Category Archives: Observation

Bouchercon lessons

Bouchercon book haul — well, some of the books I picked up, anyway. Copyright 2015 Peg McNichol

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to attend the Annual World Mystery Convention’s annual reader-author conference, better known as Bouchercon.

Being both reader and writer, I veered between those roles in my attentiveness to authors talking about why and how they wrote their respective books (in many cases, series of books).

Here are a few tips I picked up on the writing life — something I’m working on daily with intermittent success:

  • Good writers read regularly and aren’t afraid to read a wide spectrum of genres.
  • Every writer has his or her own process, but: having a writing routine is an essential building block.
  • Figuring out what process works for you can involve testing and rejecting patterns — up early and writing before anything else happens (a la Elmore Leonard); or waiting until the family is asleep and grabbing 15 minutes on weeknights, a few hours stolen from each weekend; or something in between.
  • Whatever you write needs, like bread, a period of rest and inattention before editing begins.
  • The best work is well-edited. In the words of so many editors and Stephen King: “Kill your darlings.”
  • Editing is a process best left until you finish what working writers refer to as “the shitty first draft.”
  • If you don’t start writing, you’ll have nothing to edit and nothing to publish.
  • Done is better than perfect.
  • You’ll never satisfy every reader. In fact, you’ll probably disappoint or even offend some or all. Write anyway.

Oh, SNAP, Part II: 12 items or less

Groceries for under $20
Depending on how creative I get, these groceries could last a week. Photo by Peg McNichol

Let’s start with the idea that most people have some food in their cupboards. My pantry has five pounds of flour, basic baking ingredients, coffee, two half-empty boxes of raisins (regular and golden); an unopened box of Cheerios, a bar of semi-sweet baking chocolate (purchased on sale a few weeks back). Other items: three cans of fruit; three tins of fish; two cans of pureed pumpkin; two boxes of dried pasta, a large container of plain oatmeal; a nearly empty container of honey (need to look for some on sale); corn meal, olive oil and assorted spices.

Some of those items can be used for meals over the next week.

My latest purchase includes one gallon of milk; one pound of unsweetened butter; two dozen eggs; 32 ounces of plain yogurt; five oranges; two pints of blackberries; six mini-bananas; four cucumbers; a handful of yellow squash; and a bag of limes. Total cost $18.80 — aided by most of the fruit being marked down for quick sale.

Focusing mainly on the latest purchase, here are my plans:

1: Fruit salad with some of the mini bananas, two oranges, some blackberries & 1/2 to 3/4 cup yogurt for protein, a dash of powdered ginger.

2: Scrambled eggs, using a tablespoon of milk and some diced zucchini, seasoned to taste.

3: Salad: hardboiled and diced eggs with lettuce, cucumber, zucchini (Enough for 4 servings without using up every ingredient).

5: Lime curd (can be used to flavor & sweeten the plain yogurt or in the fruit salad or on toast. It’s yummy!)

6: Low-sugar Limeade OR will use a plain slice or two to perk up my daily 32 ounces of tap water. Maybe both options, having quite a few limes.

7: Blackberry jam. A very small batch, since I’m using just two of the four half pints purchased.

8. Egg salad — I don’t have any mayo (so expensive!), but I do have the eggs and in the cupboard, oil, vinegar and dry mustard. Homemade tastes better and takes 10 minutes.

9. Sourdough French toast. I have some leftover slices of bread from last week’s groceries, enough to make several meals’ worth of French toast. Whatever I don’t use in the next day or so will go into the freezer for some lazy Sunday morning.

Remaining fruit will be used for snacking, as breakfast garnishes or mixed with 1/2 to 3/4 cup plain yogurt & whatever spices I want (ginger or cinnamon or nutmeg, etc.).

Why a whole gallon of milk? I like to put some milk in my morning coffee and usually drink a glass of milk at lunch and bedtime — partly for the Vitamin D & calcium, but mostly because milk tastes good.

Oh, SNAP: A $20 grocery challenge

Meijer grocery receipt
This is the actual Meijer receipt from my personal challenge to get as many healthful grocery items as possible — for $20 or less. Photo by Peg McNichol

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow got into hot water earlier this year for attempting the SNAP challenge, I’ve tried some extreme-grocery budgeting. (While I don’t think she did such a terrible job — too many cities are effective food deserts for low-income families, who have little to no access to fresh fruits / vegetables.)

Today a childhood friend shared some of her fiscal challenges, which included trying to get decent groceries. I told her I could spend $20 and get enough fresh fruits and vegetables for a few meals, along with some other groceries.

“How do you eat? WHAT do you eat?” she said.

Tonight, I showed her, hauling in 12 items: a mini-banana bunch; a gallon of milk; a handful of summer squash, four cucumbers; five oranges; two pints of blackberries; two dozen eggs; 32 ounces of plain yogurt; one pound of unsalted butter and, in honor of Ms. Paltrow, a bag of limes.

A photo of what the groceries looked like and how they’ll be used in the next blog post.

Reflecting on and planning for the Affordable Care Act


I find this season, and especially this time of the Wolf Moon and presumed new beginnings, a great opportunity for reflection, recalibration and re-dedication to my various life goals.

How about you?

This week, I’m delving into insurance, figuring out how to incorporate some Affordable Care Act health insurance plan into my life.

Friends and family who’ve independently purchased health insurance policies have shared their experiences and opinions on this process, opinions ranging from enthusiasm for the cost and benefits of these plans to outrage over prices and limits of coverage.

One barrier I’m seeing (after the money part) is lack of information.

What do policies cover and what do they not?

What does each plan actually cost?

I expect to complete the process today and will let you know about my experience.

In the mean time ~ have you signed up for health insurance via the ACA? What was your experience?


After several tries with the website, I’ve decided to ask for some help using the phone. I’ve not been able to see how to compare specific benefits in one plan with another to evaluate which would be the most appropriate. Instead, I’ve been directed to various proprietary websites, where I’ll need to scroll through a PDF.

The best possible outcome in healthcare, whether insurance applications or information exchanged during doctor visits,  requires a persistent consumer.

Planning and Solitude


More than 20 years ago, I received a planning notebook/calendar as a gift. The sophisticated notebook came with an audio tutorial for new users.

One of the first lessons: Set aside time at the beginning and end of each day for planning and solitude.

In recent months, I’ve followed this morning-evening practice more consistently than ever.

Silence and reflection produce remarkable insights. In reviewing notes jotted on the pages over the years, I see growth as well as patterns, habits, if you will, which could yet be changed.

Christmas gratitude

Gratitude, Dec. 24, 2014
Gratitude goes to those working on Christmas and other holidays, from the people who keep the lights on to those providing for our health, safety, convenience or entertainment. By Peg McNichol

Some folks today are surrounded by family. Others ~ many, many others ~ are on the job and often unseen, working for our safety, health, comfort, convenience or entertainment.

Some volunteer their time, some are well-paid. Others are scratching out a living, doing the best they can, or earning what they can to pay college tuition, for themselves their kids or grandkids.
I created a list of these kinds of jobs, so I could pause throughout the day to appreciate the gifts of others’ time. Join me in acknowledging:

Continue reading Christmas gratitude


Photo by Peg McNichol | No use without image owner's express permission
Grandma’s Teeth Garage, by Peg McNichol

Someone I love like my own child shared a message starting with “Look at (a group)” followed by “a blog has claimed.”

Whenever I see such quotes, I see a story in desperate need of thorough fact-checking.

“Look at (random group),” really? File that phrase under “root of pretty much every conflict in the history of humankind.”

Dig deeper. What is the writer or speaker really saying? What does he or she really mean?

Every news/information consumer can choose to:

1. Join the mob by suspending disbelief, repeating the story with reactionary rhetoric and inflammatory embellishment, advancing any propaganda.

2. Stand on a firm foundation of reason and core values, using deliberation to assess a story’s accuracy.

Ask the most important question of yourself and the storyteller: “How do you know?” Then make sure the proof goes beyond “a blog has claimed” or “so-and-so said/wrote.”

If the story is online, follow each of the links embedded in the text. Verify the facts from a variety of sources, even ones you don’t necessarily hold as accurate.

You may find the root of the most outrageous tales. You may find the truth ~ or something in between.

What you do next with that information defines you more than the story itself.