Packing List Post Mortem

So here was my challenge: pack everything I'd need for a month-long, four-season trip into a single suitcase. 

I photographed almost everything I put in my bag before I got on the plane. Now that the trip is over, I'm going to post the photos and evaluate the choices I made.

Before I get on with it: I used the website a lot while I was packing. It's a great resource & has lots of great tips for traveling light.

My packing rule is this: never pack more than you can carry, and always carry what you pack so you know whether or not you overdid it. If that last bit makes no sense, I mean: don't let some sympathetic person help you with the load. Carry it, feel it, learn from it. 


Toiletries. I think I did a pretty good job with this--I cut out everything I wouldn't use daily, and anything that I could do without. No body lotion, for example, even though at home I'm careful to moisturize.

On the other hand, I tried out new products on the trip, and that was a mistake. recommended BB Cream as an all-purpose lotion/moisturizer/sunscreen. I thought it sounded practical and cheap, and in general, I try to avoid packing things that I can't bear to lose. Things get lost and stolen when you travel and you can cut down on the pain in advance by leaving valuables at home.

My usual foundation/moisturizer is pricey, so I ditched it for the cheap stuff. The BB Cream was okay, but not great--I thought it felt a little heavy. The Garnier Fructis was another substitute, which I made for the same reason, and I ended up hating it. 

Lesson: it's okay to make substitutions, but test drive thoroughly before leaving home.


Dresses. I took three and should have taken two.

What's worse, in retrospect I'd probably leave out my favorite of the three: the little spaghetti strap dress with the geometric pattern. I could only wear it when it was very warm and relatively informal. 

The plain gray dress was more functional, because I could wear it in multiple weather conditions--with tights and a cardigan in the cold, with just a cardigan when it was cool. The black dress worked in all the same situations when the gray print worked, and a few more as well--it looks a little more formal. 

cold weather.jpg

Cold weather gear, for hiking. I did not look very fashionable on the trail, but all of this was about right for a summer hike in a cold climate. Pants and long underwear--I ended up using the long underwear as pajama pants. A thermal top and a t-shirt. A long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, a down-filled vest (inherited from my mom--I don't buy anything with down), gloves and a sport bra. 

This was all I wore for about two weeks. Piled all together it was pretty bulky, but looking at the picture now--nope, not a thing that I didn't use and use again. 

cold weather extras.jpg

Various cold weather extras. A travel towel (the nubby blue), a scarf (the beige), a sleeping bag/bed liner, basically a person-sized pocket to use when you suspect your hotel's sheets haven't been washed lately, a platypus water bottle, a pair of crampons and rain pants in a little pouch. Sport sunglasses.

Things I didn't use: the rain pants, the crampons. 

We didn't need crampons in the Torres del Paine, and when we did a mini trek on the Perito Moreno glacier, the tour company provided heavy-duty crampons. Really poor use of space. The rain pants would have come in handy if there had been more rain, so I'm not sorry I brought them. 

first aid kit.jpg

The contents of my first aid kit. 

I have yet to use burn gel or iodine swabs on a trip. I think, in future, I might cut down on emergency care items. Band-aids and a thermometer? Okay, that's fine. But there's no need to go hog wild unless you're really going to be in the wilderness. That's my new position.

There's no getting around the practical stuff: contact lenses and laundry detergent, razors and feminine hygiene.

One tip I got from that worked like a charm was to bring several tiny travel size bottles of saline solution for contact lenses. Yes, more waste, but when you use one up you throw it away instead of carrying around a bottle that stays the same size even as the volume of solution inside of it decreases. 

Packing items that you know you won't bring home is great, because it means you have at least a little space for souvenirs.


Two sweaters, one cardigan. This was about right. Pretty plain--also about right. 


Yes, lots of tops. I could have cut down here; this is well beyond the bare minimum. But they weren't bulky and they created the illusion of variety so I'm okay with the excess.

The mix here: long sleeved, short sleeved, ratty, neat. 


Two pairs of pants and one skirt. The tech pants I wore in Patagonia aren't in this picture, but I only used those while hiking.

Probably could have cut out the skirt. I only wore it a couple of times, and a dress would have served as well. (so maybe the choice ought to have been: take the skirt or the third dress? One or both of them should have been cut).

warm weather.jpg

Warm weather/beach clothes. A swimsuit, a swimsuit cover up, terrycloth shorts, two tank tops and a lacy undershirt. 

The things I'd cut? The swimsuit cover up and the lacy undershirt.

The cover-up because I didn't end up doing much swimming, and other items would have served as well.

The lacy undershirt because--like the gray print dress--even though it's a favorite item, it was unnecessary. There's probably room in most bags for a few unnecessary, fun things. This tiny little top takes up no space and caused me no grief. But the goal is to pack smarter every time, and I never had a moment when I thought, "Oh, I'm so glad I brought this, nothing else would do!" with that top. So, the conclusion is to cut it.

It's a travel truism that you should pick clothes for versatility. That's the mistake I made with the lacy top and the dress: not versatile. 


I brought three pairs of shoes. Hiking boots were a must. Cheap black flats, and a pair of sandals so old that I threw them away before I came home.

The hiking boots were a bummer. They were huge, which meant I had to wear them on every bus and plane, no matter the weather. I didn't have room to pack them away. But they were necessary.

As for the other two? I picked them because they were disposable, not precious, but they did the job. 



A little purse that I could fold into my suitcase, but pull out to use when out and about.

Kleenex. Because eventually, you learn not to trust toilets to be properly stocked.

Travel guides, my dive log.

Glasses, in case my contact lenses got lost, or for overnight plane flights.

My kindle and cord, my phone cord, a pack of cards.

A warm weather hat, a hat with a sunshade. Never used the hat with the shade--either I should change my habits (probably) or I should leave it at home.

A journal, a tiny nalgene bottle full of fountain pen ink, and gluesticks, to paste items into the journal.

Travel bars for times when I couldn't find any vegetarian food.  

A travel alarm.


Valuables. I try to bring as few as possible, because I want to have my valuables on me at all times.

A DSLR camera, an extra lens, an extra battery and charger. The camera is bulky and really, it's a pain to carry around. But I like taking photos so I accept the constant discomfort. I bought a strap cover on Etsy because I hate wearing a brand name across my chest.

Two wallets. I kept them in different bags, so that if one bag were stolen, I'd be able to carry on. Each wallet had cash, a credit card, and a form of ID. I also carried a little coin purse to hold small amounts of cash, so that when I had to pay for something on the street or in a shop, I'd only pull out the coin purse and only display small amounts of cash in public. 

Also, I say two wallets but one is my fauxdori--you can see the pen loop that I bought, with a plain black Pelikan inside, and, yes, I travel with a fountain pen and, yes, I find that perfectly practical--I think I refilled it once on the trip, because it's a piston filler and holds a lot of ink.

A bungee cord. I don't know why it's here, but I shouldn't have brought it. 


And this is what it all looked like when packed. One medium-sized suitcase that I checked. One camera bag that I had on me at all times, everywhere.

The camera bag has three separate combination locks on it. One is on the strap, so that you can wrap the strap around a pole or a bedframe or whatnot and lock it in. That's handy if you need to sleep in a hostel or on a train. There's a lock on the front pocket, where I kept my fauxdori (which was also a wallet), and another lock on the top flap, which you open to access the camera. I picked this bag because it holds two lenses, and because it soothed my paranoia. 

Lastly, the backpack. I don't like to carry backpacks but I needed it for the hike. This was the only luggage I took on the 6 day hike through the Torres del Paine. It was too small, and as a result I had to....(a) leave my kindle in my checked baggage, because I was afraid of crushing it, which meant I had nothing to read on the trip and (b) strap my jacket to the outside of the backpack while I hiked, because there was no room for it inside.

In an ideal world, I would have bought a different daypack. It would be about 30% larger and super snazzy. But I didn't want to buy too much new stuff for the trip--I had to pick and choose, and 'new backpack' didn't make the cut. Anyhow, it worked.

With the suitcase handle in one hand, my backpack on my back, and my camera bag around my shoulder I was mobile but awkward, loaded down. I had no trouble walking, I carried all of this up and down long flights of stairs, unpaved streets, in and out of buses. 

That being said, getting from place to place with all this stuff on me was a chore. I did not feel light and fancy free. I felt burdened and vulnerable. 

I could have made my life a lot easier by not carrying the camera case. The camera case is what tips a decent bag-and-carry-on duo into a tangle, and it was the camera that made my shoulder ache at the end of a long day.  Nothing else I could have cut would have made as great a difference; but there's no chance I would have left the camera behind. 

On Plotting, and Movies

So I've been plotting out my new novel -- working title The Last Man On Earth. I've had a general idea what it's going to be about for months, and I've finally begun to hammer those general notions into a specific, step-by-step progression of scenes. And I've been watching a few movies. I streamed a couple of Isabelle Huppert movies, because my goal for the new heroine is to craft a character that Isabelle Huppert could play. She might be my favorite actress ever, partly because she plays such complicated, often savage roles -- she's played Medea, the child killer, and Madame Bovary. She played the titular protagonist of The Piano Teacher, whose uptight, cultivated facade hides a core of unhinged savagery, a nymphomaniac nun in Amateur, a matriarch and murderess in Merci pour le chocolat.

So I watched two movies last weekend:

White Material, about a white family driven off of their coffee plantation in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed African state. Huppert runs the plantation with her ex-husband, his father, and their son. The ex-husband has an exit plan; the son is very much the product of his upbringing, which is to say he's a nightmare; the father is too old to change; Huppert's character digs in and refuses to flee. She is unashamed and unafraid, when she ought to be both.

I really liked White Material. I think it's worth a watch. Not a fun movie, but a good one. It's a very tightly focused film, very controlled. While the pacing felt leisurely, in retrospect the movie doesn't contain a single wasted moment. The militia converges on the plantation, the family self-destructs, and it all leads to a final climactic scene.

And then Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, in which Huppert plays a prostitute who hires herself out to a psychoanalyst. The movie parallels their two professions, suggesting a host of similarities. The role is ideal for Huppert, who has the opportunity to dress up in various costumes, to wield a knife, to indulge in hysterics, and to smoke pensively on her balcony.

My verdict? Eh. Whatever. Huppert is always worth watching, but the movie meanders. While it has a point, the story is tissue-thin, the resolution is weak, and the ending abrupt.

I watched those two more or less 'for research' - to help wrap my mind around this new character that I'm creating. But I also watched a couple of movies for fun. Namely:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a young girl, Hushpuppy, growing up in the Louisiana bayou. I guess I'd call it a coming of age story, though Hushpuppy is much too young for it. But she has no choice in the matter -- the arrival of a massive storm in the bayou forces change on her community, while personal devastation leaves Hushpuppy with only one way forward: to rise up on her own two feet.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is part fantasy. Hushpuppy is young enough that she doesn't differentiate entirely between the life of her imagination and the real world. Events are reinterpreted in her mind as fantastical happenings or take on mythic overtones. But the touch of pure fantasy doesn't keep this movie from feeling grounded, authentic, and real.

The last movie I'll mention is Pitch Perfect, about a pair of rival college a capella groups. This sucker is, in contrast to the other three, very tightly plotted and immensely entertaining. There's the rival-groups plot, with a structure familiar to anyone who's watched a season of Glee -- the underdog must clear the hurdles of two successive competitions to reach the final round where they face off against the more polished, more successful rival in the ultimate sing-off. The protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, must overcome a series of personal obstacles before she can successfully helm the group and lead them to victory.

This is the movie that got me thinking. Because although Pitch Perfect's plot is by far the most plausible -- these competitions really exist, and college freshmen often do spend that first year on campus struggling to belong and achieve -- it felt the most artificial.

So I got to thinking: tight plotting reads as artificial.

Artificial does not mean bad. The finale of Pitch Perfect is the most satisfying of the lot, because it resolves so many plot threads at once -- it marks the protagonist's social, romantic, familial and artistic victory. It is both deeply nostalgic and fresh. It ends on a musical number and makes you feel great.

But in order to achieve so much in a short period of time, the scenes are compressed. There's no time for chitchat, no tangents. At least half the characters are familiar types that we can understand without much exposition, tweaked a bit for interest, with the glossy appearance of depth rather than real three-dimensionality.

Both White Material and Beasts of the Southern Wild disguise their artificiality. The scenes are longer and less obviously purposeful. They only appear functional in retrospect, when you sit down to dissect the plot. The viewer isn't constantly cued about how far they've come along a familiar story arc, or reminded what conclusion they should be rooting for. The stories feel, as a result, less directed and more surprising. Less artificial, more lifelike.

The dud of the lot, Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, feels highly artificial and goes nowhere.

Since I am staring down at the bones of my story, unfleshed and undisguised, this struck me as a useful metric. I think part of what readers want from a genre story is, in fact, the artificial feel. The reassurance of being directed, the familiarity of a story arc, the promise of a resolution. Things need to move quickly enough that the reader feels on track.

I think plenty of genre readers appreciate a lean, well-told story that hits its marks and takes its bow. I do, even though that's not not what I write. The take-home point for me is that even if the added elements, the layers, don't feel purposeful, they must be purposeful. There's no room for real excess.

On the other hand, a story that feels real and offers surprises is doing good work, even at the expense of ultra-tight plotting.


That's my dog, Kiddo, enjoying her Thanksgiving treat. It's a deer leg she found in a ditch. She hides it under the house when she's not gnawing on it.

This year was the first when members of my generation prepared the majority of the food my family ate. All through the holiday we kept chatting about how everyone felt about the change. I think it was harder for my mother, who's a brilliant cook, and easier for my aunt, who enjoyed being able to focus on preparing a couple of exquisite dishes.

As for ability to get food on the table for a group of people has been improving incrementally over the past decade. Years ago, I'd plan overambitious menus and then end up serving meals piecemeal or hours late. Often my guests would have to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to stop hungrier ones from ordering takeout.

Lately I've learned to prepare dishes in advance and stage the final preparations so everything's ready at the right time, but I'm still so slow. I spent about two and a half days cooking for this Thanksgiving, which is a lot, but when it came to the final hours, I had everything done and ready to go, just waiting on the turkey.

My two and a half days of cooking added up to...

  • pickled carrots
  • creamed spinach
  • roasted onions with gruyere croutons
  • mashed potatoes
  • sweet cranberry relish
  • savory shallot and thyme cranberry relish
  • butterscotch pudding
  • chocolate mousse
  • and two cocktails (I found this one, bizarrely titled Does a bear?, surprisingly wonderful and refreshing).

I didn't handle the turkey, stuffing, or gravy because I'm a vegetarian. We also had herb-roasted green beans, two different yam preparations, brussels sprouts, and three different kinds of pie.

Thanksgiving is the holiday my family puts the most effort into celebrating - for example: of the twelve people at our table, only two actually live in the state of Kentucky; the rest traveled from California and Florida to attend.

My hit of the night turned out to be the butterscotch pudding. In the lead-up to the holiday I kept telling all my relatives, "I'm making butterscotch pudding!" and they smiled and nodded and said, "Butterscotch pudding, that's nice. We'll get some pies."

Once they actually tried my butterscotch pudding, however, nobody cared about pies. Or, for that matter, my chocolate mousse. The point is: it turned out really well.

This is the recipe I used. I used to live down the street from the Sweet Melissa bakery & I was absolutely obsessed with the butterscotch pudding there. I think the bakery version is better, but nobody else at the table knew that.

Anyway, I had a wonderful holiday & hope the same for you.

Hard Winter

I've been told several times that I should brace for a harsh winter. When I asked how they could predict such a thing, one person replied that the caterpillars were black instead of brown, and black caterpillars predict a harsh winter. Some of the caterpillars are black. Some are brown. Some are both.

This is the kind of thing I want to know about early Victorian England. The little legends. The magical thinking that seems normal, everyday. It's a reminder of how conditioned, urban, and modern my mindset is.

Romancing the Pages and Purple Orchids

Orange County RWA, my home chapter, released an anthology of seventeen stories this week - including one by me, Purple Orchids.

Purple Orchids is short (Only about 3k words?), and it's about one of the secondary characters in Sweet Surrender, Daphne White.

Daphne has been an interesting character for me to write. She started out as a foil for the heroine of Sweet Surrender, Caroline Small: as naive as Caro was cynical, as innocent as Caro was jaded, spoiled and socially secure where Caro clings to the far edges of respectability.

I didn't think very highly of Daphne, at first. Her negative qualities are more obvious than her positive ones: she's oblivious, self-centered, and thoughtless. She's a little flighty and takes stupid risks for dumb reasons.

I didn't think she'd get her own story - I had no interest in spending so much time in her scatterbrained, fluffy POV. But the more I wrote Daphne, the more I understood her as a character. And that character? Way less fluffy than she'd started out -- and way more interesting than I'd expected.

Daphne was always the kind of girl who'd befriend Caro. Daphne could queen around with the in crowd, but instead she adopts a misfit? Hmm. That's interesting.

And Daphne was always a gifted painter. My academic background is in art history so I was careful to think about how to make Daphne a noteworthy painter without having her make innovations that were still decades in the future. For me, she works in the tradition of J.M.W. Turner, with a turn toward the mythological that positions her as a precursor to symbolism.

But Daphne's painting isn't all native talent and rearview-mirror innovations. She also wakes up before dawn every morning so she can paint en plein air when the light is best. So she's got a little more grit than you might assume, given that she's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed babe.

Daphne's gotten away with a fair bit of troublemaking without ever experiencing much in the way of consequences, and that's had an impact on her character...not for the better, alas. But she's smarter than people give her credit for, loyal, with a lot of emotional integrity, and she's bold. She believes in her own talent, which is real, and she loves being alive. She gets joy from little things. She's kind.

Actually, I've come to realize, Daphne is awesome.

So Purple Orchids is a little slice of Daphne's life. I think when the rights on the anthology expire I'm going to expand the story into a novella -- a erotic novella that ends unhappily, maybe. Daphne needs a bit of tragedy to season her, but I can see an HEA in her future.

You can see my visual inspiration for Daphne and other characters in Sweet Surrender on the Pinterest board I've made for the novel, here.

And you can buy the anthology Romancing the Pages at Amazon.