Archive for May, 2010

I’ve been told it’s not a good idea to do certain things where you eat, but I’m pretty confident writing isn’t one of them. A few months ago, my husband finished building a gorgeous cherry table, and I couldn’t wait to get my paws–or, in this case, computer–on it.

I’m always interested in where people write. I’ve been told there are websites devoted to the subject of writer’s spaces and I can understand why. Maybe even more so than getting a peek into someone’s bedroom, seeing where a writer creates can be intensely revealing–kind of like seeing inside someone’s purse or pocket.

Myself, I work at our dining room table, which, thanks to the portability and scale of my little laptop, still sees homemade family dinners every night.

So where do you write?

And while we’re on the subject…where do you eat?

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When I decided to set the majority of my novel LITTLE GALE GUMBO in Maine, it was more than because I felt the Maine landscape would make a poignant contrast to the Bergeron women’s world of New Orleans. Maine is where I am from, and, like a lot of writers, I feel compelled to write of places and people I know.

Things like:

The heady scent of rugosa roses that line the sandy paths to the beach, the smell of the tide and the veil of morning mist…

Needhams, Dilly Beans and a handful of warm, tiny, just-picked blueberries…

The smell of snow under a steel sky…

The first custard of the summer…


Digging sea glass from the sand…

Hot summer days and nights cold enough for a blanket…

Steamers. Piles and piles of steamers…

This is just the beginning of a long list. So to those Mainers out there, those who live there (in body or in mind), then or now, or those who have visited and never forgotten, feel free to share the pieces of Maine that you think no novel set in Maine could be without.

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So Lost is over.

Now those of you who think spoilers are to follow, don’t worry. I have never watched a single episode, including the recent finale, so I’m not about to dissect anything or give my opinion on the particulars of the great reveal.

What intrigues me and has found me reading the today’s ample and often passionate responses to the series finale, is how endings succeed or fail to please even the most loyal of fans. I suspect every writer has a sense of how their story will end when they begin a story (even though some of the Lost-blogs have indicated theories that the series writers were winging it from the get-go–which is not to say that is a bad thing, either), but as brilliant as a book may be in its journey, is all that brilliance destroyed by a less-than-satisfying ending?

My husband and I are often discussing the concept of journey vs. destination in life and we are very much about the journey, and I suspect most people are when it comes down to it.

So if that’s true,  can we as readers separate the journey of a wonderful book from its disappointing ending, or is the ride wholly ruined?

Are there books for which you have forgiven their unremarkable ending in light of all that came before it? Or conversely, are there ho-hum books you’ve read that have redeemed themselves with surprising endings?

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What’s Brewing?

My husband is a homebrewer. At least once a year, the linen closet smells of glorious malt as the carboy bubbles away in the dark. Sometimes he brews stouts, sometimes rich browns, sometimes chocolatey porters or a spicy holiday ale. The point is in the variety. Sure, we have our favorites (I tend to favor porters–he likes the browns) but there is more fun to be had in trying something new.

A recent post at http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog got me wondering if writers (and readers) are as eager for diversity. I realize a writer’s work (and the writer themselves) in today’s market–or maybe in any day’s market–benefits from being “branded.” There is comfort in understanding the “product” of a writer, knowing from one book to the next that you will find consistency and familiarity in topics/characters/prose.  How often has a favored musician taken a risk in an album only to find his or her core fan base predominantly disappointed?

In our house, there is a running joke when my husband and I want to watch a movie. He grins and asks, “What are you in the mood for?” And then he’ll say, “Let me guess; something escapist?”

But can’t we can all benefit from stepping outside of the taste box? For example, if I had known how brutal some of the passages in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi were then admittedly I might never have opened it. But, wow, am I glad I did. That brilliant book has stuck with me longer than most, and remains one of the ones that can still give me chills years later just THINKING about it.

Now it’s your  turn…

Do you find yourself in a taste rut when it comes to reading (or writing)?

If so, what book pulled you, or maybe even catapulted you, out of your usual preference zone/box and made you glad you’d made the leap?

(I’ll be anxiously awaiting your thoughts, sipping a Nut Brown…)

put her hands around his face and drew him down to kiss each cheek. She released him and

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The sour cherry tree behind our old house must be full of fruit just now, and it will be time for picking. For my husband, the process was always a blustery event, a mad plucking of any reasonably ripe-looking cherry, then I would inspect every single one for even the smallest hint of insect life. (“Is that a worm? Honey, I think that’s a worm.”) It is not so different in our kitchen: he is the wild, carefree chef, slinging onion peels and spraying pepper, while I tidily chop garlic on a miniature cutting board and neatly deposit my ingredients into little bowls.

Revising a manuscript is not so different. There is a time for cutting with abandon (Kill your darlings, the phrase all writers know and take great comfort in sometimes) and a time for mincing with a finer blade, or in the case of cherry-picking, filling your container with anything remotely ripe, then sorting through your bounty with a more critical eye towards the sour cherry coffee cake you plan to end up with.

I find both methods to be satisfying, if not at times, challenging, and even downright frightening. After many years of revisions, I have come to understand the process and even find peace in the devil I now (think) I know. I often equate it to taking apart an engine (and I am sure I am the millionth person to make this analogy): You start with something assembled, then you disassemble it and even though you know the pieces on the worktable in front of you WILL go back together and WILL result in a working engine, you can’t help but feel that panic of HOW to get them back together now that they sit apart.

So take comfort, rest assured, they will go back together and, best of all, the engine will perform better.

Especially after a slice of sour cherry coffee cake.

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The season of the Morel has been upon us. When my husband and I lived in Indiana, we too fell under the temporary spell of the mushroom hunt. Since their flavor is so prized, their source is a heavily guarded secret in many households. (When you move out of town, no one wants your wheelbarrow or your grill–just the location of your Morel patch). Sauteed in butter, they are indeed a culinary delight, and there is no denying the thrill of discovering one rising out of an innocuous pile of leaves, ivory and gold.

The pursuit and pleasure of food can be a universal joy for those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to it. The foods we cherish are unquestionably part of our legacy and in the age of processed food, we should be more careful than ever to preserve them. Right now, New Orleanians, and much of the Gulf Coast, including its precious wildlife population, is facing an unimaginable loss and the layers of destruction will run deep.

As a native New Englander, I grew up with a strong appreciation of seafood. Though we Mainers like our beans sweet with brown sugar, we are not so different from New Orleanians in our worship of the flavors of the sea. Perhaps it was this fundamental link that compelled me to write LITTLE GALE GUMBO–the notion of two distinctive cultures finding their common ground in the kitchen, or in this case, a cafe.

Food has always brought us together, made people into friends, others into lovers, mended hearts and mended fences.

At the end of the day, what great divide can’t be bridged with a pile of beignets drenched in powdered sugar?

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Last night  we watched Serpico, the Al Pacino/Sidney Lumet classic, and my husband remarked that the film opens very much like my novel does, with an incident where someone has been suspiciously injured and the story works backwards, somewhat, to ultimately return the viewer to the present scene.

So I realized that as a child of the 70’s, I was also a product of the story-telling formulas of that era (in this case, film). So this got me thinking…how do we learn to tell our stories? And are the stories that impacted us as children the ones that shape our writing/plotting techniques?

Now it should be pointed out that I wasn’t a voracious reader as a child–TV was my medium of choice and for years in my writing, it showed. Early on in my writing, my plots tended to bear more resemblance in structure to an episode of the Love Boat than, say, Moby Dick.

So which is it, I wonder…?

Do we learn from Uncle Bert who imagined himself a master storyteller every holiday when he’d hold court at the table with the upteenth telling of Dad’s rise to cannonball-fame at Camp HiHowAreYa?

Do we learn from our favorite authors (or filmmakers)?

Or do we maybe learn it from watching a stranger on the subway who is frowning out the window, his expression fixed in some secret grief that we instantly want/need to explain?

Maybe it’s a bit of all three.

Just something to chew on…

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Traditionally Monday in New Orleans was wash day which meant it was the day to make Red Beans and Rice, so I’ve done my part. I’ve made the beans. (The laundry waits.)

When I first started writing my novel, LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I knew I wanted to highlight my love of New Orleans food. Though I am not a native (Could I say I was RE-born there?), I moved there at thirty and fell madly and deeply in love–first with the city, then with my husband a year later. A New Orleans native, Ian is a tremendous cook–his grandfather is a shrimper whose jambalaya is legendary–and even though we now live in North Carolina, we cook traditional dishes as much as possible. So when it came time for my character Camille Melancon to open her Creole cafe on the tiny Maine island of Little Gale, I knew I would not lack for authentic recipes and expert advice on how to cook them.

As for MY red beans and rice, my husband assures me I’ve done well for a Mainer. I think the key is to soak the beans as long as possible then add the soaking water into the pot. Fresh thyme, lots of bay leaves and several crushed onion cloves, fat slices of smoked sausage and, of course, lots and lots of Tabasco. Rip off a hunk of crusty french bread and pour yourself a beer.

Of course, at our table tonight we’ll be thinking on the Gulf Coast, and the unspeakable devastation that is encroaching its shores, thinking of all the hard-working men and women who depend on the waters, and the precious wildlife that does the very same.

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