Minnesota Calling or Why You Should Read Messages to the Bottom

Three years ago Laura and I went to Faribault, Minnesota to see the Merlin Player’s production of our play, The Santa Dairies. We’ve kept in touch with the director and some of the performers.

That’s characters Sandy Hawes, who has the ‘Santa calling’ and Martha, one of the Hot Dish ladies.

At the beginning of September I received a text from Julianna Skluzacek who directed The Santa Diaries in Faribault. She asked if Laura and I had a new Christmas play. We didn’t have a new play and knew we couldn’t do something in a month. I replied, “Sadly, no.”

Then a week or so later I reread the text more carefully and sent an email:

Julianna, I just reread your message and realized you said 2018. What do you need? Laura and I would love to collaborate on something. Mala Burt

Julianna replied:

I’m looking for something that is like “Santa Diaries” in that it has a great love story, funny, some kids maybe but not necessary. I would need a title by October as that’s a deadline for a Paradise publication for 2018. Do you have something you could turn into a holiday show?

Laura and I talked. We had a funny holiday movie script called #Santa. We thought we could turn it into a play, so I sent an email to Julianna attaching the script, synopsis and cast list.

Julianna, we have a Christmas movie script that we could turn into a play. It’s called #Santa. It’s the story of a celebrity PR “reputation manager” who is arrested and sentenced to community service answering childrens’ Letters to Santa.

And we would work with you to make any changes you’d need for your geographic area. Cast list is based on the movie script and would be pared down. This would be fun!

Then we waited impatiently. After a week or so I forwarded the email above with this message.

Julianna, I just wanted to confirm you got our email. (the one with the script, etc.)

She replied she wanted to talk, so we set up a phone call for September 28. Julianna told us that she loved the script, but had some concerns. Our script was for a racially diverse cast and the Minnesota community wasn’t very diverse. She also thought there might be some expensive production challenges.

Toward the end of the converstion Laura wondered out loud what it would be like to do a play with the Santa Diaries characters but five years later. Light bulbs ignited in our brains. Who is Timmy’s father, anyway? It turned out the October deadline was really in November so we suggested sending her a one page synopsis of the arc of a new play.

Laura and I met, brainstormed, pulled together a synopsis and sent it off to Julianna. Then we waited.

And waited. (We aren’t very patient.) I knew Julianna was in a two week production and figured she was too busy to focus on our proposal. Waiting was hard. Laura and I really wanted this to happen.

Yesterday, early in the morning, I sent an email to Julianna. I knew her show had closed over the weekend and wanted to congratulate her on that, but I really wanted to know if she had any response to the synopsis. After all, this was not just her decision. It had to be presented to the theater board for approval.

She said she’d met with the board and they’d approved moving forward with the project. Then said she’d had a dream about the play and outlined an addition she thought might work. Actually it was brilliant if we can pull it off. (It invovles some cast diversity.)

Laura and I are over the moon! Of course we will go to Faribault, MN next December to see the premier production of our play – name to be determined. We would have missed this opportunity if I hadn’t gone back and reread that original text. Read to the bottom, folks.




On the Way to Christmas

We were supposed to go to Washington, DC last Saturday to see my brother and his wife perform with their Scandia Dance troupe. The ice storm got in the way and by eleven in the morning when we needed to leave, the temps on the Eastern Shore were still at freezing and it was colder north of us. We decided not to go.

Laura had also invited us to an early Christmas dinner that day and we had turned her down because of our plans to go to DC. But once the no-travel decision was made, I called her and re-invited us. She said it was the third time she’d added place settings to the table, as the number of dinner guests around the table grew.


Usually when we are home for Christmas and invited to Laura’s for dinner, I make the desserts. This time someone else had that task. We just showed up for wonderful food, warm friendships, and shared stories. Thank you Laura, it was a gift, as was the sunset out the back of your house as we enjoyed a glass of wine before going to your beautiful table.

img_2159Wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas, dear friends. Take time to watch a sunrise or sunset and rejoice in the wonders of our world.


A White Christmas and a Winter Harvest

We spent Christmas in Montana with my son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters home from college. It was snowing when we were picked up at the airport and kept snowing for the next four days. About 24″ in all. I call this a Montana snow gauge. It’s a piece of plywood on a post and in the summer it’s a bird feeder. In the winter it makes a handy snow gauge.

Montana show gauge

The snow was beautiful. It’s been years since we’ve experienced a white Christmas.The house should be on a Christmas card. In Montana life doesn’t stop because of snow. We drove through snow covered roads to see the new Star Wars movie. I have to say I was a little disappointed. Maybe because I must have missed some of the intervening movies.


Warm and cozy inside the house, we knit, baked cookies, and my granddaughters made a Kransekakke – a Norwegian wreath cake. The recipe is: 1 lb ground almonds, 1 lb confectioners sugar, 3 egg whites. The dough is rolled into snakes and put into special pans which create 18 rings – each a little smaller than the one before. This has become a tradition for the Christmases we spend in Montana. Traditionally you remove the rings from the bottom up so the tree shape remains. We took a vote and after Christmas dinner (where everything on the table with the exception of a can of cream of mushroom soup came from the homestead), and began eating the cake from the top down.


When I posted pictures of the snow on Facebook people responded that they had the AC on on Christmas day on the Eastern Shore. We came home yesterday and today I went to my raised bed at the St. Michaels Community Garden. Here’s my harvest from December 29th, 2015. Kale, chard, spinach, hakuri turnips and carrots.

winter harvest

I was wondering when the seed catalogs would start to arrive. This is what was in the mail we picked up at the post office Tuesday morning. Spring gardening will be here before I know it. In the meantime, somebody needs to tell the daffodils NOT YET! Plants on the
Eastern Shore are very confused because of the warm temps.


‘Tis the Season

I grew up with a Norwegian mother (second generation in the US) and a German father (the Schippers had been here longer). Because immigrants back then were intent on assimilating, neither my mother nor my father grew up speaking Norwegian or German. A lost opportunity. I don’t recall any specific ethnic traditions in our household. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t create my own.

One Christmas season my brother, Ross, made a kransekake – a Norwegian wreath cake which consists of eighteen sequentially smaller rings stacked one upon the other. I was impressed so I got the recipe and tried it. Trying to figure out the sizes of those rings was interesting and I don’t have a photo of that first attempt. It was a very wonky tower, but the rings were quite tasty.

A few Christmases later my brother and his wife, Linda, gave me a set of kransekake pans. Now the rings would be exactly the right size. However the ground almond, confectioners sugar and egg white mixture that is the recipe needed tweaking. I was grinding my almonds in my food processor and the dough puffed up too much. However, by that time I had involved my Montana granddaughters in baking a kransekake when we did a Montana Christmas. Those girls are all grown up now, but have requested baking a kransekake when we visit at Christmas this year. It’s become a tradition.

Ross told me he ground his blanched almonds in a coffee grinder. I went on line to YouTube for more instructions, then ordered a coffee grinder on Amazon. I had it (free shipping) in two days. I love Amazon Prime.

Yesterday I was ready. One of my yogi friends, Diane French, came to help. We discovered we needed to start the grinding process in the food processor to make the almonds into smaller pieces. Almonds are bigger than coffee beans! Duh. Then we decided to put the ground almonds through a sieve to make sure all the leftover almond bits were taken out and put through the grinder again. We made the dough and let it rest according to the recipe.

We rolled the dough into ropes the size of a pinkie finger and began filling the rings in the pans.


The rings are baked at 396 degrees for 12 minutes. We learned that they needed to be cooled completely before we took them out of the non-stick pans.


Next came the job of stacking the rings. They are quite close in size so there is probably a method, but we eyeballed it. White frosting is put on each ring and the next smaller size is laid on top. The frosting acts as a glue.


We used white frosting in one of those spray cans. Here is the completed cake. It is a little wonky from one angle, but this is it’s best side. A turntable would have helped. I’ll get cans of red and  green frosting and decorate the cake with holly. It will be even more festive when that is done. Traditionally it might have had Norwegian flags on it or Christmas crackers. This cake is also served at Norwegian weddings.


I have to say that grinding the almonds in the coffee grinder made a difference. This is the best and prettiest kranskake I’ve made. However, those first couple done with the grand-girls are the ones I’ll really remember and the fact that there is now a Norwegian tradition in our family. For those who are wondering, the kake is served from the bottom ring up. Several bottom rings are removed and each ring is cut into pieces. In this way, the rest of the kake remains in the shape of a Christmas tree.

This holiday treat is going to the Woman’s Club on St. Michaels on Wednesday. Laura Ambler and I are the program for the December meeting. We’ll be talking about how we turned our Christmas memory book, The Santa Diaries, into a produced Christmas play of the same name. ‘Tis the season of memories and making traditions.
















A Chorus of Cookies

My dear friend Carol invited me to to cookie exchange. I remember the last one I’d attended. It was during one of our visits to Montana – probably twenty years ago. This is such a busy time of the year – who has time to bake twenty different kinds of cookies? Let alone cookies with no gluten or dairy which is pretty much why I don’t bake anymore.

cookie exchange 3

We had been asked to bring a dozen cookies to eat and a dozen cookies to share. If we brought a dozen, we could take an assortment of a dozen home. If we brought more, we could take more home. I had brought three dozen Molasses Orange cookies. You do the math.

Our hostess even provided Christmas containers to put our cookie assortments in. So twenty women walked around the table filling our boxes – and occasionally, because we just couldn’t help ourselves – putting cookies in our mouths. I confess to trying a chocolate bourbon ball. Oh my!

I brought home a lovely assortment of cookies I shouldn’t eat. My plan was to divide them into two batches and carry them to two new neighbors. At least that was the plan on Friday when I came home from the party. On Saturday morning, before breakfast,  Linzer cookies called my name from that closed container. Then a Three Ginger cookie chimed in. Before I knew it a chorus of cookies was singing to me and the container had been breached. By Sunday noon there were no cookies to share with new neighbors. They, and you,  will have to be content with my good holiday wishes.




Thank You, Merlin Players!

Laura created an Animoto Thank You for the Merlin Players!. They did a fabulous job with our play, The Santa Diaries, and made us feel like part of the theater family. We couldn’t have asked for more.

Paradise Theater Marquis

What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out when you’re a writer. You have a character in mind, but you need a name. And it’s not like naming a baby where you get to pick a name you like. Writers need to find names that (hopefully) tell  the reader something about the character. The problem is when you begin to write a new project you don’t really know your characters yet.

Laura and I started on a new screenplay this week. Another Christmas movie.

Christmas elf

We had a general idea of what the movie would be about. Our thought was that we would begin by figuring out what each character wanted. It quickly became obvious that it was confusing to talk about characters without naming them. We had started ten steps down the path, so we went back to the beginning. Main female character. Main male character. A secondary love interest. A father. How hard could this be?

What do we want these names to tell us about the character – a character we don’t really know yet? These people aren’t fully developed in our minds yet, so a name we pick now might not fit a couple of weeks into the project. Place holders would have to do for now. Out came the What to Name Your Baby book. We think (still early days) that the main female character is mid-thirties. Google told us the most popular girls’ names in 1979, but none of them seemed right. After an hour an a half we had three names. I’d forgotten how difficult naming characters could be.

We were also struggling with the overall arc of the story. The main female character didn’t have a change moment. She was the same at the beginning as she was at the end. That doesn’t work. Laura remembered reading in Stephen King’s book On Writing that if something about your story wasn’t working, try flipping the characters. So we flipped the male protagonist with the female protagonist and suddenly the story worked. But now the names didn’t work anymore. Back to the baby book and Google.

By this point we were an hour past lunch time and getting a little goofy. On Google we found a link for how to generate a Christmas elf name for yourself. This was just the diversion we needed.

My Christmas elf name is Pompom Frosttree. The website tells me Pompom is a bit of a show-off who likes to climb the Christmas tree and be the center of attention! She wears a handsome tunic embroidered with frost patterns, and she makes magical scooters and bikes for all the good little children. Fits me to a T.

Laura’s elf name is Treacletart Silverbubbles. Treacletart is a bit of an airhead who forgets how to do things, but is loved by all the other elves for being so happy! She wears a sequined jacket with shiny silver buttons, and she makes delicious puddings and cakes for all the good little children. Note to reader: Laura has a jacket just like that and she is a really good cook.

I’m not going to tell you the names we chose for our characters, but here are their Christmas elf profiles. Maybe you can figure it out.

Our main female character: Marshmallow Jinglebaubles. She is very creative, has a sharp eye for art, and loves to decorate the grotto! She wears pointy green shoes with bells on the end, and she makes tasty marshmallows and chocolate covered candy for all the good little children.

Our main male character: Partridge Fairybells. He is a fun-loving prankster who loves to play silly tricks on the other elves! He wears a pale green tunic of fine silk embroidered with gold stitches, and he makes magical marbles and lucky dice for all the good little children.

This silliness didn’t accomplish anything for our script, but it cleared out heads to work again tomorrow. The names we chose today may not be the names we end up with. Sometimes characters tell you what their names are and, when they do writers need to listen.

Khris Baxter Calls

Khris Baxter of Story Lab (a film development and finance company focusing on dramatic, character-driven narrative for film, Television, and new media) called us about a quick turn around movie script that he needed. Could we do something in 8-10 weeks? We’ve finished the first draft of the Santa Diaries movie script and have sent it off for some other people to read, so we said, why not. Ooops, we forgot to ask Margie Farmer, our new manager who is supposed to keep us focused, what she thought about this.

The enticing nut here is that if we can write something that gets attached to a movie it puts us one step closer to getting people to look at other scripts Laura has written, or scripts (such as The Santa Diaries) on which we have collaborated.

There’s research to be done for this new project and the books I ordered from Amazon came yesterday. I LOVE PRIME!

This coming Saturday we are going to a screen writing workshop with Dara Marks. Khris Baxter has brought her here from California for a one day event. We are really looking forward to this.

Olfactory Delusions?

Laura and I were working yesterday afternoon at a table in my family room. (We are almost finished with the first draft of the Santa Diaries movie script.) At one point Laura looked up from her computer and said, “I’m really into this Christmas stuff. I just got a whiff of pine and some cinnamon, like Christmas cookies.”

I told her she was delusional and having an MSG reaction, enjoying the puzzled look on her face before I suggested she look behind her. There was the pine candle I’d lit in the kitchen after cooking shrimp for dinner. The cinnamon? I’d also baked cookies that morning for a Community Garden get together on Sunday.

cookies and candle

The notion that we could be so into writing that we could smell the setting was kind of inspirational. It also made me glad we don’t write stories with lots of blood and decomposing bodies.