V is for Victuals


You might or might not know that victuals is pronounced vittles.  I didn’t; I just learned it a couple of weeks ago.  When I think of vittles, I think of Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies.  Victuals, on the other hand, always makes me think of the poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” by A.E. Housman:

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.’[1]

I’ve always pronounced victuals with both the C and the U, like actual.  It’s one of those words I’d only seen, but never heard.  Or anyway, I didn’t know I’d heard it.  I thought what I’d heard was vittles.

In any event, this post isn’t about etymology or pronunciation or anything like that.

It’s about food.  Polish food.

I really wasn’t exposed to a great many Polish dishes as I was growing up.  We made chrusti with some frequency, and also my grandmother’s traditional Christmas bread (which I have never found an even remotely equivalent recipe for anywhere, so I have no idea what its Polish name might be).  We occasionally had golabki (which is pronounced “galumpki,” and that’s also how I’ve always spelled it), and I heard many stories about “glue balls” but never had the (dis)pleasure of actually trying them, though my cousins did.

We made potato pancakes often (they’re one of my own kids’ favorite foods), and we frequently made chicken soup with my grandmother’s fat, fabulous dumplings, but though I knew both of these had Polish origins, I never knew their Polish names.  (For the dumplings, I still don’t, but the pancakes are placki ziemniaczane.)

And of course there were my mom’s pork chops, which I never knew were Polish at all.

But that’s it.  The sum total of my exposure to Polish food.

Growing up, that was fine, but as an adult, and especially since I’ve been writing this book, I’ve wanted more.

I’ve bought cookbooks, and of course I’ve browsed the Internet, so I’ve learned a little about Polish cuisine, but I’ve never really had the courage to try any of the recipes I found because I had no way of knowing how correctly (or incorrectly) I might be following them.  My one attempt at golabki several years ago was an unmitigated disaster (a story for another time, perhaps), so I was leery of trying anything completely new.

And then—

My husband and I were walking down the main drag in Wisconsin Dells last summer, just doing the tourist thing, when a little sign caught my eye.  Polish Food, it said, with a little arrow pointing down an alley.

Really?  I chugged down that alley with Tom’s futile words drifting on the wind behind me:  “But we’ve already had lunch!”

I didn’t care.  It’s no trouble at all to order food to go.

I don’t remember the name of the place.  I’m not sure I ever even saw the name of the place.  It was just a teeny little storefront with two café tables inside:

polish restaurant dells 8-31-13

What’s gofry?  I wondered.  I didn’t know.

Turns out gofry is waffles.  These people seriously know how to do waffles.  The menu offered a wealth of other possibilities, as well.  I wasn’t sure where to start.

polish menu left dells 8-31-13

Sorry that picture’s blurry.  I was literally shaking with excitement.  Here’s the other half:

polish menu right dells 8-31-13

It took me awhile, but I finally narrowed it down.  I’d heard of bigos, a hunter’s stew that’s considered pretty much the Polish national food, but had never had it.  I’d also, believe it or not, never had pierogi.  And I had to try the golabki to see what I’d done wrong with them the one time I’d tried to make them myself.

polish food dells 8-31-13

Left, bigos; center, potato & cheese pierogi; right, golabki.

It was all fabulous.  Of course it was.

But the very best thing about this unexpected pit stop was talking to the women behind the counter, who spoke with Polish accents.  They sounded just like my grandmother.

I could have listened to them all day long.

But neither of them used the word vittles.


[1] http://www.bartleby.com/123/62.html

U is for Urynowicz


My grandfather, when he arrived in America in 1907, was Josef Urynowicz, but his headstone reads Joseph Urenowicz.  You may have noticed that I use the two spellings interchangeably, and that’s why.

Josef and his friend Jan Chmiclewski sailed out of Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.  This is the Pretoria, the ship they traveled on:

the pretoria from ellis island dot org[1]

I can only begin to imagine how foul it must have been below decks, which is where the 2382 steerage customers endured some pretty horrific living conditions for the duration of the voyage.

Josef and Jan were coming to stay with Josef’s brother Alex, who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This was where my grandfather would soon meet my grandmother (Apolonie / Apolonia / Pauline).  They married there in June, 1909, and had their first two children there—my Aunt Joan and my Uncle Joe—before the New York Central Railroad, for which my grandfather was a boilermaker, transferred him to Jackson, Michigan in 1913.

This is their wedding picture:

grandma grampa wedding pic scanned 4-24-14

In Jackson, my grandparents bought a small bungalow on Loomis Street, where seven more children were born (including my mom); and in 1926 they sold the Loomis house and moved to a farm just north of town, where one more child, my Uncle Ray, was born.  I have many, many fond memories of the farm.  This is me at about age four:

me feeding the chickens, michigan

My grandfather (known as Grampa to his many grandchildren) had been drafted into the Russian army as a young man and sustained a leg injury in a fall from a horse that left him with a limp throughout the rest of his life.  In 1964, he developed gangrene and was told that the leg must be amputated.  His response to this news:  “I came into this world with two legs, and I’m going to go out with two legs.”

And so he did.  In November it will be fifty years.  I’d sure give a lot to be able to go back and speak with him now.

My grandparents’ 50th anniversary photo, taken in 1959:

grandma grampa 50th anniv june 1959 scanned 4-24-14

May they both rest in peace.


Are you interested in discovering your own family history? 


[1]   http://www.ellisisland.org/search/shipImage.asp?MID=13541073640892562880&LNM=URYNOWICZ&PLNM=URYNOWICZ&first_kind=1&last_kind=0&RF=13&pID=102135050365&

T is for Total Disaster


I had a lot of T ideas for today and hadn’t settled on one yet, though I had narrowed it down to Theme or Tradition.  My youngest son and his family are here tonight and I wanted to keep it short so I could visit with them, so I decided to write on Theme, which wouldn’t require any research.

I opened my famous flash drive, which is already in the computer, to get started.

But instead of opening it, my computer gave me a pretty blue pop-up containing an error message:

Location is not available.  E:/ is not accessible.  The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.


I sat there staring at the words and felt like Woody in Toy Story.  You know, that part where he goes, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no” in utter despair.  I’m not sure why he does that—I don’t remember—but I know it can’t have been over anything as bad as this.

Tried again.  Same result.

And again.  Same.

Tried removing the flash drive.  The computer says it’s in use.  It’s not, but I’m going to get this posted before I mess around with it any further.

The good news:  I did back up my Novel folder last week.

The bad news:  I did not back up the Blog folder.  All of my blog stuff—all of it—is gone.  All my plans and ideas, not just for my A-Z blogs but all blog posts past present and future, are in that folder.

I also did not back up the Research folder, the Journal folder, the Old Drafts folder, or any other folders.

So yeah.  Today’s post is T is for Total Disaster.  I can’t believe something like this could happen twice in one month.  I can’t believe I was foolish enough not to back everything up.


(Does anyone know how to recover a corrupt flash drive?  That’s a trick I don’t know.)

S is for “Show, Don’t Tell”


My biggest bugaboo as a fiction writer is having to go back and rewrite whole paragraphs, and even whole scenes, because they too often tell, rather than show.  The notes I write to myself in the margins of almost every page of a first draft are the same, over and over:  Show don’t tell?  Show don’t tell?

I understand the concept, of course.  A reader needs to see a character living such-and-such experience rather than merely be told about it.  Long paragraphs of telling are tedious.  Those are the bits readers skip.

I guess that’s why, as I’m getting the first draft fleshed out, my inner editor hollers, Hey, what does this look like?  You’re not showing!

She reminds me almost constantly that I need to remember to show.

Don’t say, “Bub was angry.”   Show him throwing things, slamming doors, shouting with red face and bulging eyes, and maybe a tic.  Leave out the weak verbs.  Get rid of the passive voice.  Write actively.

I have to remind myself to look for all five senses.  It’s not just about what something looks like.  What does it smell like?  What about taste, touch, and sound?

But I also have to remind myself that too much description can be as bad or worse than not enough.  It’s all about balance.

Sometimes I wonder, Do I need to show this? It’s really a matter of judgment, isn’t it?  It seems to me that I have to trust my reader to be able to imagine certain details.  If s/he doesn’t see something exactly the way I’m envisioning it, as long as it’s not vital to the plot, then it really doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

R is for Recursive


It’s time to come clean:  I’m not nuts about one of the bits of writing advice I keep hearing everywhere.

Just write.  It doesn’t matter if it stinks.  Just get it written.

Even a couple of the quotes I posted yesterday offer this advice, or something like it.

I just can’t buy into that philosophy.  I wish I could.  But I’m a recursive writer, and in fact I think many of us are recursive writers and it just goes against our nature to do it any other way.  I think that for recursive people, it’s not possible to do it any other way.

I regularly ask my students to list the steps in their writing processes, from the day they receive a writing assignment to the day they turn in a completed paper.  As it turns out, very few of them seem to incorporate any steps into their process that are very different from anyone else’s steps.  I’m pretty sure these steps are universal, whether one is writing a freshman paper in college or the Great American Novel.

As the students call out their steps, I write them all on the board:

Read.  Think.  Procrastinate.  Brainstorm.  Generate ideas.  Outline.  Write.  Read out loud.  Revise.  Proofread.  Spell-check.  Edit.  Check formatting.  Submit.

Sound familiar?  I’m going to guess yes.  If you’re a writer, yes.

These steps all invariably fall into three categories:

  1. Invention (aka prewriting)
  2. Drafting (aka writing)
  3. Revision (aka rewriting)

So here’s the zillion-dollar question:  Do you do these in order when you write?  What I mean by this is, do you do all of your brainstorming and invention, get all your ideas together, do all of your research, and then start writing?  Do you write a whole draft from beginning to end without getting writer’s block, without doing any further research, without stopping to come up with new ideas, without changing a single word?  Do you wait until you have a whole complete draft before you launch into the dreaded revision and editing process?

I’m going to guess that unless you’re Jack Kerouac, the answer to that is a big fat NO.

Nobody does that.

That’s because writing itself is a recursive process.

You get an idea (invention).  You jot it down (writing).  You get a few more ideas and jot those down (invention and writing).  These jottings are starting to look like a story, but man, that third paragraph needs to come sooner.  So you move it (revision).  Now there’s a gap where it used to be, so you sit and think about how to fill the gap (invention).  You write another paragraph (writing), but the opening sentence is off, so you go back and reword it (revision).  Meanwhile you realize that you really don’t know anything about X, and you’re going to have to do some googling before you can move the story forward (invention).  Then, as you’re chugging along (writing), you develop a terrible case of writer’s block.  And back to idea generation you go (invention).

Sound familiar?

That’s the recursive nature of writing.  It bounces back and forth between those three stages.

And it’s NORMAL.  Almost nobody writes in a completely linear fashion.

Yet the writerly advice persists:  Just get it written.  You can go back and fix it later.

It’s true—you can go back and fix it later.  In fact, you’ll have to.  The recursivity of writing is not a substitute for good, solid revision once a draft is complete.  But the fact is, nothing I’ve ever written using the “no matter how bad it is, at least you’ve written something” theory is worth a crap.  It always results in my making more work for myself, not less.

Good writing takes time, no matter where you spend that time—but I know that no matter how much research and planning I do ahead of time, I’m not going to get to the complete draft stage without engaging in a lot of recursiveness in between here and there.  And I’ve found that beating myself up for doing it that way—for breaking someone else’s “rules”—is a mistake.  I’m sure that method works well for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So here’s my theory:  There is no “right” way to get a draft done.

The “right” way to do it is your way.

So be bold.  Embrace your recursive self.


Q is for Quotes


As a writer, I quite often find myself bogged down.  Stuck.  Ready to sail off to Quitsville.  One of the things I do to buck up when the dark closes in is to read inspirational quotes by other writers.*  It always helps to know that even the most famous, the most revered, the most successful writers go through all the same tough moments I do.

Here are eighteen of my favorites (eighteen for Eighteen Crossroads, you know):

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.  (Margaret Atwood)

­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.  (Margaret Atwood)

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.  (Thomas Berger)

The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.  (John Campbell)

I firmly believe every book was meant to be written.  (Marchette Chute)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.  (E. L. Doctorow)

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.  (William Faulkner)

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.  (Ernest Hemingway)

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.  (Erica Jong)

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.  (Stephen King)

The secret of good writing is telling the truth.  (Gordon Lish) 

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary — it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.  (Somerset Maugham)

If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.  (Toni Morrison)

Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.   (Salman Rushdie)

Pretend to be writing to an aunt.  (John Steinbeck)

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. (Gloria Steinem)

Don’t get it right, just get it written. (James Thurber)

The long-lived books of tomorrow are concealed somewhere amongst the so-far unpublished MSS of today.  (Philip Unwin)


Which is your favorite?  Or do you have a favorite that doesn’t appear here?  What keeps you going when the dark closes in?


*I’ve collected these over several years from all over the internet–they’re all google-able, but I don’t have sources for each one.  No copyright infringement is intended.

P is for Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs)


My mom was a big one for hobbies.  Just a few of the myriad projects we tried our hands at as I was growing up were crewel embroidery, decoupage, cloisonné, acrylic painting, rock tumbling, resin grapes and other resin crafts (enter “klick-klacks”—anyone remember those?), and several different types of crystal growing.  That one came in handy when I needed an 8th grade Science Fair project, since all of my crystals were already well underway when it was assigned.

One year, something inspired my mom to dye Easter eggs the way her family had done it when she was growing up.   I hadn’t thought about this in a long, long time, but the collision of the A-Z Challenge, my Challenge theme, and the approach of Easter jogged the memory.  I know exactly which of my stories this recollection will make it into, too.

We skipped the brightly-colored store-bought dyes and stickers that year; instead, Mom got out a bag of brown onions and started peeling off the dried outer skins.   When she had a whole saucepan full of skins, she covered them with water and brought them to a boil.

“What color will the dye be?” I asked doubtfully.  It just looked brown.  I wasn’t too impressed.

“Brown,” she said.  “The most beautiful brown.”

Brown Easter eggs?  I thought she’d lost her mind.  Why dye Easter eggs brown?  You can buy brown eggs.  I longed for bright pinks and greens and yellows, and robin’s egg blue.

I confess, I wasn’t a very good sport about this one.

While the dye was boiling, we blew a bunch of eggs.  Everyone knows how to blow eggs, right?  Poke a little hole in one end with a needle, and a slightly larger hole in the other end, and blow through the smaller hole until all of the egg has exited through the larger one.  Make the holes large enough that the blowing won’t damage your eardrums, and keep count so you can use the eggs in cooking later, or just make scrambled eggs.

We sat down at the kitchen table with our clean, empty shells and set to work with clear wax crayons, drawing intricate designs and patterns on our eggs.  I know now that an even better method—the traditional Polish method—is to use melted beeswax and apply it with a pin.  Crayons are smeary, and candle wax is hard to see, but beeswax, when it gets hot, turns a dark enough shade to be easily visible as you work, and it leaves a clear, sharp image.

When our designs were finished, we lowered the eggs into the dye and left them there until they had achieved the shade we wanted—a lovely deep reddish brown.

The next step, as with any other Easter eggs, was to remove them from the dye and let them dry completely.

Once they were dry, we held the eggs over a candle to melt the wax and used a paper towel to wipe it all off.  The eggs lay on the table and glowed.  They were beautiful.  I don’t have any photos of ours, but they looked something like these:

Coffee and Vanilla[1]

And they don’t have to be brown—you can use the same wax method with any type of dye.  There are actually several types of Polish Easter eggs, depending on the region:

  • Kraszanki, dyed with plant materials (leaves, flowers, onion skins, beet skins, etc.—what my mom and I did was a combination of this one and the next one)
  • Pisanki , decorated by applying a wax design before dying
  • Skrobanki or Rysowanki, decorated with a design scratched upon their surface
  • Wyklejanki, decorated with yarn, attached with glue
  • Nalepianki, decorated with paper cut-outs or straw glued to them
  • Malowanki, hand painted

You might want to give it a try, whether you have kids or not.  With a little practice, maybe you can make some like these:

pisanki-wydrapywane-2 rabbit skrobanie[2]

That one is a goose egg–that’s the skrobanki style.  The ones below show you can also use color:

PolishEasterEggs 4-17-14[3]


Take a look at these eggs, too—there are so many, I couldn’t possibly post all the photos I would have liked to!

Here’s a Pinterest collection of them for good measure.  I think you’ll agree that they’re just beautiful.

My mom and I never did eggs like that again.  I don’t know why it didn’t become a tradition.  I’m sorry to say I never tried it with my own kids when they were young, either—but I can’t wait to do it with my grandkids!

Happy Easter!


[1] http://www.coffeeandvanilla.com/traditional-polish-easter-eggs-dyed-in-onion-shells/

[2] http://manualni.pl/jak-zrobic-pisanki-cz-2/

[3] http://thehungariangirl.com/2012/03/23/easter-egg-styles-from-central-and-eastern-europe/


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