A Room without Books…

Brattle Books landscape

A room without books is like a body without a soul.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero

Let’s set aside the fact that this beloved quote which adorns countless magnets, tote bags, posters, etc., is falsely interpreted. Yes, Cicero said something like this—sort of—but the attitude toward books and who handled them was very different in ancient Rome, and really cannot be compared to our modern sensibilities.

But I digress. Which is easy to do when your personal library is packed into boxes (my apologies to the movers who have to haul them) and put into storage. There have been so many times in the past few weeks in which I started to work on a story and thought, “Oh, I need to verify that fact,” and reached over…to be reminded the bookcase was missing. Or I decide to make Saveur’s French farmhouse chicken in vinegar sauce. I walk to the kitchen to get the cookbook, and oh yeah, those are gone, too.

Sure, much of it can be looked up online, such as the Saveur recipe. If my writing is connected to history, I can find the complete writings of authors of the ancient world online. It’s not a huge deal, really, in the grand scheme of things. But with all the complications that come with buying and selling a house at the same time, and six weeks to go before the moving extravaganza occurs, it can feel disorienting, frustrating, and, at times, overwhelming.

The Muse has been fluttering about my imagination, impatient to return. There have been a few pages of scribble in my journal—though horror upon horrors, my fountain pen ink was packed, so when this cartridge runs dry, I have to (gasp) use a regular pen. Or maybe buy more cartridges, if I can find my way through the labyrinth of seven-foot snowbanks to get to Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square.

Living in a perfectly staged house has been fun. It’s clean all the time. Over time, though, finding the simplest of things: hairbrush, slippers, laundry basket, all tucked away at the last minute before a showing, go missing and recovering them is a challenge on par with the memory game played by so many kids. It gets tiresome. Buying and selling homes simultaneously tests your problem-solving skills on an intense level. All too often, I’m distracted by the next challenge that has popped up: something needs to be fixed and we need to get bids for the project immediately, or a form needs to be signed and filed right away and I have to dig for some obscure bit of information.

Photo credit: Christine Frost

Photo credit: Christine Frost

So what do I read these, other than The Economist? Only 5 actual books remain: Two old Norton anthologies of literature looking for a good home, an out-of-date atlas from 1990, and a massive dictionary. I eased into the realm of ebooks easily enough. Half of what I read—at least—is in the form of ebooks, the dragging commute of the notorious MBTA being the main supplier of time to kill. Immersing yourself in a good read is an excellent pastime when surrounded by your fellow crabby commuters. Like many avid readers, though, I still appreciate the feel of a real book in my hands. George R. R. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire is a treasure to hold. This Silmarillion-like tome is the only “actual” book left I’m actively reading. The dictionary, like the atlas and anthologies, will wait for some spring evening, when they can be placed on the stoop for passersby to pick up—a common fate for many books in the Greater Boston area.

As much as I love my real books, some have fallen from favor. My stained and tattered Roget’s Thesaurus seems feeble compared to PowerThesaurus. Online dictionaries are updated frequently. When it comes to reference books, the online versions have won.

Several times I’ve seen an announcement of a new release and thought about whether I’d prefer the paper version. I meandered around Porter Square Books and had a long internal debate about picking up a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection. Then I thought, “It’s one more thing to pack.” The book stayed on the shelf.

The Great Purge of Clutter which led to the Perfectly Staged House was a great exercise in getting used to living without things. I have a tremendous appreciation for the open space, but living without the books has proven to be one of the biggest challenges. Even when I don’t need them, just passing by a shelf and seeing a favorite title makes me smile.

I’m looking forward to that day (well, days—let’s be honest) when I’m unpacking books with my husband in our new dual-library at the new house. We’ve already decided to name them and get plaques for them, á la Harvard endowment style—the Frost-Garcia Library and the Garcia-Frost Library. It will be a new, sun-filled sanctuary.

When the Muse Flees

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The next novel is underway. All the ideas are there. I think about it all the time. So why the radio silence from the Muse for the past month?

I’d like to think I handle change well. I’ve certainly had plenty of it, both good and bad. Ever since my now-husband moved in with me, we knew my condo was too small for the two of us. It was a special place. I came here after my first marriage failed and it has been a sanctuary ever since: three novels were written and published from here. Several short stories penned and published. From here, I got my master’s degree—I have stark memories of donning my robes at 4:30 in the morning and walking to the T to get to Harvard’s graduation ceremony. I was so tired it hurt. People walking their dogs or jogging smiled as we passed each other on Somerville’s community path. The past 11 years have been so meaningful here, but it just isn’t the right space anymore.

Onward. Finding a single family home in Boston has its challenges. Fortunately, I have a great team in place to help with the transition. But the time it takes to view listings and compute all the logistics of commuting, place bids in a highly competitive market, and prepare my own place to go on the market is immense. The stress is also immense. There is no room left for the Muse.

I had just finished editing the 125 pages I had for the new novel, and was well underway in getting the chapter outline revised. After looking at the first set of houses, the Muse said, “That’s it. I’m out of here. See you when you settle in somewhere else, wherever that may be.”

And gone. I can’t even get up the gumption to write in a journal.

It’s not helping the insomnia. My walks to the T used to be occupied by developing characters and plotlines. Now my mind is occupied by the impact of property taxes on square footage, comparing commuting options, and figuring out how much of my current household I can put in storage so that the condo looks nice and open when it goes on the market.

As a creative person, it feels terribly strange not to have that source of inspiration being generated all the time. Even in the worst of circumstances, maybe especially because of the worst of circumstances, I kept writing. Creativity helps alleviate stress for me. So why did the Muse flee? Should I beat myself up over it, or take another look at the calendar and put it into perspective? After all, in a couple of months, this will all be settled and I’ll be happily writing again in a new space. But meanwhile, I’m contending with a massive guilt trip, laying tons of drama on myself about not writing, which probably does nothing to inspire the Muse to return.

Everyone needs a break from time to time, right? Even Muses. “Out of chaos comes a star,” a coworker once told me years ago when I was upset about another perfect storm of life-transforming events.

So posts are prone to be sporadic over the next few weeks. Soon enough, the Muse will be pleased with new surroundings that enhance creativity all the more.

Dream of a Journey Appears in Eternal Haunted Summer

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Every now and again, something comes along that you know is going to click. Google+ has been an invaluable resource when it comes to advancing my work in the publishing world. In 2013, it was with a call for submissions to an anthology called Shadows of a Fading World by Long Count Press. A collection of dying earth stories, it’s a mash-up of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction. When I saw the post on Googe+, I knew I had just the thing—an epic series that I wanted to resurrect from my days obsessing over it in high school, but it needed a lot of work. A short story was a perfect way to test the waters and see if the concept was viable. It was, and I was thrilled to have the short story version included in the anthology.

While searching for literary journals and magazines this year, I happened across a link that led me to Eternal Haunted Summer, a pagan e-zine. Something clicked again. And a Muse was ready with inspiration.

Like many writers, I’ve long been fascinated by folklore and mythology. It seems to seep into many of my works. After reading some of the stories in Eternal Haunted Summer, I tried to decide what to write. As I often do, I gravitated to the Ancient Near East, and began working on a story that will eventually lead to a lengthy epic work á la Margaret George, but again, the short version served as a means to test the waters. I was delighted to learn that “Dream of a Journey” was published in the winter issue of the e-zine.

Set in Sumer just after Sargon the Great conquered the region, “Dream of a Journey” is a view into the world of Enheduanna, a priestess who is credited with being the first known author of the written word. It’s an exploration of light and dark forces, and the necessary balance. While the story opens with Enheduanna’s role in Sargon’s new empire, it comes to focus on her sister, who is destined to become a priestess in a city-state where the patron deity is of the Netherworld.

Say what you will about Google+–it is often mocked by people who don’t know it well. And it’s true that as a platform, it works well for some groups and not others: if you’re into independent publishing, it’s the place to be, in my opinion. The Writer’s Discussion Group is highly organized, full of intelligent conversation, and the community has a good sense of humor. APE: Author, Publishers, and Entrepreneurs, which focuses on Guy Kawasaki’s works, is another excellent resource for people serious about the publishing business. As in most good quality groups, spammers and whiners who often clog the newsfeed over at Facebook are not welcome. Promote your work elsewhere. Come for the knowledge, stay for the witty conversations. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my two favorite indie author organizations, the Independent Publishers of New England and the Alliance of Independent Authors. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of IPNE, so of course I think they’re great!)

If you’re an indie author seeking to make inroads: don’t limit your channels. Explore everything. Find new ways to be seen: join organizations, get published in literary magazines—they’re out there by the boatload online; tune in to resources like the Indies Unlimited blog to stay up-to-date on news and get tutorials on any number of topics. It’s the great Digital Age, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the tsunami of words—wield it to your will, and be open to any path that opens—you never know where your own words will be discovered.

The Oathkeeper’s Forge

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

[It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]

The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.

“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.

“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”

“But you work during the day all the time.”

“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”

Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”

Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”

Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on Arúon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”

Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”

Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.

The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.

Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”

Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”

Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.

She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.

The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”

Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.

Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”

Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“To do what?”

She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”

Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if it leads to civil war?”

“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.

“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”

“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”

Sylvi shrugged again.

Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”

“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.

“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”

Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.

When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.

He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”

Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.

She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.

Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.

There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.

Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.

Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it. “Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.

She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.

The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.

Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.

She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.

It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own.

Draft Zero

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

I was having lunch with a writer-friend recently, and she mentioned a great term that helped me put NaNoWriMo into sharper context: Draft Zero.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2011. In each case, I’ve cut the majority of the manuscript once November passed. I wrote more than 56,000 words for the initial round of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue, and only 6,000 of those words made it into the final version that was published. Some writers panic at the thought of extensive revisions. I used to as well.

The value of a 30-day freewriting session became clear while reviewing Whiskey and Rue. Carefully thinking out each scene can be restrictive. Any online writing forum, be it a group on Facebook or Google+ or elsewhere (I miss you, Scribophile—I hope to come back soon!), will have debates between “plotters and pansters,” i.e., those who plot out every detail in their notes and those who just sit down and write. For most of my works, I’ve had detailed notes and chapter outlines. Whiskey and Rue is the first instance in which I didn’t. I attribute it to the wonders of NaNoWriMo.

During that 30-day frenzy, scenes came to life that I doubt would’ve appeared if I had stuck to my meticulously crafted chapter outline. Some of the inspiration was from my own Muse; some of it came from prompts from the NaNo Sprints Twitter account. Their often funny prompts spawned a handful of quirky ideas that somehow fit right into the novel. A writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog provided me with the last three pages of the story. It’s a puzzle that formed in sections. If I ran out of ideas for a chapter, I moved on. I leapt ahead whole chapters to capture a scene that would fit in sooner or later. But the end result of NaNoWriMo—not really a first draft.

My friend’s concept described it perfectly—you can’t read draft zero through as a complete arc. It’s a series of ideas that eventually coalesce into a real draft. For me, it takes three real drafts before I feel ready to show it to beta readers and editors. Draft zero is shown to no one.

Draft zero is a mess.

You pick through the pieces—finding the gems among the dross—and save them.

It isn’t wasted time. None of the discarded words are. All practice is beneficial, even when you don’t save much of it. It’s the same with sketching for me, though I (regrettably) practice that much less.

Draft zero can be the source of the best kind of inspiration; it just needs work. Veteran authors implore, admonish, and plead for new writers to be patient and work through several revisions before self-publishing. And I have to admit, when I see the special offers for publishing newly scribbled works right after NaNo is over, I cringe. Better to focus on the special offers for editorial services. A manuscript critique. Something that shows the process of the writing life for real.

For me, there are always works in various stages of development. There is at least one draft zero to pick up when it’s ready. A manuscript in full form, going through a first deep edit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s great to be able to shift gears and work on another novel when I realize it’s time to give a work a time-out for a while.

Draft zero may need to live in your desk drawer—okay, old phrase—may need to live in the cloud—for a long time before you can work on it again. Like a barren planet being terraformed, or a peaty single malt scotch (I’m looking at you, Lagavulin!), draft zero needs time to reach the perfect state of being. No matter what, whether you hit that 50K or not at the end of the month, draft zero has the potential to be a winner.

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Guide to Navigation

lost__found_symposium

Every so often, an event comes along that is incredibly interesting and while it has nothing in particular to do with a novel I’m working on, I know the notes I’ll take will find their way into my writing—sometime. The Radcliffe Institute’s science symposium about navigation, Lost and Found, is a perfect example.

In a word—this symposium was intense. It started out with presentations on neuroscience. One of the more accessible portions was the work of Eleanor Maguire, who studied the growth of the hippocampus in taxi drivers from training onward through their careers. As a result of memorizing London’s 25,000 streets, the hippocampus grew, and MRIs revealed brain activity as the drivers planned and dealt with unexpected obstacles using a simulation program. Upon retirement, the hippocampus began to shrink, and returned to average size within two to three years. Maguire’s research further demonstrated that people who say they have a poor sense of direction typically fall into a category of people who are able to recognize landmarks, but are unable to place them on a map. In contrast, people who find their way around well were able to draw detailed maps after playing a video game called Fog World. Maguire won an IgNobel award for her research in 2003. Though the IgNobels make light of a lot of research, there was also a good deal of appreciation for what she had discovered about brain function and the ability to navigate.

What followed were presentations on animal navigation and anthropological studies of migrations of people living in the South Pacific; then we were on to two of the most interesting lectures: lost person behavior, and navigation in outer space.

It was these afternoon sessions I found a lot of inspiration as a writer. Professor Richard Feinberg talked about the different types of tools used by cultures: the Carolinian star compass, the wind compass, star paths, and so on. Whether you’re portraying a real human culture and need your seafaring characters to know the trade winds as they cross the ocean, or characters in a fantasy world are trying to determine how to find their way to a land they’ve only heard about in legend, there were a lot of great details that could help shape how your characters journey in known and unknown lands.

The most dynamic presentation of the day was about lost person behavior. There are tons of novels and movies about people being lost, or trying to find someone. Did you know there is a database of more than 100,000 people that characterizes their behavior based on the data collected by search and rescue teams?

Birch_Islands_Maine

After obtaining information about all the wheres: Is it known where the person went? Have they been lost before. If so, where were they found? Where have other people been found if they have been lost in the same area? Is the person a hiker, angler, mushroom forager, or straying child? Once an initial planning point (IPP) has been determined, such as where the person’s abandoned bicycle was found, search efforts begin in earnest. The person’s cognitive abilities provide a wealth of detail that help search and rescue teams: Alzheimer’s patients tend to stick within 15 meters of roads or paths, and usually stop wandering in a short time. Autistic children are often drawn to light, water, and reflective surfaces. There are distinct patterns that emerge ass data continues to be collected. There are specific phases f being lost: (1) The error at the Decision Point, (2) terrain analysis, (3) confirmation bias, or “bending the map,” where people ignore the obvious signs they’re on the wrong track and are convinced they know where they’re going, (4) phase of anxiety, (5) realization of being lost, and (6) the self-rescue strategy, of which there are many.

Self-rescue strategies involve everything from deciding to stay in a straight line to finding contour paths that reach a wider area, or, staying put and hoping to be found. And over the years, statistics have changed due to technology. In the past, most hikers headed down, with only a few staying at the same elevation, and a good percentage heading up to get a view of the vista in order to find the best path out. Now many hikers head up to a higher elevation to find cell phone service.

These known patterns help establish several strategies for finding people, and the maps of probability are based on these behaviors. Robert J. Koester, the presenter of this amazing information, has written several books on the subject. If being lost is at the heart of your plot, you may want to seek these books out to make the lost person’s behavior, and that of the rescue team’s, more realistic.

The final session of the day was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans. With the study of pulsars, we have learned that they can serve as a sort of GPS. In fact, the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes carry plaques suggested by Carl Sagan, to serve as a beacon to show any spacefaring alien life the way to Earth. (Of course, if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you know this could be a very bad idea, if the Volgons show up to read their poetry before blasting your planet into pieces to build a galactic superhighway.)

Pioneer10-plaque_tilt

The solar system at the bottom of the plaque is obvious. But the star-like graph to the left? It maps 14 pulsars that were known at the time of the plaque’s creation, and they position Earth at the center. Presenter George Hobbs talked about how time and position could theoretically be used as a GPS system in space, if a ship could map at least 4 pulsars. It was fascinating to think of how this could be used in fiction. My fourth novel does have space travel in it, but only as far out as Mars and the asteroid belt. But thinking about using pulsars as a means of navigation made me want to send my characters out even further into the galaxy.

Pulsar NASA

I’ve always been a strong supporter of continuing education, and believe it’s a key component for writers, regardless of genre or writing style. There is a traditional image of writers being sequestered away in their garrets, writing manically and producing book after book. But for practicality’s sake, many of us need careers to support our craft. Publishing houses offer little in the way of advances for a vast majority of authors, and even in the indie world, being discovered by readers on a scale of being able to live off the royalties is a challenge. Indeed, there are those who say authors need to be connected to the world—the awesome blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors made this point recently.

There are endless, free resources out there for authors to use. And symposia such as these are of immense benefit to all kinds of writers.

“How Do They Feast?” Series: John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall

When I saw the cover in the remainder pile at Harvard Book Store, I knew it was one of those stories I’d fall into and be thoroughly immersed in the author’s world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—you know it when you see them. The cover may not even be that alluring, but some Muse whispers, “You need to read this one.”

Granted, I’ve devoted an entire series to the portrayal of food in fiction on this blog. And the book delved into medieval cookery and talked about spiced wine, quodlings, and frumenty, and the descriptions of the dishes were delightful. It was a challenge to decide which one to cook. Ironically, as I read the first page, I was reminded of Modernist Cuisine and the artful works of world-renowned chefs such as Ferran Adrià.

“Now Saturnus’s Gardens are overgrown. Our brokeback Age has forgotten the Dishes that graced the old God’s chestnutwood tables. In these new-restored times, Inkhorn Cooks prate of their inventions and Alchemical Cooks turn Cod Roes into Peas.” 

The innovation of food art has been with us a long time.

Right from the outset, John Saturnall’s Feast is steeped in moody and beautiful descriptions: the rain-soaked opening scene, in which our hero is delivered to a manor to spare his life. Harassed by villagers after his mother is accused of being a witch, John is hired to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor. The legend of Buccla’s Wood is well-known, and John’s mother protects the cookbook that holds recipes for a feast of a pagan era. Buccula’s Wood is destroyed by Saint Clodock, and the lineage of these ancient characters carries on through this story.

Set in 1625 England, the novel takes place just as Cromwell rises to power with the civil war. By the time the war comes to the borders of Buckland Manor, John has been a cook in the lord’s employ for a while, and spends three winters as a camp cook while the lord of the manor fights for king and country. A despicable boy who bullied John as a child returns as one of Cromwell’s Puritan clergymen, and takes roost in the broken manor during the transitional years of the Commonwealth.

It’s an amazing historical novel, and as a reader, you’re right there in the kitchens from the moment John walks in and impresses the cooks with his sophisticated palate. The noise, the smells, both pleasant and not, all the frenetic activity of the kitchen is described down to the last detail. When John identifies ingredients to a broth he only just tasted, he’s confronted by Master Scovell, who demands to know how he came to be in possession of such talents:

Sprite/ Sayer? The creature that lives on the back of your tongue. That steered your palate through the broth in my copper, naming its parts. There are not a dozen cooks alive who would perform such a feat. You guide. How do you name him…A cook needs a familiar. The earth’s fruits are without number. No cook could master them alone.” And with that, not only does he find himself with a job, but an assignment.

His task is not easy: Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, is fasting in protest of her betrothal to the “insipid” Piers Callock. Of course, after a rough start, John and Lucretia fall in love, and it’s their romance that is at the heart of the novel—along with the food, which is described just as passionately.

Lady Lucretia dumps every meal he prepares for her at first. He then brings a beef stew with sweet herbs and dumplings that she cannot resist. The culinary journey mirrors their romance, and by the end of the novel, circles back to the spiced wine that opened the legendary feast prepared by the witch Belllica.

The first men and woman drank spiced wine. They warmed it with honey and flavored it with saffron, cinnamon, and mace. They roasted dates and dissolved them…”

With its wonderful turns of phrase and brilliant characterization, John Saturnall’s Feast is truly that—a feast.

While all of the recipes captured my imagination, the one that I set out to make was the herbed beef stew with dumplings. Maybe it’s the chill fall air setting in, or maybe the magic of courting through food reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate (one of my favorites!), but an herbed broth and rich dumplings sound just perfect for right now. I stayed fairly true to the recipe I had for medieval beef stew, but of course, with cooking being an art…experiments will happen. I also made a couple of loaves of black bread to go along with it.

Enjoy, and be sure to enjoy it alongside the novel!

Stew and black bread

Beef Stew with Herbed Dumplings

Ingredients for stew

4 lb. beef chuck, cubed
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 carrots, shopped
6 celery stalks, chopped
1 bottle beer, such as nut brown ale or porter, though I used Froach Heather Ale
2-3 cups beef broth (enough to cover ingredients in crock pot)
1 ½ tbl. baharat spice mix (A Middle Eastern spice mix made of cloves, black pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika, though specific ingredients may vary. You can find a recipe here at food.com)
1 ½ tbl. Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbl. corn starch

Combine ingredients in a crock pot, and set on low for 7 to 9 hours, or 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours.

Meanwhile, begin to prepare dumplings within about 45 minutes of stew being done in crock pot.

 Beef Stew with Dumplings

Ingredients for dumplings

2/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 ½ tbl. herbs de Provence
1 ½ cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Let milk and eggs come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Mix ingredients for dumplings together, stir until blended.

Before adding the dumplings, transfer stew to stock pot. Save some of the broth, add cornstarch, and stir well until mixed. Add back to stew. Spoon dumpling mixture on top of the stew. Cover tightly and simmer until dumplings are puffed. You should be able to poke a toothpick in and have it come out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve with black bread.

Black Bread

1 packet dry yeast
4 ½ cups flour
2 cups rye flour
1 tbl. Turkish coffee grounds (or espresso, some people use instant coffee)
2 tbl. cocoa powder
1/4 cup molasses
2 tbl. honey
4 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. powdered cardamom

In large bowl, activate yeast with a small amount of warm water and a pinch of sugar. Add both kinds of flour, then the rest of the ingredients. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rise, covered, for two hours.

Punch down the dough and halve it, let both portions rise for another 45 minutes.

Grease bread pans with butter, punch down dough and form loaves in the pans.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake until dark brown and hollow-sounding when tapped, approximately 35 minutes. Let cool before serving.