Archive for August, 2012

Chef's HatMy mom was terrific. I feel that I have to start out by saying that since I’m going to be talking about something she didn’t do well. My father died when I was eleven and she raised my brother and me by herself in a time and place when that wasn’t exactly easy. And she did a damn good job of it too.

But here’s the thing—she was a terrible cook. Really. It wasn’t that she spilled or burned things, which is sort of the typical picture of a bad cook. She just never made anything that tasted particularly good. My brother and I have reminisced occasionally over some of her less inspired concoctions—noodles over mashed potatoes, for example, to accompany thoroughly steamed Sunday roast (Mom was definitely not someone who’d go for the South Beach Diet) or casseroles where the onions were chopped so coarsely that they never got entirely cooked, even when they’d been in the oven for a few hours.

Predictably, my mom loved convenience foods. Frozen dinners, for example, which we had every weekend. Mixes of all types. She was even known to make spaghetti sauce from ketchup, although I preferred the one she made from tomato soup. In fact, the number of casseroles she made involving condensed cream of mushroom soup boggles the mind.

She also fell in love with recipes. When she found one that she could make work (and there were a lot she couldn’t), she’d stick with it until we were all pretty sick of it. I remember a kind of gazpacho—canned tomato soup with chopped carrots and peppers—that she served once a week or so for one entire summer. I wasn’t so bad, but it wasn’t something you rushed to the table for, particularly after you’d had it for a month or so.

Given that the only cooking I was familiar with was fairly awful, I guess it’s surprising that I’m a pretty good cook myself. I’m not sure how this happened. I started out using Hamburger Helper and a lot of tuna since the hubs and I were students and had basically no money. But somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of The James Beard Cookbook, which I read as if it were a novel. Something about Beard’s love of food and his simple instructions for making it taste good struck a chord. When we lived in New England for a while (still with no money) we had a fantastic garden, and I found out what it meant to use ultra-fresh produce. I learned how to bake bread, which I still do on occasion (but not as often as I used to—having fresh bread around the house is an invitation to carbo loading). I learned that not only am I a lousy pastry chef, I don’t even like pastry all that much (one less thing to stress over).

But most of all, what I learned was the joy of preparing food that tasted good. Not all of my dishes worked out, which is still true of course. But many of them did. And there’s nothing like digging in your fork and seeing people smile. Granted, we now live in a time when good cooking is not only honored, it’s almost expected. Chefs are celebrities and weekly newspaper Food sections tell you where to get the best bok choy. Magazines like Cooks Illustrated tell you how to reverse engineer those casseroles my mom made with mushroom soup so that they’re made entirely with fresh ingredients.

It’s all a little precious sometimes. But it’s also sort of wonderful to go to a farmers market and know you can turn that bunch of fresh asparagus into something delectable with just a little olive oil, kosher salt and lemon juice. I wonder now if my mom ever experienced that feeling. I hope she did, at least every once in a while.

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Long Time GoneThis excerpt is from my fourth Konigsburg book, Long Time Gone. My hero and heroine, Erik and Morgan, have stopped for a quick kiss while walking back from the restaurant where they’ve just had dinner. A quick kiss that almost turns into a lot more than that!

She pressed her body tighter against his, rubbing slightly. Tension built in her belly, the heat spreading; she was inching closer and closer toward the edge. A small moan built up in her throat. She wanted him, however she could get him-—right now, right here.

In front of the Millsburger Building in downtown Konigsburg where anybody could walk by at any moment.

She lurched back, gasping for breath, wondering just where she’d left sensible, no-nonsense, exhausted Morgan Barrett, who sure as hell would have been smarter than this.

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Mr. Perfect

Woman WritingI recently read a novel I’d define as chick lit—first person, hapless heroine who eats and drinks too much and then berates herself, comical plot in which heroine at first seems headed for personal and professional disaster but where she ultimately triumphs, and perfect boyfriend.

That last one may come as something of a shock, but I assure you most of the chick lit I’ve run into has a perfect boyfriend waiting in the wings. He’s handsome, supportive, wealthy (or at least solvent), and totally nuts about the heroine. In fact, the only thing keeping the heroine from bliss with Mr. Perfect is her own reluctance to embrace him.

And here we have my own personal problem with chick lit. If you create these perfect heroes and then create a heroine who perversely refuses to be satisfied with perfection, then you also create a heroine who comes across as a moron. Yes, I know, she’s supposed to seem flawed and human, but there are flaws I can live with and flaws I can’t. Rejecting Mr. Perfect falls into the latter category, give the heroine’s desperation to find true love.

Frequently, these heroines are also tempted by somebody who is demonstrably Mr. Wrong—think the Hugh Grant character in the Bridget Jones movies. So here you have Mr. Perfect and Mr. Flawed, and here you have a heroine who seems to be leaning toward the latter. Trust me, it’s not a good reading experience if you have an overwhelming desire to kick the heroine in the butt.

Now romances, as opposed to chick lit, frequently play with the Mr. Perfect/Mr. Flawed theme. However, when this comes up in a romance, you can be pretty certain that Mr. Perfect will turn out to be hiding some pretty big personal problems, while Mr. Flawed will turn out to have a heart of gold and physical attributes to match. In other words, the heroine will have turned out to have instinctively deduced that perfection is actually a façade, much to her credit.

But this usually doesn’t happen in chick lit. Mr. Perfect really is perfect. Mr. Flawed really is a rotter. And the heroine really is a moron for not being able to figure this out.

Since Chick Lit is closely related to romance, the heroine does figure it out eventually, after almost losing Mr. Perfect (who nonetheless puts up with infidelity or other not particularly admirable behaviors on the part of the heroine). But there’s an equally troubling development in a lot of these books. After the first book succeeds, the sequel has to find some way to set up the situation all over again, and that usually involves breaking up the heroine and Mr. Perfect. Sometimes the two are reunited, but sometimes the heroine ends up with Mr. Flawed after all. And believe me, this is not a happy occurrence, at least for readers like me.

Look, if you go to the trouble of creating the perfect hero, you can’t then toss him out the window just to keep the series going. Or you can, but you can’t keep me as a reader if you do.

I want my heroines smart enough to recognize perfection and determined enough to hold onto it once they do.

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Smile, Dammit!

CapitolI’ve lived in two prime tourist destinations for the last twenty-five years or so—San Antonio and Denver. I’ve also been a tourist myself several times during those twenty-five years. All of which is to say I have a sort of wide-ranging POV on tourists and their problems since I’ve seen them from both sides.

People who live and work in tourist destinations have a kind of love/hate relationship with the tourists themselves. They can cause all kinds of problems, from excessive traffic to general cluelessness. Natives can frequently find themselves slipping into a mindset where all tourists are morons—why the hell don’t they know you can’t walk up the trail to Fish Creek Falls in flipflops without risking a broken neck? But here’s the thing—they don’t know that because they’re tourists. They’re Not From Around These Parts. Yes, they could ask, but in many cases the person to ask isn’t obvious. And some tourists are mortally afraid of bothering somebody by interrupting them (I’ve been there myself).

These thoughts were prompted by a week in Washington, DC as a tourist. I had some delightful experiences, but I also had some real bummers, prompted by people who were obviously sick to death of dealing with tourists like me. So here, in no particular order, are some random observations.

neon scupture

Blinding Neon Sculpture at Hirschhorn Museum

1. The guards at the various museums (National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, American History, etc.) were uniformly polite and helpful. This is doubly admirable because these are the people who frequently encounter tourists at their worst—photographing artwork in rooms that are clearly marked “No Photos” or touching sculptures that have “Don’t Touch” emblazoned all over them. And yet most of them smile and answer questions courteously. When I walked out of a room with a blinding neon sculpture at the Hirschhorn, one guard shook his head and said, “Ma’am, if you’re seeing spots, you’d better sit down for a minute and let your eyes adjust.” Now that’s an example of being helpful without being asked.

2. On the other hand, food service and gift store workers (at least at the National Gallery) were uniformly sour. I realize these jobs aren’t exactly high end, but these tourists do pay your salary. Snarling at them is not a nice idea.

3. The surliest personnel I encountered on both of my recent trips to the DC area were the drivers on the trolley in Alexandria, VA. This is a shame because Alexandria itself is a lovely town to walk around in. This time I heard one of the drivers complaining that people “don’t follow the rules.” But the thing is, these people Aren’t From Around These Parts. They don’t know the rules. A simple “I’ll be loading in five minutes” or “You’ll need to take the bus to get where you want to go” would work better than a snarl. As a general rule, it’s better to help tourists out of their cluelessness than to punish them for being clueless in the first place.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument with Smithsonian Castle 

When I lived in San Antonio, there was a constant pressure to be polite and friendly with visitors. The city had a long-standing rep as a place where the people were nice and worked hard to make you feel at home. Denver has a similar goal, although the tourists in Colorado are spread out over a wider patch. DC didn’t have that feel. Although there were lots of nice people, there were enough nasty ones to leave a bad taste. Maybe it was because it was August and hot (but, of course, August is a lot hotter in San Antonio). Maybe it was because this it a tough year in DC (but, of course, it’s been even tougher in Denver). Maybe it’s just that when you’ve got tourists all the time, you get a little sick of them. All I can say is, from now on if I know someone’s a tourist, I’ll be going out of my way to be polite. What goes around, as they say, comes back to bite you.

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Imaginary People

Venus In Blue JeansSo I’m reading an excerpt from Mavis Gallant’s diary that was written while she was living in Spain working on her first novel. She comments that her characters are more real to her than the people she sees on the street, and that she’s disappointed that she can’t see them and talk to them. Now Gallant was suffering from near-starvation at the time (and exactly why she was starving in Spain instead of working at home in Canada isn’t entirely clear to me), but the way she felt is strangely familiar. There have been days when I felt that way about my characters too.

One of the great things about writing fiction is that you can create the people you want to spend time with yourself. In fact, that’s one of the things you need to do in order to get into your story. I use a technique that I first learned from the redoubtable Delilah Devlin that requires you to map out your characters before you start writing, talking about their backstories and their favorite pass times. I think it’s similar to what Stanislavski-trained actors do to flesh out the characters they’re playing, only in my case I get to actually create the character too. By the time I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, I know my people pretty well, well enough, in fact, that I find myself wanting to talk about them to other people as if they were real. “Guess what happened to X today?” I start to say. Fortunately, I’m usually able to remind myself that this would constitute lunacy before I get too far into my spiel.

The downside of spending time with these people is the fact that you really don’t want to hurt them. They’re nice. You like them. You don’t want to see them suffer. On the other hand, if they don’t suffer, you’ve got no story, so you usually grit your teeth and bring the pain, perhaps apologizing when you do.

I’ll be frank, though. There have been times that I wish I could have a real conversation with one or two of my characters. I think Docia Toleffson would give good advice. I think Cal Toleffson would provide a sympathetic shoulder. And I think a lot of the people in Konigsburg would be great to have a beer with.

All of which probably means I have at least a whiff of schizophrenia in my psyche since I’d be talking to myself. But if I do, I’m not alone. Like Mavis, I think a lot of us who write fiction create people we’d like to meet. And believe me, there are times when I’d rather spend time in the company of my characters than with a lot of the real people I know.

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Be My BabySo here’s the rest of the conversation I quoted last time. I’m afraid I left Lars sounding sort of glib, when in reality he’s a sweetie. 

“I expect to get laid at least.”

He smiled at her, dark eyes laughing again. Her chest tightened—sometime soon she was going to have to figure out what to do about Lars Toleffson, and the fact that she was in love with him.

Right now, however, she’d rather not.

She blew out a quick breath. “Who knows, Mr. Toleffson, tonight you might get lucky.”

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booksSo I’m just back from the four-day Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference, and I’m still stoked from the experience. Great workshops, interesting publisher spotlights, and free books by the cartload. But a lot of the people there had a very odd reaction when I mentioned the Romantic Times convention (RT to most of us)—they were slightly horrified at the suggestion they might enjoy it. Now lest you think that’s because RWA is made up of staid dowagers, let me say that I got a similar reaction when I mentioned RWA at RT. More than one person assured me they would never set foot in RWA.

I think that’s a real shame on both counts. I’ve gone to RT a couple of times now and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. I intend to be there in Kansas City in 2013. But I loved my experience at RWA too. I’m already thinking about Atlanta next year. In fact, I’d recommend that romance writers and aspiring romance writings attend both conferences, as long as you’re clear on the differences between them.

RT is largely a fan conference. There are workshops, but they tend to be more oriented toward readers than writers—you get to hear famous writers talking about their books and what they’d like to do in the future. And the parties are both epic and open to everybody. In many ways, in fact, RT is a non-stop party with a lot of romance writers thrown in to spice things up. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I feel like I have to emphasize this because occasionally the non-stop party aspect of RT is held up as a reason to skip it. On the contrary, I’d say it’s a reason to go. You get to meet both readers and writers in a more relaxed social atmosphere, and that can be a lot of fun.

RWA is a professional conference. That means the workshops are largely geared toward professional concerns—self publishing, dealing with agents and editors, new trends in genres, etc. It’s enormously informative, sometimes so much so that you head back to your room just to let your brain relax a little. You do have opportunities to meet famous authors, but it’s usually in a workshop setting where they may be talking about things related to craft or the profession (e.g., Susan Mallery talked extensively about the whole publishing process and how to make it to the New York Times bestseller list). There are parties and receptions at RWA, but they’re frequently limited to writers who are published by a particular line (Harlequin has a famous party, for example, but it’s only for Harlequin authors).

And just to take care of a couple of misconceptions: 1) RT is not a bacchanal. Yes, there are male cover models around (and they’re usually nice guys and good sports), but so far as I know there are no orgies, although maybe I just wasn’t invited to the right parties. 2) RWA is not actively hostile to digital authors. This may have been true a few years ago, but it’s definitely not true now. In fact, more and more of the Old Guard at RWA are heading into self publishing so they’re definitely interested in ebooks, and most traditional publishers are developing ebook lines.

So two conferences with two different vibes. Which should you go to? Again, I’d argue for both. The professional information you get at RWA is invaluable, plus you’ll find many more publishing types there for you to network with. The social experience you get at RT is a treat, and you’ll get to network with other authors in a much less structured setting. As the great Guy Clark said (in a somewhat different context), “Long as you’re handin’ it out, Lord, I’ll take a little of both.”

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