The Best Nanaimo Bar Recipe Ever OR the Layer Dilemma

Nanaimo Bars

Since it is getting closer to Christmas, I thought I’d share a favourite Christmas square recipe with you.  It’s a recipe that I found once on the City of Nanaimo website and then adapted.  The recipe has a purpose though, too.  Nanaimo Bars have layers, and they’re a bit finicky to make.  Writing a novel is nothing like making Nanaimo Bars—you can easily make them in an hour or so—but it’s those layers that I keep thinking about.  So I have a question for you: how do you successfully add in layers of complexity to a story without going too far?

Nanaimo Bars

Bottom Layer


½ cup unsalted butter

¼ cup sugar

5 tbsp. cocoa

1 egg beaten

1 ¼ cups graham wafer crumbs

1 cup coconut

Melt first 3 ingredients in top of double boiler. (Or just use two pots one big, one little.  Fill the big one with water and put the little one in so that it floats…we’re not fancy in my kitchen).  Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs and coconut. Press firmly into an ungreased 8″ x 8″ pan.

Second Layer


½ cup unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream

2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder

2 cups icing sugar

Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.

Note: I usually double the recipe for the second layer to get more cream filling.

Third Layer


4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
–Or a bag of chocolate chips works too

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator (make sure the chocolate isn’t scalding or it will melt the cream).

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The Swamp: Finding the Magic and Crafting the Mystery

My cousin and I sometimes get ourselves into sticky situations.  One Christmas, we were enchanted by the idea of the ice covered swamp—a place which happened to be off-limits.  Walking our small dog down the dark road made the journey even more dazzling; it was the anticipation of what might happen that kept us shivering, whooping, buzzing with excitement.  So when the dog backed out of his collar and took off into the snowy woods we could think of nothing to do but follow him. It was an adventure!

Hearts racing, we pounded through the snowy woods, arms out to fend off rogue branches.  I have always loved the woods in winter: muted and warm from the layers of white.  But on this night, with the stars shrouded behind clouds and the winds howling along with the wolves, it felt like the air was charged with something magical—and perhaps a little dangerous.  At the edge of the woods was the swamp.

Out onto the pristine ice we went, trailing the small mutt as he ducked and weaved through the frozen bulrushes.  The sound of brittle bones creaking underneath as the ice shifted below.  Here’s the problem with swamps in winter: no matter how untouched and innocent they look, there’s always a soft spot. With a crack the ice gave way beneath my boots and I slid down into the chilling, murky water below.

At this point, you might be thinking: Lauren has gone insane.  Swamps and novels are nothing alike.  True.  There are many ways that they are different and only one way that they are similar: when you get stuck, it’s a real mess to claw your way back to your original destination (or point).  At the same time, the act of getting lost in the swamp—or the story—is exhilarating.  Sometimes the thrill of not knowing what will happen next—what new plot twist you will write into the story—makes the process and the product better.  At the same time, writing an outline for your novel is like a safety net.  It serves an important purpose for when you get mired in the bog—or whatever pitfalls you might encounter.

In the end, my cousin lay down on the ice (like we had been taught not that long ago) and managed to pull me out of the frozen muck.  Frozen and exhausted, we lay there, on the banks of the swamp and looked up at the stars.  The dog padded up softly to us and began licking us on our prickling pink cheeks.

Do you write an outline before starting a novel? Is it worth it? What are the best ways to make a novel outline?

Dialogue DO’s & DON’T’S

I’ve been reading a lot about how to craft excellent dialogue, so I thought I would share a few tips that were surprising and interesting with you:

DO: Keep it simple: “said” and “replied” let the reader know who is talking without cluttering the page.

DON’T: “exclaimed,” “gushed,” “enthused,” “sighed” and “cried” are a few examples.  Let the reader imagine how the characters are saying something.

DO: Read your dialogue out loud.  If it sounds awkward to you, then it sounds awkward to the reader.

DON’T: include the boring stuff.  It’s alright to write naturally, but only include what is relevant to the story.

DO: Have your character react to what others are saying.  Dialogue needs to be connected in some way to the action to keep the story flow moving.

DON’T: try too hard.  Characters all have their own personalities and backgrounds, so let them speak for themselves.

Have you used (or broken) any of these rules?  What do you think about writing rules? Are they meant to be adhered to or broken shamelessly?