Jilly: Bake, Write, Repeat

Which of your newly acquired corona-shelter-lockdown skills is proving most useful?

I know I’m not the only one working on my baking craft. I’ve been cheering Elizabeth’s sourdough progress and applauding Kay’s inspired ingredient substitutions.

Not sure I’ve heard anyone else say that the experience has also been good for their writing, though. Michille said she’s a procrasti-baker. Weirdly, my adventures in bread-making have provided me with both food for thought and a handy writing routine.

Creative inspiration
As you know, I write fantasy romance in a historical setting. My fictional world is similar to northern England or Scotland, broadly late Medieval or early Tudor period. Of course I knew bread was the main carbohydrate in my characters’ diet—they had no potatoes or rice to bulk out their meals. I hadn’t thought enough about how the quality of flour and the kind of bread would vary according to a person’s social standing (apparently in the real world at that time there were at least seven different kinds). Or to wonder whether a character would have their own bread oven, or would take proven dough to a communal bread oven and pay to have it baked, or would buy it ready to eat from a bakehouse. To think about where and how they would acquire flour. How they’d find the time to hand-bake on an almost continuous basis. What they might flavor their dough with. And so on.

It’s not that I expect to use all those details in my books. Maybe a snippet will come in useful, here and there. But it’s a very practical way to immerse myself in my story world and connect with the rhythm of my characters’ lives. And it gives me something to think about while I’m kneading away 🙂 .

A writing routine
Making bread by hand isn’t something you can rush. At my kitchen temperature, a simple loaf needs to sit quietly under a damp tea towel for around two hours—an hour after first kneading, and another hour after it’s been knocked back and shaped. That rhythm works wonderfully well as long-ish writing sprints. Bash the dough, leave it to rise, set a timer, write for an hour. Knock the dough back and shape the loaf, leave it to prove, set a timer, write for an hour. If things are going really well, write for another 35 minutes while the loaf bakes.

Or even better-make sourdough. Mix the ingredients with the starter, set a timer, write for an hour. Add salt, write for another half-hour to an hour. Then turn the dough every half an hour for four hours. Write for eight half-hour sprints between turns. Shape the loaf. Write for another half hour. Then put the loaf in a proving basket and leave it in the fridge overnight. I get at least six hours’ worth of writing time, complete with timed breaks to get up and walk around. And fresh baked sourdough for breakfast.

I feel absurdly pleased to think I’ve inadvertently acquired a small lasting corona-benefit to offset all those missed birthdays, canceled holidays, and absent friends.

How about you? Have you discovered any corona-compensations, large or small?

7 thoughts on “Jilly: Bake, Write, Repeat

  1. How nice to hear that bread making fits in with writing! And the smell…can’t beat that.

    While my baking has taken a back seat (I actually baked more before Coronavirus than since), I have been working hard to make my children much more self-sufficient and independent. Part of that is because they need to help keep the house clean. It’s inordinately messier with everyone around and I simply refuse to do all the work. We call it their “contribution.”

    But also because with school, they need to be able to problem-solve and keep track of their time themselves so I can write. Otherwise, I’d have to plant myself outside their bedrooms all day and keep calling out “are you on for your next class?” For us, school started on the 4th (online of course) and aside from a few days of schedule confusion and needing to teach the kids basic things like how to create a directory structure in File Explorer to save their homework, they’re doing really well. They’ve mastered Zooming, connecting external devices (like headphones and cameras) to their PCs, staying on top of work (using a combo of email, calendar reminders, and timers to make sure they’re where they need to be), and they can feed themselves, even if it is only Lunchables (deli bento boxes, but probably not as good a real bento boxes). I swear this bit of online learning is going to totally prepare them for college and the workforce.

    I think next on our Corona-agenda is teaching them how to make simple things like eggs, but until then, we’re doing all right.

    As for me, as good as it would smell, bread-making wouldn’t work during the day when I’m writing, because if I’m into something, I want to stay there. Stepping out to have to knock down bread or get it out of the oven would completely derail me (yes, it could probably sit for another hour and rise, but…). I’m better not giving myself those types of things when it’s “game time.”

    I hear bread is good with wine. *wink* We love having fresh bread at dinner. I hope that’s been one of the benefits of bread making at home for you and Mr. Wood.

    • Having your kids learn to be more self-sufficient and independent is a huge corona-bonus. Kudos to them, and to you for teaching them great habits. They’ll thank you later (and so, I’m sure, will their significant others). And hurrah that you also get writing time out of it. That’s a win-win-win.

      I know you write best with unbroken chunks of time, so I can imagine the sourdough writing sprint rhythm wouldn’t work well for you. I didn’t expect it to suit me so well, but it does, and one major plus is that it makes me get up and walk around every half hour or so. Otherwise I get lost in my world and don’t move a muscle for hours on end, which is not a good habit to get in to.

      And you’re so right, bread is very good with wine. I helped a writing friend recently and she sent me a surprise thank-you gift of fantastic cheeses from the legendary Neal’s Yard Dairy. So Mr. Wood and I have been enjoying fresh bread, great cheeses, lovely summer fruits and a glass or two of excellent wine 🙂

  2. You know what they say (or what Nora Ephron said): Everything’s material. Whether you can use all of your newly acquired knowledge about flour and baking in your next book(s) or your next series, it’ll be useful at some point. Not to mention right now, when you’re baking up a storm. There’s nothing like fresh bread!

    And speaking of baking, I’m about to embark on a baking series employing different types of sugars, starting with coconut and monkfruit sugars. My last couple of experiments but one, when I went pretty far out on a limb with flour and sugar substitutions, were colossal fails. My last pan of banana bread, when I stuck closer to the recipe, was better. Heavy, but delicious flavor, and I don’t mind heavy. We’ll see what a sugar substitution alone does.

    • Nora Ephron was so right. What a smart, funny woman, not to mention an excellent writer! I was thinking yesterday about Annis, the heroine of Seeds of Destiny. She’s from a nomadic mountain group called the Kith. She’s never visited a farm or a lowland village, and for sure the Kith would not have bread ovens. I’m guessing she’d eat flatbreads, or porridge, or something based on roasted, ground wild seeds, but I bet she’s never seen a loaf of bread in her life. Trying to decide whether she’d like it or not.

      I love fresh coconut water, but I’d never heard of coconut or monkfruit sugars. If your latest baking experiments lead you to a delicious discovery or two, please share!

  3. I love your bread-making writing routine, Jilly. You get words on the page AND fresh bread. Sounds like an excellent plan.

    I’m still honing my sourdough skills. It tastes right, and looks right, and looks right, mostly, except for being a little on the flat side. I guess bread-making is like writing, you go through a few rough drafts before you get it right. At least with bread you can eat the drafts (usually). I’m hoping to finally get this pandemic-skill down pat so I can move on to croissants.

    Thinking about bread-making in your fictional world is very interesting. Even if only a little snippet of that information makes it into any of your stories, it’s great that you have thought through it in such detail.

    • Bread making definitely takes a few rough drafts before you get the hang of it. It’s such a basic skill, but one I never paid any attention to until we got hit by the the shelter-in-place/lockdown order. Glad to hear that you’re honing your sourdough skills (if it tastes good and looks mostly right, who cares if it’s a little flat?). I draw the line at croissants. And I read the recipe for Hot Cross Buns (love those) and decided to keep adding those to my grocery delivery. Brioche may be worth a try.

      It’s fun trying out the bread test with my fictional characters. Pretty easy in a fort or palace, where there’d be a bakehouse. Trickier when the characters are nomadic, like Annis, or on a road trip with no inn in sight, but that’s half the fun, right?

      • Ah, brioche. That’s what I mastered before sourdough. Brioche dough takes a lot of mixing time and was the excuse I needed to finally get a Kitchenaid mixer. Among other things, brioche dough makes fabulous sticky-pecan rolls. Something your nomadic character is unlikely ever to have encountered.

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