Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

So long 2014.... in pictures!

Good lord, 2014. You were a crazy year.

Let's see, what were the highlights? In the life of my family, 2014 was a rollercoaster. Babies and weddings, weddings and babies, with a bonus college round for Jim.

• I celebrated my last birthday, folks. I turned 39 in March, and from now on I will be 39 plus tax, thankyouverymuch. If we gather in Memphis next March for cake and ice cream, there will be no number beginning with a 4 involved. Harrumph.

• My stepdaughter, Mallory, had an exciting year as well! First she became a wife...

Jim is pretending he isn't crying as he's about to give away his daughter.

... and then a mom. Which makes me a grandmother.

Welcome to the world, Isabella!

• Speaking of babies, my sister went and had herself one! Although little Olivia's timing meant that Melanie sadly had to miss our wedding, the world is a better place for more headstrong Donald women running amok in it. Here, meet my new little niece!

And from all reports, she's got a temperament equal to the other Donald women.

I'm thinking of writing a YA adventure of Olivia and Isabella. They're smart, brave and kickass. Olivia is the fighter and Isabella is the bookworm. Together they fight crime. And possibly zombies.

• I traveled just a little bit. Not quite as much as during the Furlough Tour, but there were still a hellacious number of nights in hotel rooms this year. Between conventions, book fairs, personal travel, author events, journalism conventions, the wedding and other shenanigans, I traveled to Madison, Ind.; Memphis, Tenn. (twice); Caraway and Blytheville, Ark.; Nashville (twice); Columbus, Ohio; Columbia, Mo.; the Lake of the Ozarks; Atlanta, Ga.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; the usual shenanigans around the metro-east and St. Louis... oh, and JAMAICA. 

They served us rum. A lot.

• Jim started college. We'd talked about it for years, and once he was an employee at the university, it actually became possible even with our pathetic finances. It still took another year to put him into a headlock to fill out the applications, because he was just so sure that he couldn't do it.... and he finished his first semester with an A and two B's, while simultaneously working full time, keeping up a convention schedule and getting freaking married. Which enables me to say I told you so. Please, everyone, a round of applause for the hardest-working freshman at SIUE!

Get back to studying, Froshy!

• I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting something important. Hang in there, it'll come to me.

• As an author, it was a quieter year than most. I released a novella, Gethsemane. It was an experiment to put something out myself; I couldn't sell the rights when it was promised free to the Kickstarter backers. So I put it out on Kindle, iBookstore and did a limited-edition dead-tree version for Literary Underworld. It's a weird creepy little piece, and I love it.
Pretend this isn't a shameless attempt to get you to buy it.

I toured at Conflation, Midsouthcon, Archon, Hypericon, DragonCon, Imaginarium, and did signings at Leclaire Parkfest, Mayfest, Collinsville Author Fair, Toyman, Madison Author Fair, and actually organized two group signings. One was the annual Eville Writers' Signing, and the other was part of Mayfest. I've probably forgotten a couple. For me, this was an average year. It's not quite the days when I averaged one appearance every three weeks, but I couldn't keep up that schedule and, y'know, manage to write anything. With the increased cost of travel, I will probably keep decreasing appearances (unless they pay my way), because the coming year looks very writer-heavy... but more on that later. Heh heh heh.

• As a journalist, it was a good year. Highlights include "Voices of Woodlawn Cemetery," the heroin coverage, covering two Congressional campaigns, and for fun, the number of puns I got to use in detailing the Catsup Bottle up for sale. I am finally starting to feel like I have a good handle on courts, though we didn't have many big trials this year. I met my personal goal on story counts and kicked its butt most of the time. My paper handled our Ferguson coverage with bravery, balance and responsibility. I survived October, in which we ramped up the final election coverage while training on an entirely new computer system and doing the annual school report card analysis. (Then I ran away to Jamaica.) 

But topping all of that was the privilege to work on the SPJ ethics code. It's been my honor to serve on the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics commission for the past several years, and this year was enough to stun a rampaging Bantha in its tracks. We wrangled the new code through our own committee and subcommittees, then locked ourselves in a room in Columbus, Ohio for untold hours until we all agreed on a draft. Then we carried it through the national conference and got a majority of journalist representatives to agree it was a good code.

Let me tell you: you can't get a majority of journalists anywhere to agree on a bar bill, so that was a freaking miracle. 

Here we are.... (most of) the survivors.

• Despite being horrifically distracted and putting less time behind it than I have any previous year, my Relay for Life team raised $3,646 for the American Cancer Society, our all-time high. That makes a total of $25,609 we've raised since we started this thing. By "we," of course, I mean my awesome teammates and my family that was drafted into service. I only steer the ship; they do the rowing. Be warned: we're about to get rolling for 2015, and I intend to bust our records.

• Ian got taller. I know, you're shocked. He also got his learner's permit, so batten down your hatches, Edwardsville.

As we bid farewell to the Scooby Doo ride at Six Flags...

• Of course, not everything was awesome. We lost some good people. My friends lost an alarming number of relatives, and the con circuit lost one of its biggest fans and dear friends just this week. Others faced trials large and small: difficult diagnoses, layoffs, divorce. There were some difficult days, as blessed as we were.

• There was something else that happened. I know there was...

We clean up respectable-like.

Oh yeah! I got married!

Sure enough, Jim didn't come to his senses and run away, despite meeting most of my family members in the days leading up to the big event. Bookmakers everywhere lost their shirts. The wedding was an amazing weekend, surrounded by wonderful people with an inordinate amount of smartass, a positive, loving energy that filled every room and made it, quite simply, perfect. 

With dignity and grace.

My bridesmaids started calling it "ElizabethCon," which absolutely cracked me up. Hey, we're all used to cramming ourselves into hotel rooms, wearing elaborate fancy clothing, staying up much too late and going through bizarre rituals with strangers and close friends - though at ElizabethCon, nobody sold any books. That I know of.

And absolutely no silliness whatsoever. Very serious.

You can read the whole story on our blog (though I'm a post or two behind Jimmy; I've been busy!) and the photo slideshow will be ready as soon as I have several hours to finish it. 

Quite the motley crew.

People keep asking me, "How's married life?" The smartass answer is, "It's a lot like unmarried life," which is true. We're no longer violating the fun parts of Leviticus, but daily life is much the same. I cook the food, he does the dishes. We work, we eat lunch together when news permits. He studies, I write. He's still on night shifts and I'm still on days, so we continue to be ships passing in the night sometimes, but in general it's the way it has been since we moved in together years ago.

Except... not quite. When Jim made his case to me on why we should get married instead of living in sin for the rest of our lives, he said there was an intimacy to marriage, a deeper connection that he wanted to share with me. It put the question in a different frame for me than it was when I was insisting "better dead than wed" for years beforehand. 

He's a very wise man, my husband. There is a deeper intimacy and strong connection formed with marriage, and it's been delightful. Our priest told us as much: "I don't marry you," he said. Instead, he (and the church, through him) blesses the marriage that we make ourselves, the connection we form between us. That's what we spent all this time building, and what we will spend the rest of our lives making stronger.

In all, 2014 was a hell of a year. I must admit, the rollercoaster makes me a little leery of what craziness 2015 might hold. Half of me is jumping up and down with excitement; the rest of me wants to hide under the bed. But what fun would that be?

Happy New Year to all of you and yours, and may the blessings that have been so abundant in my life and my year fall upon you as well.

Wedding photos courtesy of Tom Atwood Media.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Look, I'm not saying that Jimmy is really Jeffrey Dean Morgan hiding in suburbia. Definitely not.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

His Royal Fredness

Goddammit. Just when I thought we were going to get out of this year without losing anyone else, Fred Grimm has a stroke, and isn't expected to make it to New Year's.

So how is that allowed, since Fred is eternal?

Fred and Stephania Grimm have been friends for years. I don't always end up friends with the folks who run the cons; cons are business, and I try to be a professional. But once you meet Fred and Steph, you're not just friends; you're family. That's one reason why Hypericon has been such a blast each year: it's like a big, rowdy family reunion with costumes.

I introduced Jim to the Grimms when we did Hypericon earlier this year. We were talking about Fred stories, and Jim said, "But I only met him that once." I said, "And that's all it takes. You experienced Fred."

And that's really how I think of him. His personality fills the room. The eternal smartass - God, what a smartass! He loved reading and collected authors, enjoying us the way others enjoyed our books. He truly delighted in promoting our fiction, and that was a pleasure to see.

Stephania has asked us to share Fred stories, because those stories are his legacy. So here's one of my favorites....

I was on tour in the months leading up to the release of The Cold Ones. There was a zombie panel scheduled for Saturday at Hypericon, and Brian Keene and Jonathan Maberry were among the panelists (I think Bryan Smith as well, but my memory may be faulty). So I hunted Fred down in the consuite, where he was watching Steph glue a costume trophy together.

"Fredness!" I declared, dropping into the chair next to him. "Please please please put me on the zombie panel pleeeease." I told you, I'm a paragon of professionalism.

Fred gave me a Fred eyebrow. "Do you have a zombie book?"

"Yup," I said. "It comes out in October, from Sam's Dot Publishing. And I'd so love to talk zombies with Brian and Jonathan."

And that's when Fred decided to poke me with a stick exactly where it would annoy me the most. He got the patented Smartass Grin and said, "I dunno.... zombies, that's kind of a guy thing."

Fortunately I did not have to come up with a professional response, because Stephania handled it for me. "Oh no, you did not just go there," she said, waving the glue at him. "You will put her on that panel or I will glue your head to this table."

There was some more back and forth, but it's really not important. I was on the panel, and we had a lovely conversation about zombies that may or may not have included discussion of gender roles in speculative fiction. I still giggle whenever I think of that moment, with Fred's smartass grin and Steph waving the glue at him.

I named a character after Fred, in a novel that none of you have seen yet. It's called Yellow Roses, and it's the best thing I've ever written. And as is my wont, I wrote a character for Fred who was absolutely the opposite of the real Fred; a sour, cranky fire chief. When I asked Fred for permission to use his name, Fred told me he was delighted; he was a guest star in a number of books due to his long associations with authors. Like I said, he collected authors. Actually, I think it was Steph who phrased it that way.

Since the book has never been published, I don't know if Fred ever saw his big scene. I always meant to email it to him. I probably thought, "I'll just be sure to point out the chapter when the book comes out." But who knew it would take this long to find it a home? Who knew that this past summer in Nashville might be the last time I see Fred?

I didn't know we might run out of time. We never know.

So I'm sharing it with all of you. It's just a page, but I hope Fred would have liked it. Chief Grimm might be a sourpuss, but at least he's giving my main character a hard time. The Fred who loved poking me with sticks would have appreciated it.

In the meantime, I am heartsick, and my thoughts are with Stephania in this dark day.

"Hey, Chief," Cat said, easing past Fire Chief Fred Grimm. 
"Oh Lord save us, the press is already here." The chief sighed dramatically.
"It's the doughnuts, draws us like flies," Cat replied. "You gonna brief us?" 
"It's Chief Baymont's show, I'm just the host," Grimm said. "Besides, you guys gave me quite a raking over the Stapfer factory thing." 
"Hey, I'm just an unbiased purveyor of photographic information," Cat said easily, then took a stab at a total lie. "Heard a cop got shot. That true?" 
Grimm shot her a look. "Off the record, a cop got shot at. Big difference. And don't you quote me." 
"Yes sir," Cat said, sketching a quick salute. "They gonna let me take any pictures or do I have to do an interpretative drawing? 'Cause all I can do are stick figures, and that's gonna look funny on the front page." 
"Are all reporters smartasses?" Grimm asked. 
"Yep," said Mark from behind him. "They teach it in J-school. Cat here comes by it naturally." 
"Lord, another one," Grimm griped. "I better leave the room before you two accuse me of setting the guy's house on fire."

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Hanukwanyulemas!

And with that, folks, I'm stepping away for the holiday. Jim and I are celebrating our first Christmas as a married couple, which means we're going to watch a ridiculous amount of movies, eat way too much stuff that isn't on our diets, go to church tonight to sing "Silent Night" amid the candles and incense, and possibly drink some of that rum we brought back from Jamaica. I bet it mixes well with egg nog.

What we aren't going to do is spend the whole holiday online. I'm thinking of confiscating the cell phones. We'll unplug for a day or two, and enjoy our Christmas alone together.

Whether you celebrate any or none of the winter holidays, I hope you have a little span of peace and grace. I hope you hug your loved ones, and if you cannot, send them your good wishes and a little love. Blessings and joy be on all of us and all of you, and let us each leave the world a little brighter for our presence.

See you on the flip side.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Noon Foodiness: Lasagna

According to the Man, tonight's lasagna was a roaring success. And as promised, the recipe will follow.

(What do you mean "tonight"? I do these things in advance, goofy. If I actually posted blogs at the time I wrote them, they'd all post at 11 p.m. and nobody would read them.)

Before I get to the details, though... many thanks to my dear friend Stephen Reksten, whose lasagna pan was the first wedding gift we opened. Finally I got to use it for its actual purpose! Om nom nom.

For the record, this recipe was compiled from three different recipes I found on Pinterest. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments! The only downside: It made a GIANT lasagna and Boy is with his father for Christmas this year, so we will be eating lasagna for days.

Notes: I was out of ground beef, so I used all sausage. Man did not mind. Also, I only used one container of ricotta cheese, but that wasn't quite enough for three layers, so in the future I will use two.


1 lb. Italian sausage
2 lbs. ground beef
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 c. minced onion
2 cans diced tomatoes
2 cans tomato paste
4 tbsp. parsley
2 tbsp. basil
1 tsp. salt
2 containers ricotta cheese
4 c. (or more) mozzarella cheese
1 pkg. lasagna noodles
1 can parmesan
salt, olive oil, Italian seasoning and oregano

Brown ground beef and sausage with garlic and onion. Drain half the excess fat (all if you're really health-conscious, in which case, why are you making lasagna?). Add tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 tbsp. parsley, basil and salt. (I added Italian seasoning for extra flavor.) Simmer for 20-30 mins. while working on other steps.

Fill large pot with water and add salt and olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking. Bring to a boil. Add lasagna noodles and cook to al dente (almost but not quite done). If the pot isn't quite deep enough, wait a few minutes and stir gently; the softened noodles should slide into the water.

In a medium bowl, mix ricotta with 1/2 c. parmesan, 2 tbsp. parsley and 1 tsp. salt. Mix well with fork and set aside.

Once all ingredients are ready, assemble in lasagna pan. Start with a scattering of parmesan cheese. Layer noodles, overlapping slightly; if there is a space on the end, layer an extra noodle. Spread ricotta mixture, then meat, then 2 c. mozzarella and another scattering of parmesan. Repeat: noodles, ricotta, meat, mozzarella, parmesan. If there is enough meat, add a third layer. Top with a dusting of oregano.

Cover pan with foil and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Then remove the foil and bake another 15-20 mins. until the top is hot and bubbly.

You can also freeze it, or set it aside in the fridge for up to two days. Buon appetito!


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Recipes for Writers

Because this was requested multiple times, here are the famous wontons that I served at the Eville Writers Hanukwanyulemas party. It is not my creation; it is shamelessly stolen from my awesome stepsister Kim. Below is the pie recipe, if you missed it on the group; also not mine. :)


1 pkg. wonton wrappers (small, not the egg roll size)
1 roll ground pork sausage
shredded cheddar cheese
ranch dressing
red bell pepper (opt.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, line the wells of a standard-size muffin tin with wontons. Make sure they don't fold over, but form little cups. Bake them alone for 5 mins.

(I generally find this recipe makes about two muffin sheets' worth of wontons; if you plan to make more, double the filling.)

In skillet, brown sausage and drain excess fat. Mix in cheese, optional red pepper (I usually leave it out) and enough buttermilk and ranch dressing to coat the sausage. Don't overdo the liquid or it'll soak the wontons. The buttermilk-to-ranch ratio is to taste; I generally prefer more ranch than buttermilk, but if you're not a ranch fan, you might prefer more buttermilk.

While the second sheet of wontons is baking, fill the first sheet with a spoonful of the meat mixture. Add a little extra cheese on top if you like. Do not overfill or the cups won't hold. Bake another 5 mins. Serve quickly. And snag one yourself; they won't last. :)


1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter, softened
1 tbsp. flour
3/4 c. dark corn syrup (I was out; I used light and had no problems)
1/4 c. Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
1 tsp. vanilla
3 large eggs
1 c. chopped pecans
1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 9-inch deep-dish pie crust
whipped cream (opt.)

Preheat oven to 375. Meanwhile, beat sugar and softened butter until smooth. Beat in flour. Gradually beat in corn syrup, Kahlua and vanilla. Mix in the eggs, then chopped pecans.

Prepare pie plate and line with unbaked pie crust. Sprinkle chocolate chips over the bottom of the crust. (Mandy's note: I am very liberal with this and make sure the crust is very well-covered with chocolate chips.) Pour filling into the crust.

Bake until filling is puffed around the edges and just set in the center, about 45-55 mins. Transfer to rack to cool.

Mandy's note: At this point I sprinkle more chocolate chips on top and allow them to set while cooling. If I bought whole pecans and crushed them myself, I save a few and put them on top to make it pretty.

Elizabeth's note: I melted the chocolate chips and used a frosting spatula to smooth the chocolate into a solid layer across the top of the pie.

Can be made in advance; cover and refrigerate.