MFA Complete!

It was a long two years, but this week I received feedback from my professor on my thesis marking the official end to my MFA journey. Whew! I am happy to report that she had good things to say, some suggestions for revision, of course, but her feedback was a tremendous boost to my confidence.

A few things have changed since I first began drafting this book. The biggest change is the title and the duration of the plot line. A good chunk of what I thought would be in book one has shifted into book two. Which means, August doesn’t make it to Warwick in book one, so it felt strange to keep WARWICK as the title. So, book one is tentatively titled, New Jericho (aka Newark after Reverend Carolina renames it!).

When I started writing this book, I had no idea we would soon find ourselves living in the middle of a pandemic…talk about real-life research! I’ve reworked some of the book to include some real-life lessons learned, but it’s a little spooky to read back through earlier drafts and see things like toilet paper hoarding jump off the page. And I have to be honest, every time I see an article talking about solar flares, I get a case of the goosebumps. While it was interesting to explore what life might look like in a post-pandemic world sans electricity, I don’t ever want to find out what that would actually be like.

Now the hard part begins. Revisions and querying. It’s tough to decide if I want to pursue traditional publishing or investigate self-publishing. I’m getting mixed signals from the market…a pandemic story in the midst of pandemic-weary times might not be a good fit. I’m examining a handful of small publishers and fingers crossed I find a home for not only this first book, but the entire series.

Apocalyptic Garden Must-Have: Basil

One plant that I often forget to mention is growing in my garden is basil. It’s just so well-behaved, and I hardly have to pay it any mind, so I sometimes forget it’s there. This year I have only one variety, but I have grown as many as six different types of basil, including sweet, purple, lime, lemon, cinnamon, and Thai basil.

After spending a little time researching this fragrant garden resident, I will never take it for granted again and wholeheartedly believe it belongs in an apocalyptic garden. This herb has been around since ancient times. The Egyptians used in as part of the burial process, the Greeks used it for its medicinal properties, and there are more than 35 varieties.

Here are the top five reasons basil is a must-grow:

Good for the Gut
Hidden inside the seeds and lush green leaves of the basil plant is a chemical compound called eugenol. This magical elixir has anti-inflammatory properties that can actually help to calm an upset stomach, settle acid reflux, and even cure a case of …begging your pardon…the farts.

You can either chew on fresh leaves or brew a tea by steeping fresh leaves in some hot water. And honestly, a couple of crushed leaves in a glass of water, lemonade, or, ahem, wine, sounds super refreshing, don’t you think?

Perfect for a Facial
You’ve been working all day. You’re sweaty, dirty, and all you want is a hot soak and a little TLC for your tired skin. Basil to the rescue. The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties found in basil are actually great for your skin. They can help to draw out impurities and calm or prevent acne breakouts.

Make a paste with a handful of fresh leaves and apply like a facial for 10 to 15 minutes, then rinse. You could also distill your own essential basil oil and add a drop or two to some jojoba or coconut oil for a spot treatment.

Mosquitoes Hate It
Along with a handful of other fragrant herbs like lavender, mint, rosemary, and lemon balm, basil can be part of a chemical-free natural mosquito barrier. The same scent that drives me batty with desire for pasta is apparently very off-putting for the little blood suckers.

And since basil grows fantastically in pots, you can grow it where you need it.

Fights and Prevents Infections
Many of the same properties that make basil good for heading off skin breakouts, also makes it useful in fighting infection, both when ingested and when applied topically. A little basil paste applied to minor cuts and scrapes can help to disinfect and prevent infection.

And basil has long been used as a natural remedy for fighting off colds. In fact, according to a study published in 2013, basil oil proved effective in inhibiting growth of many strains of multi-drug resistant E-coli. (Holy Toledo, Batman! How cool is that?)

If you feel a cold coming on, try eating three or four leaves or brew some tea, and repeat every few hours.

Duh…It Tastes Amazing
Maybe it’s just me, but just the smell of basil has me daydreaming about pasta, pizza, and stir fry. I mean really, nothing else smells quite like it and whether it’s made into a pesto, eaten whole in a Caprese salad, stirred in to season a bright tomato sauce, or chopped into salad greens, eating it just makes me feel good. Turns out, it’s a source of Vitamin A and K, and a whole slew of antioxidants, so it’s nutritionally good for you too.

So, plant number one for your apocalyptic garden? One that is both practical and delicious? Basil in any one or more of of its many fragrant varieties.

The Hiding of Easter Eggs

I didn’t intentionally set out to put Easter Eggs in this book, but my subconsious conspired with my muse and before I knew it, there were so many, I had no choice but to embrace the idea and have some fun.

Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy

There are two specific Easter eggs for the witty, sharp-tongued heroine. First, the setting of the book opens in Elizabeth, NJ. An obvious tribute to my girl Lizzy. And the Deputy of Warwick, and my main character’s love interest, goes by the name of Bennett Williams. This is actually a combination of eggs, one for Elizabeth, and one for Mr. Darcy, whose first name is Fitzwilliam.

Mr. Wickham

The mecca of freedom of safety in the first book is a town called Warwick. An interesting little town with an interesting name. It is the first hint at my love and supreme affection for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, my all-time favorite book.

For those of you unfamiliar, or perhaps unaffected by this work, Warwick is a bit of a nod to Mr. Wickham, the less-than-scrupulous, would-be suitor who ends up absconding with Elizabeth Bennett’s youngest sister and causing a scandal that threatened any advantageous marriage for any of the Bennett sisters.


Elvis Has Left the Building

What’s a baker to do when the receive a plea for your skills and only three days to make it all happen? I had a very last-minute request for two and a half dozen cupcakes, which sounds like no big deal until I tell you that there were four cupcakes in each of eight different flavors! As a home baker, this was a bit of a undertaking.

The solution

Start with a simple cake base and modify just enough batter and frosting to make this work. I gathered the following and went to work:

  • A basic yellow-cake batter, enough for 2 and half dozen cupcakes
  • Whipping cream
  • Vanilla Buttercream
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Root beer and rum extracts
  • Toffee chips
  • Chocolate Chips
  • Bananas
  • Brown sugar
  • Butter
  • Cinnamon
  • Interesting toppers picked from whatever you’ve got in your pantry (popcorn, dried fruit, sprinkles, etc.)

 Cupcake #1: Root Beer Float

Just adding a healthy TBSP of root beer extract to the batter zipped up the flavor on this cupcake tremendously. I made a simple whipped cream frosting and topped it with  some strawberry-candied popcorn that I had in my pantry (you could also use a maraschino cherry, a piece of candy, whatever!), snipped a straw in half for decoration, and all done.

Cupcake #2: Toffee Delight
Same yellow cake batter with some cocoa powder mixed in, and boom, chocolate cake. You can add as much or as little as you want, but if you batter starts looking a little too thick, consider adding a couple of TBSP of milk, or even coffee. Then, using a bit of the whipping cream from Cupcake#1, made a simple ganache for filling and to spread on the top. Rollin chopped toffee bits, squirt of whipped cream frosting, a mini heath bar (or chocolate chips, whatever you’ve got) and a sprig of mint and you’re done.

Cupcake #3 – Coconut Dream
Stir in a bit of rum and coconut extract into that yellow cake along with a handful of flacked coconut. Toss a mixture of brown sugar, butter,  and cinnamon in a sauce pan. Cook over low heat until the sugar melts and you are left with this beauiful, caramel-colored syrup. Add in about a quarter cup of whipping cream, some rum or rum extract and sliced bananas and cook until the bananas take on some color and you have what looks like a banana caramel sauce. Then cool (resist the urge to eat it with a spoon!), and fill your cucpakes. A simple vanilla butter cream, sprinkle of cinnamon, and drizzle of the caramel with a banana chip and #3 is all done.

Cupcake #4 – The Elvis
Using the same yellow-to-chocolate conversion as in Cupcake #2, bake a chocolate cupcake, borrow some of the filling from Cupcake #3, and then make up a small batch of Peanut Butter Buttercream (regular buttercream with a couple TBSP of peanut butter and a bit more powdered sugar). Add a little chocolate drizzle and it’s done.

Two-Days but Only Two Hours

I find it easiest to do these kinds of baking projects over two days. Bake all the cakes and make all the fillings and frosting one day, and then assemble the next. This gives flavors time to mellow and keeps the time spent in the kitchen to just a couple of hours each day.

The Apocalypse, Herpes, & Easter Eggs

I’m not going to lie, plotting how to kill off 90% of the world’s population was, well, a strange, strange endeavor. A work friend and I debated for weeks what the most efficient way to do it might be (did I just write that?). We contemplated and researched nuclear war, massive flooding and other weather related events, and then two ideas began to emerge as the proverbial winners: solar flare that causes a massive geomagnetic storm and a virus.

Answer Leads to More Questions

So there it was, my world-ending event that would create the backdrop and new landscape for my cast of characters. But how would the virus work? How quickly would it kill? How would it be spread? These were the next set of questions I had to explore and then, thanks to the Google algorithm that starts showing you things based on your search history, an article popped up and caught my eye.

Hate to Tell You This, But Herpes Are Rampant

While this isn’t a subject I’d generally make small talk about, it was an interesting fact that came out of a rather strange week when virus-related articles dominated my news feeds.

According to the World Health Organization: 

“Nearly 2/3 of humans under 50 carry the

Type-1 Herpes virus.”

Two out of three humans under the age of 50 already carry this virus. That’s one virulent microbe and in the hands of a post-apocalyptic fiction writer, a convenient, if not staggering statistic. My devious writer brain thought, how can I use this to my advantage? And then it hit me. What if the geomagnetic storm, with it’s strange cosmic radiation, somehow mutated a virus already infecting a significant portion of the world’s population? And what if that mutation proved deadly?

Ending the World Got A Little Easier

The discovery of this idea certainly made my job of “ending the world” a bit easier. All I had to do was take advantage of a vulnerability in world populations that already existed, tweak up the percentage to make it really devastating, add some solar radiation, and voila, I had my killer virus.  And since there seems to be a portion of the population immune or simply resistant to said herpes virus in the real world, it just made sense to use that same idea in the book.

But…I didn’t exactly want to be know as the author who killed the world with Herpes.

Can you even imagine?

So I needed a new name. But what?

The Laying of Easter Eggs

I had already begun to amass a series of Easter Eggs to include in this book, each a nod to my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, so it just seemed a natural given to look there for inspiration. A quick Wikipedia scan and the JN-1675 virus was born. JN for Jane and 1617 for her birthday (December 16, 1775)