17 May, 2010

Day 52 - Your garden or your weapon of choice?

I have to admit that my writing has been suffering from gardenitis - a disease which afflicts those of us who live in the Northeast and go garden crazy when the weather finally turns warm enough to start planting - sometime after Mother's Day. This weekend I finally put in a dozen heirloom tomato plants and a dozen eggplants, as well as 36 basil plants -- all started from seed. My living room looks livable again, now that all the grow lights and flats of seedlings have disappeared. I have all the aches and pains in places I'd forgotten to prove I worked hard. I also have some new plot ideas.

One of the nice things about gardening -- aside from the luscious produce that will appear in a couple of months -- is that it's a mindless pursuit. Mindless not as in stupid, but as in mind freeing. You're out there in the sun and fresh air, digging in clean smelling soil and your mind just wanders. It's the perfect time to word out plot knots and perfect characters. Maybe something is found in the garden (a skeleton or a treasure?) or maybe your mind wanders to all the potential weapons you could be planting: lily of the valley, Narcissus, Rhododendron, Oleander, Chrysanthemum, Hydrangea, Foxglove, and Wisteria, to name just a few. Think about it -- half the bridal bouquets in the world are lethal weapons.

And then we can move on to the gardening tools: scythes, pitchforks, power hedge trimmers. And let's not forget the twine and rope we use to tie up those tender beans and pea shoots. The possibilities are endless.

Gardens offer endless possibilities for murder, mayhem, and mystery. I remember an episode of Rosemary and Thyme, one of my favourite BBC series, where a blind man is killed in a community garden by the simple expedient of moving a wind chime. The man relied on the tinkling of the chimes to orient himself, so all the murderer had to do was dig a deep trench and relocate the chimes. Pronto presto, the blind man follows the chimes; falls in the ditch and breaks his neck. Simple and neat.

Rain is predicted for the next two days, so I expect I'll be sitting at my keyboard weaving some of my ideas into my manuscript, but the first sunny day, I'll be back out in the garden, harvesting new ones.

If you planted tarragon, try this recipe for Stuffed Shrimp with Tarragon
16 large raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (leave on the last tail segment if you like)
6 Tbsp melted butter
1 clove garlic, finely minced (or more if you like)
2 Tbsp finely chopped shallot
1/2 cup finely chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs (not flavoured)
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 tsp freshly chopped tarragon
1 cup dry white wine or vermouth

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. With a sharp knife split the shrimp lengthwise along the upper vein, but do not cut all the way through. Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Lay the opened shrimp between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap and pound lightly with a rolling pin, being careful not to split them. Score the shrimp lightly with a knife to prevent curling. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a small frying pan, and cook the garlic, shallot and mushrooms briefly, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining butter, bread crumbs, parsley, and tarragon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Divide the mixture over half the shrimp and top each with another shrimp, making "sandwiches."
  5. Place the shrimp in a shallow baking dish and carefully pour the dry wine around them. Bake until shrimp are pink, basting occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes. No do overcook. Serve hot with lemon wedges, over couscous to absorb the juices. Serves 4.
  6. Enjoy!

04 May, 2010

What I'm reading

As a dedicated foodie, I seek out not only food related mysteries, but also cookbooks and other novels/memoirs/etc. that focus on food and the culinary arts.  I just finished Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef, and I will never look at Chinese food the same way.

What a pleasant read.  Mones weaves a credible romantic plot with incredible insights into the history and philosophy of Chinese food. Food writer Maggie McElroy,  a widowed American food writer, is suddenly confronted with a paternity claim against her late
 husband's estate--by a Chinese family claiming their granddaughter has inheritance rights. Maggie travels to Beijing with dual purposes: to write an article about a rising young
Chinese-American-Jewish chef, Sam Liang, and to discover the truth of her husband's possible daughter. Along the way she meets much of Sam's family, including his Beijing uncles and the Hangzhou uncle -- a raucous, loving, argumentative bunch of foodies who advise Sam about menus and romance, treat him like the lowliest of apprentices making him start over again when a dish isn't perfect, and alternately praise and criticize his cooking.

The novel leads the reader to see food as the Chinese do, as "healing" and to understand the guanxi or "connectedness" that takes place around food. Each chapter of the book begins withs a paragraph taken from a book also titled The Last Chinese Chef, written by Sam's  grandfather and translated by Sam and his estranged father, a scholarly explanation of the place of food in Chinese history and family life. Mones' transports her readers back to the days of the cultural revolution and still further back to the Imperial palace, wrapping smells, textures, religion and memories into a dish fit for an Emperor or his concubines.

My only disappointment was the paucity of recipes included at the end of the book.

If you're looking for an enjoyable read, this is it.  Just make sure you have your local Chinese take-out restaurant on speed dial.

03 May, 2010

Day 42 - To outline or not, that is the question

Word Count: 23,148

I've been breezing along with my manuscript, quite happy with how it's progressing until I realized I had a rather serious time line issue.  I was totally confused, which didn't bode well for potential readers. 

I'd promised myself I was going to write the entire piece before rereading it -- or starting to edit -- but when I lost all sense of who did what when, I knew it was time to take a look.  So yesterday I sat down with pad and pencil (and a BIG eraser)  to outline what I've written so far, and what I already know is going to happen (or I think is going to happen).  It was like laying out a mosaic, moving pieces around to see where they fit best.  Now that I have a map to follow, I can rearrange some of what I've already got down on paper and fill in the blanks. 

When I wrote my first (still sold) mystery, I had a nice tidy outline; it ran about 4 pages long.  I can't begin to count the number of times I revised that outline, but it was a lot.  This time, I've decided to just let the writing flow and see where it gets me.  I'll outline at the end, to make sure the time line is consistent, but not before.  I have an idea of where I'm going, but I'm surprised by the turns my tale has taken.  The killer has changed completely!  My original villain is now a convenient dupe for the true murderer.  I was hardly aware of it until I wrote the chapter, but it makes perfect sense and fits the story so much better.  I have to wonder if that would have happened with an outline.