About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries: Clammed Up, Boiled Over, Musseled Out, Fogged Inn and Iced Under. Her holiday novella featuring amateur sleuth Julia Snowden was published along with novellas by Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis in Eggnog Murder from Kensington Books in October 2016. You can visit her website at http://www.maineclambakemysteries.com.

Agatha Nominees for Best Contemporary Novel 2017

Hi Barb here. Since the nominations were announced, the Wickeds have hosted this year’s Agatha Award nominees for Best First Mystery, Best Short Story, and Best Historical. Today we’re bringing you the nominated authors for Best Contemporary Novel.

The Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, honor the “traditional mystery,” and this year’s nominated novels span the length and breadth of the category–from cozy to edgy, amateur sleuth and professional, female protagonist and male, series mystery and standalone. I’m excited to be on this list with some of my favorite authors.

Agatha Award Nominees Best Contemporary Novel for 2016:

Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross (Kensington)
Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books)

Here’s our question for the nominees: Did you know at the outset that your main character was strong enough to carry a book/series? How did this character change as you got to know him or her better?

Ellen Byron: I didn’t know for sure if my protagonist could carry a series, but I knew she had to. I was too in love with the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana – and the real world of Cajun Country – to stop writing about it after one book. What I find exciting is how I’m always discovering new things about Maggie Crozat. A friend who was trying to wrap her head around the amateur sleuth angle of my series once asked me, “Does she see things other people miss because she’s an artist and very visual?” To which I replied, “She does now!”

I’m currently working on the fourth Cajun Country Mystery, and Maggie just shared she’s an only child, and was lonely growing up. This came as news to me because originally I gave her a brother, but then put him on the back burner because he didn’t contribute to the story. I always thought he’d come back someday, but Maggie has spoken. She’s declared herself sibling-free. I feel so close to her that sometimes I forget she’s not real. Those are the moments when I think, “Hmm, might be time to go back to therapy.”

Catriona McPherson: Oh, I wish this was a series! I miss them all now that the book’s done, even though it took me a while to get to know Jude – my heroine – well enough to write about her with confidence. I knew she was a librarian and she lived in London, but I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get the essence of her. She was flat, while all the other characters came to joyous life around her.

Then one day I was writing a scene in the dusty, disordered bookshop where the story takes place and the thought of all the dirt and mouse-droppings and dust-mites was making me feel itchy. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling (different from the itching) and I knew that Jude was a cataloguer who’d given up working on the desk with the general public because she’s a germaphobe and the way people treat library books distresses her too much. I used to work in a public library and I know this from bitter experience. Worst bookmark I ever found in a returned book? Bacon rind. Anyway, germaphobe Jude came instantly alive and the book was plain sailing after that.

But it’s not the start of a series. The story of Jude, Lowell the bookshop owner and the irrepressible pregnant nineteen-year-old Eddy is done. Unless I think of another one . . .

Louise Penny: Initially my main characters were going to be the artist couple, Clara and Peter Morrow.  But as I thought about it more, I could see that while strong secondary characters, making them the center, the core of the series simply would not work, for all sorts of reasons, primary that I was afraid readers, and I, would tire if they had too much of them.

The other reason was that the head of homicide seemed so fully formed when he first appeared and I realized he was the one I needed.  Gamache could hold the series together, and that would allow the secondary characters to shine without the burden of carrying the series.  But he needed to be someone whose company I would enjoy, perhaps for years.  And so I made him a man I would marry, since this is, in effect, a marriage.  As it turns out, far from creating Armand Gamache, I actually transcribed him.  Gamache is inspired by my husband, Michael.

Barbara Ross: When I go back now and look at the original proposal for the Maine Clambake Mysteries, it’s amazing to me how much of Julia Snowden was there. Her family was there–her mother, sister, pain-in-the-neck brother-in-law, and niece were there, as was the still acutely felt absence of her late father. Her parents’ unusual marriage between a summer person who lived on a private island and the boy who delivered their groceries in his skiff was there, too.

This last was particularly important to me, because I am not and would never claim to be a native Mainer, so I needed to be able to write with the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. In her view, her parent’s marriage has left Julia forever on the outside, belonging to neither tribe in her resort town. (Her sister Livvie, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. Which is something that fascinates me, how people can be brought up by the same parents at more or less the same time, yet experience their circumstances utterly differently.)

But there was huge thing I didn’t know at the beginning–how Julia would act and react when put in a series of extraordinary situations. While I had a sense of her character, there was no way to know until those scenes were written. In that sense she continuously reveals herself to me.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: That is such a great question, because it made me examine my choices, and realize I hadn’t asked myself that question at all.

When I began the Jane Ryland books with The Other Woman, that started with a plot. And forgive me, here is a tiny bit of backstory: I had been reading about Governor Mark Sanford, who told his wife and constituents that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail “when he was actually off with his mistress. And I started thinking about why anyone would be the other woman. It’s so destructive in every way. So someone was quoted as saying “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

And I thought: that’s my book.

So I needed a main character to tell that story. And it couldn’t be my first series character, Charlotte McNally, because the story was too big and textured for first person.
But I knew she would be a reporter, a tough, strong, curious, honorable, caring reporter.
And a reporter’s life is all about the search for the next big story. That is natural! So once I decided on “reporter,” it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.

But the fabulous part is how she came to life! Jane Ryland is 33-ish, when the book starts, so 64 year-old me, at the time, could not really draw on my experiences at that age, since that was a million years ago. That made me channel her through a different time…how that age would behave now. And I love how she showed up on the page! Confident, and not self-centered, and a little fearless when it comes to asking questions. Sometimes I am too worried about what other people think, and I was delighted to say she is somehow less timid than I am.

SAY NO MORE has her tackling a very difficult and sensitive subject. Not only testing her responsibilities as a journalist, but her emotional capabilities when dealing with victims and perpetrators of campus sexual assault. She turns out to be compassionate, and caring, and I love how she weighs her responsibility to the subject of her story with her responsibility as a journalist.

Yes, I know I wrote it, but you can’t MAKE a character do something they wouldn’t do. That’s when I know the plot is driving the story, not the character. Jane lets me know when I am doing that—it comes across awkward and “written.” And I think, oh, that’s Hank, not Jane. So when I am lucky, Jane reveals herself to me on the page, and I am so proud of her in SAY NO MORE. (Well, eventually.)

Readers: What do you look for in a character to carry you through a book–or series?

Ellen, Catriona, Hank and I will be at Malice at end of this month. If you’ll be there, we’d love to have you attend our panel, “Simply the Best: Agatha Best Contemporary Novel Nominees,” moderated by Shawn Reilly Simmons on Friday at 1:00 pm. (Or honestly, come talk to any one of us at any time.) Louise, we’ll all be thinking of you!

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A Tour of the Key West Cemetery

by Barb, back in New England, where the cold and gray have me pining for Key West

The cemetery in Key West is a spot most tourists visit. It’s best known for its above-ground graves, like in New Orleans, and the light-hearted epitaphs of some its inhabitants, including the tombstones that say, “I told you I was sick,” “I’m just resting my eyes,” “If you’re reading this, you desperately need a hobby,” “I always wanted a little plot of land in Key West,” and “Devoted fan of singer Julio Iglesais.”

The cemetery was founded in 1847, after the previous burial grounds were washed away in a hurricane, though some of the graves, brought there from the earlier cemeteries, are older. Containing approximately 100,000 graves, more than three times the living population of Key West, the still-active cemetery is the only game in town, the final resting place for people of all religions, races, occupations and classes.

In addition to the regular walking tours, three times a year, the Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers a “Cemetery Stroll,” as a fundraiser. Living interpreters, often with a connection to the dead, tell the stories of some of the people buried there. Bill and I took one of those tours in March. There are so many interesting people buried in the cemetery, you can take these tours multiple times.

Here are just a few of the fascinating people whose stories we heard on our tour..

Sandy Cornish

Sandy Cornish was born a slave in 1793. In 1839, he was able to buy his freedom for $3000. His emancipation papers were burned in a fire that swept through the wooden buildings of the city of Port Leon in the Florida panhandle where he lived and worked. Unable to prove his status as a free man, when slave traders tried to take him to the market in New Orleans, he gathered a crowd in a square in Port Leon and publicly maimed himself, cutting his Achilles tendon, stabbing himself in the hip with a knife, and cutting off a finger. Worthless as a slave, he and his wife Lillah, whose freedom they had also purchased, moved to Key West. They founded a farm and orchard on the land where our rented house now stands and prospered, becoming one of the wealthiest couples in the city. Sandy Cornish founded the Cornish Chapel of the AME Methodist Church. The church houses a thriving congregation today.

The exact location of Sandy Cornish’s grave in the Key West Cemetery has been lost to history, so a memorial was recently erected. The story of Cornish’s life was told by well-known local singer Wilhelmina Lopez-Martin, who sang the intro and the outro.

William Curry

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William Curry arrived in Key West penniless from Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas in 1837. He died as Florida’s first millionaire. He had many enterprises, but made the bulk of his fortune wrecking, salvaging goods from ships that wrecked in the treacherous waters of the Keys. This is how many early Key West fortunes were made. You can tour and even stay in The Curry Mansion, which is a Bed and Breakfast today.

On the Cemetery Stroll, William Curry’s story was told by Clinton Curry, a distant relative who still lives in Key West.

The Watlington Family Plot

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Captain Francis Watlington and his wife Emeline raised their nine daughters in the house that is now the Oldest House Museum in Key West. Though Key West stayed with the Union in the Civil War, Captain Watlington joined the Confederate Navy. After the war, he lived principally in New York City, though he returned to Key West in his final years to be nursed by his youngest daughter, Lily, who had similarly cared for her mother and two of her sisters. She died in 1936. Earl Johnson was the last descendant to live in the house until his death in 1972, meaning the house was continuously lived in by one family for around a hundred and forty years.

The Watlington family’s story was told by Karl Reutling, a docent and historian at the Oldest House.

The Adderlys

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George and Olivia Adderly immigrated separately from the Bahamas in 1890 and married soon after. They purchased land on Vaca Key which is now part of the City of Marathon. They built their home out of tabby, a kind of concrete made by burning shells to extract the lime. Incredibly the home still stands today, despite hurricanes and the punishing tropical climate, and you can tour it. The Adderlys attracted a Bahamanian community around them that thrived on sponge-fishing. When Henry Flagler built his railroad to Key West and needed a right of way over the Adderly land, George Adderly, a literate, but otherwise unadvantaged black man, went toe-to-toe with the richest and most powerful man in Florida, and demanded a station stop at Vaca Key in return. Flagler acquiesced.  The stop meant the men of the little settlement could more easily move their sponges to market in Key West, while the women made money selling garden produce and baked goods to rail workers and travelers at the stop.

The Adderly’s stories were told by Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez and Phyllis LeConte.

Rosa and Mary Navarro

One of the most photographed graves in the Key West Cemetery are the mother and child angels at the graves of Mary and Rosa Navarro, which have recently been beautifully restored. The inscription on Mary Navarro’s statue says, “To the sacred memory of a brokenhearted mother.” The Navarros made their money in cigar-making and at the turn of the twentieth century, their interests took them to Manhattan. Rosa Navarro died in a fall from their apartment window when she was nine. Though her mother lived four years longer, she never recovered, following her daughter in death in 1907.

The Navarro’s story was told by Ron Wampler, and Diane Silvia, Executive Director of the Historic Florida Keys Foundation which is responsible for the restoration.

The stories in the Key West Cemetery, of fortunes made and lost in wrecking, farming, sponging, and cigar-making, of lives of triumph and tragedy, are the stories of the history of Key West. Even the tongue-in-cheek inscriptions I quoted at the top are a part of the irreverent atmosphere of the island. I’ve included just a few of the fascinating lives we learned about on the tour.

Readers: Do you ever walk in or visit cemeteries? What have you seen and learned?

[All photos in this post are by Bill Carito. If you like them and want to see more, you can friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bcarito and follow him on Instagram at billcarito and bill.carito.colorphotos.]

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Why I’ll Stop Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series

NEWS flash: Ginny JC is the winner of Wendy Tyson’s audio book. Ginny, please check your email!

by Barb, traveling back to Key West after a lovely wedding in Vermont

As I explained on Maine Crime Writers on Thursday, as soon as I turn in my current book, it will be time to write a new proposal for books seven through nine of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. This got me thinking about the positive reasons why I stay with a long-running mystery series. I wrote my answers here.

In my post today, I’m looking at the opposite side of the question. What causes me to drift away from a series? I don’t mean read one book and decide,”This isn’t for me.” I mean to either consciously or unconsciously stop reading new books in a mystery series I’ve previously been invested in.

Here’s what I came up with.

(1) I don’t care what happens to anyone. There are a lot of discussions, most of them not fruitful in my opinion, about whether main characters have to be “likeable.” For me, the answer is no. I don’t have to like them, but a do have to care what happens to them, because the entire point of reading a book is to find out what happens to them. There may be some standalone thrillers with plots so compelling you’ll read them in spite of the cardboard characters, but that isn’t possible for a series.

While this might seem like a reason not to start reading a series in the first place, I have often started series with interesting characters only to have them turn into people I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, much less get stuck on a desert island with. Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series became this for me. I wasn’t put off by the blood and gore, or the marital infidelity per se, or even the crazy politics. But a main character making terrible life decisions, sitting in judgey-judgment on all the other characters, who are also making terrible life decisions… It was too much. I let it go.

(2) The series story doesn’t move forward. There’s a lot of talk about whether protagonists in crime series need a character arc. Whether they need to somehow be different at the end of a book than they are at the beginning. Whether they need to grow over a series. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher famously doesn’t.

I find I don’t care so much if the character changes, but I need the story to move forward. I need the character to choose the good guy or the bad boy, to make peace with her mother or decide she never will. I need the hints about that thing that happened in the past to be revealed if not resolved. I’m really patient. Milk it for as many books as you think you can, but I need it to happen.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series was this for me. I loved the humor and I loved the portrait of life in the Burg. But it all became a little rote–sassy dialog, car crash, fail to make choice between two men, crash funeral with grandma, car cash, car cash. She made a lot of money off of me. I took this series for a long ride, but eventually I gave up.

(3) Every single character from every single book moves forward with the series. I like the introduction of interesting new series characters, especially if they have a personal or professional connection to the main character. But I don’t need every character I’ve ever met, many of whom I can’t remember, to be involved in each new investigation.

I stopped reading Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series for this reason. When there got to be dozens of characters, all introduced in the first chapter of the next new book, I gave up.

(4) There are too many books, too frequently. Okay, I know this is idiosyncratic to me and that the only viable business model for a lot of self-published series right now involves frequent releases. It may be because I read slowly, or I have reading I have to do for my writing, or I have so many favorite series, but if an author writes so much that I get way far behind, I’ll give up.

Readers, what makes you stop reading new books mystery series?

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Opening Lines

Here’s our Opening Lines–mysterious presence edition. Readers: Add your opening lines.

ghost

Photo by Bill Carito

Barb: I shivered in the eighty degree heat.

Edith: As if the slick of the rain and the blue lights triggering my PTSD weren’t bad enough, when the apparition showed up, too, I had no choice but to scream.

Julie: I walked into the bikers’ bar, and ordered a Shirley Temple. “Extra cherries,” I snarled.

Jessie: The cops who investigated my wife’s death said they couldn’t prove it but they knew I’d gotten away with murder. With the way Pauline still dogged my every step, the truth was, I hadn’t gotten away with anything.

Liz: It had to be the heat shimmering off the pavement. I wasn’t ready to share the alley with a ghost, so I refused to acknowledge the face hovering over me.

Sherry: He sat with his arms crossed guarding his beach bike like he thought he was a tough guy. I couldn’t wait to test how tough he really was.

Readers: Add yours in the comments!

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Island Time

by Barb, suffering the indignities of a WIP that isn’t jelling.

Hi All. I’m still in Key West. The weather has been uncommonly good this year and we’ve been enjoying our time. But the work in progress on my desk takes place on a different island, in a different climate, at a different time of year.

Stowed Away, the sixth Maine Clambake Mystery, brings the Snowden Family saga full cycle. It’s spring again, and Julia and her relatives are preparing Morrow Island for the tourist season. When I started Clammed Up, I knew about the Cabbage Island Clambake, but I had never been there. Over a long, snowy winter, while I waited for the real clambake to open, I consciously created my own island. I wanted my island to be different, in part to meet some story needs, and in part to distinguish it from any comparison to the real island because of the entirely fictional events that would take place there.

I carefully considered how many acres it would be, how high it would be (since the abandoned mansion Windsholme sat at it’s highest spot), and how far out to sea it was. There are 4400 islands along the Maine coast, so I had plenty of bases for comparison. I studied websites and Google images, judging the terrain.

clapboard-islandThen, years after that work was done and committed to Morrow Island lore, a friend sent me a link about an island for sale, Clapboard Island West, 22 acres with a 9087 square foot home, lots of out buildings, including a tea house and a guest house, and a little beach. For a cool $4.5 million it can be yours. (Be sure to negotiate, it’s been on a the market for awhile.)

Or, you can do what I do, and ogle the photos, descriptions, and the two videos available about the historic house and island.

Of course, there are differences between Clapboard and Morrow Island. The biggest is geographic. Clapboard Island is off Falmouth, Maine in Casco Bay. My fictional island is about an hour and a half farther north. Clapboard Island is slightly larger than Morrow Island and not as high. Morrow Island gets its fresh water and electricity from mid-May to Columbus Day in great conduits that come from the town. Clapboard Island has an interesting aquifer and a solar plant for power. But really, if I’d moved Clapboard Island to where I needed it, and built a pavilion for dining, a kitchen, and a gift shop, it would have done fine.

Sometimes I really wonder why I spend so much time making this stuff up.

Readers: Have you ever imagined a place and then found an incarnation that was real or nearly so? For those who’ve read the Maine Clambake Mysteries–what do you think? Does Clapboard Island match your mental image or is it markedly different?

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Crime Solving Couples by Carol Perry

by Barb, suffering the 75 degree temps in Key West

Please welcome Friend of the Wickeds (FOW), Carol Perry, author of the Witch City Mystery series from Kensington. Today is release day for her latest, Murder Go Round! Congratulations, Carol –and take it away!

Carol Perry, Gulfport

Thanks for sharing my special book birthday for Murder Go Round! It’s the fourth book in the Witch City Mystery series where all the action takes place in Salem, Massachusetts—the magical city of my birth. (Born there on Halloween eve, as a matter of fact.) In this one, my crime solving couple, Lee Barrett and Pete Mondello, along with Lee’s Aunt Ibby and O’Ryan the cat, get involved with murder (of course,) involving an old carousel horse, a silver Russian samovar and the late Tsar Nicolas II.

Quite serendipitously, I received an invitation to serve on a panel of mystery writers at the upcoming MWA Sleuthfest next month in Boca Raton, Florida. The assigned topic: “Crime Solving Couples.” I immediately began thinking, remembering, reminiscing about all those wonderful detecting duos I’ve enjoyed over the years in books, TV, movies, and yes, even radio.

murder-go-roundAt first, the couples that came to mind were the married, or at least romantically involved, men and women who worked—sometimes in beautiful harmony, sometimes from opposite starting points– to bring the baddies to justice. Think Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles; Richard and Frances Lockridge’s Pam and Jerry North; Sidney Sheldon’s Jonathan and Jennifer Hart; and more recently, Kathy Reichs’ Dr. Temperance (Bones) Brennen and Seeley Booth; Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt; Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro.

I began asking friends and family, fellow writers, strangers I met in line at Barnes & Noble—“Who’s your favorite crime solving couple?” Everybody has one—usually more than one—most often, a lot more than one! I found myself saying “Oh, yeah. That one! Me too. Loved it!” The list grew. Carolyn Hart’s Annie and Max Darling, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford: Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy and Dan Sullivan; Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott and Deputy Dwight Bryant. The titles kept on coming. Some of the stories take place in the past, some in the present, a few in the future. It seems that there’s no end to the possibilities we writers have in creating couples who solve crimes.

My heroine, Lee happens to be a scryer. (She sees images, often unwelcome ones, in reflective surfaces.) Pete, the man in her life, is a straight-arrow, just-the-facts-ma’am police detective who isn’t comfortable with things paranormal. Throw in her cat, O’Ryan, who used to be a witch’s “familiar” and poor Pete is surrounded by high strangeness. So Pete and Lee approach problems–like murder–from different angles. (Liz’s Stan and Jake seem to work that way too, as do Barb’s Chris and Julia.)

Not all of the couples who fit into this category are of the one man, one woman variety. Think of Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, Cagney and Lacey, Carolyn Haines’ Sarah Booth Delaney and Tinkie Richmond, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury and Melrose Plant– and I’m so looking forward to Jessie’s Beryl and Edwina series!

The more I’ve thought about this, the more possibilities for mystery plots have suggested themselves. Some men and women solve crimes together, but never quite reach “couple” status, even though there’s sexual tension throughout the adventures. Think Scully and Mulder in “The X Files,” Maddie and David in “Moonlighting”

What a rich field of ideas for writers! Couples can combine their varied methods of mystery-solving as Pete and Lee do in Murder Go Round. In the Bones stories, Temperance approaches the problem from a scientific angle while Booth sticks to legal procedure. Combining two personalities for crime solving offers a neat kind of a BOGO for writers. Maron’s Judge Deborah must try not to get involved with Deputy Dwight’s investigations which might wind up in her courtroom. We get to double the tension of the story as each of the pair has his/her own “moments of danger.” Banter between the two, whether loving, scary or amusing, helps to advance the plot and develop the characters.

Wickeds, fellow writers and readers, who are your favorite crime solving couples? I’m envisioning a mile high pile of sleuthing duo books to add to my TBR collection.

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Ma’s Ginger Snaps from Iced Under

by Barb, barefoot and just out of the pool in Key West (don’t hate me), but writing this post for my friends up north

IcedunderfrontcoverIced Under, the newest Maine Clambake Mystery, takes place in the dead of a Maine winter. In the book, Julia Snowden’s mother, Jacqueline, bakes these cookies with her granddaughter Page to keep her entertained on a snowy day. In reality, these are cookies my grandmother made.

From the book–

When my cousins get together, one memory we all share is my grandmother’s ginger snaps. It was a joy to find them in your mailbox at camp, or on a bluesy day in your college dorm. They always came in a coffee can, lined on the inside with wax paper and taped shut. The cookies provided instant comfort and could be hoarded or shared, depending on your mood.

gingersnapsIngredients

1½ sticks butter, melted
2 cups granulated white sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 egg, beaten lightly
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon each cloves, allspice, nutmeg, mace
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt

Instructions

Mix the melted butter, 1 cup of the sugar, and the molasses. (Put aside the remaining cup of sugar.) When the mixture is cool, fold in the lightly beaten egg. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and mace. Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Mix thoroughly with a mixer or food processor.

Dough will form itself into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and put into refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Shape cold dough into balls using a small melon baller. Roll the balls in sugar to coat completely. Place the balls at least 2 inches apart on parchment paper on a cookie sheet, to allow for expansion.

Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.

Enjoy!

Readers: Do you have a favorite recipe for an inclement day? Tell us what it is!

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