Friday, 26 February 2010

Sixth Sense? Seventh?

How many senses do you have? Five?

Are you sure?

When I was little I had a very pronounced sixth sense, though I couldn't use it consciously: it seemed only to function while I was sleeping. I would, quite reliably, rotate in my bed to align myself north-south... and if my bed wasn't the right way round, I'd fall onto the floor.

Magnetoception is a recognised phenomenon in migratory birds, who use it to navigate, but humans aren't supposed to have it... personal experience suggests that's nonsense! Although I do wish I could use it consciously.

In fact, we all have more senses than we might be able to name. One of my favourite is proprioception, which relates to your knowledge of where the various parts of your body are at any given moment - and enables clever things like pushing a needle up through fabric in just the right place.

Check out the Wikipedia page on sense for a list of human senses, then come back and let me know if any of them surprise you. Which is your most important sixth sense?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Further Adventures In Embroidery

Having got about as far as I could on my own with embroidery, I bought two embroidery with the aim of expanding my skills. I picked them out based on a combination of affordability, cuteness, and being-achievable-while-teaching-me-something.

Embroidery kits

They both came with all the necessary fabric, yarn, needles, and in one case even a hoop. And detailed instructions - an essential for a learner like me.

I started out with the "coffee" kit, mainly because it was explicitly described as an introductory piece. You may have seen some of the "in progress" photos if you follow me on Twitter.

Work in progressNearly there...

This taught me some techniques called satin stitch, stem stitch, and french knots. It was surprisingly quick, taking me less than a week of evenings to finish the actual design.

The kit didn't provide enough thread for stitching over the writing, but I thought it would look better that way, so I went out to buy some extra brown. That was when I discovered just how many different shades are available for every colour, even in the one small sewing shop I visited. Quite overwhelming - and since I didn't have the original with me, I had to guess. I think it looks okay, though.

Embroidered writing

The writing was quite fiddly, and took longer than the main design to complete!


It's now just waiting for me to iron it and frame it.

The second kit is a Hardanger - something I'd never heard of until I saw it on Elizabeth's blog, but which seems to be a generally rather beautiful style, if slightly more structured than I would normally choose.


This kit was always going to be harder because there aren't any lines to fill in - just a pattern, and instructions on how to do a few more types of stitch. This involved a lot of counting stitches and counting the gaps, something I can only do by running the needle along the fabric and feeling the bumps, because I can't see that level of detail. Nevertheless, it all seems to be working out, and I'm absolutely in love with it:


The next part is really scary, because it involves taking scissors to the fabric! I can't attempt that until I buy some better scissors, but I'll be sure to let you know how it goes........

Saturday, 20 February 2010

A Posh Frittata & A New Pan

We recently (well, last year) acquired a new cooker, and because we chose to get an induction hob, we had to buy a whole new set of pans as well. Ever since then we've only had one frying pan, which isn't really enough - I've been constantly looking out for a nice one, but for a long time I didn't see anything exciting enough to tempt me.

But while flicking through a Lakeland catalogue a month or two back, their Stoneline® pan caught my eye. It took me a while to get around to placing the order, but eventually I bought one. And it took me a few more days to get around to using it... but now I've ordered a second one, because it's absolutely amazing.

Disclaimer: I'm not in any way associated with Lakeland or the pan manufacturer. I'm just really, really impressed.

Essentially, this is a non-stick pan that's still okay for metal utensils, and looking at the pan lining it really does seem unlikely to chip. The marketing blurb also says that you can cook without oil, which sounds great. I wasn't feeling quite that brave for my first attempt - however, I put less than 1/4 tsp of olive oil to make my frittata (recipe below) just to coat the pan, and it didn't stick at all, even after the onions had clearly absorbed all the oil and started to caramelize. I even dragged my husband and unsuspecting friends through to the kitchen to look at the pan! (I've never denied being a kitchen geek...) I have subsequently used the pan with no oil, and it was absolutely fine.
Frittata ingredients

The frittata was absolutely yummy, with a great helping of fresh vegetables, and felt like a posh meal rather than the super-quick dinner it actually was. I find a thick frittata stuffed with vegetables to be easier than an omelette, and just as tasty (just be careful to let it set so you don't end up with scrambled eggs instead). We served ours with roast potatoes, carrots, and sausages - but for a lighter lunch it would be just as nice with salad and crusty bread.

Mixed Vegetable Frittata
Serves 4

3 small red onions
1 sweet red pepper (I used the long, thin kind, but I'm sure a bell pepper would also be fine)
4 large chestnut mushrooms
1 medium courgette
8 spears of asparagus
100g cheddar cheese
25g parmesan cheese
1tsp olive oil (to grease the pan)
7 medium eggs
Black pepper to taste
  1. Chop all the vegetables (fairly thin slices/small pieces), and grate the cheeses.

  2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, and fry the vegetables over a medium heat until tender.

  3. Meanwhile, break the eggs into a bowl and mix them with a fork. Add pepper to the eggs and stir.

  4. Pour the eggs into the pan with the vegetables, and turn the mixture a few times to combine. (The egg will start to cook as you're doing this, which is fine.)

  5. Leave to cook over a low heat until the top of the frittata is set (around 10 minutes, but this will depend on the level of heat).

  6. Sprinkle the cheeses evenly over the top of the frittata, and put under a hot grill for a couple of minutes to melt the cheese and cook the top.

  7. Slice and serve straight away.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
Served by itself, ¼ of this frittata has approximately 350 calories. Yes, even with loads of cheese.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On Names And Translation

A couple of months ago I wrote about language in fantasy. One of the comments raised a question which has also been asked by a couple of my early readers: why do my main characters have such ordinary names?

This is, in my mind, intimately tied to the question of language more broadly.

More specifically, what does the English language represent?

I've invented two languages for the Charanthe novels, but they are the languages of foreign cultures. I don't write the kind of stereotypical Hollywood 'foreigners' who speak (heavily-accented) English when talking amongst themselves. English in the Charanthe novels represents the language of the Empire (with stylistic variations for different regions within the archipelago). This is Eleanor's language, and since we see the world through her eyes, we understand it. If other characters speak a language she doesn't understand, then I don't translate for the reader.

That's a conscious decision. So is naming.

In this case, I wanted the Empire to feel like familiar territory (since, for Eleanor and her friends, it is), and contrast that later with the strange languages and experiences in foreign lands. If the books are ever translated, I would hope for the English dialogue to be translated but the other languages to be left alone. Likewise, if it was up to me, I'd choose to replace the names of those in the Empire with names that feel natural in the new language, whereas Tarasanka or Magrad names belong with those languages and should persist.

How about you? If you write fiction, do you worry about these things?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

My First Valentine

I found myself telling variants of this story on the comments to a few people's posts last year - so if you get a sense of deja vu reading this, you were probably one of those people! I can only apologise in advance.

The first Valentine's Day I remember was in my first year of school - shortly after my fifth birthday.

Not everyone at that age seemed to have grasped that Valentine's Day was about couples, and some of the children sent cards to everyone in the class. I'd somehow understood that the cards were supposed to be for secret crushes, and since I didn't get a crush on anyone until I was about fourteen, I didn't send any. (In fact, I've only sent one anonymous valentine in my life, but that's a story for another day.)

But although my understanding of the 'grown-up world' stretched as far as Valentine's Day, it didn't go quite as far as knowing about lesbians.

If I'd known that, I might have been a bit less stunned that my first valentine's card was from a girl. In fact I was just confused, because she definitely didn't send cards to the whole class.

Photo by philippe leroyer on Flickr (creative commons)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Sweet Deal

I was passing time in a popular bookshop while waiting for a train, when I came upon this little volume:


Attracted by cake (as always) I picked it up to have a flick. But there was something not quite right:


Almost a quarter of the pages were affected like this; clearly the big book-slicing machine wasn't perfectly aligned.

Well, I wasn't willing to pay full-price for a defective book, and it was the only copy in the store. Even a 10% discount (which is what most shops tend to offer for slightly-imperfect products) wouldn't be enough to make up for the work I'd have to do in cutting the pages. I toyed with the idea of just putting it back, but eventually plucked up the courage to ask at the counter. After I explained the situation to the assistant, and got him to look at the book, he said he could knock £2 off.

40% off? I don't mind if I do!

I've only tried out one of the cake recipes so far (a slightly-dry sachertorte), but the reason I particularly wanted to mention this book is for the benefit of anyone thinking of getting started with sugarcraft. If that's you, you should go out and buy a copy. In the decorating section at the front of this book there are step-by-step guides to almost everything I learnt in my second-year sugarcraft course, and most of what the third-years were studying, too. Plus there are loads of pretty cake designs which you could use for inspiration.

Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the author or publishers of this book.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Beautiful Bricks

I live in an area full of picturesque stone-built cottages, and not far from the old cloth factories of Stroud, with their industrial red brick vistas.

This weekend we went to visit some friends who live not that far from us really, but in an architecturally different world. A world where beautiful, picturesque buildings are built of brick.


Often with timber framing, but sometimes without.


It was lovely to wander around their area, and to enjoy being surrounded by a different style of building - no more or less beautiful than what I'm used to, but distinct enough that I noticed it constantly. I'm always amazed by how much difference these little things can make to the 'feel' of a place.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Sketching With Stitches

I've always been a doodler. I can't draw in any meaningful way, but if you give me a sheet of paper and a pencil, it won't stay blank for long (a fact which has frustrated me over the years, but this isn't about that). My doodling is just another form of fiddling - something I'm naturally inclined towards. If you ever saw me and my inability to sit still for two minutes, you'd understand.

Anyway. I was just starting out with this embroidery idea, and I was trying to think of things I could do to practise. And one of the obvious things seemed to be to try and doodle, but with thread.

So I started out by 'sketching' a flower:


That was partly inspired by my very first attempt, but also because this basic motif is something I draw all over the place, and also something I'd be very happy using to prettify my clothes in future.

Next, another one of my regular scribbles - holly leaves (because it's not that far past Christmas... umm...).


In case the magic of the internet makes this all look too easy, I should assure you that it wasn't. These little images, which would have been five-second sketches, took more like half an hour when I was using a needle instead of a pencil. And you don't want to know how many stitches I had to unpick and re-do (sometimes several times).

Still, I'm making progress, even if only in baby steps.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Sugarcraft Sofa

( Technorati code, please ignore - 527TCPN8EGE6 )

I was asked the other day whether I knew anyone who did cake decorating. Well, I had a few hours to spare over the weekend, so I volunteered the fact that I do a little myself.

The lady in question was making a birthday cake, and whilst she was happy baking the cake and doing the basic icing, she wasn't confident about making a person and sofa.

Well, that sounded achievable, and it's always good to keep in practise, so I agreed to help her out.


I started off by colouring the icing, then built up the sofa one piece at a time. Note the cocktail sticks for structure.

Sofa under constructionSofa base

I then built the figure straight onto the sofa:


I could probably write several posts full of sugarcrafting tips, but for the moment, here are some points to keep in mind when colouring your own sugarpaste:
  • Colouring a large block of sugarpaste takes quite some time if you want an even finish. It's impossible to rush. (It is, however, possible to cheat by purchasing pre-coloured icing.)
  • Mixing deep colours is particularly hard. If you want black, you should almost certainly just go and buy some which has been professionally coloured by machine.
  • Never use liquid colours with sugarpaste, or you'll ruin the consistency. You can buy special gel colours - a small pot is expensive, but will last for years.
  • Start with a small amount of colouring and add more gradually until you reach the shade you're after. On the other hand, if you do go too dark, you can rescue almost anything by adding more white. With gel colours, dipping the end of a cocktail stick into the dye is an easy way to pick up a starting quantity.
  • Always make up more than you think you'll need of any given colour. Similarly to when you're buying yarn for knitting or paint for your bedroom, you need to work with a single 'lot', because you'll never get the exact same colour twice.
  • The marbled effect of half-mixed colours can be beautiful. Particularly if you're in a hurry.

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