Category Archives: Tutorials

Cat-Proof Your Toilet Paper

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Sometimes invention is born of necessity, thriftiness, spatial reasoning, sympathy (in Rothfuss’ sense), and a little out-of-the-box thinking. Our cat found the toilet paper roll and started shredding it. I did some searching around the Internet and found some clever solutions but most required me to buy something and many would involve more permanent damage to the cabinet on which the toilet paper holder hangs—which is troublesome since we rent and the cabinet is not ours to damage. Originally, I’d decided to try to use a 2-liter soda bottle to make a cover for the roll… but I couldn’t easily cut into the plastic, and I gave up before I hurt myself.

An empty tissue box became the savior of our toilet paper. And I mean that quite sincerely because our cat hasn’t found the toilet paper to tear up since.

Admittedly, I didn’t try to fit the tissue box unaltered over the toilet paper roll, and less work might be required than I did, but what I did was not strenuous or lengthy:

I widened the hole at the box’s top a bit, just using an ordinary, unexceptional pair of scissors. Essentially, I mirrored the cut of the preexisting opening on the box’s backside to let the roll sit nicely centered inside the box, where the tissues had been. Once I’d done that, I added two cuts, extending upwards from the farthest point of the opening to catch the roller of the toilet paper holder.

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This same cover has been in use for a month and a half now, and while the cardboard is a bit more pliable from being handled than it once was, it is still intact and still performing its role well.

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The slit at the top has been widened. We found that offered more flexibility—the cover being able to catch more easily with less finesse, and doing so allowed the cover to accommodated fuller rolls better.

Has anyone done anything similar to cat-proof their toilet paper?  Has anyone got any improvements?  Does anyone have other genius DIY solutions to this common problem?

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Pinned Ya: Tracking My Travels

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I suffer from wanderlust. There is too much of this world that I have not seen—and really, I have seen more than many do. Around the time I went abroad in my junior year of college, I found TripAdvisor and enjoyed seeing the map slowly fill with places I’d been.

tripadvisorRecently, though I found Pinterest and of course in the intersection between searches for travel destinations and tips and home décor and do-it-yourself projects, I found the various ways that people track their travels across the globe. And I’ve wanted that—a physical tracker to display and to look at and dream. Well, within these past two weeks, I’ve tried two different ways of marking my travels on maps.

I originally wanted a globe with pins of my travels.

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But they are very expensive.

My sister bought me a globe, but it is not cork, and I wasn’t able to push a pin into it. It’s still beautiful and excellent for dreaming of future travels. It looks so classy.

Later she found a cork map. I’ve seen cork maps marked very elegantly, and with such a map, one is not limited to pins that will still allow the globe to turn past its cradle.

sales_mapThat was the first map on which I was able to mark my travels.

img_0773It’s not large, just about 9.5” x 14”. Australia is only 1.25” wide. I like how this one looks. With the pins, it looks like I’m fairly well traveled, but this map has no borders between countries and very little detail (Ireland seems to have been absorbed into the Great Britain).

I like it, but I wanted something that more accurately tracked my travels too.

I caught my roommate about to toss out a map sent to her by SmileTrain (I don’t know much about this charity, but since I’m using their map, I thought a shout-out was appropriate). img_0811

img_0816 img_0814img_0812 This one is 30.5” x 20.5”.  Australia is 3.25” wide. It does have borders between countries and between the states of the United States and the providences of Canada; Ireland is a separate island. Country capitols are marked with red stars. The more detailed coastlands make it easier still to determine the approximate placement of a city. I decided to mark each place I’d been not with a pin since I have no cork back on which to keep this map but with a purple Sharpie—purple because it’s my favorite color and soothing but also because it’s a color not used on the map. The Sharpie allows for more overlap than does a pin. There were a few marks that I made that I realized afterward were maybe a bit too far in one direction or another, and the Sharpie didn’t allow any second chances, so those marks had to stay, but because I was using so many fixed markers to determine the placement of cities, I was not very off, I don’t think, in any of my marks—always within the correct country or state at least.

I did not add any labels to this map, and I’m not sure if I will do, because I’m not sure how to do so without pins of some kind and because I rather think that even the smallest dangling tags could easily look messy and cluttered.  Though I do sort of love the idea, and it would be nice to be able to remember the cities’ names when time has passed. I expect even names inked onto the map would map it look cluttered quickly. Any examples of or thoughts on that?  I suppose I could do a legend off to the side, or maybe even write a list of places I’ve been in the white space of Antarctica….

Maybe something like this?

travels(Obviously this is still a work in progress, and Word does not appreciate place names.)

This map makes me look much less well traveled, and that’s probably far more accurate. It shows the gaping gaps in my education and in my travels—from just skirting New Jersey to never having been in any country of the Americas except my own or in Africa or Australia.

The first map says to me “well done.” The second says “keep going.”

Of course the size contributes to that perception, but I think so too do the more accurate marks, where points like Perast and Kotor, Montenegro are almost on top of one another and the four places that I marked in the Iwate province of Japan look like a crooked line (and should really actually probably be more clustered than they are).

I expect I’ll keep them both, because my bedroom already would be the envy of a pirate captain—and not because it has a modern, cushioned bed—and because, you know, I’ve put in the work.

I don’t advocate one method of marking your travels over another—though I will say that size will effect your and others’ perceptions of your travels—but I thought I’d share what I’d learn from my own crafting.

The maps that I’ve made will embiggen if they are clicked upon.  The maps others have made will take you to the sites of their original postings if clicked upon.

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Recipe: Chicken-Potato-Pea Soup

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This will be a super-quick post for a super-easy recipe–or it was easy for me because I made it with leftovers.

Remember when I made chicken broth?

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Well, I took the last container of frozen broth, put in some of the leftover pasty filling, and made soup.  Because what is soup but broth and filling?

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I just heated the two leftovers together in a sauce pan.  I started off with the heat on high, to melt and thaw the ingredients quickly, then, once the broth had all liquified, I let the ingredients simmer together until I felt it had been long enough.  Maybe altogether, the soup was on the stove for half an hour.

The most difficult part of the process was breaking the frozen pasty filling into pieces small enough to put into a pot.  Not until I went to put the filling into soup did I realize that putting all of that filling into one gallon-sized Ziploc was maybe not my smartest ever decision because it had frozen into one block of frozen filling.  I ended up swinging the bag into the lip of a concrete stair step a few times to break it into manageable chunks.

So as a postscript to my pasty recipe, maybe put leftovers into smaller bags.  Or keep a concrete step or sledgehammer handy.

DSCN6722The resulting soup was rather like pea-potato soup with chicken and onion.  The peas pretty much liquified when heated and the potatoes had begun to break apart too.  I appreciated this, though, because it added some thickness to the soup, which might otherwise have been pretty brothy.

A little extra salt and pepper was all the soup needed to be delicious.  My roommate and I ate ours with grilled cheese sandwiches, using the soup first as a dunking sauce, and then as soup itself.

All photos are mine.  Click to view them larger.

Recipe: Whatever-You’ve-Got Pasties

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Yesterday I wandered into the kitchen around dinnertime and opened the fridge, freezer, and pantry, hoping for something to draw me towards it and make me salivate at the thought. What drew me instead was a memory, though I could not tell you at all why. I had the strongest craving for a pasty, a treat you’ll probably be familiar with if you’ve visited England, where a proud pirate hangs over tiny street corner vendors and the occasional brick and mortar store. There are no pasty shops that I know of in my area. (If there are any especially in Southern Virginia please let me know, but I bet readers would appreciate hearing about pasty shops in other parts of the country too.) Although both recipes that I referenced for this meal were for steak and potato pasties, I knew from my time abroad that pasties come in many flavors (my favorite was actually a pork and apple that seems to have vanished from West Cornwall Pasty Co.’s menu), so I made pasties of whatever I had in the house: frozen store-bought pie dough (because I’m lazy), potatoes (I don’t even know what variety exactly because they were on the discount rack of our local grocery store, labeled merely as $.99 for a package of produce, but they are smaller and had red skins), frozen chicken thighs, a can of peas, and some frozen diced onions. The main recipe that I referenced is one out of Dinah Bucholz’s Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook—the first time I’ve used this book though I’ve had it for some time.  The other is this by Jim of Upper Peninsula Now, which I found because I wanted to hear from someone who used store-bought pie crust.

Because I decided to do this late last night I had most of today to prep it. I took the pie dough out of the freezer last night and put it in the refrigerator to thaw. I did the same to two chicken thighs (one fairly large, one fairly small) this morning.

Around 4:30 PM today, I finely diced three potatoes, one largish, two small, put those in a bowl with the drained can of peas, threw a generous helping of the frozen onion on top of that, and then microwaved the chicken to thaw it a bit more and diced that as finely as I could, adding it to the bowl too. (Note: on raw chicken, a serrated blade is better than a flat-edge, but a good flat-edge does wonders on potatoes. Also note: there is a lot of fat on chicken thighs.) A bit of salt and pepper was added to the mix even though those are the recommended spices for steak and potato.

DSCN6718I had only one roll of pie dough left, what could have been the top or the bottom of a pie. I gathered the pie dough into a ball, separated that ball into two and rolled each half into two round- or oval-ish pieces. Those pieces I moved one at a time onto an ungreased baking sheet. Once on the baking sheet, I moved some of the mixed filling onto the center of the dough. Really only about two heaping spoonfuls of the mix fit into my pieces. There was a lot leftover, and I’ve put those leftovers into a bag in the freezer in the hopes that this recipe works well and that I can use the same ingredients again.

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Once the mix was on the dough, I folded the dough over on itself and pressed the edges together with my fingers, trying to trap all of the filling inside of the dough. One came out beautifully; the other not so much (I think that that piece was both too thin and maybe not round enough; I had to flip it over because the bottom was sort of tearing apart).

I cut two vents into the top of each.

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I put the pasties into an oven preheated to 425 F—or I meant to, but this is a new oven to me, and I’d never used it to bake, and didn’t know how it would signal that it was done preheating. They baked for 10 minutes at a hot temperature climbing towards 425 F, then for another 5 minutes at more exactly 425 F (just to be sure; there was raw meat to cook thoroughly after all).

Then I turned the oven’s temperature down to 375 F and let the pasties bake for another hour.

That’s really it. Not a difficult recipe, especially when using store-bought pie dough to escape the hassle of making dough oneself.

They came out of the oven a bit after 6:30, so this first time these took about 2 hours of combined prep and bake time.  Really, the prep time was only about 30 minutes, after factoring a bit of time for preheating the oven, which I forgot to do before mixing the filling.  And the bake time should only have been 1 hour and 10 minutes instead of the 1 hour and 15 that I used because I was still learning my oven.  So altogether, it should have only taken 1 hour and 40 minutes combined prep and bake time.

Out of the oven, the steam is visible rolling off of them and out of the vents, and they’re beautiful—even my too thin one with the tears.

DSCN6721I admit that while these were pretty good, they didn’t taste as good as West Cornwall’s–or my memory of West Cornwall’s anyway.  These pasties maybe could have used a bit more seasoning, but I’m not sure what (I’m open to suggestions), and the dough was actually a bit drier than I’d like, but it held the filling in beautifully, even with the vents and tears.  For as easy as this recipe was and as inexpensive, I’ll definitely give it another go.  These were very filling–or at least I thought so.  I couldn’t quite finish mine, but my roommate was not displeased to have my last bite.

All photos are mine and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Recipe: Spaghetti Squash Casserole–Made Easier

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I have tried this recipe several times, and it’s been cheered by a number of people. This is a great vegetarian recipe. It’s not a recipe I found online, but a recipe provided to me by my mother, who got the original recipe from her old Moosewood Cookbook (her exact version of the cookbook seems now to be out-of-print), then modified by me to better suit my laziness and my preference for nonperishable ingredients, so let’s put an ingredients list up front, shall we, especially as it’s a long one? Get ready to raid your spice cabinet and messy the kitchen.

  • 1 whole spaghetti squash
  • 1 cup of chopped onion
  • ½ lb (8 oz) of sliced mushrooms
  • 2 medium cloves of crushed garlic (or garlic powder)
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 tsp basil
  • thyme
  • ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley (or 2 tsp of parsley flakes)
  • 2 fresh tomatoes (or a small can of diced tomatoes to save time)
  • 1 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup of cottage or ricotta cheese (I’ve always used ricotta)
  • 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan cheese to taste
  • butter or cooking spray (I usually use cooking spray, and anywhere that I say to “butter” in these instructions, you can substitute “lather with cooking spray.”)

*If you’re missing some of these spices, don’t fret overly much. I would try it anyway. I’m not sure I’ve once made this recipe with parsley because for whatever reason it’s not in the house.

Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to find spaghetti squash on a deep discount at your local grocery store—and when you do, this becomes a fairly inexpensive but impressive crowd-pleaser.

I learned by sheer accident that in a dry cabinet, a spaghetti squash will keep for several months. These pictures are from this past June. That squash had been in our cabinet since probably February at the latest.

I was particularly fortunate in this hardy squash. It was more squash than I could fit in just one of my baking dishes, and I had to scrounge in the cabinets to find a second—meaning I got lots of meals out of this one night of baking.

First, a good, long knife is needed to cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Perhaps some of you will be strong enough to manage this Herculean feat without a hack, but I am not, though I keep trying. I liberally poke holes in the squash skin with a fork, the way you do when baking a potato. Then I microwave the whole squash for about two minutes. This softens the squash enough to make it easier to coax a knife through—even if it still requires some wiggling and leveraging to crack the squash.

Scoop out the seeds (so it looks like the squash half on the left).

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Butter a cookie sheet (usually just one suffices—unless like I did, you find yourself with a rather enormous squash) and bake the squash, hollowed inside down, at 375 F for about 30 minutes.

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It will come out super hot, and you will need to be able to handle the squash before you can finish the process. Like too many of my recipes, this one always takes longer to prepare than I expect it to—waiting for the squash to cool especially takes longer—and I am slow to learn. I think ideally, these first steps ought to be done the night before and the squash set aside to cool. The process could probably be sped by putting the squash into the refrigerator. I am impatient and frequently end up handling my squash gingerly through oven mitts—which keep me from being burnt, but the squash is still uncomfortably hot.

Now you’ve got your squash baked. How about some fixings to make this a proper casserole?

Sauté 1 cup of chopped onion (which is about ½ of a small onion) with two medium cloves of crushed garlic (or a liberal dusting of garlic powder), salt and pepper to taste, ½ pound of sliced mushrooms (this is one of those 8 oz packages—I use fresh mushrooms, not canned), ½ tsp of oregano, 1 tsp of basil, a dash of thyme, and if you have it, my mother’s recipe calls too for a ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley or 2 tsp of parsley flakes.

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When the onions are soft and beginning to become more translucent, add the freshly chopped tomatoes—or I usually use a can of mostly drained diced tomatoes. Continue to cook the lot in the pan until most of liquid evaporates. I’m pretty sure it’s almost impossible to overcook this, but if it starts to blacken, you’ve probably left it on too long. Still, I left mine on the stove a good long while this past time after not draining my canned tomatoes enough.

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Good? Got all that cooked up?

Scoop out the insides of the squash into a big old bowl (you can toss the skins) and combine everything: the squash, the sauté, the breadcrumbs, and the cheeses (except the Parmesan—that’s for later). Stir it all up.

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Pour all that into a buttered casserole dish (or two if you need to do). Top the lot with Parmesan because more cheese is never a bad thing and because it’ll give the casserole a nice, crispy, golden brown crust.

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Bake all that at 375 F, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, and your vegetarian casserole should be ready to wow. It’ll look a little soupy in places. It’ll be a little soupy in places. But it’ll be delicious—or I hope you’ll find it so.

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All photos are mine and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

First Lines: A Study: Part 2: The Most Memorable Lines

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Well, I did that first study, and I thought to myself, These books may merit five stars, but some of these first lines do not, so it seems only fair to remedy this with a post of five-star first lines.

I’ve decided to exclude from this study any first lines from texts meant to be experienced orally because those are intended to be memorized, seeming to give them an advantage over those meant to be read in print.

Excluding those mediums, five first lines of fiction I have memorized or all but memorized. These seemed to merit highlighting here. If I of doubtful memory can retain a first line verbatim or even near verbatim, the author has probably struck some heartstring. It is possible though that these books have the advantage of being among some of my favorites and of having been reread. I have read every book the first line of which is on this list at least twice.

This makes me suspect that this study is less objective than I usually hope that I am with book reviews or as I was able to be when my lines came from the merit of the books as a whole. I went through my shelves and read and rated first lines of each book that I’d read and that I owned. There were some certainly that deserved honorable mention, but I could not rate them as highly as those that I had memorized; they just did not have the same pull upon me.

My roommate, Eileen, owns a mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild of “Great Literary Openings.” These will be on my mug:

This line introduces a character and begs a question, creating a hook.

The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

What awful things has the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb done to deserve such a name? Read on to find out, or put down the book and never know. Talk about a hook. We’re also introduced to our opinionated narrator. A narrator’s voice isn’t discussed enough in creative writing classes.

This hook introduces characters and hints at setting.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

“ ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

I’m hoping that the unnecessary comma here is merely the symptom of the post-publication editing that occurred to compile all five books together for my edition of the sequence. (It’s also possible that in 1973 when this text was first published, this was still an acceptable comma.) Grammar aside, this line leaps the reader into a conversation between the speaker and another character, sets us near a building, and begs the reader to question as Will does in the next line, too many “What?” That question will lead the reader into the conversation, and the conversation into the relationships between the characters, and through the relationships, into the stakes of the novel.

This one gives us characters and setting, but we’re told a lot with just a little. Specificity can be helpful.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

“Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We are introduced to married characters, the Dursleys, male and female. We sense the sort of stuck up, feather-ruffled personalities that accompany the Dursleys’ normality from the “thank you very much” and from the “proud,” maybe even from “perfectly.” We are further dropped into a setting: number four, Privet Drive. We are not told where (yet) to find Privet Drive, but we can make some guesses as to the sort of neighborhood where we might be. Privet is a type of hedge used often to create boundaries between neighbors and—as its name may suggest—to create privacy screens. Number four has neither a whimsical or a grand and an ancient name associated with it, but does have a standalone address (not an apartment number), giving us both a notion of the Dursleys’ middling status and their displeasure for whimsy. Another clue to the middle class status is that they are not ashamed to own the address. The “thank you very much” is a brief dip into second person that helps to draw the reader in. The reader herself has offended the Dursleys by suggesting that they might be anything other than normal or suggesting that they would wish to be anything but normal.

This one is a promise of future action and drama, gives us genre, and hints at least at setting.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.”

This sentence forecasts an exciting, climactic event that promises us adventure and gives us reason to tolerate the backstory that opens the story. Riordan’s works are always fast-paced adventure, and by his fifth book, I think he knew that his readers expected and wanted that fast pace. He was able to more gently ease himself into the action, spending a little more time on relationships between the characters, by appeasing us with this promise. This model should be used with care. One can give away too much of one’s story in a promise. This being the last book, the series having been building towards an epic battle, we knew to expect apocalypse, or at least the possibility of an apocalypse. Later books in The Heroes of Olympus series use similarly modeled sentences (“Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day” (Book 1: The Lost Hero)) to forecast the first conflict of the novel, usually a struggle that happens within the chapter and even within pages of the first line. Some forecast an event that happens within paragraphs. This one from Book 4: The House of Hades drops us right into the action by citing the “third attack”: “During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder.” Breaking the line from The Last Olympian down farther, the “car” puts us in a modern setting (20th century or later). “Car” further is the American word, “auto” being the British. “Pegasus” lets us know that this is a fantasy novel. In modern fantasy, the pegasus as a magical creature has become more pervasive, but it has its origins in Western and specifically Greek mythology. This series of course happens to be about Greek mythology specifically, but I would hesitate from the isolated line, at this point in literary history, to suggest that that might be the case. Putting both “car” and “pegasus” together tells us this is low fantasy, fantasy set in our world.

This also may be a promise, but more certainly is a “universal” statement that refuses to be denied.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Comma usage was different in Austen’s day, I think, marking a breath instead of following a rigid set of rules. In some ways, this famous first line also forecasts later events: We are promised that at some point this will become the story of a man wanting a wife. I say this, of course, with over 100 years of 20/20 hindsight. We all know now that this novel is about the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, and so when I say that we are promised a man of good fortune seeking his wife, it may be that I just know this as certainly as I know the novel from which this first line comes. The line itself however, more objectively, accepts no challengers. Let’s talk about the narrator’s voice here. We are forbidden from denying the truth of her statement about men. There is strength in these words.

Honorable Mentions

Having reread with a mind towards this study all the first lines of the books that I own and have read, these in particular stuck with me, even though I don’t have them memorized:

This line gives us a character, makes us sympathetic towards her, and gives us setting.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.

“On the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

A promise of what’s to come, a character with a full name, a setting (an American outhouse), and an attitude of defiance that I think likely to make most readers sympathetic to Maud immediately—as if being locked in an outhouse were not enough to do so. Still, the singing transforms my sympathy from “Poor Maud” to “Rock on, Maud!” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American song, more widely known now, I’m sure, but it hints at an American setting, and tells us that we are post-1800. The chorus as we know it developed around 1850 and the lyrics as they are best known in 1862. It is a markedly Christian song. Look at all that detail!

This line is sneaky second person, a hook, and humor.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor.

“‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’”

This is a sneaky, sneaky use of the second person to capture the reader, because you find out shortly after that this first line comes from a pamphlet being read by a third person character. Readers are of course encouraged to ask what were the circumstances of this death. There’s an element of dark humor here too in the exam question that pertains to “my” death. And one wonders how it is possible to answer questions pertaining to one’s own death.

This line gives us character, setting, and the character’s physical state—and makes use of poetic technique besides. (This last book I haven’t actually read, but it is among the books that I’ve bought based on their first few pages (I am one of the readers that cause editors to suggest a first five pages hook). I have recommended this book, this series, and this author almost solely on the strength of this line and its following first few pages.)

Beyonders, Book 1: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull.

“The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep.”

The poetry! The alliteration! The pain. So there’s a character, a prince—a male from a monarchal society and the highest socioeconomic class then—who is chained in darkness (presumably in a dungeon—presumably in an ancient dungeon if the manacles within it are ancient, so there’s our setting), trying to sleep, so maybe it’s night, or maybe he has nothing else to do, or maybe he’s exhausted from previous acts. We also get the character’s physical state: in pain, aching, possibly exhausted. Then of course the question, why is this man in the dungeon? Who’s holding him?

From this study we might actually be able to draw some conclusions: The best lines are ones that multitask. A line like “Elizabeth was a beautiful princess” or “It was night again,” while succinct enough to be memorized are not of the type that one feels compelled to memorize. Many of these memorable first lines include a hook: either a question posed or drama promised. Several of them use second person cues to help to draw in the reader, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this; such use of the second person has always seemed a bit of a cheat to me, much like using first person; I like a challenge. Many of these too include memorable details, and it’s probably those details that make anchors in my memory, helping me to recall the line later.

There are, of course, no real rules. What works on me won’t necessarily work on all readers, as perhaps is proved by the fact there is only one line that overlaps between my survey and the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild’s. The previous study proves too that the best books do not necessarily have the best first lines.

Still here are some examples to consider when trying to craft the best sentence, wherever it might appear in whatever you’re working on.

What first lines do you have memorized?

First Lines: A Study: Part 1: The Five-Star Books

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Gwen and Neekers recently posted on Apprentice, Never Master a challenge where each tried to guess a book from its first line alone. I was intrigued by this challenge and inspired to study the first lines of my favorites. Only “favorite” is not very quantifiable, so in the interest of science, I am naming my favorites only those that have received a five-star rating on this blog—though there are others that are favorites even while I recognize that they do not objectively deserve five stars. I think it best to exclude primers because of the nature of their text. The books in this study must have a first line that is in fact a complete sentence. To narrow the list further I’ve just grabbed the titles from 2014.

Some lines establish setting:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”

The time of year is established in this sentence. It’s possible to guess that we are on Earth, in a culture that uses the Julian calendar.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

“It was night again.”

Rothfuss, man, you’ve let me down. “I demand poetry, and when I want it, and I want it now” (A Knight’s Tale). I suppose this line does establish the time of day.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book 1: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

“Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”

This first sentence begins to draw a map. We are in Linderwall. It is a kingdom, so a monarchal government and probably a patriarchal society, though sadly, I think most of us would be a touch confused if a writer chose to establish a “queendom.” Word’s dictionary does not even recognize “queendom.” So either this is a patriarchal society or we as readers are limited by our patriarchal language. Linderwall is large as kingdoms go. It has mountains to its east. Does the sun rise in the east over Linderwall? Is this why the mountains are called Morning? Learning and wisdom and particularly those who question conventions are valued in Linderwall. The number five is fashionable. We do not know why. In fact, I’d not noticed this tidbit before and now want to reread the series looking for instances of “five.” Of these three examples, this sentence probably works hardest.

Some lines introduce a character:

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch.

“Elizabeth was a beautiful princess.”

Elizabeth is female, a princess, and beautiful. We’re given a character, her name, her title, her status, and a little bit about her physical appearance, though most of that is left to our imagination. She is from a monarchal country, and of the royal line. We can assume something of her family and upbringing, though we might later be corrected about our notions.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

“Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body.”

A male character, Bon Agornin, is dying, probably in pain, and he has wings! So again, a character, a name, a little bit of a physical description, and now too the character’s present health (or lack thereof).

This is dialogue (and in fact the book contains nothing but dialogue), and so establishes the existence of two characters, but tells us very little about either. (For the purposes of this study, pretend there are no illustrations.)

Waiting is Not Easy: An Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems.

“GERALD!”

Here is the speaker and Gerald, presumably male because of the history of the name Gerald.

Some pull double-duty. This one establishes a character and a setting:

The Kiss That Missed by David Melling.

“Once upon a Tuesday, the king was in a hurry as usual.”

We are in another monarchal society. This time the king is the acting character. He is in a hurry. This is a usual occurrence for him, so we can reason that either he keeps a busy schedule or is perpetually late or both—or he may just be one of those people who always hurries, never stopping to enjoy life. It is Tuesday, so we also get a day of the week, and again, the impression of a Julian calendar. There’s also an echo of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time” that hints at genre.

This one opens on an event, but also introduces a character:

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.

“One day, Penguin found a curious object.”

The character, Penguin, finds… something. That something piques his curiosity.

The second person narrator is weird. She speaks directly to the audience.

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman.

“I wanted you more than you will ever know, so I sent love to follow wherever you go.”

This sentence, though, establishes the narrator’s feeling towards the audience, and then personifies love giving it mobility beyond its usual ability. There may then be a touch of magical realism to this story. Also it rhymes, and in the book is printed:

            “I wanted you more

            than you will ever know,

            so I sent love to follow

            wherever you go.”

My sample here is really too small to draw any conclusions, but we have done a short survey of some of the openings that authors employ, and let us content ourselves with pondering on that.

Thoughts? What’re some of the opening lines of your favorite books? Share in comments below! I’d be interested.

DIY Sharpie Decorated Mugs

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Like many others, I spend too much time on Pinterest. Particularly, I spend too much time finding DIY crafts and home improvements. I’d seen before on Etsy mugs that had been redecorated. It wasn’t until Pinterest that I realized it might be a simple thing to do.

For this project, I used no one set of directions, but took advice from several sites and a friend who had done this project herself before besides. I used an ordinary Sharpie marker and white mugs (any colors would be fine, I’d guess, but I liked the black on white look, and the wedding registry listed white mugs, so I thought I wouldn’t mismatch the newlyweds’ kitchen too terribly). The mugs I used were both dishwasher and microwave safe but were ceramic not stoneware. I drew and wrote on the mugs. That bit needs no explanation.

A note to the wise, remove the stickers from the bottom of the mug before you start to draw on them and you won’t have to worry as I did about soapy water smudging the Sharpie as you try to scrub off the tack to prepare them to go into the oven.

I did find that scrubbing with a paper towel wet with soapy water did erase the marker when I wanted it to, but a drip of soapy water running down the side over the Sharpie had no effect.

This, I think, is wonderful. There are no do overs as clean with most traditional methods of ceramics painting.

I set my oven for 350 F, waited for it to preheat, put the mugs down on a cookie sheet, face-up, and waited anxiously for the crack that I was sure was coming.

In retrospect I ought to have set them in the oven on the cookie sheet, then turned oven on, and set the timer after the light went off, knowing as I do that you ought to let ceramic heat with the kiln rather than shoving cool clay in a hot kiln.

Doing so, though, made no noticeable difference.

I decided to twice-fire them, because, well, I hoped that maybe by doing so I could better set the marker and make it last longer. Only time will tell if it was worth it. This time I set the cookie tray with the mugs in the oven before turning it on. My oven, usually creaky, was making some noise as I waited for the light to go off. I got nervous, so I decided to heat the oven to only 300 F for the second firing.

I know enough about ceramics to know that I couldn’t open the door to peek, but I can’t tell you how tempting it was.

Between firings I was sure to let everything cool. I left the mugs on their tray in the oven and waited until the stovetop was as cool as if the oven hadn’t been turned on that day, then waited a bit longer besides to take them out, really waiting for the air inside the oven to cool to room temperature.

Neither time did the mugs crack.

The final result: Worth it.

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An Untimely Post About Leftovers

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Well, one of these recipes is untimely. It’s very difficult to hold or attend a Thanksgiving meal without receiving leftovers. Turkey is not my favorite, but I recognize that it is traditional, and I would frankly miss it if I were to attend a Thanksgiving meal without it. The sides are what I love best. This year I discovered a wonderful remedy that helps me eat up all of the Thanksgiving leftovers without becoming tired of turkey or of any of the leftovers either:  I wrapped it all up in a tortilla. This year’s leftovers included turkey, stuffing, cranberry chutney, and Brussels sprouts (the last not shown here, but they were actually pretty tasty in this tortilla recipe; I had it several times in the weeks following the holiday).

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I never did quite figure out how long to microwave these tortillas for. The easiest thing seemed to be to microwave the fixings without the tortilla and then spoon all that onto the tortilla.

This next recipe is less seasonal, though perhaps it is more fitting for winter. One of my first roommates post-college used to buy roast chickens and from the leftover bones make some really excellent chicken soup. I got into the habit then of not tossing away the bones, knowing they could have some use. I don’t have her chicken soup recipe, but I found a recipe on 100 Days of Real Food for Crockpot chicken stock.

We had maybe two and half sandwich sized Ziploc bags worth of frozen chicken bones from various meals, fried and roasted, in the freezer. I used baby carrots because they are simpler to snack on and so more likely to get used in our household. The onion we had.  I bought a whole celery from the grocery store, but retrospectively, I wish I’d bought a more expensive but less wasteful carton of celery sticks.

I used what spices we already had: a bay leaf, thyme, and salt. I didn’t have parsley.

The recipe was simple—beyond simple. I minced the carrots and celery and tossed it all in the Crockpot without bothering to defrost the chicken.

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Then I filled the Crockpot with water to within about an inch and a half from its lip, and I turned the Crockpot on low.

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Because I’m still nervous about using a Crockpot and leaving it be, I did this all during the day instead of overnight as the recipe suggests, though my roommate did convince me to leave it on overnight to make more flavorful stock. (We tasted it before bed.)

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In the end, we had four full Tupperware containers of thick yellow stock, ladled from the Crockpot into a wire mesh strainer held over the Tupperware. (The remaining bones, overcooked celery and carrots, and all we had to toss in the trash, which seemed a sad waste. Maybe the carrots could have been edible if I’d been able to detangle them from the bones.)

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We kept one container in the refrigerator and froze the rest to be used later. Since then we’ve used it to cook chicken noodle soup, to add some flavor to rice and to pastas, and mostly to add to soup cans to make a can of soup last a little longer. I mixed it with both chicken soups and beef soups, and both were delicious.

There’s still some in the freezer.

All photos are mine.  Click to view them larger.