Chinese New Year – Food

Nushi bustled in and out of the kitchen carrying plate after plate of food. I helped until I tipped a pile of tangerines into a bowl of rice.

As the Chinese New Year celebrations continue, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the traditional foods of the holiday. Food is an important part of the celebration. Relatives are greeted with the words “Have you eaten yet.” I love all the symbolism served with the foods and dishes.

Serve tangerines for luck and oranges and pineapples for wealth and good fortune. Apples bring wisdom and peace. Pomegranates with their treasure of seeds bring many off-springs.

Walnuts bring happiness for families and peanuts bring health and long life.

Fish is served whole. The center is eaten, but the head and tail are left in tact. It symbolizes a good start and finish to the year. It also means that there will be excess in the new year. Many ingredients are kept whole during new years meals since there is not supposed to be cutting in the new year.

The number of dishes is also important. Dishes are kept in even numbers to ensure double happiness in the new year.

Here are a couple of my favorites – spring roles, a symbol of wealth because their shape resembles a gold bar, and the Tray of Togetherness. It is a tray, usually divided into compartments (usually eight since it is an auspicious number) and filled with sweets and fruits such as kumquats (prosperity), coconut (togetherness), and red melon seeds (happiness).

Chinese New Year Preparations

THE FIRE HORSE GIRL begins on the day before the new year. It is a time of preparation and looking forward – a perfect starting place for a journey. I loved researching the preparations that Nushi and Jade Moon would be busy with on this day for the first chapter.

Since tomorrow is the first day of the Chinese New Year celebration. If you haven’t started preparing yet, here are a few traditions you might embrace:

Clean – your house, yourself, and your life. Sweep the house for the beginning of the year to get rid of any of the leftover bad luck from the old year. Once the new year starts, you should not get out the brooms for a couple of weeks for fear that you might sweep away the new good luck. Once the house is clean, you can start to fill it with flowers – daffodils, hyacinths, lotus, peony. Avoid white since it is the color of funerals. You can also decorate with red ribbon and paper with good luck signs on them.

To clean up your life, you should settle debts and resolve disagreements. You want to have a fresh start in the new year.

To clean up yourself, you can get a hair cut and cut your nails. Using scissors at the beginning of the new year might cut the luck you have coming your way. You can also buy new clothes.

More Chinese New Year posts to come! I hope you enjoy!

Year of the Snake

English: Chinese for "Snake"
English: Chinese for “Snake” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In a few weeks (on February 10) the Chinese New Year celebrations begin and we enter the year of the Snake.


Just like the Fire Horse, the Snake has certain characteristics. In The Fire Horse Girl, Sterling Promise was born in the Year of the Snake. Snakes are clever and calculating, which makes them excellent at business. They have a laser focus on their goals, and sometimes manage to achieve them at the expense of others. On the other hand, their good business sense and cool exterior make them excellent mediators.


In the Chinese zodiac, each of the twelve animals is paired with one of five elements (earth, wood, metal, water, and fire). This year will be the Year of the Water Snake. Sterling Promise was born in the Year of the Wood Snake. While the element of fire intensifies all of Jade Moon’s traits, the element of wood softens some of the Snake’s rough edges. Wood Snakes tend to have a kindness and sincerity. They love deeply, and they can be less vain than your average Snake.


The Years of Horse and Snake are next to each other in the zodiac for a reason. When the Emperor was looking to name the years, he decided to have a race of the animals. The first twelve would have a place in the zodiac. The bold Horse was charging to the finish line, about to win sixth place, when the clever snake slithered off one of its hooves. The Horse jumped backwards and the snake won sixth leaving the horse in seventh place. Snakes and Horses tend to find themselves fighting a lot.


I have always loved the backstory of Jade Moon and Sterling Promise’s zodiac signs. The Horse got her revenge for being cheated by the Snake.


This is my favorite site on the different signs of the Chinese zodiac. I used it a lot while I was researching Fire Horse Girl:


This site has the story of the animal race and some other good information:



To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone – just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over….

John Hersey

Every summer for eleven years I sat around campfires, sang camp songs, rode horses, and rowed canoes down the Guadalupe River at a wonderful camp in the Texas Hill Country. The summer after my last year as a camper, I returned as a counselor. It was still a beautiful, warm, and peaceful place. But the shift in perspective from camper to counselor made me realize the work that it took to create that easy, relaxed atmosphere.

I think I struggle with the same shift as a writer. When you come to writing from the experience of being a reader, it takes a little while to peer behind the curtain and see the complicated decisions that add up to a story. Years of reading have given me good instincts, but bad habits.

One thing I am working on is my ability to create an outline. My first book, THE FIRE HORSE GIRL was created with a loose outline based on The Hero’s Journey and then revised into submission. It was messy and a little chaotic. I spent a lot of time stepping blindfolded into the next plot point only to fall of a narrative cliff.

The first time a fellow writer tried to convert me to outlining, I cringed at the memories of my ninth-grade English teacher saying, “If you have an A you have to have a B under your roman numerals” as I hunched over my college-ruled paper that was full of eraser holes and tears.

That experience taught me that writing an outline is like etching your paper in stone…with your fingernail – painful, pointless, and permanent.

Now I am realizing that a story’s outline can have the fluidity that I crave. It can also allow me to layer story elements through scenes in a second or third draft instead of a twentieth or thirtieth draft. Sometimes I think of it as a first draft.

Stories can be created without outlines. I don’t think the outline serves the story. Stories existed long before outlines. I think it serves the author (which, of course, trickles down to the reader).

I am starting to buy into the ‘why’ of outlines, and I am trying to figure out the ‘how.’ Here are a few resources that have helped me.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – A great look at the structure that lies under stories.


Outlining Your Novel by K.M Weiland – I like


The Writer’s Journey by Christophe Vogler – This is what I used for my first novel. It is a nice way to mark places your story needs to stop before it gets to the end of the road.


My Next Read:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder


If you worry about getting too organized (or you just need a smile), you can check out this fun TED Talk on “Tidying up Art.” I get tickled every time I watch this:

Scenic Route

Is it a bad sign that I am finally getting around to writing my New Years resolutions on the fifth day of the new year? Maybe, but 2012 was a bit of a roller coaster for me, and I am finding a scenic route through 2013.

This year is about falling little out of step with the proverbial rat race. It is about quality over quantity and savoring the day-to-day. It is also about celebrating small wins and even smaller steps forward.

This is not a new philosophy for me, but I think it is time for a reminder. Since I write historical fiction, let me take you back to the year of my prom. It is twenty minutes before my date was supposed to be there, and I am wiping the tears from my eyes and seriously considering taking off my sequined prom dress, crawling back into my stirrup pants and oversized sweater, and popping an episode of Seinfeld into the VCR.

What made me so upset? My date. He did not stand me up. He did not show up drunk. He did not show up with another girl. He did not even show up in a hideous tux. He showed up early, with a friend who he was helping out because his date had stood him up. Devastating, right? I was probably thinking, “This kind of stuff never happens to Jennifer Aniston.” I was definitely thinking, “This whole night is ruined.”

Okay, it is easy to laugh about now. But that is what it felt like because the mythology of prom told me that everything would be perfect. So the second that reality didn’t match the image I had borrowed from movies and magazines, everything fell apart.

And that is the kind-of thinking that I am walking away from this year.

Because it is impossible to find perfection. And while I am busy looking for it, I am missing out on all the interesting, quirky, fun (like prom turned out to be), ridiculous, charming, silly, and inspiring moments that make up life.

My big moments are always a steady progress of hundreds or even thousands of little moments, each with their own exquisite beauty.

So, this year my resolution is to plug away at the small tasks and enjoy the little moments. I will get up early and enjoy the peace of sleeping children. I will learn the exact way my daughter’s nose crinkles when she smiles really big and breathe in the sound of my son’s laughter. I will get to know my characters and enjoy the way they arrive with bolder and cleaner strokes with each version of the story. There will certainly be moments when I forget this resolution, but that is okay. Because detours happen on the scenic route, and sometimes they lead to the most marvelous places.


Fire Horse Girl – Released this Week and Giveaway

There is a giveaway of The Fire Horse Girl and a listing of all the great books coming out this week on Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. It is a great site in general, so after you sign up for the giveaway, look around.

Also, I will be guest-posting an Inspired Openings blog post next Monday.

Hope you are having a wonderful holidays!


KERA Think Podcast

If you live in the Dallas area and are interested in a great writing program, click here to listen to Suzanne Frank, Dan Hale, and me talk about The Writer’s Path at SMU. And yes, Krys Boys  is as fabulous as you would think if, like me, you have listened to Think for years.



Putting it All Together

If you have been following along on our journey to dig up the central conflicts and theme in your work-in-progress, now is the moment that we bring it all together.

I have to use a enumerated list…that is how exciting it is!

1. Gather up your three charts and a blank sheet of paper. If you missed making the charts, you can find the instructions for the character chart here. And instruction for plot and world charts here.

2. On the blank sheet of paper make three columns – Conflict, color, and character. Each column represents a key element of your story – the conflict the main character has with others, within herself/himself, and with society, the color that the setting provides, and the motivations of your main character. In the best stories, these elements connect, overlap, and interact. Hopefully this chart will help you see where that happens.

2. Go through the three charts you made and circle anything that has to do with character – their traits, their motivations, their past.

3. Underline anything that will cause conflict in your story – a new life, new goals, betrayals, limits, desires that are out of reach. Items circled in the last step might be underlined also. This is where you start to see how ideas are layered.

4. Highlight anything that reveals the color of your story. I think of this as the backdrop to the story – setting, society, culture, and emotion. Again, some items maybe be circled, highlighted, and underlined.

5. Take a moment and look over your charts. I like to look at the items that are underlined, circled, and highlighted. In the charts I did for The Fire Horse Girl the key elements cross all three categories: out of sync with society, strength, suffocating, vulnerable, promise of American dream, male-dominated society, heartbreak. It really brings those driving forces to the surface.

When I did the charts for the second book, the following showed up in all three categories – risk, competition, playing games, controlling perceptions, politics, status, passion, compassion.

6. I also make a fourth chart on the sheet of paper where you wrote the three columns. It lets me see what elements show up repeatedly, and which ones threads show up in one category, but have ties to the other two.

I hope that helps!


Chart – Plot and World

Here is more of the early brainstorming for Jade Moon.

Hopefully you have you character chart explained in yesterday’s post. To continue discovering the repeating images and themes in your story, complete two more charts.

On a fresh sheet of paper, brainstorm everything you know about your book’s plot. This might include what happens, what your character’s goals are, her failures, and her successes. I give myself about 5-7 minutes to think and write.


Finally, write down everything you know about your story’s world – the place, the time period, the people in charge, the rules, the beliefs, the economics, the social norms.

Save those and we will do the last step tomorrow!