Monday, December 26, 2011

In Memory of Us

Tonight I write to bid a fond farewell to something dear. The something in question is us. For so long we’ve been together and shared so many things. Remember the time we played scrabble for hours, just the two of us arguing whether “behoove” is a word or not over a board full of letter tiles? Or how about the hot August afternoon when we walked to the public swimming pool and got caught in a thunderstorm. And there was the Christmas when we sat in the back room while the adults drank coffee and talked until midnight? Remember watching Saturday Night Live together, something we never got to do but on Christmas and New Years when we stayed up late? We have so many memories, so many moments the two of us shared.


I mourn the loss of these little moments, these slivers of time and tiny events. I mourn them because they’ve been wantonly murdered and replaced by a stand in, a doppelganger. The name of the interloper varies. Sometimes it’s IM, sometimes simply text, occasionally Twitter, and in its more formal moments it’s called Facebook. Please don’t think of me as a Luddite and don’t mistake my obituary as coming out against technology or social media. I keep two blogs, have a Twitter account, and maintain no less than two Facebook pages. What I’m mourning is the loss of the face to face, private, relationship between two people with all its depth and nuance. A tweet can’t sign and a Facebook account won’t whisper a secret, you’ll never stay up late comforting a friend via text message.

Over the Christmas holiday, while having a meal at a local restaurant, I noticed a group of friends out celebrating the season together. They sat around a table, half of the celebrants glued to their iPhones texting away while the season spun away from them. As I looked on I wondered what they were missing, what tiny moments came and went without leaving its gift of memory. What connections weren’t made? What could have transpired but didn’t for the sake of a glowing screen and the preference for electronic reality over flesh and blood.

My New Years wish for all my friends is that you find yourself stranded with a long-time acquaintance in some out-of-the-way place without internet and with zero bars of signal strength for every electronic communications device you possess. May you be blessed with dead batteries and no ear-buds for your MP3 player and iPod. May you be temporarily fogged or snowed in, stuck in a quiet, nearly deserted airport lounge together. May you talk for hours, discover new things, share reminiscences, and when you part, may you be much closer than any text or status update can convey.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The International Thriller Writers

Some exciting news! I’ve been accepted into the International Thriller Writers. The ITW is a great organization dedicated to writers of thriller fiction and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to meet some fellow genre writers.

National Novel Writing Month

Have you been sharpening your pencils and limbering up your typing fingers, maybe doing a few keyboard calisthenics to avoid a nasty sprained phalange? November is National Novel Writing Month, a month supposedly dedicated to creating that novel you've always meant to write but have put off for whatever reason. You know how it is with excuses, it seems I remember a saying about excuses…but I digress.

I’m all for people finding their inner novelist and following their muse. There are no barbed wire fences, no passports, and no border guards along the borders of the Land of Creativity. You don’t need to be vetted or qualified to write. Just pick up preferred writing implement and begin. That’s it, just write.

There does seem to be a certain cultural thing about writing. If you’re a published author there’s an easy experiment you can perform to experience this phenomena first hand. Simply choose a group of individuals and casually mention you’re a novelist. There’ll be a few questions about the profession, maybe even some circumscribe words about buying your book, but eventually you will hear “I’ve thought about writing a book…” It seems to be a constant across the conversational landscape. Whether you’re in a restaurant, at a party, or any other get-together formal and informal, the scenario plays out in the same way. Nobody would respond to Bruce Jenner with a “I’ve always thought about winning a decathlon…” or tell a surgeon “Just last week I was saying how I’d like to do an appendectomy” but mention writing a novel and suddenly everyone’s Steinbeck.

Maybe the root lies in the part stories play in everyone’s life. We grow up with them, starting with story time in kindergarten and maturing into the various book circles and young reader contests that have become a part of the grade school landscape. Stories have a place at our hearths too. If you’re like me, you had uncles, aunts, grandparents, parents, and siblings who spun tales that knitted the family together and formed a shared history. I think it’s this second sort of story, the lived story, which convinces everyone they could be a novelist. I break the family-centric story into two classes: the Guess What Happened and the Family Legend.

The Guess What Happened story is, well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s a retelling of an event, usually focused on how dumb/irritating/difficult some person/task/place was and the way the teller brought it to a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conclusion. In my youth these everyday stories were as utilitarian as melmac, they conveyed emotion and explained day to day realities. They lived in our kitchen, around the dinner table, and in the family car, lifted into the back seat on the warm breeze that came in through the driver’s side wing-glass. Looking back I can’t recall any of them in detail, they came and went, beginning as thoughts and breath and then returning to nothingness.

Family Legends are a different class all together. A legend tells of an extraordinary event (at least within the bounds of family life). There are no legendary tales of the price of gas going up or how many people were at the bank. In my family, legends (at least the ones I remember) usually it had a humorous element. I recall stories of exploding rocks, gunpowder rockets, attic ghosts, mousetraps that caught humans, and a dozen others. These stories ritually appeared at the holidays, repeated by their traditional tellers as a way of reaffirming bonds and confirming rank within the pack. To this day I miss the tales of my grandfather and grandmother and a part of the holiday season for me is the anticipation of hearing my father’s tales of his youth. Whenever I hear one of the family legends it makes me feel settled feeling, at peace.

The point I’m trying to convey is that we all have these types of stories and though some of them can translate into key elements of a novel or a short story there is more to being a novelist than having a seed of an idea. Being a novelist is the hard (and often thankless) work of growing and pruning the seeds of ideas into a topiary that can be appreciated by many. The nuance that is easily understood within our families doesn’t always translate to a larger audience who are bereft of the experiences which are integral parts of who we are. Not everyone is a novelist and that’s okay. NaNoWriMo seems to imply all it takes to create a manuscript is time spent in front of a screen or page of paper, sweat long enough and a novel will pop out. There’s also the implication you should be able to complete your manuscript within a month. I suspect that the time limit turns as many (potentially good) writers away from the art as it inspires to “try harder and focus” but I think the concept needs a little analysis. For the purpose of this thought experiment, I’m assuming the author will be writing a pretty basic (possibly even short) science fiction novel of 100 thousand words.

November has 30 days, at least according to the childhood rhyme, and to accomplish our goal we will need to write approximately 3300 words/day in order to be successful. Thirty days comes to 720 hours, however not all of them are available. We’ll assume a healthy 8 hours of sleep a night, taking away 240 hours off the top and bringing the time left to us down to 480 hours. We also have to take out the 8 hours a day spent making money to pay the bills (since the vast majority of authors also hold down a job to support themselves), that removes another 176 hours bringing our available writing time down to 304 hours. Now, if we break down our 100 thousand words over 304 hours we get a rate of approximately 329 words per hour, not an unmanageable wpm even for a one-finger typist. However, you must also remember that you must keep this rate up for every waking hour of every day of every week in the month. I also didn’t take out meals, bathroom breaks, taking the kids to school, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or generally living a life. Oh yes, and let’s not forget Thanksgiving, that holiday where you’ll share the quality time with your family which inspires you with the materials you’ll use to fuel your writing sessions, that will take a day out of your writing schedule too! You probably have caught onto the fact I don’t think this is a reasonable goal. It’s simply my opinion, though.

Many people, authors among them, promote the idea that cramming through NaNoWriMo makes you a better writer. They’re entitled to their opinion; maybe it does help them. Personally I don’t believe cramming equates to an increase in quality. I doubt that there’s objective evidence or statistics showing people who participate in NaNoWriMo are published more often than those who don’t. To me, NaNoWriMo sounds like a gimmick.

You should write because you love it. That should be your only motivation. Sure, you’ll want to be paid but let me assure you there are far more authors out there who aren’t making a living off their work than are. You must love to write, that’s the primary driver. A writing career isn’t a contest and there’s nothing magic about having a taskmaster standing over you as you type. You must love to write because writing the words down is one tenth of getting a novel published.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Getting the Word Out

Dear Reader,

When I started the “life of a writer”, I had imagined it as a life where I’d, well, write. I’d just sit around, writing, story after story and novel after novel. That’s the writing part, you know, creating worlds and peopling them, and then putting life into both. The problem with this idyllic picture of the life is it omits a very key aspect of the author’s existence, selling and promoting your work.

If you’re an author or aspiring author, you know the deal with selling your work. To put it gently, it can be a nightmare. There are probably a thousand blogs, magazine articles, columns, and podcasts offering advice on how to successfully sell your work and I’m absolutely certain I can’t add much to the dialog that hasn’t already been said. It’s all about finding the right place for the right piece at the right time. Though that sounds like a simplification, especially after you’ve had a few disheartening rejections, it’s the unfortunate truth. Sure, you should strive to improve your skills, attend seminars and go to writer’s groups, and find a beta-reader who will give you constructive criticism but in the end its about persistence and research.

The more interesting and difficult subject, at least with novels, comes when it’s time to market your work. If like me you grew up in the Midwest, the thought of self promotion probably carries a less than flattering connotation. You may have the idea that you shouldn’t talk about your accomplishments too much, that it’s conceited or self-important to go around telling everyone “hey, I’ve published a novel!” That’s a feeling that, to some extent, you’re going to have to manage. While major publishers promote their authors, setting up events, running ads, and assisting in getting the word about a new book out to the reading public, small and medium size publishing houses don’t have the funds or personnel to engage in this sort of promotional activity. In short, you’re on your own, my friend.

What to do? There are options. Before your novel is released, I recommend seeking sights that will do pre-release reviews. Publications like The Bloomsbury Review do pre-release reviews of fiction. I suggest doing a web search for similar publications, but be sure to identify ones that accept books that haven’t been released.

Once your novel has been released you have other options available. I recommend approaching local newspapers and local publications. Also, check with local booksellers and independent bookstores to see if they have newsletters and might be interested in reviewing a local author. If your book is being sold on Amazon.com, I recommend reaching out to some of the site’s top reviewers (Amazon even has an article on how to approach potential reviewers). Also, don’t forget to reach out to bloggers, some might be willing to give your book a review.

With reviews, though, you must be prepared to roll with what you get. Certainly, you should address any inappropriate reviews that appear on bookseller sites but be aware that readers have opinions and they are entitled to say what they feel.

Beyond reviews, I recommend you reach out to writer’s groups for your genre as well as local writer’s groups. Just like any other business, it’s important to make contacts. If you write science fiction, look into the SFWA or if, like me, you write thrillers, look into the ITW (a great organization where it’s also free to become a member). Also, look into reading groups and anywhere else you can get your title in front of the reading public. Good word of mouth is your best friend.

My final recommendation comes in the form of a reminder that very few authors have a best seller on their first go. The hard work of promotion isn’t really what you sign up for as an author but it is the reality when you’re starting out. When you hit it big and land a contract with a major publishing house, you’ll have a staff promoting your work. But, I hate to say even then the work won’t end at seeing your book in a bookstore!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Autumn

Dear Reader,

Ah autumn. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons. The heat of summer subsides, the windows are open again, and cool breezes invade the bedroom late into the night. It’s a season of layers and Sunday afternoons, of smoke and fleeing leaves, of purple sunsets and the trembling thought of frosts to come. I love autumn.


Fall is the summing up, the clearing away, the stowing of the freewheeling dreams and aspirations of summer in preparation for anticipated snows. Nobody starts fall with resolutions, nobody says “With the turning of the leaves I’m going to…” followed by a grand statement of renewed purpose or desire. It’s a time of potato soup and warm bread, a natural outgrowth of our agrarian past when that which couldn’t be preserved would be eaten and the heard thinned to make ready for the hard, long cold to come.

I remember clearing out my parents’ garden after the first frost, uprooting the tomato vines and raking the stalks into a heap with dry leaves from the sugar maple that grew in our back yard. Once the heap had been built, a crumpled page of newspaper would be buried in its heart and then the whole thing would be set alight. Clouds of smoke would rise toward the pale blue sky, drifting lazily over the suburbs and heading southward in pursuit of the summer on whose work the fire fed.

Ode to the West Wind
by Percy Bysshe Shelley


 O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,


 Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

 The wing├Ęd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave,until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

 Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

 Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

Seven Days to Go

Dear Readers,
In one week, Time of Death will ship to book stores and become available for order online. Is it possible to get stage fright in anticipation of the release of a book?

I’m not sure I’d call the nervous energy I feel, fright. It’s an energy, anticipation and curiosity about what’s to come. I can tell you that I’ve channeled that energy into working on a new novel featuring Melody Rush. I’ll keep you updated on its progress!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Indiana State Fair Memories

Dear Reader,

In 1851 the Indiana General Assembly created a State Fair as “An act to encourage agriculture”, the sixth state to hold an official agricultural fair. Since that date, through times of joy and sorrow, there have been 155 Indiana State Fairs, three wars (Civil War, Spanish-American War, and WW II) intervening to cancel fairs. The fair has roved the state since its creation, initially being held in Military Park (downtown Indianapolis) and visiting, Lafayette, Madison, New Albany, Indianapolis (Camp Morton), Fort Wayne, Terre Haute before finding a permanent home in 1892.

In all this time the Indiana State Fair has remained relatively true to its roots – it is an agricultural festival, a celebration of the people and products that essentially are Indiana. The cattle might no longer arrive via the Monon and fairgoers might not travel to the fair primarily via the Nickleplate or interurban but the heart has remained true. I remember this every time I walk among the prairie style pavilions, smelling the elephant ears, funnel cake, and popcorn and listening to the discord of music combining with distant sounds of the midway.

I think that’s part of the reason I like going to the fair. Yes, I like seeing the animals and I won’t pass up the opportunity to try the latest, deep fried abomination the vendors are hawking but at its root my love of the fair is a love of the past. I like to think about what might have happened there on any particular evening in any particular year. What threads of life intertwined in front of the Coliseum in 1924 with the unraveling of the Teapot Dome Scandal? What about on the midway in 1939 with World War II waiting in the wings and the Great Depression choking the life out of the economy? What about the thousands of other lost moments scattered around the fairgrounds?

I thought about those moments while sitting on a bench across from the makeshift memorial to the victims of the Saturday, August 13 stage collapse. The fairgrounds are no stranger to tragedy; on October 13, 1963 an explosion in the Coliseum killed 74. That loss, like the recent losses, will be incorporated into the grounds; the memories of the departed will mingle with the summer air, remaining as long as memory allows.

So there is a tinge of sadness mingled with music and laughter. Wistfulness seems to be a good part of nostalgia. Pain can color memory. Hopefully those impacted by this latest disaster, once the tears have subsided, can reach back beyond their pain and remember a summer day when they might have walked the midway, laughed, and basked in the humid Indiana heat. If they can capture that moment, jar it like a firefly, then they’ll have its light for the rest of their lives.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Supporting the Fellow Expats

Dear Reader,

I’ve been lucky enough to know a few local artists. I’m fortunate enough to be married to a writer, someone who understands the process and the pains of writing, editing, and trying to get published. But I also know others in the art community - everything from television personalities to art teachers to video artists. Though we all don’t work together, we do make a sort of family. It’s like we’re expats, encountering one another in some smoky bar in a foreign land. We recognize each other, we share a few stories, we find comfort in what we share, and even though we go out to face the hard and alien landscape alone we still support one another.

Today I have the pleasure of supporting one of my fellow artists. Earl Harris has to be one of the most stylish gentlemen I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He’s got three videos out, supporting a hip-hop radio station. Take a look!

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

I'll share more of Earl's work when I get the opportunity!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Galley Artwork for Time of Death

Dear Reader,

This morning I received the galley artwork for Time of Death. The artists at Five Star did a great job capturing some of the imagery of the novel without giving too much away. Hopefully you'll pick up a copy when you see it in your local bookstore or Amazon.com when it becomes available in September. Seeing the cover art makes the novel seem more real than it has before this moment. Then again, it also reminds me that I've neglected my main character. I need to get to work finishing The Changeling's Brother (the sci-fi novel I've been editing) so Mel Rush's next adventure can begin!

My interests have always collided with getting things done. For those who know the Myers Briggs personality typing methodology, I'm a classic INFP. Interested in everything and focused on nothing. A bird landing on a branch a hundred miles from my desk can draw me into a day's musing over the reasons birds land and trees grow. The mental wandering is good for concocting subject matter but not so great for getting it down on paper (virtual or otherwise). It doesn't help that there have been some very real distractions in my life for the last couple of months. I promise to discuss these distractions at length when a more opportune time presents itself - for the moment let it suffice to say that I've been distracted.

With a Good Friday off and nothing to occupy me but the rain falling outside, it's a good day to do a bit of catching up. I'm putting on my editor's hat and sharpening my red pencil. Soon I'll be nailing down the first chapters of Mel's new adventure, tentatively entitled The Inner Fire.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Second Life

Dear Reader,

 As a writer, I'm a curious person. I think it's probably part of the writer makeup - without the desire to turn the world sideways, upside-down, a writer is shackled to exploring the "IS" instead of the "MAYBE". Is-World isn't a bad place, in fact I wish more people in the journalistic field dwelled within its somber and hard hallways. I could use less "opinion-casting" and more "news-casting". However, I'm veering dangerously away from my chosen topic. Lately I've been dabbling in Second Life, the virtual world of chat rooms that are constructed within a virtual space made to resemble a fantastic, often cartoonish, version of real-life.

Initially the chance to create objects (clothing, houses, and so on) drew me to SL. I play The Sims from time to time and I've applied my modest Photoshop skills to creating garments for my characters. I've also dabbled in cartography, making maps for the various imaginary worlds I write about as an aide to my writing and (possibly) eventual illustrations. SL offered an opportunity to get into the world I created, to walk about inside it, and to share it with others. So, I opted in and downloaded the SL software.

The first time I opened the software a metaphysical question vexed me. Perhaps it is a symptom of over thinking, but when the interface opened the first question that confronted me was what I'd like to register as my user name. I started with simply entering my name - and found it taken. Then I tried my initials with the same result. After that I sat for a moment, staring at the blank page, and pondering. What would you call yourself if you couldn't use your own name? Should it be something descriptive? Maybe I should select some word that embodies the essence of me-ness? Or should I embrace the idea of Second Life and create a new entity, a new me unlike the real me in every way? I fought with this idea for a long time before discovering that practically everything I selected, meaningful or meaningless, had been taken in the 9 years since the first resident signed up. Eventually I made the decision to go to a "weird words" page and randomly selected a name that seemed appropriately dark (I happened to be in a dark mood) and therefore my first alter ego, Chthonic came to be.

With the big hurdle of name selection behind me, however unsatisfying it might have been, I dashed straight into the next quagmire, physical appearance. Eventually, after navigating the standard sets of avatars, I came up with something acceptable. I quickly found that using a base avatar amounted to something like wearing a blazing neon sign that says "I Don't Know Anything". I hobbled about long enough to find out how to customize my avatar enough to be passable. Now I'm a week into limping around the environment and feeling like a total klutz most of the time.

The big question that came to me through this process, though, is how do we recreate ourselves? What makes one person choose a stylized human form and another an anthropomorphic cat? What does that re-rendering of ourselves into the pixel-world say about who and what we are in the physical world? Or is it all fancy? Is it just good fun, signifying nothing? Perhaps I'll come up with an answer to that question in time. Until then, if you're in SL, look me up. Maybe I'll be hanging out somewhere.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Weekends in March

Dear Reader,


I ventured out to celebrate a good friend's 60th birthday this Saturday. Per form, the weather proved to be cold and blustery but there are plenty of things to do on a Saturday in March when you don't have to be anywhere in particular. So, giving my friend his choice of where to have lunch, we found ourselves at the Rathskeller, sitting in the Kellerbar under the mounted moose head with the sun pouring in through the high windows. Between the spirits and the sunlight, one could forget the outside temperature hovered somewhere barely north of 30 degrees and a twenty mile-per-hour wind whipped through the streets. We ate a good meal of less-than-healthy food, drank, and discussed work, politics, and the general state of humanity in the modern age for a couple of hours under the roof of the building Vonnegut's ancestors designed then gathered our coats and set out on the downtown of Indianapolis.

From the house of Vonnegut we made our way to the Eiteljorg to catch the Red Black exhibit. For those of you who aren't Indianapolis natives, the Eiteljorg is the local museum of Native American and Western history. It's a lovely building that (by design) seems to rise out of the ground, kiva-style. The exhibit, like many good museum installations, left me feeling enlightened and troubled. My Cherokee heritage has always been a source of pride however, learning that my people kept slaves reinforced the realization that native peoples are just that - people. They have all of the same flaws and shortcomings no matter what their genetics.

From inspecting the past we made our way to the big downtown mall to discover another of the mega bookstores, Borders, is closing up shop in downtown Indianapolis. It was my wakeup to the fact that the chain had gone bankrupt. Had I waited ten more days I would have missed the entire thing and been left knowing something had been on the corner of Meridian and Washington Street but unable to remember what it had been. We shopped the remnants and it felt a bit like attending an estate auction while the viewing was still underway in the parlor.

I have the distinct feeling birthdays shouldn't come in March. It's too depressing a month, filled with rain that wanted to be snow but didn't make it and ceaseless, restless wind. Even the ground is wet, swollen and sick with too much rain. A lot of people would say the month of my birthday is just as inappropriate, January is a frozen and unforgiving month of bitter cold and driven snow - equally depressing. Still, I think March is worse. It's the season of promises on the brink. Of hints at warmth that turn out to be misleading; the weather version of red herrings. This March has come in like the proverbial lion but, in the hearts of every Hoosier, we know there's little guarantee she'll leave like a lamb.

I don't mean to leave you depressed! Looking at the facts, the days are getting longer and the average temperature is climbing with each day. Spring has arrived, harbinger of summer's long, languid afternoons and temperate nights. All is not lost - it's just a bit uncomfortable for a while.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Honest Loaf

Dear Reader,


Of all things cooking, the baking of bread has come to stand in for the home. Actually, more than the home, it has come to represent a certain kind of home. Some would say it stands for the kind of home most of us either don't feel like we have time for or have forgotten the value of in our busy lives. These people see bread as a symbol of a time gone by; a gentler, simpler time when the day provided time for kneading and proofing, for punching down and rising, and for baking. Others see the baking of the daily loaf as something just about as anachronistic as the horse and buggy. Possibly worse, it can be interpreted as the ball at the end of the domestic chain women wore (and some still wear) around their collective ankle, a chore that required long hours of work and tending and forbid the pursuit of happiness endowed all our citizens. Personally, I can see both sides of the argument, though I grew up in a Wonder Bread world and never knew an unsliced loaf before I started buying my own groceries.

It might have been during those first solo excursions to the grocery store that I got the bread bug. Walking through the bakery section after working a split shift, just as the baker started taking loaves out of the oven and the warm smell permeated the entire store. I started out with "basic loaves", that is to say white bread. At first they came out like bricks - dense, hard, and tasteless - but something kept me from giving up. Now I'm known for brioche, focaccia, and gingerbread. Until now, however, I hadn't found a certain recipe that I'd always wanted to make.

Salt rising bread holds a special place in my heart and those who know me well might be able to guess why. To clue you in further, you should know that salt rising bread is especially popular in the south and Appalachia (the Carolina's, Virginia, and Kentucky). No clue? The answer goes back to an episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled Dogs, Dogs, Dogs and a scene in which Barney mentions salt rising bread. I tried to find a video snippet for the blog entry but couldn't. Regardless, since I saw the episode I've been looking for a copy of the recipe and during my perusal of The Gourmet Cookbook I stumbled upon the very recipe. Of course afterward I managed to find the recipe on the net in just a few seconds. Regardless, here it is.



I strolled through the bread section and it contained most of the usual suspects - rye breads, baguettes, brioche, and the sort. There are the bad 50's pictures and unholy combinations such as pate en brioche or duck liver pate baked inside of a brioche crust. Modern bread baking has turned more toward the "country" or "peasant" loaf, recipes like focaccia and other rustic loaves that focus on herbal notes, unbleached and specialty flours, and rustic textures. What I found most interesting about the bread section was the preface shown below:



The idea of a baker being pilloried for a "bad loaf" seems pretty harsh considering the lax laws regarding the quality of foods in the past. I did a search on the web but the only thing I came up with was an unsighted article stating that in medieval times there were laws regarding bakers cheating customers and that the term "baker's dozen" emanates from this period when exceptional bakers gave their customers thirteen of an item instead of twelve to separate themselves from the rest of their profession. I hate to think what would have become of me for all the bad loaves I baked while learning! My sourdough still comes out plain and dull, doubtless a crime worth of the stocks! It also worries me that the authors seem to be lamenting that they can't nail their baker's ears to a post when they feel their whole wheat isn't up to snuff. It seems to go beyond quality control to institute corporal punishment for sub-standard bread. Then again, maybe I'm just soft.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Old Cookbooks

Dear Reader,

Over the weekend we took a little one-tank-trip to the lovely berg of Berne, Indiana with a couple very good friends. While we were preparing for a nice stroll in the 35 degree pouring rain, my friend presented me with a tattered and yellow book.

"It's a gift." He said, handing the tome over. "You don't have to keep it if you don't want it."

Yeah, giving me a book is a commitment thing. I could start my own hoarding show, just me sitting in my hole of an office surrounded by teetering piles of print, muttering "I don't have a problem…" What's doubly bad is this particular book is titled A Taste of Texas, a 1949 Neiman Marcus giveaway containing recipes "culled from over 2000 submitted by N-M customers…" as the flyleaf says. I really can't fathom sending a recipe to a department store. Neiman Marcus probably had a contest or something of the sort with thousands of post-war home makers vying for a brand new fry-o-lator or something equally gadgety. Needless to say the book hasn't gone anywhere but into the "do something with me" pile.

Staring at that pile today I thought, "Hey, why not post a few snippets from these unwieldy books that nobody but me would even consider keeping? It's not a good or original idea, but what else are you going to do on a gloomy, Indiana Monday in March when the finals aren't on TV?

So, though I started out talking about A Taste of Texas I hope you will pardon the curve I'm throwing when I start with a totally different cookbook. The biblical the Gourmet Cookbook volume I came out in 1950. After a decade of circulation, the editors at Gourmet Magazine decided they'd better secure their spot in the cooking pantheon with a hardback cookbook for the epicure. The result is a weighty 781 page book bound and printed in Italy to ensure its panache. Like a good Italian roadster, the Gourmet Cookbook is impractical - hardcover and as thick as an unabridged dictionary, hardly the sort of thing you want nestling between the flour and butter while baking cookies. My copy came from my wife's favorite aunt and it looks nearly unused. Since she was an excellent cook I imagine she found it just as unwieldy in the kitchen and opted for something a little more counter friendly.

Regardless, paging through the book gives an overview of the rarified mind of the late 40's gourmet. There are the aspic-molded horrors you'd expect along with some truly odd stuff. Aspic referres to a jelly, usually formed from stock rendered from some sort of meat and then clarified. If you've ever taken a piece of roasted chicken out of the fridge to find a gelatanious goo pooled in the bottom of the container, essentially that is an aspic. The use of aspic in American cookiery rose to its pinnacle in the 50's before plummeting from the dinner table and into kitsch ridicule. The following two examples show how Gourmet Magazine suggested plying the edible shalack that was aspic:

For those who don't possess a culinary dictionary, this dish is a jelly-mold made with goose liver pate, aspic from chicken or some other fowl, and mayonnaise. It's difficult to imagine this falling in the appetizer section of the book. I can't fathom the thought of jellied liver and mayonnaise as appetizing! I'm also left wondering how this recipe ever came to be. I mean who thought, "You know what this chicken and liver jelly needs? Mayonnaise."

If jellied goose liver isn't to your taste we have an alternative. Jellied cheese! Actually it's jellied cheese and mustard. I'm struck by the difference in terms here. Notice that the cook is advised to add a few 'grains' of cayenne and salt? You'd never see that language in a modern cookbook, probably because the concept is utterly ridiculous. As someone who dabbles in cooking, I can't ever imagine picking out three grains of salt and adding them to a dish. What would be the point?

Well, I thought I'd conclude the first batch of appetizers with a dish that doesn't involve meat jelly. The Lorraine Custard is akin to the popular in kitchen and song, Quiche Lorraine. The Lorraine in question refers to the Lorraine region of France where the German-influenced locals concocted an open pie consisting of an egg custard with smoked bacon or lardons. Later cheese was added to the mixture to create the quiche that is popular today. The custard version shown in this section of the Gourmet Cookbook is, essentially, the filling of a quiche Lorraine without the pie crust. It seems like an odd selection, one that might be interpreted as the author padding this section of the book with a partial recipe given a new name.

I think a lot of the focus on cooking from the fourties and fifties is on the oddities of aspic. Maybe it's the freak show aspect of jellied foods or the fact they're so uncommon on the modern table. Regardless, the number of aspic recipes in the cookbook is very limited. The next portion of the cookbook's hors d'oeuvre section deals with vegetables. When I say vegetables, don't think vegetarian. The cheff of the fifties seems as incapable of imagining vegetarianism as the cheff of the middle ages would be of imagining the microwave oven. Nearly every dish involves meat and those which don't rely on salad dressing. An example would be cucumbers dressed with french dressing, salt, and pepper. Not all are as bland, there is a recipe for Eggplant Caviar that I plan to try.

Maybe the most interesting things in the Gourmet Cookbook are the few photographs of the food described by the recipes. I'm not sure if the way we think of food has changed since the fifties or if the technology and techniques of photographing food has evolved sufficiently to make the old photos look absolutely hidious but I've yet to find a 'classic' cookbook that makes a single dish look remotely appetizing. Anyone who is familliar with The Gallery of Regrettable Food by the genious James Lileks will be fully aware of the mayhem that can be wrought by a recipe and a camera. The odd pairings of props with dishes, the off colors, the bizzarre geological formations are all apparently part and parcel of the 50's gastronomic landscape. I imagine in sixty years someone will be looking at Paula Dean's creations and thinking "What must she have been smoking..." so I'm reluctant to be too hard on the food of the fifties. Of course, that doesn't mean I'd want to see it served to me!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Origins

Dear Reader,

There's been (at least from my limited prospective) a recent upsurge in interest in genealogy. Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined seeing television ads for websites that specialize in family trees. Now you see them all the time, common looking people touting how they didn't know great granddad lived next door to the famous Mr. X or that great-great grandma had a fascinating career as a secret agent spying on the Confederates and passing the info on to Grant in the form of coded tatting. They're very persuasive commercials, offering the possibility that the viewer springs from uncommon stock - that you are special because someone you are related to was special. That in this world of conformity and ever contracting borders, there might be someone in your family tree who struck out into the wilderness, tamed the unknown, tested themselves against the world and came out with more than a six-figure paycheck to show for their efforts.

I'm not knocking genealogy. My mother spent hours behind a humming electric typewriter, carefully recording information she found in the dusty back rooms of various libraries. Women of the 19th century told their story in quilting and mom told hers in leaf-thin pages of type held together in scavenged three-ring binders. For all of mom's typing and researching, I don't have a single spy or famous neighbor to talk about. Oh there are a few scoundrels (bootleggers and petty criminals including my grandfather who's been accused in family lore of 'borrowing' automobiles from alleyways as well as cooling pies off windowsills) but there are many more average folks running stores, planting corn, and working in factories.

The truth is that most of us spring from 'common' folk who lived simple lives. Consider that in 1910, a little over a hundred years ago (a couple of generations), the most common occupations were farmer and farm laborer. People either owned land that they tilled or tilled land that someone else owned. They worked hard to support their families, scratching a living out of the land and living by its rhythms; heroic in its own right without the necessity for famous neighbors.

Still, in spite of the heroism of the common man and woman, the desire to be special remains. I feel it every time I see one of the commercials I mentioned earlier. I feel it even more in March due to St. Patrick's Day and my family's (at least purported) Irish lineage. So, I did a little searching and came up with the following hopeful tidbit:

"Recorded as Madain, Madden, Maddin, Madigan and MacAvaddy, this is a famous Irish surname. It derives from the pre 10th century Old Gaelic name O'Madain, translating as the descendant of the son of the hound. The hound is famous in Gaelic heraldry having the virtues of speed, endurance, and loyalty. Most Irish surnames originate from a chief's nickname. O'Kennedy, for instance means the male descendant of the ugly headed one! The O'Madain's originated from lands on the River Shannon in County Galway, at one time holding over 25,000 acres. Even today name holders are still numerous in that part of Ireland. The Madigan branch of the clan are regarded as almost exclusively a Clare-Limerick family, although a branch are to be found in Counties Antrim and Derry in Ulster. Richard Madden, (1798 - 1886) was the author of the book 'The United Irishman', whilst many name holders emigrated to either America or England during the infamous 'Potato Famine' of 1846. Walter Madden, his wife Mary and their children Richard aged five and Alice, a baby sailed from Galway, bound for New York on the ship 'Junius ' on May 1st 1846. The first recorded spelling of the family name is believed to be that of Dermot O'Madadhain. This was dated circa 1100 a.d. He was chief of the Ui Maine, Connacht, during the reign of King Henry 1st of England, known as 'The Just", 1100 - 1135."

Being an aspiring writer, the bit about Richard Madden struck me most. There, of course, is no concrete connection between myself and the doctor, writer, abolitionist, and historian of the United Irishmen however the romantic in me would like to concoct one. One writer bridging himself to another writer, a writer who penned works 123 years ago during a time of turmoil and change. That's the sort of thing that can either inspire you or make the fiction you compose seem tawdry and pointless! Maybe I shouldn't go looking too hard for the ancestral wellspring from whence my literary desire flows. Maybe I'll find Niagara Falls and be so intimidated as to turn back to the shallow, current-less lagoons of a tamer life. That possibility is doubtful. I've never found comfort in fitting in (come to think I've never fit in) so under the glassy surface of the familial harbor lay sharp reefs on which to flounder. Better to point myself toward the horizon and all the unknown wonders it holds.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February Update

Dear Reader,


Months have passed since we last spoke and I hope they've all went well for you. Here's hoping January brought a happy New Year and Valentines a love to see you through the dreary cold of March and into springtime's bliss. Looking back at the blog I see that I posted a December update but nothing since - my apologies for being so incommunicative! I will strive to correct the situation immediately.

Steady progress is being made on the latest novel, though I have to admit the thing is stubborn. At ninety thousand words the harsh realization that a good amount of pruning will be required has settled in. Added to that, the work itself has become thicker - first edits are always that way for me, a critical eye sieving through the initial creative tailings to find the worthy material and discard the waste. In the case of the current novel there have been some fairly hefty plot changes which have required a lot of in-depth editing just to get out of the first draft stage. Next comes what I like to call "the bloodying up" of the document - a read-aloud with a red pen in hand. Usually a pen sacrifices itself on the altar of editing during this stage. It's sad and slow but a necessary process.

Time of Death is slated for release this September. Currently it's working through the shadowy halls of the publisher, going through whatever dark rituals are required to make it a book. Sometimes I think of Kevin Bacon pledging Omega Theta Pi in Animal House when I imagine what a book goes through to be released. I imagine hooded figures in candlelit rooms flogging the manuscript…thank you sir, may I have another. Regardless, somewhere out there the first installment of Mel Rush's adventures waits to be sprung on the public. Hopefully it will be to at least moderate acclaim!

Indiana in February is a gray and gloomy place. Even someone like me, who loves the whole winter scene, gets a little burned out on slate-gray skies and bare trees by this time of year. I find myself checking the bed where we planted lilies last fall, looking for the first signs of life pushing through the soil. It's an over-eager impulse since the last frost date for Indiana isn't until early May. Still, there's a fluttering in my heart each time I look out the window at the swath of soil we worked last year. I hope the squirrels haven't undone most of our work!

Long before the lilies come up, though, will be the 'official first rite of spring' - morel mushroom season. In Indiana the season kicks off right around my brother's birthday, a handy reminder for me to get my hiking boots and best stick ready to prowl the ravines and woodlands. I am absolutely no good at this outdoor activity, not that I'm any sort of woodsman per se. My father has returned from his mushrooming haunts with garbage bags full when the fates align and there's a good season. Myself, I'm lucky to see a single mushroom (in fact I think that's my record in recent years). Still, there's been a lot of snow this year; if the weather doesn't turn dry we might be in luck.

That's the way things are going at the moment. I will provide you further updates on the book's progress as September draws nearer and I hope to have my second manuscript ready for hard editing within the next month. Wish me luck!