Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Decorating with the Mistress of Mystery

Mystery author GB Pool has some creepy moments in her books. They are after all murder  mysteries. But that's nothing compared to the thrills and chills that come about when you put Gayle in the Halloween mood. I asked her about her decorating prowess, and here's what she had to say.

When did you first start decorating for Holidays? How did these extravaganza's come about?

            When I first moved to California and lived in a cute duplex apartment, I decorated my place for the holidays. I made my own Valentine decorations and Christmas and Easter ornaments. I discovered Solvang north of Los Angeles and drove up there on my birthday and bought a few Christmas decorations.
            Then I started working for Miniature World, a terrific dollhouse shop in Montrose and became a complete holiday junkie, I mean a mainliner. Kay Kelley, who owned the shop, had a separate holiday room that we filled with Easter, then Christmas items. Kay and I would go to the wholesale mart downtown and shopped for the store. We would be drunk on shopping before we left, we’d buy a ton of things for the store, but we would sell down to the walls by the end of the season.
            I could buy things at wholesale prices, and I did, thus becoming a real junkie.
Kay and I would go to the Rose Bowl and browse. I started my Christmas collection there finding dozens of Santas at a dollar or two each. When the prices started to get ridiculous, I stopped going, but by then I had over 1500 Santas.
Years later, the collection of Santas alone grew to over 3500. I added Halloween, Easter, Fourth of July and a few St. Patrick’s Day things along the way.
It is a happy addiction.

As a military kid, you moved about. Did your mom or family decorate for the holidays?

            We lived on Okinawa and in France for a total of five and a half years. We took nothing but clothes and a few necessities to Okinawa, so the decorations were whatever we made in school. My brother was 10-11; I was 6-7.
In France, we had a tree every year, but no ornaments. I strung popcorn and cranberries for decorations. While in Germany on a shopping tour, I bought my first Santa. It has an intricately made cloth face and rustic felt outfit.

Store-bought or homemade?

            I am a craft person. I like to make things. When I see something gorgeous in a catalog that sells for $250- $350, I think what my husband would do if I bought it. Once I get the picture of the blood and bruises out of my mind, I make the thing myself. I might nickel and dime Richard to death, and he doesn’t say boo, but I really can’t see paying that kind of money for something I don’t need. I never sell these items, but I do enjoy seeing how close I can get to the original. Since I have no instructions on how to make the things I see in magazines or catalogs, I have to start from scratch and design it from the bottom up, so my only aid is the original picture.
In art class in college, my teacher had us copy master drawings. I always got A’s because I could copy anything. It’s just something I can do.
            I have created things strictly on my own. The Santa Castle and the figures from Bearnard’s Christmas, a holiday story I wrote, are all my own. The Gingerbread House was made from a kit, but I turned it into a gumdrop encrusted delight through my own imagination.

Where do you get your ideas?

            Sometimes when I create something strictly out of the blue, I get a brainstorm. Something pops into my head and I have to do it right then. It’s like I see the thing form right in front of me. I see the steps and follow them to completion.
            I got the idea for the Santa Castle when I worked for Miniature World. I had the idea for a Christmas story about a Polar Bear who works for Santa. I sketched the castle on a large piece of paper. In this case, I didn’t build it right away.
            The store closed and I found other work. Years later I decided to write the story, which I did. Then I thought I better build the castle. I pulled out the drawing and that brainstorming thing happened. I had the walls up in about a week. It took a little longer to decorate the interior and facade, but all in all, it came together very fast. I made the characters for the story and photographed the entire thing.
            Now that there are Kindles in color, I just might publish the story myself with pictures. They look great.

Do you go all-out for most holidays or a select few?

            Depends. It takes two solid weeks to decorate the entire house for Christmas. A few years I didn’t decorate at all. Some years I do every holiday all out. I have skipped a holiday or two. If I have the time, I’ll do all of it. I love seeing everything and still marvel at some of the decorations. Sometimes I look at maybe the 15th box and say, “Oh, God. Not another box.” That’s why I’ll skip a year. But even during the years I skip decorating, I’ll put a small tree up at Christmas. I just have to.

How early do you have to start the process each year?

            My holiday decorating starts at the end of September. I have boxes for the regular household décor which I take down and store in the garage. I collect roosters, so they all go into their boxes and I clear the decks.
            First the Halloween decorations go up in the dining room. It’s the prime decorating room. I do put purple decorations in the bathroom. The Halloween stuff stays up until the first part of November, then they come down and I begin the two-week marathon for Christmas.
            I have one large Victorian tree for the living room decorated with the more old fashioned decorations. There is a metal tree in that room that holds handmade ornaments I did when I first moved to California. I have a small lighted bead tree under a glass dome that goes on the desk.
            I add purple ornaments to the bathroom garland and a tree with purple balls for the counter.
            I put a glass fruit laden garland over the sink in the kitchen and other food related ornaments and chef Santas in the kitchen. There is a small sugar plum tree and bon-bon tree on the refrigerator.
The dining room has an upside down tree totally in Santas; another tree has woodsy animals and Santas; one tree is all gingerbread and glass candy ornaments. A large feather tree has vintage 1940’s ornaments and a smaller feather tree is loaded with mini-ornaments.
The master bedroom has a tall narrow tree all in white ornaments and a smaller tree is decorated with dancing fairies. The Santas in the bedroom are all in white fur.
Those are just the trees.


Halloween. I love the fog!


4th of July

After the holidays, around the beginning of the second week in January, I take down the Christmas things and put out the regular household stuff. It’s nice to see it all back to normal.
            In February I hang Valentine decorations from the dining room chandelier. I put a few St. Patrick things out in March. By Easter, I bring out the white feather Easter tree with wooden ornaments and I decorate the large upside down tree that stays in the dining room with handmade ornaments I made when I first came to California.
            In June I put out the red, white and blue decorations. I have ornaments for the upside down tree and lots of Uncle Sams and flags.
            August brings out the sunflowers. I put a garland around the chandelier and have vases of silk sunflowers for the table and stands.
            Then we are in September when I start all over again. Now you see why I get tired every now and then.

Could we have an example or two of your favorites?
            I like the things I made most of all because I know how much work went into them. Any humble craft person knows they never get paid for the real work they do, but the joy in creating is part of the payment. I’ve made the large Santa Castle and a small Christmas Shoe filled with tiny bear figures and mini furniture that’s so much fun to look at. It’s the detail that gets you. It’s always fun when somebody notices some small thing and points it out. They are sharing the joy. That’s what I like most of all.

Do you ever do craft shows or are these all for your own enjoyment?

            I never do craft first other than to buy. I used to make tiny dressed mice for Miniature World. The mice were mink fur about two inches tall. I’d dress them as Santa and Mrs. Claus, witches, ghosts, cheerleaders in your school colors, and other outfits. I got a dollar each for my work. We sold them for $3. That was a lot of work for a buck, but I paid my rent and insurance, so I guess it was enough.

There are oodles more pictures on Gayle's website, and she's promised to come back at Christmas with a little surprise! I don't know about you, but my decorations are looking pretty lame now. I better get out that 10 year old kit and try to finish my spooky scarecrow this year!

Gayle writes both short stories and novels. Her latest Ginger Caulfield mystery, "Hedge Bet", and her Johnny Casino short story collection are being shopped by her agent. I am fond of Ginger, but I LOVE Johnny, and I can't wait to hold both of them in my hot little hands! To get a taste of her writing, you can find samples on her web site, or you can pick up one of the anthologies she's in: Dying in a Winter Wonderland, Landmarked for Murder, or Little Sisters Volume I. (The first two are available on Kindle.) She will keep busy next year as Sisters in Crime/LA's Treasurer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Does Homemade Laundry Soap Work???

Yes it does. Sort of.

After reading oodles of posts about how much cheaper it is to make your own laundry soap, I decided to take the plunge. The simplest formula was 2 cups of bar Laundry Soap, grated, + 1 cup of Washing Soda + 1 cup of 20 Mule Team Borax. I found the instructions on Planet Green. If you like, they also have instructions on how to make liquid laundry detergent.

I went to the hardware store for the laundry soap. There were several choices. All but one said I should scrub the dickens out of my skin if it came into prolonged contact with the soap. Soap on clothes, clothes on skin, me in hospital with giant rash. It wasn't a difficult choice.

 I'd like to introduce you to Zote. It doesn't come with any horrible warnings, and it smells like roses. And it's a pretty pink. Laundry soap should be pretty, don't you think?

Borax was easy to find, but washing soda was a different story. Apparently, washing soda is such a cheap way to clean clothes that all the laundry detergent companies have fought to keep it off the shelves. That's my conspiracy theory and I'm sticking with it. The only store brave enough to carry the product is Wal-mart. I got the Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda.

The next step is to grate the soap. I thought, "How tough could it be to grate a soft, pretty, bar that smells like roses?" It's tough. If you're not an iron worker, use the food processor with a grater attachment, like I did. Then I put on the normal blade attachment to grind up the grated pieces. I found that one bar made two cups of chips.

Mix the soap chips, soda, and Borax in one bowl. Pour it into a container and store it in your laundry room. You only need a small amount--about 2 tablespoons per full load.  Doesn't my picture show it off in all of it's pretty pinkness?

So how does it work on laundry? Great...if you are washing in warm or hot water.

I washed a load of the hubby's work clothes in cold. When I brought the basket inside to hang up, he grabbed a shirt.

"What's this?"

I averted my eyes from the light film that covered his clothes. "I don't know what you mean."

"What's wrong with my shirts?"

"Umm, don't you like the rosy scent?"

Okay. I rewashed them and won't use the soap in cold water again.

I had to buy detergent for the cool loads, but I still use the homemade laundry soap for the warm and  hot. The towels and underthings smell great, and they are nice and clean. Since most of my loads are cold, I will only save a third of the money I could have, but it's still something, right?  I could conquer that problem by making liquid laundry detergent. From what I've read, that includes a final step of mixing it all together with about 2 gallons of water (hot, I would assume). I just don't have the storage space for a large, heavy container.  

How about you? Have you tried a homemade soap? Did it bomb? Was it great?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Corner to Corner Baby Blanket Equals Victory!

Here is the corner to corner baby blanket I just completed for a cousin. (And stop looking at the unwoven ends. I'll take care of it! Tomorrow!)

As soon as I finished, I strolled into the television room and struck an arrogant pose. The hubby said, "What are you so happy about?" followed by "You're shirt's on backwards. I can see the tag."

He was right. I slunk away. 
I'm great at starting creative projects. Not so good at finishing them. So I deserve praise. And a margarita.

I can tell by the arched eyebrow you have an unasked question you're dying to voice. "What kind of pattern allowed you to finish a baby blanket??" An Easy pattern. Really, really, easy. It's called a Corner to Corner, and you can do it while you're watching television or chatting because you don't have to count. Swear on my ball of yarn. For my blanket, I used an H hook and Bernat Satin yarn.

First thing you do is chain six.

Skip two and double crochet in the last three chain stitches. You will wind up with this little nubby-looking thing that I'll call--the Nub. Now turn.

Work the pattern again. Chain six. Double crochet in the last three chain stitches. You are now the proud owner of two Nubs!
You will notice that each Nub has a loop at the top - the curved part. Slip stitch the two Nubs together.
Turn. Chain three.
Add three more double crochets into the loop you just slip stitched through. You now have the pattern started. Turn.

At the end of every row, you will turn. You will add another Nub by chaining six and double crocheting in the last three chains. The pattern across is "slip stitch through the loop of the next Nub, chain three, and add three double crochets into the loop".

Work the pattern into the size you want. When you are ready to decrease, instead of adding a new Nub to the pattern, you will slip stitch across the top of the last nub in the row (3 slip stitches total) and then work usual the pattern across.

Easy peasy!

If anyone finds my instructions difficult, just leave me a note or email me with Corner to Corner in the subject line and I'll be happy to help if I can.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fifty Favorite Food Blogs Donate to Red Cross!

There's a new cookbook in town, and the proceeds to to the Red Cross to aid the victims of natural disasters.

I saw this on Buns in My Oven and immediately snagged by copy. Though I got the ebook, you can also get the hard copy--both for only $10!

Not only have I discovered new recipes, I've discovered new blogs that cover everything from food to crafts to money saving tips. Cool.

Here's the link. It's a great investment!

In case I mess up the link, here it is again.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Making Plum Jam

I just wiped off the bathroom counters with a dirty nightgown. Does this make me a bad person?

It's not my fault. The Direct TV guy showed up early, which is good except that I hadn't cleaned the bathroom. Or showered. Are you beginning to understand the whole antitheses of Martha thing?

As promised, I did make jam. Or maybe it's marmalade. It's kind of chunky.

First, I bought 4 oz Ball jars at the grocery store along with a packet of Ball pectin and a box of sealing wax. I already had tons of plums at home, and I thought plum jam might be nice.

I'm not a stupid woman. I called Grandma before I made another move. She had just the recipe for me. It was a freezer jam recipe, so I wouldn't need to boil jars or make seals. (She had mercy on me because she knows me. Thanks, Grandma.)  Right after I hung up, I realized that I hadn't bought any Sure Jell. She definitely said to add Sure Jell.

Then I noticed that the pectin package promised recipes. Nestled inside the box, I found a complex chart that covered three ways to make jam, including a freezer method that didn't ask for Sure Jell. They gave examples of quantities used for various fruits, but plums weren't on the list. I took a wild guess. Peaches and plums are pretty similar, right? 

The recipe called for three cups of fruit. Grandma said to use six cups for one package of pectin, so I settled on four and a half cups. Grandma said to cut up the plums and smoosh them with the potato masher. I soon realized that I didn't have enough ripe plums. Some of them weren't smooshy, and the recipe warned me not to use the food processor to grind up the fruit or I would destroy the fruit's natural pectin. I guess with pectin, it's the more, the merrier. So I added some peaches to make up the difference.

When it came time to add the sugar, I figured fruit is so sweet, why bother?  Grandma recommended cutting her recipe's six cups to three. The pectin recipe agreed with her, but I boldly (or foolishly) limited the sugar to one cup.

Now, the pectin recipe said to mix the pectin with apple juice over a burner. Then pour the hot liquid over the fruit and stir for one minute. I had some pretty chunky plums and peaches. I thought it might be a good idea to heat up the fruit separately and let it soften up a bit. Then I could give it a few more wacks with the potato masher. So I did.

Then I added the hot apple juice/pectin mixture to the fruit and stirred.

I spooned the results into my jars and refrigerated them for twenty-four hours. Then I moved all but two jars into the freezer. The results?

The jars are pretty. So is the jam. All plummy-looking, except for the large chunks of peaches. I should have cut the fruit into smaller pieces.

There was a slightly bitter aftertaste. I think I might have gotten too close to the pits when I cut up the plum. After a night in the ice box, the chunks of fruit had softened up enough that my toast and marmalade breakfast wasn't crunchy.

Overall? A success.

Define success? I could give a jar away to someone I know really well and not feel horrible about it. Or someone I'll never see again.

You want to know the hardest part? Taking the picture. Anyone who reads food blogs such as Buns in My Oven  might think that taking good-looking food photos is easy. It's not.

I posed my jar on the white tile counter that I re-grouted last year, but the grout looked dingy. Then I set the jar on a dish towel. There was a grey smudge on the cloth that could only mean my dog Buster had wiped his mouth on it. He does that sometimes. Gross.

After I looked at this last shot, I thought the towel needed ironing. Martha's probably are. I decided it looked homey.

I know you're wondering what happened to that unused sealing wax. Maybe I'll try to make my own candles.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Welcome to Bad Martha

No. This isn't a commentary on Martha Stewart's life of crime. It's a blog for those of us who are the antitheses of Martha, and not for want of trying.

As a little girl, I relished those homey moments with my mom and grandma--the smell of freshly baked bread, apples with fairy kisses eaten right off the backyard tree, and homemade gingerbread cookies on the Christmas tree.

My mom delved into ceramics for a while, and every holiday was marked with the appearance of familiar faces. The perky Easter Bunny, the rustic nativity scene, and two spotted frogs that hung around all year. We saw the same tablecloth on special occasions, with a runner that my mom whipped up herself.

My holiday decorations consist of a short rosemary tree purchased at Trader Joe's and a store-bought wreath.

I got sidetracked by a career, but when I left that job to be a full-time housewife/writer, I longed to transform my house into a home. It's not just that wives are usually the one to take on that assignment, should they choose to accept it. Creating a home is a woman's gift. And it's never too late to start, right?

I want a garden, or at least a few plants that survive more than a week. A miniature fruit tree or pots of herbs would be nice. I want homemade decorations that I pull out every year. I want to conquer a sourdough "mother". I want to use all those beads and balls of yard I bought on impulse. I want to turn those cut out patterns into usable clothing. I want ketchup and BBQ sauce that doesn't come from a bottle.

In short...I want it all.

I'm not obsessed with perfection, which is good. I saw a dog treat recipe on a food blog recently, and all the cookies were shaped like doggie biscuits. The ones I microwave for my own dog look like blobs. But the dog doesn't care. And I know I'll get better with time.

Are there other women out there who have this same longing? Who maybe didn't pay attention in Home Ec class because they were busy driving the teacher nuts by singing "Twelve Days of Christmas" over...and over...and over. (The woman was a saint.) Are there ladies who would like to share their expertise with the less fortunate members of their sex?

I like that thought. Women used to hang together and teach the younger gals the tricks of the trade. I didn't take advantage of those moments, but I hope to make up for lost time. 

I'm off to try to make homemade jam. I'll tell you all about it.