Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: MAKE IT AHEAD by Ina Garten

It will come as no surprise that I read. A lot. In fact, I love the tee-shirt I’ve seen on Facebook that says, “A day without reading is like . . . Only kidding. I have no idea.”

I read a wide range of genres from lots of different authors. Sometimes I read like I’m taking medicine. I’m working on a topic and I need to know more. Most of the time, however, the reading is for pure pleasure.

Picking a book to review for this column is more challenging than for my other three blogs (see below). Because this blog focuses sometimes on mystery writing, and sometimes on food issues with recipes, and sometimes combines those two, what’s a blogger to review? Cook book? Mystery book? Culinary mystery book?

Ta da! I chose celebrity chef, the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s latest offering: Make it Ahead. The premise really fits my modus operandi, so I had to have this book. DH once said, “You put dinner on the table faster than anyone I know.” Compliment, right?

There’s a method to that. I “make it ahead” a lot. I am also a believer in mise en place, the French phrase that means get everything you need out and measured before you start cooking. It goes faster, easier, and you don’t forget an ingredient. I also pre-cook, make dry mixes to add wet stuff to, and other such make it ahead techniques.  

Also, just so you know, I write a food column for a small town newspaper each month. The name? The Quick Cook. You can see some of my columns by checking out The Pinewood News. My column, The Quick Cook, appears on page 7 of the issues it appears in. Recipes and cooking tips are the focus.

But back to this post, Garten is regarded as one of the celebrity chefs for us little people. She knows we’re not always serving 12 people a six-course meal. She knows that most of us don’t spend all day in the kitchen. She honors that we need to prepare family meals fast but that are nutritious and delicious. By the same token, you can find plenty of recipes in one of her nine cookbooks that are company-worthy. She’s your gal for a practical cook by your side.

And if you are planning a party, be sure to read her practical “10 Make-Ahead Tips for Parties” beginning with a week ahead up to a few hours ahead. She even tells you to make sure the dishwasher is empty before the party!

This particular cookbook focuses on entertaining without breaking your spirit or energy, so while the principles can apply to family cooking, this really is the cookbook for stress-free entertaining. The food chapters are: cocktails, to start, lunch, dinner, vegetables, dessert, breakfast, and make-ahead menus.

The recipes are gourmet without being hard to pull off. Clear directions for recipes that look like they took days make you look like the entertaining genius she wants you to be. I also love that she includes breakfast. For me, that is the most challenging meal for entertaining. You have guests who stayed overnight, and now they’re up and ready for you to feed them. She has some great make-ahead recipes for that scenario.

For fun, her first recipe is for whole wheat peanut butter dog biscuits. You gotta love someone who thinks of the family fur friend, right? I’ve shared here before the recipe for dog cookies that our pets have loved. But, I’d give this one a try!

Ina also has recipes for interesting food like homemade ricotta cheese (very easy!) so you don’t have to pay those high prices ever again and can have ricotta anytime the urge to make lasagna hits.

Here’s her recipe (rewritten for brevity):
Homemade Ricotta (makes 2 cups)
4 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar

Line a sieve with two layers of dampened cheesecloth. Place over a bowl that allows the sieve to sit suspended.
In a stainless steel (or enameled) pan, bring milk, cream, and salt to a full rolling boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally.
Turn off heat and add vinegar. Let mixture stand one minute so mixture curdles.
Pour into sieve. Periodically discard the liquid in the bowl.
Let drain for 20-25 minutes. Longer drainage means thicker ricotta.
Transfer ricotta from sieve to a different bowl. Use immediately or cover with plastic and refrigerate.

This is delicious with fruit, granola, or in my family-famous veggie lasagna! Mangia!

In case you’re interested, my other blogs and some pen names are:
Romance Righter—relationships, personalities
Write Away—craft and the business end of writing
Caroline Adams—historical fiction and biographies

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Monday, August 21, 2017

What Coffee Drinking Says about Your Characters

A few years ago, I came across a fun little article/research piece on coffee. Now, I LOVES me a cup of hot coffee, so this sounded intriguing. And it was.

First some coffee/coffee bean facts:
Coffee drinking, that used to be commonplace and every day and ordinary and working class through the rich has become a status symbol. How many ways can you order that cup of joe?

Drinking several cups of coffee a day can reduce stress and heart attacks. 

Coffee has antioxidants that help keep you healthy. 
Eight of every ten Americans drank coffee in the last year, and half of those cups were gourmet coffee.

Still, current Americans are drinking less coffee than in the past. The peak of coffee drinking was in the 1960s (average number of cups drunk).

Rather than give up their morning coffee, Americans would first give up the morning news, sleep, brushing their teeth, and lunch.

One study in the article identified five coffee personalities:
Social (33%)—they prefer to drink coffee with others
Comfort lover (14%)—they like a warm cup in hand
Coffee Addict (14%)—they need coffee to jumpstart them
Task Master (11%)—they need coffee to focus
Coffee Gourmet (7%)—younger people are more inclined to like foo-foo coffee and older people go basic

Of course, as I read the article, my mind went to the psychological implications for characters in novels for each kind of coffee drinker. Some claim that coffee choices go beyond taste. So here are some of the (to me) more intriguing character profiles. Check out the entire article, “What Your Coffee Order Says about You” for more ideas.

     • Espresso: Instant gratification, a quick hit, "the most grown-up of all coffee options," cynicism, sarcasm, even an aggressive cool hunter. Disdains healthy lifestyles, is moody, and sets high standards, aiming for the leadership position with little time for gossip.

     • Black coffee: No-frills, minimalist, cool adult, prefers one-on-one contact, competitive, quiet and moody, although capable of occasional bouts of extroversion.

     • Latte: Watering down danger with milk and foam, prefers safety, wants to be liked, cutesy but conceivably stubborn inside, avoid direct confrontation and delegates the dirty work, a loyal family person, enjoys comfortable surroundings and gabbing with trusted friends. Sex is more snuggly than extreme.

     • Cappuccino: Optimistic extrovert who appreciates style and nice stuff, although not unduly acquisitive. Prefers to start things rather than see them through with all that dull detail work.

     • Instant coffee: No frills, straightforward, cheery but in no hurry to get things done, which might come across as shallow. Highs and lows come easily; not so adventurous in career or sex, but ponders both.

     • Decaf soymilk: More of an eco-worrier rather than an eco-warrior. For those who aren't allergic to cow's milk, the choice may indicate a faux fussiness with a touch of sincere narcissism.

     • Starbucks Frappuccino (and presumably other frothy whips): It's all about the foam and the froth. Trendchaser more than a trendsetter and, ouch, characterized as a flighty poseur with no sense of irony.

     • Non-coffee drinker: The authors reserve the unkindest cut of all for someone who rejects the black brew as being frightened of life and a child.

There are lots of articles out there. Here are a few if you want to read more on studies of coffee drinkers:

You can see from these descriptions that you can signal your character’s traits with mere coffee choice. Of course, unless people read the article, too, they might not pick up the subtleties, right? So flesh out that character with the traits above and end up with an intriguing, coffee drinking, son-of-a-gun!

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Writing the Series, Continued

In 2014, I was on a panel at the Public Safety Writers Association Conference answering questions about series writing. The moderator provides, in advance, examples of the types of questions he/she will ask. To prepare, I always answer all of them in written form, and more completely than I’ll have time for on the panel.

Answering thoroughly gets my mind in the groove for the topic and allows me to identify “sound bites” that I can use during the discussion. That would be what Rod Stewart called in a song, “Her adlib lines were well rehearsed.” Ha!

1.  When you wrote the first book did you anticipate a series? 
Absolutely. I knew my characters could get into lots more mischief than one book allowed. As I wrote (and re-wrote) the first book, the second book plot came to me. Then future plots started spinning out. Before I even finished Mission Impastable, I had created dozens of punny food titles for future books. I will NEVER live long enough to use them all, so I wrote a blog post sharing some with other writers to use if they wish.

Here are some titles for you to use: Devil’s Food Wake, Fowl Play, Berried Alive, Doughmestic Dispute, Wok and Roll, The Taming of the Stew, Fried and Prejudice, Much Ado about Noshing, Whisk It All, Roux the Day, Bone Appétit, Under Lox and Quiche, Glazed and Infused, Crumb What May. Pretty good, eh?

2.  What are the major advantages of writing a series?
There are several advantages. For years I wrote books in my second professional career. We periodically revised the books in new editions. With novels, writ is it! You don’t go back and change novels (except for some possible edits for reprints). So writing the next book in a series is analogous to writing a new edition.

You get to change characters and let them grow. They aren’t frozen in time like the characters in single title novels. Another advantage is familiarity with the main setting (assuming it doesn’t change) and characters. You don’t have to figure them out each time.

The dialogue comes more easily because you know what they’ll say and how they’ll react. A third advantage is marketing. The audience knows what’s coming--ooh, a two-fer, a mystery with recipes.  

A fourth advantage is learning to write in the genre better. When the characters and setting are familiar, you can concentrate on the craft of writing. Less to juggle.

3.  When you write a series do you have a plan for the entire series?
I absolutely know what my characters back stories are and how those will impact future plot lines. I have a character arc for Alli, my protagonist in Mission Impastable, and for other characters. A character I love has to die, and I am planning for that. A character is confronted with her hidden dark secret and she has to decide how to respond. Someone finds permanent love, or does she? When you know back stories, you can project into the future and plant seeds a book or two in advance.

4.  What do you think is the idea number of books in a series, or do you think a series that goes on and on ( e.g.Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton) is a good idea?
Far be it from me to weigh in on the mega-series authors. Their success ought to be the answer. If readers stop buying, then they may have written one too many books in the series. But I don’t see that happening yet. Instead, fans like some books more than others, just as with any multi-published author, but they keep these authors near the top of sales.

I have plotted out five more books in the “Dinner is Served” series. But who knows, with all those titles, I could end up writing many more. But more likely, I’ll start a new series. More on that in an upcoming post. Baked Alaska, anyone?

For me, the ideal number of books is when I grow tired of my characters and need to switch. For someone who already writes in multiple genres that is not as likely to happen as with someone who only writes mysteries.  If I need a break, I write a paranormal romantic suspense or a series of short plays. I never get bored with my writing.  If one book has lost some of its luster, I go play with another one for a while. When I return, I get excited again. Having said that, I am thinking of another series set in a herb shop/garden with titles Mint to Be, Thyme to Die, Arsenic and Old Mace. Maybe she dabbles in marijuana infusions and salves.

5.  Is it always necessary to end an individual book in a series with a cliff hanger?
I don’t know that a cliff hanger is necessary, but there do need to be questions your reader wonders about that propel them to your next book. With Mission Impastable, I hope the reader wonders what will happen to the killer and whether the relationship with Alli will continue or be ended.

I want the reader to wonder if Alli and Gina will take the part-time job offered to them at the cooking school. I want the reader to wonder if their personal chef business will succeed or go belly-up. And just what is up with Evan and Alli’s relationship? Will Gina find love again?

6.  How do you let the reader know that the book is part of a series? 
That’s easy to answer. My cover says, “Dinner is Served series, Book 1”! That’s a clue for mystery readers!

But I think any textured book with lots of layers could potentially be a series. I know I have finished reading a book and wished there would be a sequel. I think all authors should write so that people want to know more about the characters and their lives so that a series is not a surprise but a pleasant bonus. All of our books should leave the reader craving more even if it’s not a series.

7.  What is the ideal time schedule for publishing each book in a series in order to keep readers interested?

I suppose the right answer is, how fast can you write them? I think in the romance field publishers ask authors to write 2-3 books a year. There are so many options out there, that if you aren’t keeping your name in front of readers, they may forget to come looking for you.

If I were only writing one genre, I could easily produce two or three culinary mystery books a year. But right now, as I search for a new publisher, I am sitting on three additional completed manuscripts and two more outlined. I’ll let the publisher set the time table for this series.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Six Issues to Consider When Writing Your Series

Series writing is serious business. Series writing encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good? You really know your characters. You hear them in your head. You write without false steps because you know how they’re going to react in situations you throw them into. Your writing group knows them so well they speak of them as friends. Also, your readers come to expect certain reactions and dialogue. Characters’ foibles are adorable to your fans. Fans also like getting to know your setting and, if a real place, they revel in identifying where that particular gas station is.

The bad? Your characters’ foibles, so adorable to fans . . . Not so much for you after a while. Must she always open the door where everyone knows the bad guy is? Must he always ignore the advice of those who know better than he does? You’d think they’d learn, right? Also, if your setting is a small town, you are likely to encounter the Cabot Cove Syndrome, so named for Jessica Fletcher’s small town that no rational insurance company would ever provide coverage for, given the death rate per capita. And speaking of murder, can you run out of ways to kill people?

As an aside, I tackled that one for you. Go to April, 2016 in this blog and you will find 26+ Ways to Kill (in Mysteries).

And the ugly? Well, let’s just say the bad can deteriorate to the worst. Fans will berate you if you forgot he had hazel eyes in book two and by book four they’ve turned glacier blue. Much worse is that your concept is not big enough to last for several books. What are your themes that stretch across the series?

What to do about these and other limitations of series writing?

Surprisingly, a Google search turned up very few articles about issues in writing a series. Maybe people don’t have trouble with series writing and so there’s no need for such articles. Nah. That’s not it. There are too many series writers out there. I think it’s because we figure out what to do and don’t go hunting for or writing articles about troubles in series-land.

Across these articles and with my own experience, I’ve identified several major features to approach series so that you can be successful.

1)   Consistency is a blessing and a hobgoblin.
Readers like consistency. They want expectations for characters to be met. They approach the series as encounters with old friends. However, don’t be so consistent that there are never surprises. In book two of my culinary mystery series, I have a character drop a bombshell. The revelation is consistent with some earlier clues planted in books one and two. However, this one would never have been predicted. So, be consistent but allow for new information and character changes consistent with the behaviors to keep characters fresh. And if you have someone being totally inconsistent, you should be able to explain it with the onset of dementia, for example.

2)   Time can trip you up.
Both within and across books in a series, time is a lurking peril. Kinsey Milhone is a wonderful example. I believe I read long ago that Sue Grafton said if she’d known the alphabet mysteries she wrote were going to take off she wouldn’t have chosen the alphabet. She was committed to writing a series with 26 books! Is that a record? I can’t say for sure, but if not, it’s close to a record. And Kinsey is the same. It’s as if we are seeing her work on these crimes over the period of a few years instead of decades. If you have grand plans along those lines, avoid events, characters, car models and the like that will tie your book to a specific time. Within a book, make a calendar for your protagonist/antagonist so they don’t do too much within one day or week.

3)   Expand your characters’ world.
Some series authors find the created world of the cozy to limiting. Especially in cozies, the death toll can be high. I took my cooks to the Aegean in book four. They were demo cooks on a high-end cruise ship and they could get into all kinds of foreign trouble. Some series authors have their characters in a job, like being a travel writer or airline personnel so they can be in different locales. Lots of times mystery writers kill off traveling visitors or itinerants instead of regular residents.

4)   Keep a running log on characters, cars, and conflicts.
Oh, yeah, that 25-year-old silver Camry cannot become 20 years old and blue in book four. Eye color, body type, tics—all of these need to be logged so that you have a reference for checking. The running argument with Aunt Mabel in book two can’t be the same one your character has with Uncle Glenn in book eight. Make a spreadsheet (electronically is my preference, but paper works) and jot down everything that could conceivably be changed across books. Is this a pain in the sweet patootie? You betcha. But you’ll be so proud of yourself for not screwing up details.

5)   Allow for some mystery. Not everything has to be answered by the end.
We’ve all seen movies that, as the final credits roll by, you say, “Oh, yeah. There’ll be a sequel.” Things left raveled, hanging threads, unresolved issues. That’s like real life. So wrap up the biggies, but don’t feel you have to let your readers know everything. And just like in real life, characters can change given the right circumstances.

6)   Decide how much readers need to know if they read book five first.
This is the toughest one, frankly, for me. I want the reader to know EVERYTHING. But that is impractical and boring. Make character sketches for your ensemble, recurring cast. Those are the things that need to be known. Sprinkle them in here and there. Show personalities through actions and reactions. If there is need to explain the mystery in a past book, sprinkle that even more lightly. I ran into that problem in book two. How do I explain Alli visiting her brother in prison. Remember that each story must be able to stand alone. Someone reading the series gets value added by reading these connected standalones.

What have you had to deal with in your series writing? Comment below to share with others.


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