28 February, 2014

Fiction Friday: Chicken or egg? Character or Plot?

It's the age old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg--only for writers it's character or plot.  Which comes first? Here's my take on the question.  Feel free to disagree.

Characters are important. It's wrong to say you can't have a story without characters.  What you should say is: you can't have a good story without strong characters. Most readers will take accept some little inconsistencies in your plot, forgive flights of fancy, if they relate to your characters.

On the flip side, plot is important.  You don't have a story without a plot. Without a plot, your characters are just...there.  Without characters, plot is irrelevant.  How's that for circular thinking?

For me, characters come first because they give me the most trouble. The plot "happens" as I write, but I sweat over characters. I was never good at chemistry and creating a character is a lot like mixing a formula.
Coming from a journalism background, I never bothered a whole lot about descriptions which  just took up precious column  space available for facts.  Now I know better.  Whether describing a physical person, thing, or place, description is key to centering your reader. How else will the reader empathize with your characters? It's not like movie, after all, where you get a freebie, an instant rapport with the actor playing the part.

The trick is to create a picture in your reader's mind and keep it consistent.  Without simply listing a bunch of physical characteristics.  I've seen it done, but it isn't pretty.  For the most part, we try to drop hints here and there throughout the narrative until the reader builds his/her own mental image – which may or may not bear any resemblance to the writer's.

What amazes me, three years after typing "Chapter 1", is how my protagonist has developed--largely thanks to the comments of  test readers and one stupendous editor (you know who you are, Mary).  This editor told me there was really only one problem with my novel: the protagonist had no character.  She was a follower, not a leader.  She would not resonate with readers. No soon had the editor uttered those words than I realized she was right.  I went back and wrote in a backbone. Now she has a strong will; a polite, but forceful manner; and no fear of leaping before looking. She's also sassy, red headed, and pissed off at the entire male sex -- temporarily.

11 February, 2014

Tastely Tuesday: Winter -Buster Soup

Over a foot of snow on the ground and more coming tonight, along with frigid temperatures. It definitlely doesn't feel like a salad day, I'm in soup mode once again. Okay, I'm in soup mode most of the time, but this is special  "winter buster" soup.

To qualify as a "winter buster" a soup must be served hot, contain hearty fare, and be seasoned with warming spices.  It must also stick to your ribs so you can so skiing after eating.

Here's my answer to tonight's snow!

Spiced Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

1 medium to large butternut squash
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion (1 medium)
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon (it like the spicier Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 tsp grated, fresh ginger
4-5 cups low sodium chickn broth
Croutons or sour cream & chives

Preheat over to 375. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray lightly with oil.  Split the squash lengthwise and place on the sheet.  Bake 35 to 50 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife or skewer.  Re3move from oven and allow to cool until you can handle.

 Remove the seeds and discard. Scrape the pulp from the skin and set aside.  Discard skins.

Mix together the curry, cumin and cinnamon and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over moderate heat and cook until the butter turns brown and smells nutty. This will take 5-7 minutes. Do not allow to burn!  Add the onions and saute until slightly softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.

 Add the apples, raise heat slightly, and cook, satirring, until the apples and onions begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes.  Add the grated ginger and reserved spices and cook until everything is coateed with butter.  Add in the reserved  cooked squash, breaking up large pieces, if there are any.

Add the chicken stock and 1 tsp kosher salt, cover, bring to a simmer and cook until everything is tender, about 40 minutes.


With a hand blender, puree the mixture right in the pot.  Alternatively, puree in small batches in a blender.

 I like to serve this with home-made sour dough croutons, but it is also good with a dollop of sour cream and some chopped chives.  Or try all three!

04 February, 2014

Fiction Friday: Do you remember your first book?

I was at the library last week when a mother came in with two young children, maybe 4 and 5 years old.  They were so excited to be there and to pick out new books to take home. I love seeing kids get excited about books.  If they read, they'll imagine, and if they imagine, there's no limit to their world.

Do you remember your first book? Not the first book you wrote, but the first book you read.

I can't remember learning to read, actually learning.  Someone told me that means I was a "sight" reader. I just remember reading, well before I got to first grade.  Maybe it's because I had two older brothers, and parents who read to me.  Or maybe it's because I was destined to be a writer.  I like to think it's the latter.

I fondly remember Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans is a relative - my only claim to literary fame), The Box-car Kids and The Secret Garden.  I still have my well-worn copies of Now We are Six and When We were Very Young. By seven, I was reading in  both English and French. There was a whole series of books about children by the Countess de Segur, a French writer of Russian birth.  And yes, I still own all 22 of them, bound in red leather. Obvious I have a problem getting rid of books!

With older brothers, I read the Hardy Boys before Nancy Drew. Little Women and Little Men were favourites for a while, as were Dadou Gosse de Paris and Sissi.

I went to boarding school for the first time when I was nine, a Catholic school in Belgium where we slept in tiny cubicles with a cloth curtain drawn across the opening. Most of us had books and flashlights hidden in with our uniforms and we burrowed deep down under duvets in the unheated dorm to read so the nuns couldn't see the lights. Now that's dedication -- you don't want to know the punishment if caught! The Borrowers, Charlotte's Web, Le Petit Prince, Vol de Nuit, so many great memories. So many close calls with Sister Jean Berchmanns!

I imagine most writers are life-long readers. Chicken and egg? And I'd be hard put to decide which gives me more pleasure, reading or writing. Maybe it's a tie.

So, what was your first book?  Can you remember your childhood favourites? Are there any I missed and should read?