Making “The Lists”

September 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetYou’ve heard the line “I was an overnight success after twenty-five years?”  Well, that certainly applied to yours truly when I received an email early in the summer from my publicist at Sourcebooks/Landmark .  “Great news!” chortled Beth Pehlke.  “Your book Midnight on Julia Street is going to be a Nook Daily Find August 24th!”  The price would be dropped to $1.99 that day as a way of encouraging new readers to discover a bargain novel by Ciji Ware…and hopefully  be inspired to buy my other books at full price.

I figured that was very nice and put it in my electronic date book to remind myself to go online to have a look when the date rolled around and post something on my Facebook Author Page–and then promptly forgot about it.

Much to my astonishment, by noon on the 24th,  Midnight on Julia Street  (a book published originally in 1999 and reissued in June of 2011) “opened” in the #2 slot on the Barnes & Noble list that day…and a few hours later was #1!  I checked that title on Amazon, and lo-and-behold, the price had dropped to $1.99 there, too.  Now I had a nice “come on” book on both big online sites. It was exciting for an author who’d written eight books, only one of which made a few city lists like the Los Angeles Times for a few weeks, and another on an Extended List (above the 100 mark)–but never anything “national.”

Then, exactly a week later, my cell phone rang on Thursday, August 30th, and my editor, Deb Werksman said excitedly, “Julia Street has made the USA Today Bestsellers List at #54!” Soon my writer friend Peter Lerangis from New York posted on Facebook that I should definitely be doing the Happy Dance as this list is a “bar code” compilation of every book in America that was sold last week, including cookbooks, self-help, nonfiction, “coffee table books,” and–yes–fiction.  “This is serious stuff,” said he.

The following day, Friday August 31, my cell phone rang again, and I swear, when I saw it was Deb Werksman calling for the second time in two days, my heart stopped and I thought, “They made a mistake…I didn’t actually make USA Today…” and she’s calling to break the news.

“Why would your editor call two days in a row?” she asked, and I could hear the excitement in her voice. Not waiting for my guess, she announced, “Julia Street made TWO lists in the New York Times this week! You’re #18 on the New York Times Bestsellers e-book list, right after Stephen King and you’re #27 on the combined e-book and print list between James Patterson and Danielle Steele!”

What???!!!”

I was having coffee at Poggio’s–a wonderful trattoria that serves great Italian java in the mornings– with my dog walking group, and I think my screams shattered a few cups of foaming lattes, to say nothing of nearly scaring my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Ensign Aubrey, witless. Fortunately, I was smiling and doing a jig, so everyone there assumed no one had died.  I told my walking pals what had just happened and they told everyone else while I danced around the outdoor bistro tables, trying to hear what else Deb was saying about such wonderful news.

Later that day, author pals from all over the country started posting my happy news.  Then the site Goodreads posted my announcement and a bunch of other readers and authors weighed in.

What struck me, when I finally calmed down, was that we are in a totally new world as authors.  For the first time in history, there is very little standing between an author and her readers and a book like Midnight on Julia Street never really “goes out of print” anymore. Here it is, eleven years after its first edition, making the all-important New York Times & USA Today lists for the first time!  Thanks to the Internet and online book sales, a novel that had a modest distribution in print back in the day can always–given a late-life electronic push–find new audiences that, in this case, were attracted by the price (a bargain); by New Orleans (the setting) during a week when Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on the Gulf Coast; by their love of good music and food (which play a secondary role in the plot); and by a media-based story (faintly autobiographical) about a tired, worn-out television reporter who successively gets fired from her on-camera jobs for –gasp!–telling the truth.

Talk about a shot-in-the-arm for a tired novelist and “recovering” TV and radio journalist!

Now, each morning since Deb Werksman’s calls, I cannot wait to put the seat of my pants on the chair and my hands on the keyboard. “Making the Lists” for the first time is truly inspirational for a writer who’s been in this game a very long time….

 

“YOU’RE A FINALIST!”

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Every once in a while during my twenty-five years slogging away as a novelist, there are surprises that land on my doorstep–or in this case, via my InBox.

Today, the president of Women Writing the West, Suzanne Lyon (a novelist herself, of course) sent me word that my historical A RACE TO SPLENDOR was one of three finalists in the coveted (at least in my world) category of Historical Fiction for the 2012 WILLA Literary Awards, presented in October of this year for works published in 2011.

As I said today to several friends, “Being a finalist in the book world is a little like living in Hollywood until they hand out the Academy Awards. One finds oneself often saying:  ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’ “–and in this case, that is absolutely a true statement!

Willa Cather, as anyone knows who had eighth grade English with Mr. Pritchard at Sunset School, was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels chronicling frontier life on the Great Plains in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.

I was one of the first wave of writers to join the then fledgling WWW.  A majority of New York editors in the early 1990s (and some currently) found any stories set west of the Hudson River and before WW II as “unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.”  SPLENDOR certainly was a novel that fell under that rubric.

In 2000, shortly after my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I had begun to research a novel about the real life figure, Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, restoring the devastated Fairmont Hotel in the wake of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  My (then) agent clucked and nodded discouragingly when I submitted the book proposal.  My (then) editor was totally unenthusiastic about such a project. And when I went ahead and wrote the book anyway, my (then) publisher turned it down, flat.

This was, as all writers of fiction will recall, just about the time the publishing industry was seriously starting to implode in response to the Digital Revolution.  No New York publisher was likely to take a chance on anything other than another Harry Potter book, or perhaps allowing John Grisham to write a nice children’s story.

As is so often the case with books that ultimately find an audience, I had become one of those authors completely beguiled by her characters, the setting, and the drama of creating for a modern audience stirring events from the past. Writing with my hair on fire, I was literally unable to let go of an idea I believed deserved to see the light of day.  I would, by turns, hang out in the opulent lobby of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, or dig into the archives to find pictures of the devastation that Julia Morgan faced, only 34 years old and fresh out of architecture school.

Looking back at this painful period, I suspect I did six or seven complete rewrites as different “publishing professionals” gave me their worldly-wise input. Finally, after a few more rejections, I put the book in a drawer and returned to my Day Job, writing nonfiction (as in Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most, Hachette/Springboard Press, 2007).

Rightsizing Your LifeThis was, of course, a career move that helped me pay the light bill, and I am forever grateful to the wonderful editors Jill Cohen and Karen Murgulo who published that tome, and to the Wall Street Journal that dubbed it “One of the Top 5 Books on Retirement” the year it came out.

But meanwhile, my heart was yearning to return to writing historical fiction and my new agent, the fearless Celeste Fine, now of Sterling Lord Literistic, gathered all my rights from  the sadly-out-of-print Ware Oeuvre and pitched five historicals to the redoubtable Deb Werksman who, along with the amazing CEO at Sourcebooks, Dominique Riccah, were founding the historical imprint, Landmark. Deb knew my work, made a package deal to bring out reprints with some well-planned revisions and totally wonderful covers, and then asked the fateful question:  “Has she written anything new?”

“New?” Not exactly, but I searched my electronic files for the version of the newly-titled A RACE TO SPLENDOR I felt was truest to my original vision, and we emailed it directly to her, saying “It’s a draft, mind you, and needs some work.”

They bought the book!  And yes, thanks to some sage and insightful suggestions from the very experienced and tactful Ms. Werksman, I  did a 20% rewrite/tweak and the book was published with its fabulous cover in April, 2011 (the 105th anniversary of the 1906 cataclysm), given a spectacular publication party in the penthouse of the Fairmont — and received wonderful reviews, I’m happy to note.

And now it’s one of three finalists for the prestigious WILLA Literary Awards in the Historical Fiction category.

If that doesn’t give poor, benighted writers a sense of hope, I don’t know what will…    It took more than a decade from the conception of the idea to craft the fictional telling of the amazing early California women architects –until today’s announcement.

So on this particular novel, for sure, it is an honor “merely” to be nominated…and to have one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Willa Cather.

 

 

Natchez Revisited on the Veranda…

March 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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My latest release from Sourcebooks Landmark, A Light on the Veranda, was March 1, and with it,  the usual “guest blogging” I’m asked to do on some terrific historical novel sites that I will link to below.  What has been such a joy is to have dug through masses of photographs that I took during the research period into the “Town that Time Forgot” for the stand-alone sequel to Midnight on Julia Street.

With every novel I have ever written, there is always a “story-behind-the-story” and with Veranda this certainly held true.  Rather than retell my various adventures, I thought I’d just post the guest blogs as they hit the Internet.

Here are links to the first three:

Passages to the Past

And Long and Short Reviews

And also Great Minds Think Aloud

 

If you enjoy these three, it would be terrific to let the blog hosts know!  And come visit me at Facebook:

 

 

Ciji’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

January 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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CIJI CHICKEN & SAUSAGE GUMBO –Revised  1-6-2012

My original recipe was from Emeril’s Christmas cookbook, but over the years, I’ve made changes–and then my niece Alison and I have made a few more key “adjustments” when we cooked it together over the holiday, allowing for wonderful flavors, with the spiciness adjusted to individual palates

INGREDIENTS: 

1 cup of vegetable oil (Canola)

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp cumin

1 tbs New Orleans spices (bbq  or Alison’s  rubs, red pepper flakes mixed with oregano can substitute) to rub on poultry that will be roasted.

1 tsp salt

2-3 bay leaves

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1-2 cups chopped celery

1 to  1 1/2 cups mixed green and red sweet peppers (or more; I prefer to use both red and green peppers in a ½-1/2 mix)

½-1 tsp cumin

½ – 1 tsp. smoked paprika to taste

½ – 1 tsp sweet paprika to taste

1 tsp Crazy Salt or other herbed salt products

½ -1 tsp. chili powder to taste

1-2 tbls. dried parsley

1 Tbls oregano

1/4 cup Marsala wine (or sherry)

2 rock Cornish game hens (or one plump chicken cut up in pieces; or 12 organic chicken thighs, cubed after they’re  cooked)

2 garlic plump cloves, minced

juice of ½ lemon

8 cups chicken stock

1-1 ½  pound Polish Kilbasa sausage (or Andouille, if you want spicier) sliced in ¼-1/8

medallions

2-3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley for garnish

1 tbs chopped scallions for garnish

 

White Rice cooked separately for number of people served by gumbo

 

TO PREPARE POULTRY:

 

Pat the poultry with the spicy rub and place on a rack in a roasting pan. In an oven at 375 degrees, roast poultry for  45 minutes to an hour, until barely done (the leg should move freely but the skin should not be retracting firm the bone; do not over cook)

Remove poultry from roasting rack and allow to cool.   (While that’s happening, slice/dice the vegetables) If cooking bone-in chickens, when poultry has cooled, remove the flesh in pieces from the bone and set aside;  reserve the bones in a sieve or strainer that fits into the pot that will hold the chicken stock.

TO PREPARE THE VEGETABLES:

Chop/dice the peppers, onions, celery, and 1 minced elephant garlic (or 3 minced smaller garlic cloves) and distribute all this on the bottom of the roaster the chickens just came out of.  (If no drippings, sprinkle 1-2 Tbs. olive oil with ½ tsp. balsamic vinegar over vegetables before roasting, or:) if using drippings, then sprinkle ½ tsp. balsamic vinegar and stir the vegetables in the vinegar and chicken drippings, distributing this liquid, evenly across the roasting pan.  Sprinkle with scant salt and pepper and roast in an oven reduced to 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, stirring vegetables occasionally to prevent sticking.  Add a tiny bit of warm water, if needed, to keep from sticking so they will caramelize and become soft, but not mushy.

TO PREPARE THE STOCK: 

I use organic chicken stock and put the 8 cups in a deep pot that will accommodate a sieve or strainer filled with the bones from which the poultry was removed after roasting.

Submerge the bones that are in the sieve into the stock so stock covers the bones and gently simmer for 20 minutes while vegetables are roasting or you’re preparing the roux.

TO MAKE ROUX:

Classic method: in large pot or big skillet, mix oil and flour in small batches; stir constantly with wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and the color of dark chocolate. Add the cumin and stir for a minute To get the roux to the right color, it  could take as long as 45 minutes. Pay close attention, as it can easily burn. [My secret is to put on a headset and call a friend you haven’t talked to in ages…it helps make the time pass as you stir for 45 minutes to an hour to get that dark chocolately color!]  When the roux is the right color, REMOVE pan from burner and set aside until you combine the rest of the ingredients.

Microwave method: [NOT for the novice! Be careful not to overheat!] in four-cup measuring cup or microwave container at full heat, combine flour and oil and cumin and stir to blend.  Microwave 3 minutes (or less if you have a very powerful Microwave oven); remove and carefully stir with wooden spoon to avoid splattering; repeat another 3 minutes as roux begins to turn golden brown.  In :30 second increments, keep microwaving and carefully stirring, until the mixture becomes the color of dark chocolate…may take 3-6 thirty second “zaps.”

TO MAKE GUMBO

Gently reheat the finished roux and add the dried parsley, the roasted, diced vegetables and bay leaves, oregano, pinch of cayenne (to taste; I use very little and allow guests to add their own, or pepper flakes, etc, at the table),  Add salt,  the smoky paprika and sweet  paprika (to taste) and cook the mixture for 2-3 minutes until  the additions are well blended into the roux.  Add Marsala (or Sherry), along with the lemon juice, and stir until well blended..

Add poultry pieces and more minced garlic (to taste) and stir to coat.  Add the sliced sausage and stir well.

Remove the sieve with the chicken bones from the chicken stock and discard.  Add the chicken stock, cup by cup,  to the roux-poultry-sausage-vegetable mixture, constantly stirring.

Bring the mixture to a brisk boil and then turn it down to medium-low and simmer for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally to scrap anything off the bottom of the pot.  Allow to cool completely.

BEST IF MADE 2-3 DAYS AHEAD so ingredients will blend and mellow. If you like it spicier, use andouille sausage instead of Kilbasa and add more pepper flakes and cayenne…but watch it! Add a little at a time, ’cause you can’t go back!!

Keep covered and refrigerated.  When ready to serve, removed from refrigerator and allow gumbo to come to room temperature. Remove bay leaves.

Put gumbo in big pot on top of the stove and reheat slowly at low-medium temperature for at least a half hour, or until hot and gently bubbling.  (If in a microwave container, okay to warm for five minutes; check and continue till hot)

When piping hot, serve is soup bowls with an ice-cream-size scoop of  steaming white or brown rice in the middle. (This is New Orleans style).  For a big buffet, serve over the rice.  Use nice big soup spoons for guests.

Sprinkle each serving with chopped parsley and/or chopped green scallions.  Serve with a crisp salad and hot, crusty bread or butter biscuits

YUMOLA! as they say in N’Awlins!

Hangin’ with a “Rock Star” Author

November 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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There is nothing like hanging out with a major bestselling author like Diana Gabaldon (standing, second from left) to remind a fellow author that novels–especially historical novels–are sold one book at a time.

You see us here (along with several other attendees at the November Scribblers Retreat Writers Conference) smiling happily after a fabulous lunch at Coastal Kitchen, a local eatery on the causeway to St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia.  We had just imbibed great quantities of local shrimp, blue crab cakes and hush puppies, not to mention the pecan pie.

No wonder we’re all smiling.

Gabaldon, the author of the nearly cult-status, #1 New York Times Bestselling novels, the  Outlander Series, is published in some 23 countries in 19 languages.  Even so, just like the rest of us, she continues to attend conferences as a speaker and does book signings all over the country and–thanks to her international audience–abroad as well.

The room for her presentation was jam-packed, but it struck me as I gazed at the pile of books for sale written by all the authors at the conference, including yours truly, that no matter who you are, books are sold as each reader makes his or her own buying decision.   I watched as audience members would pick up one of our hefty titles (Diana, whom I have known since we both were first-time novelists, writes books even thicker than I do).  Our potential customers would turn it over to read the back cover copy, and, in seven seconds or less, decide whether or not to make a purchase.

Trust me, whether you’re Diana Gabaldon, Ciji Ware, or whomever, it’s a humbling experience, especially in a recession economy. Fortunately, we all had enough people asking us to autograph our work to be extremely gratifying, but it was a timely reminder that it’s “book-by-book,” no matter whom you are.

That’s why another keynote speech at the Scribblers Conference had a huge impact on most of us in attendance, whether we were writers or readers.

Dominique Raccah, the dynamic CEO of my publisher, Sourcebooks, delivered an unforgettable “state of the state of publishing” presentation entitled Publishing in the Digital Age: A Time of Transformation.

Founding Sourcebooks in 1987 out of her home in Naperville, Illinois, Raccah has directed a continuously growing entrepreneurial creative organization that morphed into a general trade house passionately producing some 300 titles a year:  everything from bestsellers in fiction, poetry, parenting and study aids, to 14 New York Times Bestsellers and more than twenty national bestsellers.

Dominique Raccah currently serves as co-chair of the Book Industry Study Group working through the issues of digital publishing on the variety of e-devices currently crowding the market:  the Kindle, Sony Reader, the Nook.  You name it, Dominique knows all about it ,as well as the newest New Thing coming down the pipeline.

I’ll have more about her presentation in my next blog…but suffice it to say, it had Diana Gabaldon and the rest of us hanging on her every word!  I was so blown away by the exciting vision she painted of the future of publishing, I took to an old fashioned (rental) bike, and calmed down by taking in the lovely local sites…

For you travel bugs, this is the “Bloody Marsh” on St. Simons where the British defeated the Spanish in 1742 while trying to avoid incoming musket balls and snakes!


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