Category Archives: Christmas

#atozchallenge N is for Now!


by Lillian Csernica on April 16, 2019

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“Now!” is a powerful statement. Immediacy is what brings fiction to life on the page and in the mind of the reader. You don’t have to write in the present tense, but you do have to keep the writing stripped down, streamlined, and precise.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about strong plotting came from Weird Tales then-editor Darrell Schweitzer. He stressed the importance of asking, “Why now?” Why is the problem situation the main character faces happening at that time and in that place?

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In Maeve, John Fenton has car trouble on a lonely road in the Irish countryside and takes shelter in a pub before a big storm hits. Only by being in that particular pub on the right kind of stormy night does John have the opportunity to meet the local legend known as Maeve.

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In The Family Spirit, it’s Christmas Eve and Ben is meeting Janice’s family for the first time. He has no idea just how many of the family he’s going to meet, and what kind of distance some of those distant relatives have traveled to be there.

Knowing the answer to “Why now?” will get your story off to a much stronger start!

 

 

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Filed under #atozchallenge, Blog challenges, Christmas, classics, Family, fantasy, Fiction, home town, publication, Writing

How Not to Build a Gingerbread House


by Lillian Csernica on December 19, 2018

 

 

Hi there. Right now I’m spread thinner than Nutella on the last three pieces of shortbread. Mom will be out of the hospital the day after Christmas. Tomorrow I have three appointments, then my younger son takes his first test for a new belt rank in tae kwon do. And then there’s all the Christmas prep to keep doing.

I need a laugh, and by some strange bit of good fortune I happened across something I wrote years ago at this same time of year. For your Yuletide entertainment, I present it to you now.

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thismommycooks.com

How Not to Build a Gingerbread House

Never ever attempt to make a gingerbread house with somebody who’s never seen one before and yet, thanks to his control freak tendencies, immediately mutates into an expert on the art.

It’s difficult to sustain an intelligent argument about the precise technique of using industrial strength icing to glue peppermint candies, gummi bears, M&Ms, and gumdrops to the various flat and angled surfaces of a gingerbread house. Believe me, we tried. Too much icing. Not enough icing. The grouping of the gumdrops on the roof lacked the right balance of colors. The little candy canes lining the walk to the front door weren’t maintaining their lines with military precision. And the windows. This is where things almost got violent. Making window panes out of pretzel sticks might seem like no big deal, but when you’re dealing with a man who thinks we should have been using a carpenter’s balance, you’ve entered into a whole new realm of the bizarre.

Then came the argument over building the chimney out of Pez candies, licorice bricks, Jolly Rancher cinnamon bites, or graham crackers iced in proper brick and mortar formations. I’m not much for drinking, even during the holidays, but by the time I was about halfway through this delightful holiday pastime, I was ready to forget the eggnog and go straight for the brandy.

At last our masterpiece was complete. It resembled nothing so much as a perfect 3D schematic of what would happen if the two of us EVER tried to share the same living quarters. The yard was a wreck, green icing spilling onto the graham cracker walkway like rank weeds erupting through broken concrete. The cast off wrappings of Hershey’s Kisses, peanut butter cups, and Lifesavers lay strewn across the porch, revealing us for the white trash we really were. The snowman in the front yard listed like the drunken uncle at the wedding reception. It was a mercy that we never had to bother with the inside of the house. I shudder to think what horrors would have been dissolving in there. Gummi coke bottles piled in the corners…silver foil gum wrappers wadded up in the little black licorice fireplace…cotton candy webs hanging from the corners of the ceilings…. It would be just too heartbreaking.

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I can’t recall now what became of that gingerbread house. I know it sat on my kitchen table for some weeks during that holiday season. And as for the man himself, my partner in committing this crime of both taste and art? No, it was not in fact my husband. This was another man, whose story must wait for another time.  This fellow is no longer among the living, so that time will probably be Halloween.

 

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Filed under chocolate, Christmas, classics, creativity, Family, family tradition, fantasy, Food, frustration, Halloween, Humor, Lillian Csernica, perspective, therapy

Nevertheless, I Persisted


by Lillian Csernica on December 3, 2018

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Hi there. I’ve tried at least twice to write blog posts since last we met. Got interrupted, fell asleep, had family crises. Never a dull moment.

People who aren’t all that familiar with writing think it’s a great job you can do at home whenever you feel like it. For those of us who are regular, habitual writers, it’s often like that one nightmare where no matter how hard you run, you can never quite reach the thing you’re after. We struggle to find or make the time to write. Then we struggle to produce our desired word count. We sit there second-guessing ourselves, and that’s before the actual editing process starts. Then we rinse and repeat, pretty much every single day.

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NaNoWriMo — Yes, I participated this year. What’s more, I am now the Municipal Liaison for the Santa Cruz County Region, along with a nice woman who handles the UCSC campus which is a city unto itself. This meant I hosted the Kick Off Party, I was there for the Tuesday night write-ins at the library, and I organized the final celebration. Details below. Did I win? Yes I did. 50, 141 words written mostly by hand in my notebook at my favorite Peet’s. So now there is indeed a novel in the Kyoto Steampunk universe.

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Training two new aides for Michael — We have been fortunate enough to hire a second RN and two new aides for Michael. Now that he’s out of school, he needs people to help him fill his day. There are no day programs available to accommodate someone as medically fragile as he is. Michael is a grown man now, and my joints aren’t getting any younger. I am deeply grateful for all the assistance we receive.

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Mom in the hospital, then heart surgery — My mother has been in the hospital for weeks now. She has Stage 4 kidney failure. Home dialysis never did go right. The MDs switched her to hemodialysis after the whole ER panic in August. Unfortunately, MRSA is a tenacious affliction. In the course of treating that, the cardiologist discovered Mom had a weak mitral valve in her heart. This led to a twelve hour surgery to replace the valve. Mom is about to turn 82 come January. I have no words to describe how frightened and stressed out I’ve been during all this. Mom is improving, but it’s at an incremental pace.

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The Night Of Writing Dangerously — The big NaNoWriMo fundraiser. Thanks to the generous donations of my writer friends, I raised the required amount to attend NOWD. What a blast. I drove to San Francisco, found my $12 parking space (thank you, SpotHero!), and made it to the Julia Morgan Ballroom on time. The next eight hours were full of writing and food and jokes and prizes and meeting other writers. I needed a great night out and this was definitely it.

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Thanksgiving — With Mom in the hospital, this was a bittersweet event. She wasn’t at her usual seat at the table. She didn’t make us all wait while she took photos of the food sitting there on the table getting cold. She didn’t make us pose and then sit there until our smiles wilted, resulting in the usual expressions of mild sedation. Those habits might annoy me, but they’re still part of our family tradition, dysfunctional though it may be. We did have a great dinner, cooked by my husband. And I am very thankful Mom is still with us.

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John’s cake looked better.

John’s birthday — Given that we were running back and forth to the hospital and taking care of Michael (fewer caregivers on the weekend, especially major holidays), we stretched John’s birthday out from Friday through Sunday. Chris took him to Dave & Buster’s on Friday. I took him to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald on Saturday along with various other fun stops. On Sunday we had his party with his custom made birthday cake and a pile of presents. My baby is now 20 years old. Next year, Chris plans to take John to Las Vegas.

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The Thank God It’s Over party (NaNoWriMo) — Once again I dressed up and headed out with my bag of NaNoWriMo swag and the prizes for the Bingo sheets we all filled out and various other little mementoes of the month’s adventures. Woodstock Pizza in Santa Cruz is great. The heaters out on the patio kept us cozy while we ate and drank and read from our novels and made the people sitting nearby wonder who all these crazy people were. NaNoWriMo is my happy place in the midst of all the stress I live with daily.

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Mercury might be in retrograde right now, but we did it. Every single one of us who did our best during NaNoWriMo is a winner. I’m exhausted, and I’m still worried, of course, but life is good.

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Coming up next: It’s time to answer this year’s letters to Santa Claus! I already have eight waiting for me!
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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie 10


by Lillian Csernica on May 10, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.

All God’s Children

Gloria had a rough time living up to her name. During some Christmas when she was just a little girl, somebody had told her about “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Gloria liked the sound of “Glory to God in the highest” in Latin and in plain English. She figured out “the highest” meant Heaven. It was the other thing she figured out that ended up causing all the trouble.

Gloria’s mother Jenny started out looking a trifle too wild for the folks at St. Michael’s. She had tattoos, a few piercings, and a braid dyed pink and blue and purple. She turned up in the soup kitchen on the same weekend we were there serving dinner. Three of our church ladies had done the cooking. I was the parish council Treasurer in those days. I played a fair amount of football in college, so a big solid linebacker came in handy loading and unloading the church van as well as making sure our church ladies didn’t have any trouble with some of the rougher folks we served.

Jenny started to turn up at St. Michael’s on Sundays. At first she just needed the box of donated food from the church pantry. Pretty soon she was coming to Mass. She wore long sleeves and left most of her jewelry at home, and covered up her hair with a nice floral scarf. In the beginning Jenny was just being polite, showing respect and coming to Mass as a way of saying thank you for the help we gave her. The one time I saw Gloria’s daddy out in the parking lot, it was obvious he wasn’t much of a church-going man. Reminded me of the more unpleasant type of tough guy who spent most of his time pickled in alcohol.

Jenny gave birth to Gloria the day after Christmas. By then Jenny had been coming to St. Michael’s for over a year, helping clean the church and the hall, working in the garden, and pitching in wherever help was needed. She was grateful for all the help the ladies gave her, making sure she saw the doctor and took her vitamins and knew what to expect. Jenny showed her gratitude the best way she knew how, with good old-fashioned elbow grease. Whoever she had been, she let that phase of her life go. She’d more than proven herself to be a good woman with proper manners and a kind heart.

Jenny asked Fr. Daniel if he’d baptize Gloria, and he was happy to oblige. He offered Jenny the same opportunity, and she accepted. That was one of the happiest days at St. Michael’s I was ever privileged to see. Jenny never talked much about herself or where she’d come from. That didn’t matter so much. She’d joined the family of our parish.

Poor Gloria. When her mama was a wild child who worked hard to do right by her baby, that meant Gloria had a lot to live up to, especially being a girl. Everything seemed to be just fine until the day Marigold moved into the apartment next door to Jenny and Gloria. Confirmation classes had started, so Gloria was twelve, that dangerous age between child and teenager, between playing with dolls and wanting to hang out with the big kids. Marigold was a sweet enough woman, fresh and pretty with her white blonde hair and ’60s style clothes. She wore enough bracelets and necklaces to sink a battleship. We always knew when Marigold was coming because she jingled louder than the bells on Santa Claus’ sleigh.

Marigold’s front yard was full of garden gnomes and copper dragonflies and wind chimes and bird feeders and those colorful flowers with big petals that spun in a stiff breeze. Gloria loved it, and she loved Marigold’s black cat Sable. Jenny told me later that she should have been more careful about letting Gloria run over to Marigold’s place so much. Jenny knew what all the candles and crystals and little fairy figurines meant.

Marigold called herself a witch.

I’ll admit that caused some of us at St. Michael’s quite a bit of worry. Fr. Daniel just smiled and reminded us to look to the health and well-being of our own souls. So we watched and we waited.

Gloria took an interest in all the pets in the neighborhood. Cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs. There was one boa constrictor, but Jenny was relieved to see Gloria had no desire to play with it. This all seemed like a healthy, innocent hobby, even when Gloria wanted to start having little birthday parties for the pets. Jenny noticed Gloria was spending a lot more time at the library. When she wasn’t there, she was over at Marigold’s place.

Gloria had a problem. The animals couldn’t talk. How could she find out what to give them for birthday presents? Marigold let her borrow a book on astrology. That’s what started it. Gloria looked up all the birth dates she’d been able to learn, and then made up a few for the animals whose owners had no idea. She ended up with a notebook full of page after page devoted to each pet and what the astrology book said about its sign.

Giving Sable a birthday party with a Leo theme seemed harmless enough. Catnip toys and kitty treats and a special salmon cake. Gloria had saved up her pocket money.

This led to reading more books about stranger subjects. Jenny put her foot down and sent Gloria to have a talk with Fr. Daniel. I’d have given a lot to listen in on that conversation. I was in the church hall when the two of them came out of Fr. Daniel’s office. He thanked Gloria for giving him so much to think about. Gloria said she’d take “those” books back to the library.

Advent had come round again. That Sunday Fr. Daniel gave a sermon we’d all remember.

“In the Bible Christ tells the Apostles, ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for such is the kingdom of heaven.’ I have many books in my library. Many of the writings of the Holy Fathers. Recently I learned an important lesson, and it came to me not through ancient teachings but from the goodness of a child.

“Our dear Gloria explained to me that she had finally understood the true meaning of her name. It comes from ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,” which is ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ When she first learned to read, Gloria saw all the tags on the Christmas presents. They said To and From. Some also read From and To. Gloria thought about the Latin phrase and in her innocence believed the angel must have left out a word. Gloria wanted to do as the angel said and give the Baby Jesus a birthday present. She believed the angel meant to say, “From Gloria, To God in the highest.”

A murmur of fond amusement swept through the nave.

“Gloria knows that God created all creatures great and small. Her recent practice of giving birthday parties to the pets in her neighborhood is her way of giving God the pleasure of seeing her show love to His creatures by celebrating the days they entered Creation.”

Fr. Daniel paused and looked down at his notes. He cleared his throat, sniffed, and blinked a few times.

“I want to thank Gloria for sharing this with me. In this season of celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us all keep in mind that we are all God’s creatures, two-legged and four-legged. Let us celebrate the image and likeness of God everywhere we find it, and give thanks for finding it in so many, many places.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

With one voice, we all answered, “Amen!”

END

Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to Archpriest Basil Rhodes and all the folks at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Saratoga, CA. They were kind enough to teach me many lessons about how much God loves us.

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The One Writing Skill You Must Have


by Lillian Csernica on December 11, 2017

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Here we are in the holiday season. This time of year will stress out anybody, even those people lucky enough to have a “normal” family life. Writers often come from dysfunctional families. Writers often have mental health issues. Put it all together and the holiday season can be quite a gauntlet to run, between day jobs, holiday preparations, family gatherings, and the desperate struggle for time and space write.

My therapist taught me a skill that I will now pass along to you. This skill is designed to buy you the mental and emotional space you need to survive when you find yourself overwhelmed. Your mileage may vary, but give it a try. Three simple words:

Achieve literary distance.

How does one do this? Here’s my method. I always have my tote bag with me. At the moment it contains four notebooks, two manuscripts, one of those zippered pouches for pens, and a few other odds and ends. I take the tote bag everywhere. When life gets too intense, I pull out a notebook and a pen. If I’m stuck in a line, I spot the most interesting people and jot down quick lists of their notable physical and behavioral traits. If I’m in a waiting room, I might write a scene involving two of the people waiting there also.

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The point here is to derail our anxiety by making our trains of thought switch tracks. Becoming consciously more observant puts us into a more objective state of mind. Sometimes what we really need is to get out of our own heads. By calling on the skills that help us achieve literary distance, we can at least get out of the Anxiety Attic and go hang out in the Creativity Corner.  When we deliberately shift our focus outward, we may very well lower our anxiety levels.

I know this works for me. I get all stressed out about being on time, getting everything done according to my To Do list, or I’m all knotted up mentally because of a conflict with a family member.  When I achieve literary distance, that helps me step back, take that deep breath, connect pen to paper, and re-establish a calmer, more flexible state of mind.

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Make this skill work for you. If you like texting ideas on the Notepad function of your phone, go for it. If you need a blank journal with no lines and a few broken crayons, more power to you. If you just want to sit in a comfy spot and take some mental notes along with a few deep breaths, that’s good too.

Writing is our superpower. We can use it to rescue ourselves.

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Talk Like a Pirate Day


by Lillian Csernica on September 19, 2017

This is a very special day for me, dear to my heart for three important reasons.

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First, I met my husband of thirty years at the Northern Renaissance Faire where he was playing a pirate aboard the good ship Cardiff Rose, aka the fencing booth. See that tall, dark, handsome fellow in the middle? Bosun’s Mate Christopher Fortune!

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Second, my first published romance novel, Ship of Dreams, is a love story between an English Lady and a notorious French pirate. There are sea battles and sword fights and many people talking like pirates in English, French, and Spanish. I had such a good time writing this book!

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Third, I once received a letter to Santa Claus that asked Santa what he thought about pirates. (I volunteer every holiday season at my local post office, replying to the letters the local kids write to Santa Claus.) This took some thinking on my part. Hollywood has done a lot to romanticize what pirates were and what they did. Speaking on behalf of Santa Claus, I had to strike a balance between truth and a child’s sense of adventure.

In the letter from Santa I said that the real pirates of history weren’t very nice people. They tended to get a lot of coal in their stockings. Santa Claus does believe that pretending to be a pirate can be a lot of fun. You find out amazing things about sailing ships, life at sea, and all the different kinds of treasure pirates captured.

The boy who wrote this letter to Santa Claus happened to live in my neighborhood. The next time I crossed paths with his mother, she told me all about how excited her son had been to get a reply from Santa himself. She thought the answers to the pirate questions were just right. I love it when I hear how much the kids enjoy their letters!

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

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The #1 Question All Writers Should Ask


by Lillian Csernica on August 11, 2017

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Stories grow out of two questions: What if? and What next?

If you’re like me, your stories tend to start out as a sudden flash of action or dialogue. Maybe you think of a character first, and then the problem. Either way, once you’ve got your basic idea on paper and it’s time to think about story structure, there’s one essential question you must answer:

Why now?

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In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has to change his ways right now or he won’t live to see another Christmas.

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In The Hunger Games, when Katniss’ little sister is chosen to represent their District, Katniss has to take action right now to save her sister’s life. The only acceptable way is to volunteer and take her place.

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In Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney has to come up with some kind of life support system right now. Maybe NASA will mount a successful rescue mission.  Maybe Watney’s team will do it. That’s all off in the land of What Then? When you’re stuck on Mars with no hope in sight, right now means right now!

Answering the Why now? question will raise your stakes, heighten your action, and give your readers a story they’ll remember!

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Breaking up with Ben & Jerry


by Lillian Csernica on January 18, 2017

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Tonight I consumed my last pint of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra.

Tomorrow morning I begin a medically supervised accelerated weight loss program.

When I was ten years old, my parents took me to see a dietician. I was already 5’6″, and already 152 lbs. Not good. Now I’m forty years older and 100 lbs heavier. Time to stop kidding myself about the health problems that are right around the corner if I don’t do something about my weight problem RIGHT NOW.

This is not a New Year’s Resolution. This is me deciding to act like a grown-up and stop indulging myself while blaming the depression, the difficulty of my life, some writing setback, or whatever other chaos afflicts me at that moment.

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I have a plan. I have professionals backing me. I have a guidebook and a journal and a food scale and the necessary supplements. I’m going to do this.

There are so many stories waiting to be written.

There are so many birthdays and Christmases and personal triumphs ahead for both Michael and John.

There are so many places in the world I have yet to see, just in Japan alone!

There may be setbacks. That’s OK. I know how to deal with setbacks. You just take a deep breath, focus on the next indicated action, and start moving forward again.

I can do this. I will do this. For me, for the kids, for my writing.

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Taking Inventory on Success


by Lillian Csernica on December 28, 2016

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Knee Update: As long as I stay off of it, my pain level is pretty low. If I’m up and around for more than half an hour, the twinges start. Driving is tough.

I go see my primary care physician on the 4th. “Hello, New Year! Do I need to see an orthopedic specialist?” Somewhere in the world they believe that what you do on the third or fourth day of the New Year indicates how the year in general will go. In pain? No thanks. Doctor appointments? Not a happy thought. Stoned on pain meds? Been there, done that. Tends to slow down my writing.

Speaking of writing, I would like to take a moment to review this year in terms of my career successes.

From Digital Fiction Publishing Corporation come these three titles:

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Killing It Softly is packed full of horror stories by female authors including the amazing Nancy Holder! In this volume you will find my vampire story, “Saving Grace.” Historical fiction, this story features a Russian Orthodox noblewoman who is hiding out as a governess in the castle of a 14th Century French nobleman. A party of pilgrims arrives seeking shelter. Among them is a German scholar who has an unhealthy interest in the schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

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Uncommon Senses makes available “The Family Spirit,” my Christmas ghost story which originally appeared in Weird Tales. This was the first deliberately humorous short story I’d written. Reading it aloud at conventions is always a lot of fun.

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This is the first short story I ever sold. Fallen Idol appeared in After Hours and was later reprinted in DAW’s The Year’s Best Horror Stories XX. Many thanks to Michael Willis and the folks at DFP for bringing the story into the Digital Age!

 

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From Transmundane Press comes this collection of fairy tales in the fine tradition of Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. My story opens three years after the fairy gives the good sister the gift of speaking in flowers and jewels, while her wicked stepsister earned toads and snakes as punishment for her bad manners. “Happily ever after” is in the eye of the beholder!

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Sky Warrior Press just released Alterna-TEAs, a steampunk anthology full of danger and excitement. Tea is the pivotal motif to every one of the stories included here. My contribution, “Tea and Trickery,” launches the espionage career of translator Lady Caroline Worthington when she’s recruited by the head of British Intelligence. There’s a nefarious conspiracy afoot intent upon sabotaging Great Britain’s efforts to bring steam engine technology to Japan.

Here’s hoping 2017 sees the launch of The Flower Maiden Saga!

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Christmas on Crutches


by Lillian Csernica on December 23rd, 2016

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Some time around last Friday, I sprained my good knee, the right one.

Don’t know how I did it. I suspect it has to do with all the getting in and out of the car while Christmas shopping. I tend to push out with my weight on my right leg, and that’s the first leg in the car when I climb back into the driver’s seat.

I expect this kind of thing from my left knee, but it came as a nasty shock when my right knee exploded into a great big firework of pain. Spent the weekend hobbling around the few times I was on my feet. Ibuprofen and even Extra Strength Tylenol mean nothing to whatever is wrong with my treacherous joint. The Spousal Unit took pity on me and offered me one of his Vicodin.

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Matters hadn’t improved by Tuesday, so I went to the local Urgent Care clinic. Two hours and three x rays later, the diagnosis came in. A sprain, along with the possible onset of an arthritic condition. They wrapped my knee up in two Ace bandages, taught me how to use my crutches, and sent me home with my own Rx for Vicodin.

I know all about being sick for Christmas, but this is ridiculous.

So now I’m off my feet, icing my knee, wrapping it when I do have to move around, and hoarding the Vicodin for those times when the knee starts throbbing. Nobody has had the bad taste to make any Tiny Tim jokes yet, which is a good thing. Crutches might be padded in some places, but elsewhere they’re good stiff metal!

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Tomorrow I’m up with the sun to pull half the morning shift with Michael. Can’t take any Vicodin, because there are a few last Christmas errands to run. One does not take Vicodin and attempt to drive a car. Operating crutches while taking Vicodin is enough of a challenge.

God rest ye, merry gentlefolk. God bless us, everyone!

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