Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nightmare Before Halloween

The writer pulled herself back from sleep. The words of a character already born on paper but not yet even a submission to her publisher rang in her ears. Tamara? Impossible. Tamara, the Voo-Doo priestess, the Mambo, the servant of the sweet Loa of the Rada, powers of the Light that guarded the world from the bitter Loa of the Petro, forces of darkness – Tamara lived in 1888. And then only in the writer’s heart and soul.

‘Dis worl’… it be ringed with worl’s on worl’s. Dey shift, ‘dey overlap, and some of ‘dose worl’s be real dark, full of evil and danger, and some of ‘em, ‘dey be real bright and beautiful. An’ sometimes, folks whut doan’ know what ‘dey doin‘, ‘dey can make things happ’n whut wasn’t never ‘sposed to happ’n. An’ things can cross over from ‘dem other worl’s into ‘dis one.”

I fought to pull myself from the clinging tendrils of gray mist that engulfed me, hiding misshapen images hinting of evil, of danger, trying to peek through. “I’m the writer,” I told myself. “I’m Gail Roughton Branan. I control my characters. Sometimes. When they’re not controlling me. I live in the worlds on worlds that ring this world. I create parallel worlds of romance, adventure, horror. And worlds wherein I collect my special moments, my special people, the things that make me who I am, Flowers on the Fence Country, the blog that holds pieces of my heart.”

I felt lost, adrift in an alien world. It was All-Hallows Eve, that night of all nights when the veils between the worlds is thinnest, when reality mingles and merges with the realities of other dimensions. Over there, behind that rock enshrouded with mist, was that…could it be? I heard Johnny McKay’s voice, straight from the pages of my first soon-to-be-published novel, Miami Days & Truscan (K)nights, explaining to Tess Ames something of the world she’d crashed into.

“…the Prians, they’re some of the ugliest motherhumpers ever created…. Broad. Very strong. …almost no foreheads, eyes like Porky Pig, nose like a flat snout, big mouths… imagine a pig that’s turned human but not cute and you’d be pretty close… ”

There was a Prian behind that rock! I cleared my eyes but the image didn’t change. And then, out of nowhere, misshapen creatures, bat-like of body and demonic of face, flew out of nowhere and swooped and swirled…. One of them settled on top of Reverend Dennard’s skull and melted itself down over it. An eerie blue light glowed from the bone and red sparked from the eye sockets.

Wait just a minute here! Those misshapen creatures belonged in the not yet even submitted dark horror novel, Dark Destiny, with Tamara, she whose voice had first wakened me in warning. From the swirling mists, I spied a giant of a man, with shaved skull, chanting to himself, “My name be Cain. An’ my color be seb’n.”

A gravely voice answered him, animalistic, the grunt of a humanoid, but not a human. “Halt! You have no standing here. From where did you come, daring to intrude on Prian territory?” Kruska. The Bog Hog himself, King of Pria, mortal enemy of Trusca, the two major powers in the world beyond the door that swung open in the Bermuda Triangle when the swirling, insidious gray mists devoured the sky and sea. The gray mists! No wonder it looked familiar. Tess had flown through just such a miasma of nothingness when the door opened and thrust her into an alien world.

“Prian territory?! Don’t know who you think you are, son, but you in my county! And you and big boy over there can just move y’all’s carcasses right the hell on out!” Oh. My. Lord. Big John Kincaid, the bad guy of Down Home, my to-be-published next September novel. The man who’d run Rockland County with an iron fist for well on fifty years.

Under attack. I was in Flowers on the Fence Country. I could see the remnants of my beautiful fence, bright with flowers, my winding driveway draped with purple clusters of wisteria, withering quickly in the insidious, poisonous mists. My sanctuary was under attack! The door between the worlds now swung wide, allowing Kruska and Cain entry into Flowers on the Fence Country! My warriors, my heroes. Where were they?

As if on cue, the deep voice of Dalph, King of Trusa, sounded in the mists over to my right. “Green eyes, stay close. Kruska’s here, we cannot lose him now.”

The retort came quickly, my heroine Tess not being one to stay behind. “Then I suggest we move our rears and find him, my King!”

Dalph laughed softly. “And possibly if you cease scolding me, my Queen, we could manage not to alert him to our presence. I don’t know this country, Tess. I don’t know where we are. If we had someone familiar with the terrain –”

“Well, we might be able to help y’all out with that. Don’t you think, Maggie?” That came from behind me. I’d know that voice anywhere. The slow Southern drawl, not exaggerated and mutilated as it so often is on Hollywood’s big and small screens, but the real deal. As it should be. Billy Brayton, the hero of Down Home, home of country espionage mingled with a touch of the Redneck Comedy Tour.

“Don’t see why not. Be downright inhospitable not to. Not to mention dangerous.” Maggie Kincaid Brayton, steel magnolia. “Know I heard Daddy Dearest over there. Not sure what else is loose in the woods, Billy, but I got an idea we don’t want ‘em here in Rockland County. And for sure not in our woods. And we know we don’t want Daddy Dearest runnin’ loose. Hey, y’all. I’m Maggie Brayton. This is my husband,
Billy. And y’all would be?”

Of all my characters, Billy and Maggie Brayton knew Flowers on the Fence Country. It was their country, too, Down Home being modeled on the country life and folks I knew so well as my home town.

“Our pleasure. I am Randalph of Trusca. Call me Dalph. This is my queen, Tess. And one of the things loose in your woods is the King of Pria. And no, you do not want him here.”

“Sounded strange. Don’t b’lieve I’ve ever heard a human sound quite that. Almost like a pig snortin’.” Maggie, born and bred in Flowers on the Fence Country, would know.

“Good ear,” Tess said approvingly. “That’s close. But the other guy over there, the one mixing up numbers and colors, that ‘my color be seb’n’ dude, I don’t have a clue about him.”

“And that would make you a very lucky lady.” That voice came from the left. From Dark Destiny, not yet even submitted for publication. “Cain’s not a man you want to socialize with. If he’s even a man at all.” The soft, cultured Southern voice of Dr. Paul Devlin, who’d defeated Cain for the first time in 1888, in another southern town I knew intimately. Macon, Georgia. But he was by himself. Where was – Oh! There she was. Ria Knight, the fearless attorney who’d fallen in love with Paul Devlin over a century later in Rose Hill Cemetery, who’d joined him in the second battle against Cain.

“He’s not so tough as he thinks,” Ria hooked her arm through Paul’s. “You’ve taken him down already, darlin’.”

“But he so persistently comes back!” Paul shook his head.

“Third time’s a charm,” said Ria.

“You say that here, too?” asked Dalph.

“Excuse me, formal introductions are nice and all, all of us having lived together for so long in that crazy writer woman’s head, I swear, does she pop happy pills for breakfast? I mean, how else could she think of all this stuff? But can we get down to business here?” Trust Tess, the true businesswoman, the corporate troubleshooter, to get right down to the nitty-gritty.

“I don’t mean to assume, but I believe I know just the solution to this problem.” Lord, I loved Paul Devlin. Though I loved Dalph and Billy just as much. No mother could choose between her children, after all. “And if I’m not mistaken, there’s a feel in the air that makes me think we don’t have a lot of time to implement it.”

“Well, don’t be shy, sugar, please enlighten us.” There was something so down right down home about Maggie.

Billy, lifelong lawman, cocked his head and lifted his eyebrown. “And something else is gettin’ ready to start shakin’?”

“Oh, yes, there’s the same feel to the air – ” Paul broke off. No time. They were out of time. A lightning bolt struck down, almost at their feet. The air filled with electrical current flowing from the lightning that flashed as other doors cracked, opening in to the worlds on worlds that ringed this earth. But this was different. The air didn’t just crackle. It hissed, it burned, it smoldered.

It appeared from nowhere. At one moment, it wasn’t there; the next it was. It. The beast was huge, ten feet or more in height. It stood before them, and opening its mouth, gave a mighty roar. It seemed a composite of all predators that roamed the earth. My mind, not capable of fully accepting the true appearance of the beast, swiftly translated its characteristics into terms the human brain could comprehend. Visions of a lion’s mane, a wolf’s fur, a monkey’s face, a lizard’s feet, ran swiftly before my eyes, and settled in dread on the alligator-like teeth that ringed the open mouth.

It growled and turned toward my characters. It could smell the blood, I knew. Lovely blood; hot, rich and heavy. Though it came here seldom, and though the doors almost never cracked between the creature’s world and ours, this was its favorite hunting ground. The inhabitants of this plane were so full of blood; bright red blood which ran like wine down its thirsty throat, not like the anemic creatures with which it habitually had to content itself.

Billy, Investigator for the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department, reached for the Glock in his belt. The twin of the Glock appeared in Maggie’s hands, though I didn’t see her pull it out. Dalph, warrior from an earlier time, drew his sword. Tess did the same, and just as swiftly, too, my mother’s eye noted in approval. My modern American girl had wasted no time in figuring out that the rules of the game had changed and she’d best be getting conversant with the rules of the world she’d ended up in.

“Admirable speed, but I’m afraid those won’t do you much good,” Paul advised. “That’s a Blood Drinker.”

“We’re open to suggestions, buddy,” drawled Billy, sighting the Glock directly on where he hoped the creature’s heart was. “Maggie, aim for the eyes. That’s gotta do something, no matter where any other vital organ is.”

“Tamara!” Paul’s shout rang through the mists while the Blood Drinker advanced towards my characters. My other family. My children. “Tamara, where are you?”

A figure materialized beside the Blood Drinker, regal of bearing, copper of skin, a rag turban highlighting beautiful cheekbones that gave the impression of an African Queen. Oh, yes. Tamara was in the house. She fell to her knees and began to chant. Her face poured sweat. The small capillaries in her eyes popped in the intense concentration and poured blood. She chanted like she’d never chanted before; begging God and the Loa of the Rada, all the sweet spirits of the Light, to stop this intruder, to send the invader back, back to the worlds which were its by right.

Never, never in her long battle with the dark had she swayed with this intensity. And in reward, the Loa poured their power through her in a scalding flood. Drenched in sweat, she felt the Rada battling with the Blood Drinker, the child from the outer reaches of the planes of darkness. So did the Blood Drinker. It started towards Tamara, who chanted relentlessly, pouring sweat in rivulets, and abruptly, the air was split with a monstrous bolt of lightning and the Blood Drinker disappeared. Tamara collapsed.

My characters rushed to her, but as they approached, her figure wavered and disappeared and only her voice floated back.

“All y’all! You be children of ‘de light! Doan you nev’r give in to the darkness! Do you hear me?”

And in another instant, all my characters disappeared. My eyes flew open. I was sitting on the backyard swing, my favorite reading spot for those perfect fall and spring days.

My five year old grandson slipped his little hand in mine.

“Grandmama? Where’d they go?”

“Where did who go, honey?”

“The people. The monsters.”

“You must have been day dreamin’, honey,” I assured him, knowing full well he wasn’t.

“No, Grandmama! The heroes were here! I saw them by my own eyes!” He reached his hand up and traced a line underneath his eye and across his cheekbones with his finger. I smiled at his wording. I’d miss those treasures of childhood that disappeared as children grew. “I want to see them again!”

“Well, you learn to read and grow up for a few more years, I can show them to you.”

“All of them?”

“Well, I can’t promise all of them right yet,” I said, smiling as I remembered my soon-to-be-published characters’ parting words to Paul and Ria, who’d not yet been submitted for publication.

“Hurry, come join us! It’s time to be born! Don’t let her dilly-dally around with you!”

Guess I’d better get busy on Paul and Ria’s final polish.

Don’t y’all think?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Praise the Lord and Pass the Biscuits!

A few blogs back, I introduced y’all to the Courthouse Café, the real inspiration for the Scales of Justice Café, a little country jewel of a dining experience that plays a major role in my crime thriller Down Home, coming September 2012. That blog called forth some discussion among the Muse authors as to the exact definition of biscuits. And how you make ‘em. I loved that, because it highlighted the global nature of this wonderous family we call Musers.

In Europe and Australia, biscuits are hard sweet cookies (they are hard, aren’t they, guys?) frequently served with tea. In the United States, biscuits are a quick-to-make bread eaten with meals. And with apologies, I never did catch what biscuits are in Canada, which logically could go either way. And with apologies, I never did make good on my promise to explain how they were made, either. Probably because I got scared just thinking about it.

Lin Holmes’ comment posted for that blog answered the question of what exactly are these non-cookie biscuits and how do you make them posed by our family members of non-American persuasion better than I could have done. If I may be so bold as to quote my dear friend: “They are little bready things slathered in butter or dipped in gravy to accompany meals. The Pillsbury Doughboy advertises the ready to make kind you can buy in tins from your grocery store, but Gail is talking about the kind that's made from scratch. Ingredients measured sometimes by actual measuring devices, but more often than not by geniuses who know how many pinches and dashes are needed.”

Now that description is – genius. There are as many ways to make biscuits as there are great cooks who make them. Particularly in Flowers on the Fence Country. And that last line of Lin’s comment, “Ingredients measured sometimes by actual measuring devices, but more often than not by geniuses who know how many pinches and dashes are needed” – well, as we say down here, descriptions just don’t get any better than that. That’s it. Exactly.

First, there’s the mix and pinch method. My mother employed this method, I have aunts who employed this method, and Judy, our wondrous cook at the Courthouse Café, employed this method. Dump a pile of flour in a bowl. How much doesn’t matter. Punch a hole in the middle of the pile of flour, a bowl within a bowl, as it were. If it’s self-rising flour, that’s all you need, if it’s not, you need to add baking soda, salt, and if you like high-rising biscuits, some baking powder to the hole you’ve punched in the middle. How much? Heck, I don’t know. A pinch, a dash, a splash. Dip out, either by spoon, fork, or fingers, a dollop of shortening. Like the flour, how much shortening doesn’t really matter, because if you’ve done it enough, you know how many biscuits any size dollop’s going to make. And besides, you adjust the amount of shortening you’ve plopped in with the addition of buttermilk (we prefer buttermilk as a general rule down in Flowers on the Fence country but milk will do). You pour in buttermilk, stick your hands in the bowl and start forming a goo by working your fingers in and out of the shortening and buttermilk. Then you start working flour in from the sides. This method is truly an art form, because you’re working by feel. You keep adding buttermilk and working in flour until it “feels” right.

What does that feel like? Well, I can’t really tell you, though I can and have made biscuits by this method. And I know it when I feel it. You’re working for a proper consistency of dough that isn’t stiff, is still soft, and still feels – well – doughy. When that consistency is reached, you knead the dough a few times, right there in the center of the bowl. You know, grabbing each side of the dough ball, pulling it out, folding it back over, flipping the dough, and doing it again from the other side. But you can’t work it too long or too hard or that’s what you get. Hard biscuits. The true connoisseur of this method (and I am not one), completes the process without ever turning the ball of dough out on a counter to knead and roll.

They merely “pinch” off pieces of dough, shape them into little balls in their palms, slap them down on a greased baking sheet an even distance apart. When the entire ball has been pinched and shaped and plopped down on the greased baking sheet (and here’s where the even distance apart comes into play), the cook employing this method of biscuit making slaps her hand down on the ball, flattening it into a round circle. Some cooks prefer using the backs of their fingers. I was going to say that some cooks use the palms of their hands, but on reflection, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody who made biscuits using this method use anything but the backs of their hands to flatten the dough. In any event, once you’ve survived all this, you pop the baking sheet into an oven pre-heated to 450 degrees for nine minutes (depending on the oven), turn on the broiler and move the pan to the top rack for an additional one and one-half minutes (depending on the oven) and remove at the exact moment your timer dings. (These directions apply to my oven, can you tell? And I’m serious, here. Nine minutes at 450 degrees, one and one-half minutes under the broiler, and then get them the heck out of there!) And for Heaven’s sake, USE A SHINY BAKING SHEET! A dark one burns the bottoms of the biscuits!

Now. Here comes the fun part. That ain’t the only recipe in town, ladies and gents. This second method is generally preferred by those cooks who prefer a “prettier” biscuit. It’s basically the first method up until you get to the kneading the dough in the bowl part. Then it switches over to the “roll and cut” method. Cooks who prefer this method (I used to be one till I learned better but more about that later) have a mat of some type, either a wooden block, a plastic dough mat, even a floured kitchen cloth, waiting on the side. They take the ball of dough as soon as it’s sufficiently formed and dump it onto the waiting – whatever it is they’re using. Then they knead the dough a few times, sometimes adding a few judicial sprinkles of flour to maintain the proper consistency, and then roll it out on their mat of choice, about half an inch thick or maybe a tad thicker. You don’t want it any thinner, you’ll have flat biscuits. And you might as well have used the pinch method which produced some pretty damn flat biscuits. Then you cut with a biscuit cutter – and biscuit cutters are real fancy now, usually in sets of three different sizes with a smooth cutting edge on one end and a ruffled cutting edge on the other. I prefer the medium size cutter, cutting with the ruffled edge. You cut until you can’t cut anymore, mash the dough back into a ball, and start over, repeating the process until all the dough’s gone and you don’t know what the heck to do with the little bit that’s left so you either throw it away or shape it the best you can so it can be the ugly duckling on your baking tray. The same actual baking methods still apply. 450 for nine minutes, broiler for a minute and a half, shiny baking pan, mark and move!

Now, all this sounds real messy, huh? Well, it is. And after you’ve done all that, you have to sift the flour that remains in the bowl before you put it back in your flour canister, elsewise, your flour canister will be full of hard little points of shortening that somehow escaped your notice at the time you thought the flour was okay to put back in the canister without sifting but wasn’t.

So why does anybody bother, you ask? For a long time, I didn’t. Pillsbury and Betty Crocker and five dozen other companies had come out with frozen biscuits (as opposed to canned biscuits) and you know what? Those are dang good. Dang good. But they’re just not – quite – the same as a truly good homemade from scratch biscuit. There’s a subtle difference in texture, a difference in the way the butter melts into their hot interiors. And one day, I had a roast slow-roasting in the oven. And no frozen biscuits in the freezer. Well, heck. It’d been years – literally – since I’d made biscuits from scratch, and I surely wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of so doing. But it was a roast! Without biscuits!

So I pulled out the dang flour. And noticed the recipe on the back. Two cups of flour, it said. Quarter cup of shortening. Two-thirds to three-quarters cup buttermilk or milk. Cut shortening into flour, add milk, mix and turn onto floured cloth, roll and cut. Makes a dozen biscuits. Like heck, I thought. That ain’t no dozen biscuits. So I doubled it. And followed directions. I’d never seen biscuits made that way, by actually measuring, but somebody must have done it, right? And you know what? That pulled in every bit of the flour from the sides of the bowl. No excess to have to sift and return to the canister. And measuring the shortening out with a spoon and cutting it into the flour with a fork kept my hands out of the mess. Now, it did take just a tad more buttermilk to achieve the texture I remembered, but that wasn’t a problem, and the buttermilk mixed into everything just fine using nothing more than a fork. I turned the ball of dough out onto my floured board and sprinkled more flour over it. I kneaded it over a few times and it felt perfect, exactly the “feel” my fingers remembered. I rolled and cut. And there’s no way that original recipe would have made a dozen biscuits, not thick ones, anyway. The doubled recipe only makes fourteen. But it makes fourteen perfect biscuits. That remembered texture, the texture that just absorbs the melting butter – heaven on one’s tongue.

I had to experiment a few times but finally I hit on the exact baking technique – that nine minutes at 450 degrees (any less, they’re not done enough, any more they’re hard) and the minute and a half under the broiler (any less, the tops aren’t brown enough, any more, the tops are too brown), and a shiny baking sheet (dark ones burn the bottoms). And there was no flour to sift, no flour wasted, no goo to clean off my fingers and out of my rings (since I never remember to take them off prior to starting such a project). I was pretty dang proud of myself.

And so I share with y’all the perfect recipe for the perfect homemade biscuit. Feelin’ adventuresome? Go try it and report results. Y’all come back now, hear?