How are you? No, I mean it. Covid infection rates are high, family—far flung or nearby—is best kept at arms-length (that is if you have an NBA players wingspan), it’s cold and dinner on the deck with friends requires a sleeping bag! I’m cooking gifts from my kitchen, listening to audio books, bundling up for long walks and ordering more outdoor heaters.
I just finished listening to Tana French’s newest novel, The Searcher. She does SO many things well. French tells suspenseful, meaningful stories with many moments of connection between reader and character, even if the character is a divorced, middle-aged man, a retired Chicago cop who has moved to Ireland to refurbish a farm and live a quiet life. I recognize his genuine human needs and feel comfortable in my own yearnings…to be close with my kids, to have friends nearby, to be in a community and do good work with my hands.
One of French’s superpowers is her gorgeous descriptions of the natural world. A friend mentioned to me that some readers feel the descriptions slow the narrative down. How can that be? Check this below! Not only is it vivid, but it reveals the interiority of the character who is looking out the window, and it speaks too of the nature of people in general, as illustrated by bird behavior.
The enforced idleness and the misty rain give that week a dreamy suspended feel. At first Cal finds it strangely easeful. For the first time he can remember he doesn’t have the option of doing anything, whether he wants to or not. All he can do is sit by his windows and look out. He gets accustomed to seeing the mountains soft and blurry with rain, like he could keep walking towards them forever and they would just keep shifting farther away. Tractors trudge back and forth across the fields and the cows and sheep graze steadily. There is no way to tell whether the rain doesn’t bother them, or whether they just endure. The wind has taken the last of the leaves. The rooks’ oak tree is bare, exposing the big, straggly twig balls of their nests in the crook of every branch. In the next tree over there’s a lone nest to mark where, sometime along the way, some bird infringed on their mysterious laws and got taught a lesson.
(Please forgive any punctuation errors, I took this from dictation. Remember when we had to do that in school?)
There is much to be lauded about French’s writing and this book in particular. There are surprises and suspense, stakes and, perhaps most important, an escape from the current situation.
It’s that time of year, when lists drop all over the place, (gifts, best & worse, movies, books, songs, dinners, cocktails…). I’ve read through a bunch of writers’ lists on the most important rules of writing and I’ve winnowed them down to what I think is crucial.
- (Jeanette Winterson) Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
- Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
- Enjoy this work!
- (Zadie Smith) Read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
- Read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
- Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
- Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
- Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied
- (Kurt Vonnegut) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
- (Anton Chekov) Extreme brevity
- Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
- (Elmore Leonard) If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
- (Neil Gaiman) Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
Do you have any rules you find useful? I’d love to know!
I’ve been baking pies, and stuffing squash. Also, I’ve made a fabulous new cocktail from Smitten Kitchen. You’re welcome!
Stuffed Acorn Squash (variation from this recipe)
- 2 average size acorn squash
- 4T olive oil
- 2t kosher salt
- 2t black pepper
- 4 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 shallot (minced)
- 1.5 cups sliced mushrooms of choice, I used crimini
- 4 cups fresh spinach
- 2 cups COOKED French lentils
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 2t cumin
- Chili flakes to taste
- 3 cups COOKED brown rice
- Juice and zest of 1 large orange
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
Prepare squash. (Preheat oven to 425°)
- Use a sharp knife to slice both ends off of the squash about 3/4 inch below the stem. This will prevent the squash from wobbling on the baking sheet pan.
- Scoop out the seeds and excess pulp from inside the squash.
- Brush w/olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 25-30 minutes. Be certain to test with a fork and make sure the squash is tender.
- Sauté mushrooms, garlic, and shallots in a little olive oil until the mushrooms start to brown.
- Add spinach plus salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the spinach is slightly wilted.
- Add lentils and walnuts, plus spices. Let cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the rice, toss, cook for 1-2 minutes more.
- Sprinkle in the grated parmesan cheese and toss to allow it to melt a little. Add in the juice and zest of an orange and the dried cranberries. Toss everything together.
- Fill each squash half with the rice and lentil mixture to nearly overflowing. Bake at 425° for about 7-10 minutes, until the tops golden brown. Top with more cheese if desired.
My variation on Smitten Kitchen’s Winter Warmth Cocktail:
Winter Warmth Syrup
1½ cups water
¾ cup demerara or turbinado sugar (granulated will do just fine if you do not have them)
1/2 apple, cored, and diced
1/2 pear, cored, and diced
12 walnut halves
3 cinnamon sticks, broken up
6 whole cloves
1 whole nutmeg
Make the syrup: Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. Strain into a clean glass bottle, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2 cups.
For Each Cocktail
1 piece of orange peel (about 1 by 2 inches)
3/4 ounce Winter Warmth Syrup
3 dashes of bitters (I used orange bitters)
2 ounces bourbon, rye or Canadian whisky
Juice from ½ lemon or orange (I found the drink too sweet w/out the citrus)
Make a drink: Place the orange peel, syrup and bitters in a low glass and muddle. Pour in whiskey, add a large ice cube and don’t forget to share.