Christmas traditions

Holiday Yums: Natalie’s cookies, and tree decorating!

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Welcome to our Holiday Yum blog hop recipe series!  Today, blogger humorist (and one of my fab gal pals) Natalie Hartford treats us to a personal and hilarious take on French Lace Cookies, so you’ll want to check it out!

But while you’re here, I’d like to share a little holiday analogy with you, re-posted from last year:



It’s that time of year again, when we – or someone we know and love to mock – engages in the

Putting-Up-The-Dang-Tree Ritual

If we’re talking about a live tree, it’s even more involved.

Have you ever considered how similar the writing process is to putting up a Christmas tree?  No?  Well, let’s take a look.

Many of the parallels below bring to mind some valuable tips on structure from Kristen Lamb, Jedi Master of all things writing, so I’ll be including them as we go:

1. Picking out the tree

This part probably causes the most agony for my poor family, because I tend to be very picky.  I want to see nearly all of the trees of that size, which involves pulling off the string they’ve been wrapped in, shaking it out, someone holding it and twirling it around while the others check for holes, gaps, goofy branches, dying needles, and so on.  Sometimes we even switch twirlers.  It’s an eye-rolling-OMG-Mom-wants-to-see-ANOTHER-tree tradition for us.

The interesting thing about the process is that the person doing the twirling doesn’t necessarily see the flaws.  Since one’s arm is only so long, the holder is just too close.  A little distance is key.

Writing: when “picking out” our first ideas for a book, it’s important to “give it a twirl,” e.g., putting it into a concise, one-line pitch for someone else to look at.  They can check for problems with clarity, logic, conflict, or motivation that we might have missed.  Kristen Lamb refers to this early stage as the “seed idea” or “log-line” and she makes clear how absolutely essential it is to get this right before we go any further.  Check out her post, Structure part 5: Keeping Focused and Nailing the Pitch – Understand your “seed idea.”

I’m not leaving this K of C parking lot without a good log-line, so stop whining!

Oops, sorry – got carried away.


2. Making a “fresh cut”

Once a tree is cut in the forest/farm, it tries to heal over the wound in order to avoid more moisture loss.  When we buy a cut tree, the first thing the tree guy does is rev up the chain saw (and I keep an eye on my boys, who are fascinated by loud guy-machinery) and make a fresh cut to the stump.  This will enable the tree to drink water during the time we have it in the house, which could be as long as several weeks.

Writing: sometimes we writers “seal up,” don’t we?  We just can’t get started, or can’t produce what we imagined when we came up with our initial idea.  Time for a fresh cut – a new angle to view things from, a brainstorming session with a writing partner, or maybe some – gasp! – cuts.


3. Giving it water and stability

After that fresh cut, our tree is going to start drinking water – lots of it.  It’s also going to need a sturdy tree stand to keep it from toppling over.  The tree has to be firmly in its base before we can start the fun parts – stringing lights and decorating.  Otherwise, the cat/dog/ferret/child is going to bring it down quicker than a Kardashian marriage.  (Or, if we catch it before it topples, we have to tether it to the wall and/or ceiling.  The tree, not the Kardashians, that is.  Either way, it isn’t pretty).

Writing: whether we’re plotters (those who like to lay out the plot ahead of time and write from a detailed outline) or pantsers (those who like to write “by the seat of the pants” without a lot of pre-planning) all of us want to jump in early, and write our favorite bits of description, dialogue, or what have you.  But that would be like trying to put tinsel on the tree while it’s leaning against the wall, and then trying to move the whole mess onto the tree stand later.  We absolutely have to have the structure in place first.

Put down the garland, lady, and no one will get hurt.

Kristen Lamb has a lot to say on this one.  Check out her post, Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel: Structure Matters, for more on why you need to start with the basics of your story.


4. Letting it settle

After the tree is in its stand, the branches are still upright and close to the trunk (and who can blame them, after being twined, shipped and stored for weeks on end).  It doesn’t look like the classic spread-branch tree shape yet.  We wouldn’t even be able to put ornaments on there.  We need to give it time to respond to water and warmth, and then the tree will “open” its branches.

Writing: our creative muse has to “settle” too.  If we only write a few scenes and start editing them (I’m so guilty of this), we’re not giving ourselves the time we need to spread our branches, so to speak, and reveal the spaces where we can really make our writing shine.  This post of Kristen’s really resonated with me:  Editing: Are You Butchering Your Creativity?



5. Stringing the lights

before putting on the ornaments.  It’s nearly impossible to do after all the ornaments are in place.  We also have to be sure to check first for loose bulbs and frayed wires, because if there’s a problem later, it’s really hard to undo.

Writing: Our characters are like the lights on the Christmas tree.  They have to be first, because they drive the story.  Their motives, fears, goals, and so on, have to be understood before we know where the story is going.  The antagonist in particular is the linchpin, as Kristen explains in: Antagonists: the Alpha and Omega of the Story.   Having only a hazy idea of our characters before we start plotting and writing is like not checking the light strands first for defects before putting them on the tree: if there’s a problem later, we’ll have a lot of disassembling to do.

Where’s the duct tape?


6. The ornaments: memories, and breakage

Ah, now we’re getting to the fun part: unpacking the beloved ornaments that will make our tree special.  Those preschooler crafts from long ago: toilet-paper-roll-Santas, popsicle-reindeer-antlers.  And then there’s the delicate glass snowflake our aunt gave us, and the “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament from proud grandparents.

Inevitably, we’ll find a few broken ones, weakened from attic heat and years of handling.  Depending on their sentimental value, we’ll either keep them in the bottom of the box, or throw them out.

Writing: we are each rich in memories and experiences to draw from in our writing, ideas carefully stored for just the right time.  However, there will be some that won’t work.  Perhaps they are too gimmick-y, or what Kristen terms a “bright idea fairy” – it sounds cool, but it’s a distraction and gets in the way of the story.


7. And, finally, the tree-topper


Whether we prefer a star or an angel (or Yoda, at right), the tree is not complete without something on top.  And of course we always put that on last.

Writing: editing is the angel on the tree.  Without thorough, careful edits, our work is incomplete.


So what do you think?  Do you see other parallels in this tree/writing analogy?

If you’re a writer, and are not already familiar with Kristen Lamb, head over to her site.  It’s a fun, rich resource for writers, and she’s wonderfully supportive of us peeps.

However you celebrate the holidays, enjoy!

Until next time,


1 person likes this post.

Butterscotch Haystacks, and a story

Welcome to another installment of Tea and Cookies.  I like to think of these recipes, with their emphasis on cozy yummy-ness, as a way to add to the mystery reading “experience.”

This time, I have a family favorite for you, and a story to go along with it.

photo by K.B. Owen

The Haystacks Story:

My mom is the best cookie baker, ever.  During the Christmas season, she would really shine: our house became an all-out bake-off of epic proportions.  We rivaled the Nabisco factory a few miles down the road (I grew up just outside of Philadelphia).  I’m surprised the zoning guys didn’t come knocking on our door.  Are you running a bakery on these premises, ma’am?

Yummy smells permeated the house from the day after Thanksgiving (for us, “Black Friday” meant we’d burned a batch), until a few days before Christmas.  Enormous tins and reams of wax paper took over the garage as Mom stockpiled enough cookies for friends, family, neighbors, and the zombie apocalypse.  Potential recipients (NOT the zombies), coincidentally came out of the woodwork just in time to remind her of their existence, sometimes with special requests.  Seriously?

Sounds so Christmas-y, right?  For sure, it was fun, and memorable, but you know there’s a dark side to this story, bwahaha.  And, no, it wasn’t the size of our waistlines, which miraculously didn’t expand to rival Santa’s.  Maybe we were a leetle bit sick of cookies because we were around them so much.

The major drawback:  it was a ton of work.  As a little kid, I didn’t realize this.  My priority was to wheedle as many cooling cookies from the table as I could.  Once I got old enough to be of practical help, however, I could see the stress involved, the desire to meet – or exceed – expectations, year after year.  But we were all in it together (my dad, too: he was the wash-up guy).  There were a lot of in-jokes, and times when we were incredibly silly, in that punchy-tired sort of way.  Folks enjoyed the cookies so much.  It was a tradition.

When I was old enough, there were certain simple recipes my mom would trust me to make on my own, during the afternoons when I was home from school and she was still at work.  Haystacks was one of those.  It was only three ingredients – chow mein noodles, spanish peanuts, butterscotch morsels.  There were no microwaves back then, but a pot on the stove to melt the butterscotch wasn’t that much more difficult.  What could go wrong?

One afternoon, it was my job to make the haystacks.  It was my first time solo, and Mom had left out the recipe, and all the ingredients.

I was sailing along until I got to the Spanish peanuts, also called (although I didn’t know it at the time) “redskin” peanuts.  These nuts didn’t look anything like peanuts I’d seen before:  they had these peeling flakes of reddish skin on them.  That didn’t look too appetizing, in my mind.

image via (creative commons license)

I checked the recipe, again.  Nope, it didn’t say anything about skins on peanuts.  She must have gotten them on discount.

Sigh.  I was going to have to peel them.  Every blessed one.

Finally, exhausted but satisfied with the results, I had the last batch hardening on wax paper when my mom came home from work.

Proud of my efforts, I showed her the bowl of cast-off peanut skins and talked about that time-intensive extra step.  Could she get the regular kind next time?

Her face went from confused to surprised to laugh-out-loud.

“You weren’t supposed to peel them!  We pay extra for them to come that way!”


Apparently, spanish peanuts are prized for their colored skins and extra flavor.  Who knew?

We had a good laugh over that one.

Nowadays, spanish peanuts are less common in the stores anyway, so for this recipe, go for the regular salted peanuts (not dry-roasted, they taste kind of weird in butterscotch).  Besides, peeling them takes forever!  😀


Butterscotch Haystacks

photo by K.B. Owen


12 oz butterscotch morsels

3/4 cup Spanish peanuts (regular peanuts can be substituted)

1 and 1/2 cups chow mein noodles



Make sure it's well-blended. Photo by K.B. Owen

Melt morsels in microwave, according to package directions.  Mix in noodles and peanuts until fully integrated.  Drop in heaping spoonfuls (not too big) onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper.  Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.  Makes 2 dozen clusters.


These aren’t exactly cookies – you can tell I’m stretching the definition a bit – but because of their sweetness, they pair really well with a crisp green tea, or maybe a cinnamon herbal chai.

What fun stories do you have to share about baking?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,



5 people like this post.