Saturday, July 26, 2008

Memory Keeping: Recipes

This is the Rockwell Methodist Church as it looked in the early 1950s. This is also the cover of their "Woman's (sic?) Society of Christian Service" cookbook. I came across it at my mother's house recently and seeing the familiar names of the women I knew as a little girl was quite a trip down memory lane.

The cookbook is dedicated " the Modern Home. In our Home today, as always, life is centered around our Kitchens. It is with this thought in mind that we, The Sponsors, have compiled these recipes. Some of them are treasured old family recipes. Some are brand new, but every single one reflects the love of good cooking that is so very strong in this country of ours..."

That being said, I thought I'd share a few of the recipes you're not likely to run across on a daily basis, if ever. Like "Persimmon Pie." The World Book Dictionary says that a persimmon is "the fruit of the North American tree, very bitter when green, but sweet and good to eat when very ripe."

The key word here is "very," especially where it modifies the word "ripe." I grew up with a persimmon tree in the yard, and trust me, you did not want to approach a persimmon for eating purposes until it was so ripe the skin was falling off and you had to fight the yellow jackets to get it.

I'm sure I never, ever ate any persimmon pie. I did try some persimmon pudding once -- which is why I think I would never have eaten the pie -- except to save the family reputation by demonstrating that I knew how to behave in polite society and eating it if my hostess wanted me to.

Keep in mind that most of these old cookbooks work on the assumption that you already know how to cook -- or that you've got the sense God gave a turnip to figure it out if you don't. They don't coddle you with details -- like getting the seeds out and the skins off, or what to do with all of the ingredients listed, or the fact that you're going to need a pie crust at some point.

But here is the word-for-word recipe anyway:

Persimmon Pie

1 c. persimmons (before mashed)
1/2 c. water
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 c. cream
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. flour
butter, size of an egg

Combine the persimmons with the water, mash and strain off water. Sift flour and make a paste milk. Add the rest of the milk to the milk paste. Bake in oven at 400 degrees and brown crust slightly, then lower heat to 300 degrees and bake 1 hour.

I would say "Enjoy," but based on my own experience, I'm not sure that's possible. Anyway, I'm still wondering what to do with the sugar, the cream, and the butter...

The Last "L" (Logical, Linear, Lean)

This is how to be "lean."

1. Don't use two words when one will do.

2. Make certain that word is the word.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Second "L" (Logical, Linear, Lean)

Being "linear" means telling the story without getting sidetracked. One of the most difficult things to master is not using something simply because it occurs to you. Not only do such "occurences" have to be pertinent to the plot, they also have to be pertinent at that particular time. An especially brilliant turn of phrase can be just that -- an especially brilliant turn of phrase -- and still not necessary to the story at all. This goes for characters, as well. A character -- any character -- needs to be there for a reason.

Being "linear" also means taking care not to pull the reader out of a hopefully compelling plot with overly creative sentence structures -- like modifying a verb by sticking the adverb where the reader wouldn't normally expect it to be. Strictly speaking, it's not wrong, but it "clanks." By the same token, unusual imagery may also "clank." Yes, one should avoid clich├ęs like the plague, but creating a mental picture that stops a reader short isn't always a good thing. Your job as a writer of readable fiction, is to tell the story, not provoke the reader into constantly saying "Now, wait a minute -- it's a what done how?"

Basically, the idea is that anything that causes readers to stumble and breaks their train of thought, whether it's deliberate or not, is not a good idea. And if you do it enough times, you may lose them.

Which brings us to the bottom line.

Ultimately, being "linear" -- for me -- is respecting the reader enough not to make their enjoyment any more difficult than I have to. I can actually remember the first time I recognized that a writer wanted my reader self to be able to follow the story he was telling. I was reading a complex family saga with many, many characters, and the writer, when he switched to ones who hadn't been on stage for a time, would refresh the reader's memory with a few subtle words that made each one immediately identifiable. I appreciated that courtesy so much, almost as much I admired the skill with which it was done. For me, it was something to aspire to.

I'm also careful of dialogue. I pay attention to the structure of the paragraphs so the reader will know who is speaking. I want them to know and not have to backtrack to figure it out. I don't like backtracking when I read, and I assume nobody else does, either.

So that's it for my idea of being "linear." Unless I think of something else.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Big 1-3

He's turning 13 today.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

The First "L" (Logical, Linear, and Lean)

For me as a writer, being "logical" is being "believable." No "rabbit out of the hat" solutions to a conflict. No "head fakes" or "Gotcha, Stupid Reader!" endings without first laying the necessary and hopefully subtle ground work. And no meandering character motivations.

Simply speaking, a character driven plot consists of what the character wants, why he or she wants it, and why he or she can't have it. A writer who knows each character from the inside out -- the way they look and dress, their failures and triumphs, their personal tastes and aversions regarding clothes, jewelry, food, people and life in general -- will know the likely, the most "logical" response to whatever conflict arises in the plot, and as a result, the character and the story itself are more believable and real.

The best way to keep the plot "true" is to know the characters in detail before plotting. Many writers like to use a "character chart" to create a fictional personality, including both the statistical information and the individual preferences and life experiences. Actually writing the information down makes it more concrete. It also serves as a reference, one that should be reviewed from time to time in order to stay on track.

Some writers who have a working knowledge of astrology like to assign each character an astrological sign. Some use birth order or enneagrams or some other psychological assessment tool. Some do imaginary "interviews" and let the characters themselves reveal what their mindsets and experiences are. Of late, I've found "mind mapping" helpful. The point is, it needs to be done, and whatever works for you is the "right" way to do it.

In order to be "logical," the writer must also pay attention.

Pay attention to the character chart/astrological sign/birth order/enneagram/"interview"/etc.

I can't tell you how many synopses I've read wherein a character is said to be a specific type, but in the first chapter, he or she isn't that at all. If, for example, you decide the protagonist is a workaholic, don't go to all the trouble to force him or her to take a vacation and then have him or her respond to an urgent call from the office by going ballistic because somebody dared to interrupt the vacation he or she didn't want to take in the first place. A workaholic isn't going to mind. Really. Don't inject drama for drama's sake. Pay. Attention.

And while you're at it, pay attention what is happening in the scene being written. Whose head are you in? And what's happening to them? For example, don't stop to catalog the surroundings when the protagonist is being chased by a bear -- unless said surroundings are somehow pertinent to bear escape. It's fine to wax descriptive when a character lands in a strange and unfamiliar place -- but not if there's a serious bear problem or the character is half dead from typhoid fever. If you are in his or her head, you are experiencing what he or she experiencing. Write accordingly. See?

And that's all I have to say about the First "L" at this time.

Happy writing...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Rain, Thunder, Tree Frog, Bird

We've had serious drought conditions here for some time now so evening thunderstorms, for the most part, are a welcome thing.

This particular one was, as the family gardeners would say, "a nice little shower," and it reminded me of my grandmother's house, of rainy summer evenings spent on her big Mayberry-esque front porch. The rain always seemed to diminish the mosquito activity but rev up the "lightning bug" courtships under the maple trees. (That would be "fireflies" for those of you not born and raised in the South.)

I have maple trees where I live now, but I'm sorry to say I don't have the big front porch with a swing and a glider like she did or the scent of mimosa and honeysuckle filling the night air. There are only a few "lightning bugs" under the trees most evenings -- one or two were actually caught on this snippet of a video, but I don't think you'll be able to see them. I can't remember the last time I actually sat on a front porch on a summer evening, or heard a whippoorwill sing or neighbors laughing and talking on other porches up and down the street. I didn't know then how much I would miss it.

The video is very short -- there's more to hear than to see -- but maybe it will spark your own memories.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Getting Words On The Page

I don't ever want to "teach writing." Why, you may ask? Because -- as I am fond of saying -- writing is a lot like cooking. It's the finished product that counts, not how you got there. And writers, like cooks, have their own methods, ones usually honed by much trial and error. What works for one writer, may not work at all for another. For example, I find that I can't force myself to write when there's nothing in my brain, despite the very logical assertion that one cannot fix a blank page.

For me, it's more "trash in the brain, trash on the screen." And I'm not talking about the "first draft" efforts when you have at least some idea of what you want to do. I'm talking about having nothing in the pantry and trying to whip up a banquet. In keeping with the cooking analogy, it's like stirring an empty pot with a big metal spoon. Nothing happens -- except perhaps a headache from the noise.

What often works for me is briefly doing SOMETHING ELSE. (Please note that I said "briefly." Let's not get crazy.)

Once, when I was completely stuck regarding an epilogue I needed to have finished and mailed days earlier, my friend Jo dragged me kicking and screaming to a lecture on Robert E. Lee. Aside from the writing block, I still had the exhausting day job, and I wasn't well physically. But I went -- because I like Jo -- she always makes me feel better about things -- and because I didn't know much of anything about the general -- and because I'm seriously cursed with the need to assimilate information "just in case." (Read: I might need it for a book.)

The lecture was SRO -- not good for somebody already puny. It was also fascinating -- very good for somebody whose creativity had stalled. I came home physically exhausted and emotionally elated -- because I suddenly knew exactly what to do to that pesky blank-page epilogue.

So. I have said that I don't want to teach writing -- but I don't mind sharing my "recipes" at all. From time to time I'm going to tell you how I "cook." Things I've found useful or helpful or a waste of time. I'm going to start with Cheryl's Ultimate Goal. I always go into a project knowing that I want it to be these three things:


Whether I accomplish that goal sometimes remains to be seen. In any event, rest assured that I'm always trying.

But I'll have to go into more detail later. Right now there's a thunderstorm coming and the household computers must be turned off. If you have any questions about what I've said here so far, feel free to click "comments" and ask.