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Gift Lab: Tell Us A Story

April 23, 2012

Background Research

While I may be a mild-mannered writer for UncommonGoods by day… by night I’m a swashbuckling writer of Broadway musicals! Except for the swashbuckling part. And the Broadway part. But I do write musicals; you just haven’t heard of them yet.

Have you ever wondered why so many musicals are adaptations of a movie, or book, or something else? One reason is that writing a musical well is extraordinarily complicated, even without having to come up with a story from scratch. So writers like adapting existing material because it gives them a foundation on which to build.

The problem for new writers? That foundation can be pretty expensive — just imagine how much it costs to get a movie studio to agree to let you use one of their films! So as a writer, it would be a real asset to have a tool that helps me come up with exciting, original stories.


Among our writing products at UncommonGoods, we have two that are specifically designed to help you generate stories. The Storymatic uses a large deck of cards with prompts on them, and Rory’s Story Cubes are a set of dice with evocative images on them.

One of my favorite games has picture dice like the Story Cubes, while on the other hand, I feel a little intimidated by the size of the Storymatic deck. So my hypothesis is that the Story Cubes will be my most effective story-making tool.


Rory’s Story Cubes, $7.50

Using the Story Cubes is pretty intuitive. You open the box (which has a magnetic cover that swings open like a book) and inside is the set of nine dice. Dice are pretty self-explanatory: you simply roll them and see what turns up.

First to catch my eye are images of a fountain and a castle tower. I immediately picture the two together, in European style piazza where people chat and soak up the afternoon sunlight. There’s the image of a cane: I picture an old man who comes to sit by the fountain each day. Then there’s a strange image of arrows pointing out in all directions. I think, maybe the old man isn’t there today. Maybe someone is wondering where he is. I see the image of a lock—maybe someone locked up in the tower has been watching the piazza every day and realizes the man isn’t there.

I write the dialogue of a scene between two women up in the tower, and it comes pretty easily. One feels compelled to find what’s happened to the man, while the other tries to reason with her. The other dice images prompt specific lines of dialogue, or provide unexpected twists to the story that would be interesting to learn more about. The tone is mysterious, with a lot of room to spin the story into something longer.

The Storymatic, $29.95

The box holds two different colors of cards with words on them, and what looks like a pretty involved instruction book. Unsure what I’m supposed to do, I start reading the instructions and discover that the process is actually very simple. There are “gold” cards that show personal attributes that combine to form a character, and “copper” cards displaying plot elements. The instructions look long because contain a number of ways to use the cards, but they all basically boil down to this: “Draw a couple cards of each color. Build a story around them. If you get stumped, draw more cards.”

For my character cards, I draw “aging model” and “dish washer.” Awesome. I can picture a once-glamorous woman reduced to working behind the scenes at the kind of swanky establishment she once patronized herself.

My plot cards are “can’t get down” and “fossil.” Hmm. I started by thinking literally, imagining a kind of adventure story where she’s climbing a ladder and gets stuck, but finds a fossil. That didn’t really appeal to me. So I started thinking more figuratively. I thought, maybe she really wants to leave the kitchen and join an event happening below. I wasn’t sure if that was stretching “can’t get down” too far, but I was the only one playing, so no one complained. I pictured her boss, who has no sympathy for her, and thinks of her as a fossil. Between the two of them I could picture some good dialogue.

When I ran out of material, but still felt like there was more to the scene, I started drawing more cards. The first I drew was “midnight in a graveyard.” Yikes. Wrong story. At first I felt like I was obligated to find a way to use it anyway, but once again I realized that I was free to make my own rules, so I kept drawing. I drew “fever,” which prompted my ex-model to try an excuse to get out of work. “At last, love” was a tough one, but it prompted a great little sarcastic rant, spinning off the idea of “where have you been all my life?”

You can listen to my stories here:

Featuring the voices of Rinnell Curry & Brandon Chu

Featuring the voices of Melanie Majewski and Cassie Tweten Delaney


In the end, both sets helped me create intriguing stories with lots of potential.

Rory’s Story Cubes is simpler and feels more like a game. I can picture using them with friends just for fun. You could also do them as a travel activity, using the box to hold them when you roll. Because all you’re given are pictures, I felt like these were really liberating.

Storymatic feels more specifically like getting writing prompts, but they’re really interesting prompts, and combining them creates a huge variety in the results you’ll get. Because what you receive is so much more specific, I ended up investing more thought into the process of making the pieces come together, which in the end resulted the script that I liked better of the two.
With the Storymatic I found myself thinking about my characters in greater detail, while with the Story Cubes I felt like I was able to move more quickly into the action of my story. Both are effective ways of starting out, and I will most definitely be using them again.

Gift Guides

Pinterest Contest: Happy Mother’s Day

April 16, 2012

Win up to a $250 shopping spree for you and your mom.* Just repin this image below to a Mother’s Day board, follow the instructions, and leave a link to your finished board in the comments below, or the pin on our Pinterest board.

Let your Mom know why she’s the best with this board filled with images that remind you of her. Don’t have an exact photo? No worries– be creative with these prompts and have fun!

We’ll announce the winner on May 4, so you and your mom will have plenty of time to shop together, before or after Mother’s Day. For every 50 entries we see, we’ll add $50 to the grand prize, up to a total of $250. So after you share your board with us, be sure to tell your friends and family to enter too!

*Or mother figure, or moms. Whoever you’re celebrating this Mother’s Day!

Gift Guides

Happy Birthday April Babies

March 30, 2012

Does someone you love have a birthday this month? Enter them to win a shopping spree at UncommonGoods. From now til April 30, you can tag your friend in this photo on our Facebook page and they’ll be entered to win. Leave a comment to let us know why your friend or family member is special to you, and why you hope they have a great birthday. Be sure to include their birthday! We’ll pick one lucky birthday girl or boy to receive a gift card to UncommonGoods.

And here’s the best part—for every 50 people you enter, we’ll add $50 to the grand prize, up to $250. So if your mother, sister and best friend forever are all April babies (and maybe you are too), you can enter each time.

You can also double your chances of winning a birthday prize for your favorite people by tweeting:

Hey @uncommongoods! Help me wish my friend @name a very happy birthday.

Is your birthday in April? You should enter yourself too. We know UncommonGoods shoppers are great when it comes to finding perfect gifts for the people they love, but we wouldn’t want you to forget yourself.

Treat yo self!

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Stackable Lunch Pot

February 22, 2012

Background Research: The Stackable Lunch Pot is a sleek, chic, airtight food porting device comprised of two containers that fit together in a quite nifty manner. The larger of the two holds 18.6 ounces; the smaller, 10 ounces. A fashionable matching spork is included.

Hypothesis: Some people–cough cough (me) cough cough – have trouble restraining themselves in the presence of tasty food, and need help with the dreaded “portion control.” Can the Lunch Pot help me keep a lid (har har) on my appetite despite the temptation of homemade risotto?

Experiment: The first phase of the investigation required the making of risotto that was delicious enough to be a formidable temptation. The following recipe yielded more than adequate results.

Pressure Cooker Brown Rice and Kabocha Risotto
-All measurements are approximate; risotto is very forgiving.
-You can use any winter squash — butternut, pumpkin, or acorn, but the beauty of kabocha is that the skin is edible so you don’t have to peel it.
-Recipe is adaptable to a rice cooker or ordinary pot, but
1) A pressure cooker does the best job of making brown rice become creamy the way Arborio does, and
2) If you don’t use a pressure cooker, you have to pre-cook the squash.

2 T butter, 1 T olive oil
1.5 cup short-grain brown rice (I used sweet brown rice because that’s what I had on hand)
1 small kabocha squash, washed, seeds, pith and stem removed, cut into evenly-sized 1” pieces
1-2 T dried sage leaves
3 ½ – 4 c chicken or vegetable broth
Large handful chopped parsley (Flat-leaf is a stronger taste)
Large handful shredded Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt fats over low-medium heat in pot of pressure cooker. Add rice and stir until coated with oil. Add sage and kabocha, stir. Pour in broth, stir. Put lid on pressure cooker and bring to full pressure. Lower heat as much as you can without losing full pressure. Cook anywhere from 18-40  mins (depends on the kind of rice you have; try 18 to start and if that’s not enough, bring up to pressure again and check after another 5 minutes. Lather, rinse, repeat if that’s not enough. Next time you try it, you won’t have to guess).

Turn off heat and let pot sit for 5-10 minutes, then use quick-release method to let off pressure.

Stir in parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle individual servings with grated cheese.

The risotto-cooking phase of the experiment having been completed, the next step entailed filling the smaller of the two containers with the tempting substance, and larger one with salad makings (dressing was put in a separate small container from my motley collection).

I should confess that the thought of bringing only the small container of risotto goodness to work caused me some momentary sadness. My lab assistant, Rusty Marmalade, distracted me by conducting a spork inspection.

Despite my misgivings, when lunchtime rolled around at work the next day, the contents of the 10-oz. container were satisfyingly filling. Moreover, the container’s volume limit did, in fact, prevent me from eating too much.

Unanticipated Challenge: The Lunch Pot’s rubber gasket creates a vacuum seal that prevents air from getting in and leaks from getting out. It also prevented me from being able to open it the first time I closed it (fortunately before I put any food in it). There is a cute little instruction diagram inside the lid showing how to open it when the suction is too great for your strength.

However, I didn’t understand it. I tried to pry off the lid by pushing the spork upward, with no results. I tried a metal spoon–no dice. I emailed our vendor. They sent me this helpful video, which didn’t help me.

Finally, pushing the lid up with all my might, I managed to break it. My more intelligent co-worker, Cassie, noticed that the lid was meant to be screwed off. Not pried. Mystery solved.

Gasket Corollary: The green rubber gaskets come off, making it easy to thoroughly wash away any lurking food or bacteria.

1) The Lunch Pot is a wonderfully-designed device both functionally and aesthetically.
2) The smaller container is the perfect size for a correct portion of any main dish, and the larger, for salad.
3) I am not an engineer. But I can cook all right.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Moss Terrarium

February 16, 2012

Hypothesis: I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever owned. But the moss terrarium is so green and cute, so I want to give my green thumb one more try. Can I keep this fellow alive and maybe even flourishing?


First off, I need to create my terrarium. I grabbed a mixing bowl, a spoon and a squeeze bottle from my kitchen and got to work. Most everything I needed was included in the kit– dirt, moss, bottle & stand. But it did take a little bit of dexterity to get my terrarium up and running. Some assembly is required!

I activated the moss with in a quick warm water bath.

Gave the dirt a quick mix. Doesn’t this look like the beginning of a cake recipe? I know, I know… you just got totally grossed out. But Martha Stewart’s got a pretty impressive dirt cake recipe

Then I used my mixing spoon to spread out the dirt along the bottom of the wine bottle, and layered the moss on top with the included pair of chopsticks.

Here’s my finished terrarium, hanging out next to the last lonely tendril of parsley.

Results: Since the time this picture was taken, my parsley has since died. But my beautiful moss terrarium has stayed green, and I only need to spritz it with a spray bottle a few times a week. I did move my terrarium away from the window. I missed those instructions to keep it out of direct sunlight, and now that it’s hanging out with my favorite Beatles action figures, my terrarium just might make it through the winter.

Conclusion: If you’re worse at gardening than I am, don’t despair. The moss terrarium kit is a chance to redeem yourself and bring a bit of nature indoors.

The Moss Terrarium Bottle is $38, and you can dress yours up with handmade terrarium creatures, $34.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Soup & Sandwich Tray

February 10, 2012

Background Research
The Soup & Sandwich Tray Duo is an UncommonGoods classic with a glowing reputation. Based on photos and reviews, it is the perfect size for a classic tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich. Customers have left comments describing the innovative meals they have served on the tray such as cereal with a muffin and cake with ice cream.

My idea of a comforting meal to warm up cold bellies on a January day is an Italian alternative. I hypothesize my favorite meal of spicy tomato & chickpea soup with Stromboli will fit just as perfectly on the Soup & Sandwich Tray Duo.

The Experiment
Sunday January 15, perhaps the coldest day so far since last winter. The wind is howling outside and there is nothing my boyfriend Mark and I would rather do than turn up the heat and have a movie marathon.

In the freezer are two servings of tomato and chickpea soup, a simple crock pot recipe that I made two weeks prior. It’s a thick soup that I spiced up with a lot of cayenne pepper and paprika and saved for such a chilly occasion. I have the ingredients to make my mom’s famous Stromboli– a favorite from my childhood. I roll the Stromboli, put it in the oven and heat the soup on the stove.

While the food is cooking, I take my Soup & Sandwich Tray Duo from its box to clean. I am surprised at the weight of the plate and bowl- it’s very sturdy and larger than I imagined. I especially appreciate that the plate and bowl are not attached and nest on top of each other for easy storage, a huge bonus for this apartment dweller. The bowl is very big and deep, I don’t know if I could ever eat that much soup!

The soup is warm and the Stromboli is baked to cheesy, oozy perfection. Although my Stromboli slices are not the size or shape of a grilled cheese, they fit better on the plate than I predicted. Mark and I sit at the table for a couple of minutes enjoying the convenience of eating soup and Stromboli from the same tray. When it comes time for a soup refill, we are grateful that we can take the bowls and not travel with the entire tray.

We decide it is time to put on The Big Lebowski and take our trays to the sofa. I dread eating on the sofa because it’s usually so messy but the  tray fits so perfectly on my lap, its size and weight make it a sturdy and level table. Since the bowl is so large, it only needs to be filled halfway to provide a healthy serving so spilling is not a concern. We can eat without crumbs or spilling while laughing at The Dude.

My hypothesis proved true, a meal slightly alternative to grilled cheese and classic tomato soup fit on the Soup & Sandwich Tray Duo. In addition, the tray proved to store well in a cabinet and create a spill-free sofa experience. I can’t stop thinking about all of my favorite recipes that can be served on the tray…

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