Jeanne: Food for Thought

The September 6th issue of The New Yorker featured a reprint of a 2007 essay by Adam Gopnik, titled Cooked Books, on the uses of food in fiction. According to Gopnik

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by the author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.

Gopnik cites examples of each of these types of food use from literature:

  1. Trollope uses food strictly as a way to keep his narrative flowing through his characters’ days by way of their meals in much the same way that Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cops seem to spend a lot of time in coffee shops without ever actually drinking any coffee.
  2. Proust and James use food to illustrate his characters’ status in life–they eat lobster and veal and crushed strawberries and madelines. Similarly, romance novelists who are fond of the “Billionaire” trope find things like caviar and champagne to be short-hand for fabulous wealth.
  3. Fleming’s iconic character, James Bond, is food-obsessed, advising his Bond girls and his co-workers about what to eat. Romances about heroines who open bakeries, restaurants and B&B’s use food in a similar manner. It tells us more than what economic strata the character inhabits, which is almost always “hanging on by a thread.” It also demonstrates their level of social and environmental consciousness—vegetarian? fair trade? In the romance world, it’s not uncommon for such books to contain actual recipes.
  4. Robert B. Parker’s novels feature Spenser, a detective with no first name, who spends approximately one-third of every book in the kitchen, whipping up gourmet meals for his girlfriend, Susan. Susan then delicately munches a single lettuce leaf, thus demonstrating how self-disciplined she is. (Susan grates on my last nerve—can you tell?)

In my novels, I use food primarily for the first two purposes–to create a sense of time passing (breakfast, lunch and dinnertime speak to us all) and to demonstrate what kind of lives my characters live. In The Demon Always Wins, there’s a scene in a grocery store where, after my nurse-heroine, has banished the sexy demon from her clinic, he runs into (okay, stalks) her in the grocery store and proceeds to critique her admittedly terrible food choices.

In The Demon’s in the Details, Ronobe, the Hangel (half-Hade, half-angel) butler who has proven weirdly popular with my readers, prepares delicious meals for artist Keeffe and demon Bad to enjoy without their having to put any effort into meal prep. Keeffe also frequents a little hole-in-the-wall diner owned by a Hispanic family. Again, great food with no effort.

(Perhaps Gopnik should add a fifth category—the fantasy food life of the author.)

In The Demon’s Secret Baby, my work-in-progress, the hero lunches with a co-worker at an outdoor restaurant called Bel’s Bistro on the Third Ring of Hell where, unfortunately, snow and freezing rain fall constantly and the stink of the garbage dump at the center of the ring makes it impossible to enjoy your meal. On the other hand, your fart-prone camel is welcome there.

(Okay, again food with no cooking required for the diner, but definitely not my fantasy food life.)

If you’re a reader, what kind of food use in novels tickles your fancy? If you’re a writer, how do you use food in your books?

Jeanne: Don’t Get on That Bus

This week I read a blog post over on Writers in the Storm by Margie Lawson called “10 Not-Absurd Tips for Writing Fiction.” My favorite was, “Honor Your Controlling Premise.”

Or, as an HR person I once worked with on a personnel problem counseled: Don’t Get on That Bus.

After a verrrry slow start, The Demon’s Secret Baby finally seems to be coming along. One of the things that’s made this story take so long to write is that it had so many possibilities. The premise is: A pair of deeply-in-love demons are separated by Satan because they represent a threat to his power. Ten thousand years later he offers them a chance to be together again for a few weeks and she winds up pregnant.

It felt like every scene, every event, every conversation in the book could go a thousand different ways. That’s true of every book, but this one felt more wide-open than others I’ve written.

Here’s an example:

Satan tasks Sam and Lilith with setting up arrangements for peace talks with Heaven. Satan wants to “knock the wings off,” their angelic counterparts, so he wants a venue that rubs Heaven’s face in the fact that Hell has serious influence in the human world these days. Lilith knows the perfect spot: the United Nations Conference Center in New York City.

Unfortunately, securing the use of the U.N. Conference Center for several weeks is a a huge challenge. The Secretary General of the United States doesn’t believe they’re demons and even if he did, he doesn’t think it’s in Earth’s best interests to have a delegation of demons running loose in Manhattan.

I wrote a scene where, in an attempt to persuade him, Sam and Lilith demonstrate demon possession, and another where Sam exhibits his ability to heal with unnatural speed. The Secretary General reluctantly consents to letting them use the campus.

As I was drafting the scene, once he agrees to give them free run of the UNCC campus for a few weeks, he did what I think a real Secretary General would do in those circumstances: he demanded to have a human delegation present at the talks. He felt, quite reasonably, that since Earth is where the battles between Heaven and Hell are waged, humans have a vested interest in the outcome.

While this is logical, it creates a whole new subplot, and that subplot doesn’t belong in a story about two demons who have a One-Night-Stand-With-Consequences. In Margie’s terminology, it doesn’t honor my controlling premise.

The HR guy was warning me that there are some conversations it’s better never to let get started and it’s the same with subplots–if they don’t fit in your story, it’s best not to set foot on hat bus.

Eventually I took a look at the length of the book (already 70K and I still have 26 scenes to write) and realized Margie and HR guy were right. I needed to stay on task and on topic. It still feels weird to me that the U.N. Secretary General would be aware of a cosmic summit that could profoundly affect life on Earth and make no effort to be part of it. I suspect it will strike some readers the same way but if anyone complains I’ll just tell them we can take that bus ride another time.

Jeanne: Keeping the Past in the Present

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in newspapers, magazines and books to simplify the past tense and past participle of certain irregular verbs.

Examples include: “kneeled” instead of “knelt”; “wreaked” instead of “wrought”, “creeped” instead of “crept”, “seeked” instead of “sought” and “ran” instead of “run” (past participle).

When I first noticed it happening, I assumed it was a result of sloppy proofreading/copyediting, but as it became increasingly pervasive, especially in high-end publications like The New Yorker that don’t generally skimp on those processes, I realized a trend was afoot.

Part of me cringes whenever I run across these verb forms. They just sound wrong to my ears; they make my teeth hurt. If the love of my life kneeled in front of me and to ask me to be his wife, I would have to think twice.

But part of me recognizes this change as a sign that English is a vibrant language, still growing and evolving, and that’s a good thing.

One of the reasons English is so difficult to learn as a second language—or to master as a first—is those irregular verb forms. The only way to know them is to memorize them, making them especially difficult to would-be speakers who arrive on the shores of English as adults. (This is no picnic in other languages, either–I’m looking at you, French.)

“Insure” is another word I’ve noticed going through a grammatical simplification. Historically, to insure something meant to purchase an insurance policy for it; to ensure something was to make certain it would happen. “Ensure” now appears to have fallen by the wayside, subsumed by the more familiar “insure.”

With the rise of texting as a primary written form of communication, I expect to see a lot more changes in the near (i.e. within my lifetime) future, especially moves toward simplified spellings that leave archaic spellings (like “donut” replacing “doughnut”) behind.

Texting seems to be having a similar impact on punctuation. I read an article recently that said punctuation in texts is interpreted as a sign of strong emotion, like anger. I have no idea about this and I will fight to the death for my periods and commas! (Hmm. Maybe they’re right.)

I have the same mixed feelings about the discontinuation of cursive writing in elementary school curricula. Today’s fourth graders have a lot more ground to cover than I did 50 years ago, so it makes sense to remove the least valuable subject from the curriculum. With typed communications replacing the handwritten, cursive writing is certainly the chief candidate for “least useful subject.” At the same time, it pained me to have granddaughter inform me that she couldn’t decipher a hand-written recipe because she “doesn’t know cursive.” Longhand has become akin to a foreign language to today’s youth.

What changes are you seeing in language and communication these days? How do you feel about them?

Jeanne: In Memoriam

Rita’s high school graduation picture, 1971

On March 13th, 2021, my sister Rita passed away. I’m one of seven children, but Rita was just sixteen months my senior, so she features prominently in my childhood memories. I’d like to share this story in her memory.

In the 1950’s, like many American families, our family celebrated Easter by coloring eggs. Mom would dissolve little dye tablets in boiling water laced with vinegar–to this day, I associate the smell of vinegar with Easter. Then we’d take a dozen hard-boiled eggs and color them hues that don’t occur in nature–the orange of circus peanuts. the turquoise of Studebaker fenders, the yellow of polka dot bikinis.

The next morning, before we got up, Mom and Dad would hide the eggs in our backyard and claim the Easter bunny put them there. As kids, we totally bought this. After all, it’s no bigger leap to believe in a cheapskate Easter Bunny who simply conceals the eggs you colored yourself than it is to believe in a Santa who slides down your chimney to bring you only the gifts your parents approve (i.e. no ant farms or chemistry sets).

One spring morning when I was four or five and Rita was five or six, we awoke to find that the Easter bunny had visited us a second time that year. Easter had already come and gone, and instead of hiding colored eggs in the grass, this time Mr. Bunny hid sugar cubes.

I can remember this so clearly. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. The grass was the light green of early spring and the lawn sparkled with dew. Rita and I came outside and headed for our swing-set only to discover a wonderland of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sugar cubes nestled in the grass all throughout the yard.

As an adult, I used to recall this event occasionally and scratch my head. I mean, it made no sense whatsoever. What kind of parent-masquerading-as-Easter-bunny would hide sugar cubes in wet grass? Even if the dew didn’t melt the sugar into a syrupy glop, those cubes would be crawling with ants. A mother who won’t let her insect-fascinated daughter have an ant farm isn’t likely to go down this road, now is she? In my memory, though, the lawn was speckled with blazingly white sugar cubes, still solidly six-sided and insect-free.

Fast forward sixty years. Rita is up visiting from Florida and we drive to the other side of town to visit my brother. On the way home, I tell her about this bizarre memory, expecting her to razz me about my over-active imagination, as she often does.

Instead, she bursts out laughing. “It was hail,” she says. “It was the first time we ever saw hail.”

And just like that, the corners melt off those little white sugar cubes. When I pluck one from the grass and hold it in my hand, it’s icy cold.

I was this goofy little kid who saw sugar cubes, but big sister knew the score and as soon as I thought to ask, she set me straight.

The back of this photograph pictured above reads To a weird little sister. Good luck in high school next year without me to watch your step, so be good. “God bless” Remember Me Always, Rita.

I will, Sis. I will.

Jeanne: Making Choices

This morning I attempted, for the eleventieth time, to watch a romcom on Netflix. That seems like a simple enough task, but I found myself scrolling through menu after menu of movies and TV shows, weighing the way-too-many choices on offer. After a half-hour of roaming through myriad options, my husband emerged from his man-cave and suggested we watch the SNL episode we recorded the night before and my window of opportunity closed.

If I have a criticism about the way life is today versus the way it was when I was a younger (and I’m a Boomer, so you know I have opinions on that topic) it’s exactly this: life has become so overwhelmed with options that the act of making a choice eats up more time than the advantages of one selection over another justifies.

In the movie Wonderboys, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, an English professor ten years on from his bestselling novel. The literary world is waiting for a follow-up, but no one, including his agent (Robert Downey, Jr.), has seen any sign of a new manuscript. Everyone assumes he has writer’s block.

Late in the movie, Tripp shows his star student Hannah (Katie Holmes) what he’s been working on all this time–a stack of manuscript pages approximately three feet high. After reading all 2500 pages, Hannah delivers her verdict:

You know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices? Even though your book is really beautiful–I mean, amazingly beautiful–it’s at times very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses and the dental records. And I could be wrong but It reads in places like you really didn’t make any choices. At all.

Michael Chabon, Wonderboys, 2000

I’m having a similar problem with my current work-in-progress. I finally finished a first draft of The Demon Wore Stilettos but as I make my second draft revisions, I’m confronted with Too Many Choices. I think I need a method of prioritization. Options include:

  1. SIMPLIFY. Given that I have a history of throwing way too much unrelated stuff into my stories, simplify might be a good revision watchword.
  2. JOY. Taking a page from Marie Kondo’s book and trimming out things that don’t give me (and therefore probably won’t give my reader) joy, might also work.
  3. THEME–Now that I’m on my second draft, examining the theme(s) of the book and sticking with those could be a good guiding principle.

Of course, you can see what’s happening here. I’m not only having problems making choices, but problems making a choice on how to make choices. When I worked in IT, we used to call this “analysis paralysis”–when you get so caught up in the potential issues of a project that you don’t make forward progress.

Suggestions for working my way out of this morass welcome!

Jeanne: Spring Fever

We’re getting an early spring here in southwest Ohio–days in the 50’s and 60’s–which is perfect for spotting nesting owls

Great Horned Owl

and for locating woodland ephemerals.

Winter aconite

Snow Trillium

Siberian Squill

So, although my second draft is lagging well behind where I planned and there’s always promotional work waiting for my attention, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Spring fever always makes me think of this poem:

I Meant To Do My Work Today

by Robert La Gallienne

I meant to do my work today—
   But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
   And all the leaves were calling me. 

And the wind went sighing over the land,
   Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
   So what could I do but laugh and go?

Jeanne: Rewrite the Stars

Rewrite the Stars, the debut novel of Christina Consolino, will be released next Thursday, March 18th. To kick it off, she is giving away a signed copy to a lucky Eight Ladies’ reader in the U.S. or an ebook anywhere worldwide.

Sadie Rollins-Lancaster is legally separated from Theo, her husband of fifteen years. Because of Theo’s PTSD, they still share a house and responsibility for their three children, who range in age from eighteen months to eleven years. Neither is in any hurry to sign the papers that will finalize their divorce until a chance encounter at the local grocery on Father’s Day brings Andrew into Sadie’s life.

She sets aside the initial surge of attraction she feels toward this handsome stranger, but life has other plans, throwing Andrew in her path several more times in the ensuing days. This could easily feel contrived, but in Consolino’s deft hands, it feels more like what happens when we hear something new to us and then re-encounter it twice more within the next twenty-four hours. Perhaps it isn’t so much that Sadie never seen Andrew before as that she’d never noticed because she wasn’t paying attention.

The story alternates point-of-view between Sadie and Theo, giving us an unsparing picture of the very real struggle Theo has with the legacy of his service in Afghanistan. Although he’s agreed to their planned divorce, he’s also struggling with whether to let their marriage reach its conclusion, despite the fact that it was he who initiated their separation. He loves his children very much, and on good days he remembers how he felt about Sadie back in the day.

With solid and, at times, lovely writing, Christina Consolino’s novel tells the story of a woman trying to balance old love and new without harming her husband’s attempts to heal or wrecking her children’s lives in the process. She is a genuinely good person, with more compassion for others than for herself, but the pull of new love is heady and strong.

If you’re a fan of stories that center on women making the journey through life in the face of both adversity and joy, Christina Consolino’s Rewrite the Stars is just your ticket. You can pre-order it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

To enter the drawing, just leave a comment below letting me know you’re interested. I’ll announce the winner next Tuesday and make arrangements to get you your free copy!

Christina Consolino is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in multiple online and print outlets. She is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan, and her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, was named one of ten finalists for the Ohio Writers’ Association Great Novel Contest 2020. She serves as senior editor at the online journal Literary Mama, freelance edits both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing classes at Word’s Worth Writing Connections. Christina enjoys warm cups of coffee, good books, and long runs outside.

Jeanne: Selling the Unsympathetic Heroine

One of the toughest sells–possibly the toughest sell–in the romance world is the unsympathetic heroine. By “unsympathetic” I don’t mean a heroine who lacks sympathy for the other characters–although she may. I’m referring to the literary definition of sympathetic: A sympathetic character is a fictional character in a story whom the writer expects the reader to identify with and care about, if not admire. (Wikipedia)

When I began work on The Demon Wore Stilettos, my upcoming novel about an author who sells her soul to Satan to make the New York Times bestseller list, I wanted to give her a possible way out, so I devised a clause in her deal with the devil that says if she performs an act of total altruism between the time she signs the contract and the day her soul falls due, she’s off the hook. (You will be unsurprised to learn that Hell has a very narrow definition of what constitutes altruism.)

This setup means the external plot arc is about Megan’s efforts to do something Hell deems perfectly selfless. Logically, this means her internal character arc is along learning to be less self-centered.

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Jeanne: Vonnegut’s Story Shapes

Kurt Vonnegut once said that his biggest contribution to the culture was his master’s thesis, rejected by the anthropology department at University of Chicago, wherein he theorized that if you graph stories along two axes (good fortune to ill fortune on the vertical axis and beginning to end along the horizontal axis), there are only eight basic shapes. If you want a scholarly take on this topic, I recommend this article. If you’re okay with something less erudite, stick around.

  1. Man in a Hole

Man begins with slightly better than average luck but immediately falls into a hole of ill fortune and has to dig himself back out.

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