Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cooking a Book

The other day Thriller Guy was arguing with his wife, which is not an uncommon occurrence. Regular readers of this blog will know that TG is more than a mite tetchy, although he struggles to control this unfortunate bent to his personality. Anyway, the subject of argument was some dinner that TG had cooked and his wife asked if he had a recipe for this dish, and, if so, what was that recipe? This annoyed TG, even though most folks would see this as a perfectly reasonable request. Unfortunately, that's not the way TG's brain works. So a minor scuffle ensued. Later that day, TG tried to figure out why the question, innocuous enough, annoyed him so. The answer came in a flash of insight: because TG cooks the same way he writes.

TG is a fairly accomplished home cook (and the father of a professional chef). He has cooked virtually all the meals his family has eaten at home for the last 28 years. Why? because being a professional writer often means working at home, and if one's spouse, partner or other, works away from the house the cooking chores almost always fall upon the one at home. Unfair? Probably. But practical. TG has written before in these pages about the various realities of the stay-at-home writer and this is just one of them. Suffice it to say, after all these years TG has acquired a pretty fair knowledge of the basics and beyond of cooking. Those same 28 years have been spent churning out thousands of pages of novels, stories, articles and non-fiction books. TG hopes that along the way he has acquired a pretty fair knowledge of the basics of the writing craft as well.

By now, you may be asking yourself, what's the point here, TG, where do these two skills cross? And, more to the point, why the hell does it annoy you when your beloved wife asks you a simple question about a damn recipe.

Here's how TG writes... First an idea appears, usually while driving, showering, while asleep, at the beach, at the gym or while having lunch with his pal Larry. TG has written on the phenomenon of creativity in earlier pages of this blog. First, there is the Idea. If the Idea sticks around for a few hours, TG will do a bit of basic research on the Internet. Not only to see if the Idea has been done, but if it looks as if there might be interesting material to inform the basic thought. If this seems likely, the Idea is put away in a mental drawer where it should percolate on it's own for a few days or better, up to a week. It can be peeked at from time to time, but the intention is to just leave it the hell alone. As TG's writing guru Bill G. suggests, if it pops back up, push it back down again and try to pay no attention. (If you're worried you are going to forget the Idea, write it down in one sentence and put it in a real drawer. But if the Idea is any good, you won't forget it, and if it isn't, it's no loss if you do.) I believe the proper term for this Idea procedure would be gestation.

After a week, TG does some more research and starts a file on his computer. Now things are getting more serious. As time goes by, he spends a little of each day working on a broad outline, trying to put together some notion of a beginning and an end. After more time passes, TG will suddenly realize that the idea is good and that he's worked up a decent plan of action, that he's constructed an outline that will work as the scaffolding for a better outline and he's ready to try an opening. So he begins writing.

But first, be warned, and TG cannot stress this enough: TG never talks to anyone about his Idea! The natural impulse is to drag in all number of people and tell them the cool idea you've come up with so you can get feedback and, more importantly, some sort of approval (yes! This is a great idea! It's smart to devote the next several weeks, months or years writing it!) This is always a mistake. First of all, if one talks about an Idea, it bleeds away any power it might have. TG has no idea why or how this happens, but it's true. Secondly, one seldom gets the sort of approbation that you think the idea is going to elicit. The impulse is to believe that your wife, spouse or other is going to pat you on the back and tell you how smart and clever you are, and how this Idea is going to make you a million bucks. Maybe in the early days of your relationship this would happen, but as you age, harsh reality rears its ugly head and the truth is, in the vast majority of cases, your writing really isn't bringing in that much money. And probably won't in the future. So fabulous ideas, to wive's, spouse's or others, begin to sound a little thin. TG, and you, should understand that fame and fortune probably are not the natural, inevitable outcome from your Idea. But TG, and you, must believe that it will be. Otherwise why would you drive yourself half mad by subjecting yourself to the perilous writing process. And don't tell TG it's because you must write, that you are driven to do so because the creative urge forces you to the keyboard. Bah. Horseshit.

Keep it to yourself. Do not talk about your Idea. Do not talk about what you will do, simply do it.

Note: all of the above is a solitary endeavor. Writers, with few exceptions, create alone. Writers are responsible for their product. There is no one else to blame if the product is not good, and very few to thank if it works out well, besides what one may think in the face of the modern day, multi-page acknowledgements sections of novels.

Moving on...

Here's how TG cooks... First an idea for a meal appears – while reading the food section of the newspaper, from a picture in a magazine, while looking at a restaurant menu, in the shower, on the beach or the bus, or, more usually, while standing in front of some section in the grocery store, the meat counter or the produce section. Or an idea will just pop into TG's head: (“Let's see, pork shoulder is on sale, oh, the leeks look great today, do they go together? Why not?”) Leeks and pork are purchased.

Home. Unpack groceries, sit down at the computer, Google: recipe, leek and pork. Yes! There's a bunch of them. The first up is pork loin with leeks, which essentially says you saute the leeks for a few minutes, brown the pork loin and toss them together and cook for a couple of hours. Great. That's all TG wants. He doesn't even look at any other recipes. All he wants from this round of searching is to know that something is possible.

Chop the pork up into one inch chunks, (in this case pork shoulder, a far more succulent cut, and cheaper, than loin) slice the leeks longways, throw away the really tough top parts, put the deep green section into the broth bag (more on that later) in the freezer, wash the leeks well, (look out for sand) cut them into half inch slices and toss them into a frying pan with a nice chunk of butter and cook until they're translucent and maybe just a tiny bit brown. Careful, leeks burn if you don't pay them constant attention. Take the leeks out of the pan, put in the chunks of pork, brown, put the leeks back in, toss in a bottle of beer or maybe some wine, any variety, salt and pepper, bring to a boil, cover and put it on the burner for a couple of hours or until the pork is fall-apart tender. Serve over rice with a side of greens: mustard, kale, collards, whatever looks good at the market. Dinner. (Warning: TG has not actually cooked this meal, he has simply thought it. It is here for the purposes of illustration. If you cook it, send TG a comment and tell him how it turned out.)

Note: At all points in this process, TG is alone. Yes, at any point there could have been collaboration. TG is sure there are many couples who cook together, who wrangle companionably over details, recipes, and cooking methods. TG wishes these couples the best. But for TG, cooking, like writing, is best done alone.

Understand, that cooking one meal is not akin to writing a novel, it is akin to writing one scene in a novel. Maybe one day's worth of writing. Cooking a major meal, say a dinner party for eight is a longer and more intensive procedure, maybe like writing a chapter. But the basic rules of cooking food, the recipes, all the practical aspects of the endeavor, are not all that different than cooking a book. TG intends to expand on this thought in further blogs. Maybe he'll throw in some of his more successful recipes.

Just don't ask him to talk about it beforehand.


  1. Ha! I knew it! When Alex Balfour did a little cooking, in his first adventure, I suspected it was the writer, Mr. Appel, inserting a leetle bit o his cookin interests/personality into his character. Wonder how much else of Mr. Balfour is the writer leaking through the character? :)

  2. It's true, my friend Allen Appel is a time traveler.

  3. I always wondered what would happen to Balfour as an old man - when senility sets in, vanishing in and out of nursing homes...

  4. Excellent idea, Joel. Appel will get to it after he writes the series of YA novels based on Balfour's son Max and his time travel adventures.