has ever had—meaning not homemade—I think she includes restaurant pies in that description. She is in good company with that assessment. She ordered the Grand Traverse Cherry Crumb, about which Mario Batali of The Food Network says: “ I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a pie as Grand Traverse Pie Company’s Cherry Crumb Pie…It’s a religious experience.”

Cookie had the Cherry Peach Crumb, which we all proclaimed delicious. We are food sharers, if that wasn’t already obvious. My Lakeshore Berry Crumb (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and Michigan apples) was so yummy that I was moved to tweet about it. We stopped back at Grand Traverse Pie Company on the way home to bring home mini-pies, which are half sized but wholly delicious. BK enjoyed my choice (the Lakeshore Berry Crumb, naturally!) and he can be a picky eater, so I was vindicated.

So, in conclusion: Michigan food is often quite good (notice the assonance there?) but budget your calories wisely. I’m still working off the excess poundage.

Next (and last) on the topic of Pure Michigan: Fun—aka what we did besides eat and drink.

Pure Michigan—Post One of Three: Relaxation


If you live in Illinois, you can’t escape the radio and TV commercials that tout the joys of “Pure Michigan.” Michigan is portrayed as a magical land that will restore your lost youth—or at least your joie de vivre.

I forgive you for being skeptical. Thing is, you know, you really want there to be a place like that, especially if you can drive there—which, from the Chicago area, you can.


When possible, Sis takes a trip to celebrate her birthday, choosing the weekend either before or after September 24th. Our 2014 mission, dated September 25-28: investigating to see if magical Michigan lived up to the hype.

Where we stayed

Snowbird Inn

On the recommendation of our cousins Cecelia and Emily, we stayed at The Snowbird Inn, a bed and breakfast on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula.


Our host, Alice, was rather perfect. She happily shared details about the painstakingly restored house, which was built around 1900, and the 20-acre site of the inn. She gave us directions to a beach within walking distance, a great bike trail, a scenic drive through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and her favorite wineries and restaurants. She astonished us with her wide-ranging knowledge of the area. She was quite familiar with small towns that were a two-hour drive away!


There were two kitties. Awwww! Cookie, Sis and I are all allergic, and responsible enough not to have cats of our own. We were, however unable to resist petting the inn’s cats. Apricot wouldn’t have tolerated being ignored, while Sophie was so happy to receive attention that petting her was its own reward.

One corner of the porch
Cookie relaxes in the living room
Baby grand in the library

The inn itself had common areas with plenty of books and a baby grand piano Alice almost begged us to play. There was even music stored in the piano bench in case we no longer had any pieces memorized. We no longer did. If anyone would have, it would have been Cookie, but she swore up and down that she no longer remembered how to play anything. Hmm.


The room Sis stayed in—its name was Jane
Cookie’s room was named Sophie, like the cat
My room, Thelma…mmm, comfy!

The rooms were given names instead of numbers, which is always fun. And if you like spotless, crisp white sheets as much as I do, you’d appreciate the linens. The large windows (lovely views!) and restored blond woodwork and floors made the rooms light and cheery. Fresh cut flowers from the outside garden brightened each guest room and other rooms throughout the inn.


Alice cooked delicious breakfasts that kept us fueled far, far into the day. There were two vegetarians at the inn—a lovely young structural engineer who was there with her husband, and me. We both found plenty to eat during breakfast at The Snowbird, and the meat eaters had good choices, too. There were homemade muffins and fresh fruit every morning, as well as French press coffee. I can’t even remember all the food choices on offer, but I do recall savoring the almond crème brulee French toast the first day, the broccoli quiche the second day, and eggs Benedict on Sunday, our last morning. Also, I can’t believe we have no pictures of the sunny dining room or the exquisite place settings. The table looked different every morning, and always lovely.

To be continued…

Anyway, our long Michigan weekend was about relaxation, food and fun. My next post will be all about the food Alice didn’t make for us; she isn’t the only good cook in Michigan. After that, I’ll tell you about the fun.