Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Happy Holidays to all, whatever days of celebration you observe and however you do it, religious or secular.  Expect a post of retrospection and introspection soon, but today is not that day.

Today, perhaps appropriately, I'd like to talk a little bit about endings, albeit in the fictional sense.

The past few weeks have been difficult emotionally and physically - a nasty cold which evolved into a sinus infection - so I can perhaps be forgiven for missing my usual warning signs of impending plot hole:  writer's block.  Instead, I ground to a halt with Unnatural Causes and tried to keep plugging away ... but the problem was, I couldn't walk the characters through what amounts to a fantastic autopsy (and believe me, I am having fun with the atmospherics of this scene) without knowing whodunnit.

Seems obvious, perhaps, but years ago, I saw a collection of mystery writers speak at Books and Company in Dayton, and more than one admitted that when they started writing, they didn't know which suspect had committed the murder.  This really stuck with me, and I decided when I broached the idea of a fantasy mystery novel that I was going to go into it with suspects, but no chosen killer.

I finally found this just wasn't working for me, and I needed to decide whodunnit to work through this autopsy (I'm not going to get tired of describing it like that).  What I looked at first was how I wanted to play with various assumptions that had already been made about the crime and the logic behind it.  That gave me some specific parameters to play with and one idea I knew I wanted to incorporate.

Then I started looking at the ultimate motive - was it political?  Personal?  Was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  In deciding which way I wanted to go with this, I had a distinct sense of how I wanted the characters (and hopefully, the reader) to react, and this dictated my ultimate choice.

This somewhat less organic than I usually work, but I'm satisfied with the conclusion I came to, and knowing where I'm going helps me shape the tone of the steps along the way.  I've never liked the concept of stories having a message, but I do like to play around with certain themes and tropes.  I suppose it's the difference between a short answer on a test - which would be the "message" - and a stream of consciousness poem.  It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.

Friday, December 20, 2013

GoodReads Review: The Founding Foodies

The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American CuisineThe Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine by Dave DeWitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining look at the early history of food in America and the Founding Fathers who were greatly influential in its development, this book was full of delightful information. The period recipes, presented verbatim, are fun to read - and definitely give you an appreciation for modern cookbooks, because I would hate to try to follow one. Be aware that book is perhaps mistitled; the first segment of it (a significant portion of the book) is not so much about founding foodies as it is about the early economy, necessity and evolution of food, from the explosion of the pepper trade in Salem to the duties of the baker-general of George Washington's army.

This is not a general history book - it is an in-depth analysis of American eating, and includes a lot of elements we often take for granted nowadays, such as the requirements imposed by geography and the creation of a national identity. The chapters that focus specifically on Washington and Jefferson are really well-balanced, providing a general sense of their lives and historical high-points, while keeping the focus on the real star on the story: the cuisine.

For me, where this book falls down is the translation of recipes at the end of the book. The author has attempted to modernize the recipes, but the result seems half-hearted at best, both in the product and the methodology used to arrive at these interpretations. To be honest, I would have been perfectly content - might have even enjoyed it better - to have another few chapters, looking at some of the other early culinarians, rather than the recipes. This kind of a project really requires an entire book to itself - perhaps even for each individual region (for instance, New England fare versus Jefferson's Virginia), never mind the whole Revolutionary landscape; it's not really suited to be squashed into 46 pages.

Still, as a reading book rather than a recipe book, highly recommended. If you love the story behind the food, this is for you.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's been a long, draining week.

As some of you who follow me on social media may have noticed, my grandmother passed away this Monday.  To her other numerous grandchildren and grandnieces, she was Juju, but she's always been Grandma Junie to me.

I've always tried to keep this blog "angst-free" with a low personal threshold - I talk about my habits and quirks, but I don't think (as a general rule) people want to read the latest saga of my life.  When it comes to my Grandma Junie, though, I wouldn't feel right without a few words.

The family asked me to write the obituary; it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to write.  I didn't want to gush or use the same trite words seen in every obit.  How to encapsulate what a wonderful, nurturing woman meant to her family with brevity and clarity?  I thought about what I remembered most - both from my own experiences and stories I had heard.  She really gave all of us what we needed, and that's what I wrote.  I'm not an overly demonstrative person; I went for simplicity and truth.

My Papa Tony (her late husband) preceded her in death by several years; you couldn't have imagined a more loving couple.  They both adored the people around them.  Papa Tony started a local tradition at the drive-thru of buying coffee for the person behind you.  Grandma Junie continued to visit the Dunkin Donuts up the street for years simply to keep in touch with the young women who worked there.

And they were wonderful to us grandkids.  For a long time, I was the only grandchild who lived out of town, but they went out of their way to make me feel special and included.  While looking through my grandmother's things, my mother found some very heartfelt thank-you notes I'd written them when they came to visit us in Ohio, along with some very puzzling nonsequitors that definitely refer to events I can no longer remember ...

One of the things I remember about Grandma Junie, both from my personal experience and tales from other relatives, is that she was always willing to stir our imaginations and join in our games.  One of the activities we shared when I was younger was painting rocks.  Can't remember how many hours we spent.  But I probably owe a bit of my creativity to her.

As I grew older, I learned about a few other traits that we share, including a slight tendency to be obsessive-compulsive about the little things.  She's the source of my Welsh heritage.

When she moved out of her house into an assisted living facility, she gave away a lot of her things.  I was asked if I wanted anything, and I had an immediate answer:  the crane plate.  After my mother was born in Bermuda, the family moved to Japan.  There, my grandmother acquired a golden plate covered with a latticework of cranes flying in all directions.  The Thousand Crane Plate is hand-painted, and no one crane flies in the same direction; it's considered good luck.  Some people might call it gaudy, but I had always been fascinated by it; and more importantly, it made me think of her house and of her.  The plate sits in a place of honor on top of my music cabinet.

Alzheimer's is a terrifying illness.  To think of losing those pieces of yourself fills me with dread.  I hate losing my grandmother and I will miss her, but I'm also happy she's whole again.  And maybe looking after and loving people still in her next phase of existence.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today is the last day of my first quarter of classes.  I've taken all my exams associated with my coursework; I have one more test, for ServSafe certification, on Saturday ... at 8am.  Who schedules an exam at that date and time, I ask you?

In any case, the academic courses were, generally, no sweat - and my concepts course was fascinating, a goldmine of intriguing information about food and associated topics.  I've always enjoyed exploring the interconnection of information - how the habitat of birds and the necessity of disguise influences the color of their eggs, for instance.

For me, the challenge was the lab course.  First of all, I have a slow physical learning curve; I'm always a bit behind everyone else.  Second of all, I was homeschooled my entire life and then took the majority of my previous college courses online.  I am not accustomed to retaining information solely from lecture format.  So suffice to say ... it was a learning experience.  I've definitely learned to take notes in greater detail.

Overall, the experience was intense, but I enjoyed it.  I love learning; I love keeping busy.  Now it's time to start applying what I've learned ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Nostalgia, part two!

A couple more projects I've pondered rewriting.  Like the others, they all have their problems and their plusses.  The allure of new novels is still potent, so it may be a while, but I'm sure these ideas will materialize in some form or another, even if they're cannibalized for another project.

Conspiracy:  This was actually a series of short stories, storyline never finished, that was "published" in my Eye of Unicorn, Tongue of Dragon ezine, which was a private "subscription" (note all the quotation marks!) circulated among a small number of people.  It never quite worked the way I wanted it to - I intended people to "pay" for it (more quotes!) by submitting at least one piece in a certain period of time - but it was a good idea ... and this is off-topic, in any event.  Conspiracy followed a dissolute playboy prince and the leader of the song mages who both had problems that could be solved by each other's resources ... so even though they could barely stand each other, they decided to pretend a romance and get married.  As the story unfolds, we learn a lot more about Calina's dark past ... and two secondary characters on each "side" of the tale develop who I simply adored.

But there's one huge problem with the story:  what's wrong with an arranged marriage?  Why pretend?  I came up with a tentative worldbuild element that might explain this, but I'm still working against the expectations formed by earth's entire history.  This is probably the primary reason why I haven't tackled this already.

Blood From Stone:  This story was a journal written in "real-time" - if there was a three-day lapse between entries, I waited three days to write the next one, and I tried to finish the events of a single day *in* that day, though I think as the storyline heated up and got more complicated, I eventually found this was an impossible quantity of typing.  The basic premise was that everyone was bound to a stone embedded in their body that allows them to be monitored and harmed / disciplined by a class of sorcerers known as Lithomers.  The main character is essentially a gypsy, from a class of people who are still bound to stones, but do not have to keep them on their person ... and she is adopted by a scheming noble to enter the Lithomers.  There's a love ... polygon of some kind (her and three men) and a lot of conspiracy, complication, mythic backdrop ...

Probably the main issue with this story is the slow start and the amount of complication.  To rewrite it, I'd probably have to do a plot / scene outline and identify elements that could be cut ... and I'm sure there are a few. ... a few.  The current draft is about 160,000, which is untenable for a newbie author these days ...

Some of you are probably wondering about my Nano novel, Unnatural Causes.  (Or possibly none of you, but allow me my illusions.)  I'll chatter about that next week, but suffice it to say, I did not "win," but was thoroughly satisfied with what I did get written.