Archive for June, 2010

A few days ago my husband and I were grilling shrimp and scallops and were inspired to make a dipping sauce with the meager contents of our end-of-the-week refrigerator.

So what do you get when you mix avocado, sour cream, dill, lime juice and olive oil? Something quite good, and a very pretty pale green.

But the point of this tale (pun entirely intended) was not to remind my husband of his newest food lust (New Orleanians don’t have scallops–the Gulf’s too warm) but rather to make a point that as writers, we can often do best with what we have in our stockpile of ingredients: our histories, our passions, our voices, our fears, our dreams, our loves.

Too often the trends in popular fiction can get the best of us. We writers scour the blogs and read every tidbit of industry news that might reveal some leveraging hint to the next, or even current, big thing, and we may even feel that fleeting urge to cast our true voices and storylines to the wind in favor of the flavor of the year. We know there’s no use in it–the tail never wags the dog–but still the temptation is there.

Now we all know the adage: write what you know. What about the adage: write with what you have? I’ve read authors of many genres (Chuck Palahniuk, John Irving, Clive Barker, to name a few) whose writing moves me deeply and even sometimes leaves me wanting to try my hand at a similar prose, or themes. But we all come to find what it is that we have in our writer’s toolbox, the voice that is ours, and ours alone. The voice we have, the stories we have.

So write with what you have, write often and rewrite more often than that. And when you want to take a well-deserved break, feel free to send me any and all scallop recipes you have handy. My husband will thank you.

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We all know that there are rules in writing. Lots and lots of them. Some of which, maybe even most, can be broken IF broken well and purposefully.

So what about the rule of POV in the first chapter? Is it advisable to have the POV belong to a main character? What if it doesn’t? Does the reader feel detoured or distracted?

Here’s why I’m asking: The opening chapter of my WIP introduces a minor character and it is from his POV that the story is introduced, along with the reader’s introduction to the main character. Why would I do this? Mostly because I want the reader to see the major character as the interloper that the rest of the characters will see him as for most of the novel. I am hoping to stage the setting before I introduce the players. Now keep in mind, the main character will take center stage by the end of the first chapter, but is that too late?

I can think of several novels–often thrillers–where the opening POV belongs to a minor, even anonymous character, and somehow we readers understand that the character (especially in a prologue) is merely there to serve as the initial voice of our setting; a narrator, essentially, who may or may not be seen again in the story.

So what say you all, writers and readers. Do you think it’s important to open a novel with a major character’s POV or can you meet him or her later on and still feel connected?

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So you’ve decided on the perfect setting for your next book. The only problem: it’s a place you’ve never been. So off you go to the web and within a few searches, you have an impressive collection of resources. You have photos of neighborhoods and regional architecture, essays on town history and climate trends. You sit down at your computer with your links and your notes, ready to be immersed…but something’s missing.

Say your character is standing in the doorway of his new coastal home and facing the sea…what does he smell? The salt air? Sure, but is the tide in or out, and does one smell different from the other? Maybe he doesn’t smell the sea at all, maybe he smells a spray of rugosa roses? Or maybe a line of spruce trees? Maybe diesel fumes from a passing fishing boat?

What is this flower? I don't know, but my character sure should.

And when he walks down to the water for the first time, what exactly are those hedges that line the coast? Were the rocks wet or dry? Were they covered in seaweed or bare? Did the water drop off gradually or quickly at the edge?

See what I mean? So much for saying “He saw the coast.”

Growing in Maine, I visited many lighthouses, spent a gazillion hours on the coast, and yet, when it came time to stage the setting for my WIP (which, not surprisingly, takes place in a lighthouse on the Maine coast), I realized that for all my experience, there were fundamental elements of my environment that I had missed along the way, elements that would be key to creating an accurate and inviting place for readers to visit and stay on a while, a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand.

So I went back home to Maine and tried to see the coast from the eyes of my character, and I tried to fill in the gaps. I photographed lighthouses and shorelines, fishing villages and seaside cottages. I took broad panoramas of harbors and details of lobster traps. I snapped shots of rooflines and shots of window casings. Shots of weeds and shots of shingles. Because you never know what your character will see or smell or taste or feel.
Now your turn…

Any tricks for researching your settings?
What about the settings you choose? Do you stick with familiar places you’ve lived or visited, or do you like to set your stories in uncharted territories?

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There’s a fantastic Mexican restaurant in Camden, Maine called Blue Sky Cantina. The owner Ron and his wife Jennifer make authentic Mexican dishes with a regional twist, adding local seafood to some of their dishes, such as fish tacos made with haddock that are out of this world. They own a second restaurant down the road in Rockland called Big Fish Cafe and that menu includes even more seafood-based temptations, such as Scallop-Sweet Potato Chowder and Lobster Nachos. Having written a novel about a Creole woman who opens up an authentic New Orleans cafe on an island in Maine, I appreciated hearing Ron’s story of how he and his wife came to bring authentic Mexican food from the West Coast to Maine.

If you’re ever in Midcoast Maine, stop in and feast.

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In the world of Maine-made sweets, there is quite nothing like a genuine Whoopie Pie. Those sticky chocolate cake sandwiches. That layer of thick frosting. That very first bite and you feel the fudgey concrete form across the roof of your mouth, feel the crumbs wedge between your teeth and gums. Looking down you peel one finger from the mighty discs and see your print is now in chocolate.

So now, without further ado…
Behold, the glorious Whoopie Pie:

This gorgeous specimen came from the Megunticook Market in Camden, Maine, and no, you needn’t adjust your screen–it really is that big. Now I happen to like mine with a porter (you can never have enough chocolate) like the one above from Marshall Wharf Brewing Company in Belfast, but of course, milk goes well too.

Keywords: Whoopie Pies Maine Camden Megunticook Market Marshall Wharf Brewing Company

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Today, while pumping gas at a small-town gas station, I overheard a pair of friends reuniting in that genuine and fleeting way that neighbors do when they are in the midst of an errand. And while I listened (in my defense, they were speaking loudly so it couldn’t be considered eavesdropping), I thought about a scene I had recently written that included two similar men, passing through a similar errand, and I began to reconsider if I had done justice to their characters. Were they as believable as the two men standing next to me? Was their dialog as natural, their reactions as real?

Which lead to me wondering: What makes a character real? Is it details, physical descriptions, gestures or language or even posture? Or is it something more subtle?

I think of all the characters I’ve read over the years who’ve seemed so genuine to me (a few of many): Tom Wingo from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, Faye Travers from Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum, Agnis Hamm from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Alex from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s The Shining, Nora Silk from Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven, among so many others.

Now keep in mind this list isn’t about likeable characters (even though I may like or root for most of them), rather it’s about whether they are believable in their written skin, so much so that they become more than characters, rather seamlessly genuine people. We believe the things that annoy them, truly annoy them. The things that break their hearts, truly break their hearts. The words that come out of their mouths are consistent with how we’ve come to know them. They make choices that, even when unfortunate, follow the truth of their character.

As a writer, it is the goal that every character, however brief in the story, be a genuine part of the fabric of the novel, enhancing believability and not derailing it. We writers hope we can tell (because the reader always can) the difference between a real character and a clichéd one.

So tell me: Which characters have seemed the most real to you all, and why?

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Lobster is a luxury. Just because you’re from Maine, doesn’t mean (with some exceptions) that you get some sort of native discount. Lobsters are expensive and, of course, delicious. So in our family, we use EVERY PART.

Or so I thought…

Then last night, I watched as my mom emptied a claw of its juice into the sink. I always drink the salty lobster water from the claws and legs, so Ian and I thought, what finding a use for even the lobster water? And, well, one use came immediately to mind.

The lobster-tini.

So we tried it.

To make one serving:

Place an emptied body shell into a glass. Add one part lobster juice (maybe two tablespoons)

Then add two parts chilled vodka (I prefer a gin martini but vodka was in the house)

Then add the lobster juice.

And shake.

The verdict?

Not bad. Not bad at all. Kind of sweet. A little salty.
Maybe a better garnish might be a precious piece of claw meat?

Any daring takers? Feel free to share, and adjustments are always welcome…

Keywords: Lobster Martini Maine Lobstertini

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Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo

We’ve made the stock, we’ve made the roux, we’ve added the Holy Trinity to the roux, now it’s time to finish the gumbo. So feel free to pour yourself a cold beer and let’s get cooking. All ingredients are in bold.

1. Once the Holy Trinity is added to the roux, keep stirring and continue to cook on medium heat until pieces are tender (5 or so minutes)

2. Add the strained stock to the pot and mix, letting the stock warm.

3. Once the stock is heated and the Holy Trinity is incorporated, add:
1–28 oz. can of stewed tomatoes, undrained
1/2 tablespoon each of oregano, thyme, basil
3 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, chopped
a pinch of Worcestershire sauce
then  stir, gently breaking up tomatoes with the side of your spoon:

4. Add 1 lb. of okra, chopped, and stir. Turn heat way down, let simmer for at least an hour and a half so the okra can break down and thicken the gumbo.

5. A half hour before serving, add 1 and 1/2 lb. sliced sausage (andouille, or some other spicy, smoked sausage that will keep their medallion shapes as they cook), stir in

6. A few minutes before serving, turn heat up to medium and add 2 lbs. shelled shrimp, stirring continually.

7. Stir until shrimp are cooked, then lower heat and cover.

8. Serve over white rice and with a side of french bread.

9. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy…

Keywords: gumbo recipe andouille shrimp roux okra stock

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It’s fairly easy to tell when an egg is done. A marshmallow over a campfire. Certainly a pot of coffee–it stops dripping. Even relationships usually offer a pretty clear picture of when they are “done”–even if the participants choose to ignore the signs (think the smell of burning toast).

But when it comes to writing, or many other creative endeavors, being DONE is never a sure thing. Right now I am about to send off a draft to my editor and until the minute my finger presses the send button, I fear I will tweak it within an inch of its life. Now is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Some things can stand to be improved upon (one notable exception: a coconut  Hubig’s Pie, www.hubigs.com) but for a manuscript, when do we say it’s done?

When we press the send button?

When it’s printed?

When someone buys it in a bookstore?

The nature of editing and revision is to, well, edit and revise. But is there such a thing as TOO much fussing? I’m sure. I just need to know WHEN that is.

Any ideas?

Keywords: writing revising hubigs pies

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Many New Orleans’ dishes use what is commonly referred to as the holy trinity, which is equal parts bell pepper, onion and celery, finely chopped.

If you want a blonder roux, you might cook the holy trinity first and then make the roux with the holy trinity already in the pan to avoid the risk of burning your roux. But for this gumbo, Ian adds the holy trinity after he’s got the roux the color he wants. Traditionally, green bell pepper is most often used, but we’ve used orange and yellow pepper, to add color.

Adding the holy trinity to the roux

So, there you have it. The key pieces of a gumbo: the stock, the roux and the holy trinity.

Tomorrow, we’ll put them all together…

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