Some of my favorite activities involve either reading or cooking, or reading about food. When the two are combined into one, I am in heaven. I love it when authors include food as integral parts of the story. The food consumed by the characters, including the types of food, the amount, and how it is prepared provide vital clues to the plot, and can be important parts of the setting.
At my local library this week, I picked up a Swedish murder mystery and a cookbook on Swedish bakery. I’m not exactly sure why the Swedish theme was going on, maybe because it’s winter and Sweden is in a cold climate, but I came home with my two books related to Sweden.
The murder mystery, Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt, turned out to be a real page-turner. I read it in two days, often carrying it around the house with me so I could read a page or two, or three or four, in odd moments while I was doing other things. Killer’s Art begins with the murder of the owner of an art gallery on the Swedish island of Gotland, when the man is found hanging from one of the medieval gates to the town. The story follows the police investigation into the lives of the victim, his family and associates in the art world. Other crimes are committed, and the lives of the police officers as well as the journalists who are clamoring for the gruesome story, become entangled. The conclusion is a nail-biting and unexpected twist. This is the first of Mari Jungstedt’s novels that I have read, and I will be looking for more.
However, her descriptions of food were not enough to make me hunger for a good Swedish meal. By page 50, the most exciting food items were protein drinks and meatball sandwiches, and of course coffee. You can’t travel in Sweden, even literary travel, without copious amounts of coffee. Later in the book, two of the detectives are treated to warm apple cake with vanilla sauce in a museum cafe in Stockholm, which sounds delicious, but the boiled cod with egg sauce that is an entree in a later chapter I’m not so sure about. Maybe — I would have to try it.
Turning to my Swedish cookbook, Scandinavian Classic Baking by Pat Sinclair, I chose a recipe for lemon pudding cake. I had all the ingredients on hand, and it looked relatively simple. The most challenging part was beating egg whites and then folding them into the pudding mixture while retaining the volume of the beaten egg whites. The recipe was a success, and a nice treat after a dinner of leftovers. My husband proclaimed that it tasted like lemon meringue pie.
As you read, think about food. It is not often a primary part of the story, but it can be an important setting detail.
When you begin to get ready to move, your house is no longer yours. I have no sentimental attachment to the condominium where we have lived for almost ten years, but I do have my “stuff” arranged there the way I like it. Now things are being rearranged, thrown out, put in piles for the used book store and Goodwill. I am packing decorative items and books in boxes so the house will be better organized for real estate showing.
This is fine. I enjoy organizing. I am the opposite of a pack rat. I love the feeling of freedom I have when unused items leave my house. I enjoy tossing cans and bottles and cardboard boxes in the recycling bins. I find satisfaction in making phone calls to the handyman and the electrician for the minor repairs that are needed.
But for the next few months, until we are settled in our new home in North Carolina, my time and energy will be devoted to the move.
When will I find time to write? Instead of fitting in the chores around my writing, it is the other way around. I fit the writing in between errands, packing, phone calls.
And to make this week more interesting, it is the last week of the Bahá’í Fast, so no food or drink from sunrise to sunset. And I am committed to a week of substituting in a Spanish class for a teacher who is in Spain with her students.
It’s a chilly rainy day, Monday after the switch to daylight saving time. We have to replace our bedroom carpeting,so the carpet man is coming to measure and show us samples this afternoon. The plumber hasn’t called me back. But I will bake a pie when I get home, to observe Round Pie Day. If you round the number for “pi” to 3.1416 you get today’s date. So we will celebrate this momentous occasion with a blueberry crumble pie. After sunset, of course.
Someone, it might have been Eleanor Roosevelt, said to do something everyday that scares you. I don’t scare easily, and I just don’t have the opportunity for things like rock climbing and hang gliding most days, so I am left with challenging myself with little things.
I have never been comfortable getting a massage. It’s the touching, vulnerability thing. And an hour is a long time to lie still. What will I think about? Will it tickle? Will I be overcome by the urge to giggle? The giggling is a distinct possibility.
But a new place in our neighborhood advertised a hot stone massage. Especially on a cold Pennsylvania day, the idea of someone placing hot stones on my frigid skin sounded appealing. I evidently had talked about this idea more than I realized, because my husband surprised me with a gift card for a hot stone massage, and today was the big day.
It was wonderful. The stones were a bit hotter than I expected, but not unpleasantly so. The masseuse did the traditional massage with warm oil, and then rubbed with the stones. The hour passed before I realized it was time to be finished. I came out relaxed and happy, as much from the fact that I overcame my reluctance to have a massage as the massage itself.
So it’s another new experience I can add to my list. I can’t come up with something that dramatic everyday, but often just sending a piece of writing off in the hopes of publication is a scary experience. It takes more guts than you might think to hit the “send” button.
What new scary things have you tried lately? I would love to hear some of them.
I did my best writing of 2015 sitting outdoors in the Spanish sun, writing in a lined spiral notebook. “Go write!” Peter Murphy, of Murphy Writing Seminars, told us. “Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.”
I sat at a wooden table outside our cottage at L’Avenç, a beautiful lodge high in the Pyrenees, and I went to a new place inside myself and wrote. I found fictional characters and brought them to life by exploring their five senses. Some were characters I had written about before, from novels I have written. In my novel Lydia’s Story, I wrote about the title character’s journey into the Pyrenees from France with a group of Jewish children to escape the Nazis. The trip to L’Avenç meant a visit to the scenes I created in my novel. I visited the reality of my imagination. Other characters were new, but they slipped right into place with the old friends.
And I wrote about myself, the me I was long before I knew I could travel to far off mountains, long before I knew I could write. Somehow the girl that I was growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, seven miles from nowhere, came alive to me in Spain. I felt the wistfulness and longing for a bigger world that I felt so often as a child and teenager, the longing that pushed me to move on to the world that I knew existed, if only then in my imagination.
When I am at home, I do most of my writing at my laptop, looking out over the parking lot of our condominiums. But I found that there was something liberating about writing in a lined spiral notebook. I took pleasure in the scratched out phrases, words added in the margin, and arrows drawn to indicate sentences and paragraphs that needed to pick up and move to another spot. My experience at the writing retreat brought out the creative side of my writing again. And isn’t that why we became writers? To create. To express ourselves. But what I learned this summer was that I cannot express myself unless I explore who I am.
One morning my husband, who is not a writer but came along to Spain with me because he enjoys being a “writer groupie,” found a hawk feather on one of his mountain walks, and left it on my notebook. I found the feather when I sorted through my writing materials when I returned home, and it seemed to symbolize the feeling of soaring that I felt writing in the Pyrenees.
A change of scene, a new geography, opens my eyes and changes my life, as well as my writing. This happened when I moved to Costa Rica, and ended up staying for seven years, but that’s another story. Traveling two hours up into the mountains from Barcelona was more than a writing vacation. All the changes in daily life that accompany such a trip affected my writing. There were my writing friends — some new and some old friends from previous writing adventures with Murphy Writing Seminars. We made small attempts to speak Catalan, at least to say “Bom dia!” to the staff. We were all affected by the sense of history that goes along with staying at a site where the main building dates to the eleventh century. And we luxuriated in the modern swimming pool where we could wash off the writing dust at the end of the day.
The writing retreat in Spain focused on the creative side of writing, and I came home refreshed. Refreshed from writing from a new place inside myself, from contact with fellow writers, and the instruction and encouragement of a master craftsman.
Barcelona is all about the senses. On my first trips to Europe over twenty years ago, the streets smelled of exhaust fumes. One whiff told me I was in Europe. No more. The air is cleaner. I walk down the Passaig de Gracia in Barcelona and inhale the freshness of bread baking, meat grilling, and the overwhelming aroma of perfume from the air conditioned confines of department stores. My senses come alive. My eyes rejoice at the sight of La Pedrada, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, but I pause only to take a photo of a French woman who wants a memento of her visit to this remarkable building. I am on my way to a very special coffee shop, Café Onna, owned by a friend from Costa Rica. I cross the Diagonal and turn right, then left down a tiny street called Carrer de Santa Teresa, and on my right I see a man standing at a high table sipping coffee. I have found Café Onna.
I introduce myself, and as I wait for my friend who owns the shop to arrive, I savor the warmth of my café con leche along with a tuna sandwich that is nothing like your mom’s tuna salad, and begin one of the best days of the trip, maybe of my life.
My friend Anahí is a vibrant, passionate young woman . Her dark eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for her work, her coffee, and her family. She is focused, but has time for friends. She invites me to go with her to a restaurant near the port area of Barcelona to deliver bags of her freshly roasted coffee. I help her carry the fragrant cargo up the street to the corner where we hail a taxi. The driver helps us to stow the coffee in the trunk and we are off across the city. Anahí never stops talking about her plans, her excitement about what she does, her two teenage sons. She tells me how she does not supply her Costa Rican coffee to just any restaurant. Oh no! It has to be one that appreciates the attention and love she gives to the beans she imports from the farms in the Central American mountains. She nurtures the process beginning with visits to the farmers who grow the beans, all the way to her custom roasting and brewing. We arrive at Box Social, a trendy new restaurant in a boutique hotel near Barcelona’s port. After greetings with kisses on both cheeks, the Spanish way, we settle down to order lunch. It begins with a tomato salad, made with succulent tomatoes called “cor de bou,” Catalan for “heart of ox.” The tomatoes grow large but not entirely red, and exude a juicy tomato essence I have rarely tasted. For the main course, Anahí chooses fish with a green pea sauce, and I order chicken with grilled vegetables. Time passes quickly as we linger over our lunch. Why hurry? Our conversation is mostly about what we are eating, the flavors and how they are blended and contrasted to tempt the palate. Anahí is intrigued by the tiny green leaves that garnish her fish. Some kind of herb, but what is it? I have grown herbs in pots on my deck for years, and am familiar with most of the common ones used in the kitchen, but I don’t know this one, nor does anyone in the restaurant seem to know. The chef, apparently, is not available. I take a photo and post it on Facebook. Soon a friend with a Costa Rican connection identifies it. It is rue, or “ruda” in Spanish. I have never seen it used in cooking, and it has a taste reminiscent of coconut. Delicious!
After dessert, fresh melon for me, and a “cortado,” (similar to a caffé macchiato, where a small amount of warm milk is added to an espresso) we go up to the roof to explore the garden, which is lovingly tended by another young woman from Costa Rica. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow happily in pots, shaded from the hot Spanish sun. We are surrounded by apartment buildings, where clothes hang drying on lines in the sun. (Why is this considered unacceptable in many U.S. neighborhoods?) The hotel was designed to fit in with the working class neighborhood it occupies, and it seems to be comfortable in its place.
On our walk to the Metro stop (no coffee to carry now, so no taxi splurge), Anahí points out sights along the way. We pass El Molino, the Barcelona counterpart to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. And we talk about our senses, about awareness. She tells me that she has always been sensitive to smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. That is what makes her an exceptional coffee roaster and brewer. But more than that, it is her passion.
A few days later, after my husband arrives, we make plans to meet her at her coffee roaster to watch the process. We arrive shortly before 10 a.m., early in the morning by Spanish standards. Raw beans, shipped from Costa Rica, are loaded into the hopper of the machine. Soon the fragrant beans spill out into a circular bin where a long metal arm stirs them to cool. She talks about how different beans behave differently in the roaster, and how the weather can affect the roasting. It has been a particularly hot summer in Barcelona, and this is a factor. She will not sell or serve an inferior coffee. Anahí and her assistant check the color and sniff the beans, and from the smiles on their faces, I can see that it is a joyful process. A few beans that emerge the wrong color are discarded. The process is constantly evaluated. The beans must not roast too quickly or too slowly.
Finally we leave, with plans to meet for dinner, and bags of coffee beans to take home. I feel energized by my coffee friend. I sense her ability to be “in the moment” with her coffee.
We return to Café Onna again the day before we are due to fly home. It is another sweltering day, and after our walk from the Metro stop, we are ready for a cold coffee beverage. “I’ll make you something special,” she says with a smile. We watch the process. Tonic water and a slice of lemon over ice in a small glass. Then we are each handed two small bottles of cold brew coffee concentrate. “You can use one, but I recommend both,” she adds. We pour in both and watch the coffee sink into the tonic water. Unbelievably refreshing! My husband has another, but concerned about the caffeine and an early flight the next morning, I make do with one. As we say goodbye, she presses a small package into our hands, rosemary polenta cake, her mother’s recipe, for our breakfast before we leave for the airport.
Somehow this experience of the senses has made me more aware, not just of my own five senses, but of something inside myself. It is through the senses that I reach the person I am. I am more than a writer sitting at a keyboard. My words come not just from my brain, from the years of reading, writing, listening to advice, revising. Through my senses, my best writing comes from my heart.
I did not spend my entire Spain trip in the city of Barcelona. The real purpose of the trip was to attend a writing retreat at L’Avenç, a retreat center up in the Pyrenees about two hours from Barcelona. Although I have tied the two experiences together with the five senses, I cannot combine them into one post.
Please watch for my next blog post, “Writing at L’Avenç.”
“I love your books! When is the next one coming out?” Music to a writer’s ears, to be sure.
But what happens when a writer has the urge to write something different than her previous novels? Maybe a different genre, a stand-alone that is not part of an established series, or a young adult novel when the previous ones have been aimed at adults. Will her audience stick with her and her new adventure? Will she find new readers?
I am about to find out. The novel I am currently working on is a departure from my first three which were all mysteries involving Nara Blake, an adventurous young woman from the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Clare.
I am now on about the third revision of a completely different type of novel. Different audience — young adult. Different genre — historical fantasy. The two consistent characteristics are the connection to authentic facts in British history (as I did in Lydia’s Story), and a strong female protagonist.
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that I have taken some historical events of thirteenth century England and created a parallel magic world that explains some of the mysteries surrounding these events. I just can’t get away from the mysteries! Creating a world for a fantasy novel has been great fun as well as challenging. On the one hand, I have the freedom to let my imagination run wild. What if I could slip through a secret doorway and emerge in a castle and in another century? At the same time, a new world needs rules. If magical people can slip from one century to the next, how much do they know about each time and place?
These are complicated questions, but fun to exercise the freedom of working it out. As I have told my students, writing is exercise for the brain, and brains need workouts just like bodies do.
Many well known writers have been criticized for writing novels outside of their established mold. J.K. Rowling will forever be known as the creator of Harry Potter and his magical world, no matter what else she attempts as a writer. John Steinbeck endured criticism for not writing a follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. And while I don’t place myself in either of their categories, I understand the fine line between pleasing an audience and exercising my creativity, which is what led me to write in the first place.
And if you love Nara and her adventures in my first three books, I am planning another one, which will probably take her to Spain to solve another mystery involving art.
“I Think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Alice Walker
Market in Granada, Spain
Our eyes are drawn to color. Visual color attracts us and demands our attention. Like a magnet, it pulls us in. Advertisers and film makers know the value of color, or lack of color, to create the effect or reaction they desire. Steven Spielberg created an unforgettable image in Schindler’s List with the little girl in the red coat. Separated from her family, she instinctively runs to escape the Nazi soldiers. The next time we see her, the red coat tells us without question that she has failed.
Creating color in a piece of writing demands that the writer evoke the same intense images through black and white words on a page. Often what a writer refers to as color involves more than visual sense. If I were to attempt to describe the photos above from the market in Granada, I would draw on my memories of the shop, the smells of spices, fruits, teas as I walked from bin to bin, the sounds of Spanish and Arabic, and the company of my brother as we explored together.
On this gray March day, I challenge you, readers and fellows writers, to look for the color in your day. And don’t limit yourself to visual color. Color is really about intensity. So look for intensity the wakes up your senses. Be aware of the smells, sounds (think colorful music), tastes, touches, and sights that add color to your life.
A dungeon in Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. Might work it into a new novel.
Beginning a new novel is both exhilarating and scary. I enjoy the new ideas for plot details, setting, and characters that pop willy-nilly into my brain. Old characters poke their heads in to say, “Can I be in this one? You said it was a series.” Another says, “I’ll do one more. So you can kill me off in this one.” Then a new character comes in with “Hi there! I’m a little crazy, but I would fit right in with your story. Some of your characters are way too serious!” And I can’t forget the ones who speak to me in a foreign language, begging me to set the story in their home country. “ịHola! Soy de españa y mi pais es muy bueno. Venga aquí!”
Out of these bits of inspiration, if I can call it that, I begin to see the barest outline of a plot. And I say yes to that little voice from Spain. I will set the story at least partially in Spain, Aragon, to be precise. And just in case you are wondering, Nara Blake, Alex Collier, and Lily Carrington, all of whom appeared in The Gate House and Lydia’s Story, will be back. But I have a lot of writing to do before my readers will be able to see what these three are up to in Spain. And is Nara ever going to marry Alex?
The last few days I have been brainstorming and writing down ideas for plot as they pop into my head. My next step was to do some preliminary research. The Gate House and Lydia’s Story both had to do with art theft. My new novel also makes use of that theme. I am looking for a connection between Britain and Spain through art, and I think I have found a link.
I have made a preliminary outline, even though I am not generally a maker of outlines, but I thought this time I would give it a try and see if it would make the process any easier.
As I create the story, I will spend as much time staring into space as putting words down at the computer. But as a dear friend of mine knows, “staring time” is essential for writers, teachers and anyone who is trying to get through the day with their sanity intact.
Try taking a “staring break” today. You will feel better for it.
Now that the frenzy of Christmas shopping, cooking, and eating has died down to eating leftovers, making returns and wondering how I could possibly have eaten so much the last few weeks, the end of the year turns into a “pause and reflect” time for me.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. That seems like an artificial endeavor to me. But I do take time to think about the person I am, and what changes I want to make in the coming year. I think it has more to do with the winter solstice than the the holidays that are celebrated this time of year, and the end of the Gregorian calendar. It isn’t noticeable just yet, but little by little, we will see more sunlight every day. We are on our way toward spring.
My coming year is already filled up with plans. I will travel to Costa Rica the end of January, a commitment I made to myself last year to escape some of the Pennsylvania winter. I can’t see that my character is improved at all by scraping ice off the windshield at 7 a.m. to go substitute teach. Our son is getting married in June, so that will mean a trip to Los Angeles and a big family reunion. And I am hoping to go to Spain on a writing retreat in July. Did you guess that I love to travel?
And oh, yes! I have more writing projects than I can handle! But then, I have also been a multi-tasker. I like to have several projects in various stages of development. No linear thinking for me. I have a rough draft of a historical fantasy novel that needs to be taken to the next level, and I am brainstorming plot ideas for a new “Nara” novel.
It’s beginning to sound like a fun year! I’m sure I will be thrown off track more than once, and there will be surprises of all kinds along the way, but that is what makes life interesting.