A Transformative Camp NaNoWriMo

 

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A year ago, I sat here—newly freed from a stifling situation and pondering the future, while working on a dystopian novel I have yet to go back to. Two novels battled for attention, and my third historical novel, Whiskey and Rue, won. I’m close to handing it off to an editor and some beta readers for an objective view. The fall release date is to be determined.

As I prepare Whiskey and Rue for publication, I’m working on two short stories for submission to literary journals. One has become the focus of this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo. The timing worked out just right. One novel done, and while I think I know which novel will come next, a break with some short stories will hopefully give me some clarity in regard to which direction I’m going in by the time the November edition of NaNoWriMo rolls around.

It’s nice to work on something entirely new. And where to this time? The Ancient Near East. I’ve long been fascinated by Sumerian mythology, and the duality between Inanna and her dark sister of the netherworld, Ereshkigal. After reading The Images of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources by Dina Katz, I learned that Inanna’s descent to the netherworld may be linked to the orbit of Venus, and how the planet changes from the so-called evening star to the morning star, due to its slower orbit. And after visiting Harvard’s Semitic Museum, I learned how to play the ancient Sumerian game of 20 Squares, which also found its way into this story. It’s all about the journey, and the eternal balance and strife between the forces of light and dark.

The second short story is the most autobiographical I’ve ever gotten in a work of fiction. The last year has been one of profound transformation. In the past, I was told to feel empowered, but such a Byzantine structure was in place (for surely micromanaging began in the Byzantine world!), it wasn’t possible. After opening the door to the cage I had become inured to, I took a sabbatical to Eastport, Maine, with my mom to learn more about our family’s history. I rested—a lot—and began to recover from the depression that had taken hold. I left Eastport with an idea for a new historical novel and delved into researching the War of 1812. While I’m putting aside historical fiction for a while, I’m looking forward to developing that novel in the future. Meanwhile, a short story connected to it is in the works, and I’m searching for the right literary journals.

By November, I’ll be well into writing the fourth novel. It’s a battle between two longtime stories I’ve had in my head for more than twenty years each. Maybe I’ll be able to do something spectacular and work on both at once. After all, since joining a start-up that has truly empowered me, I’ve embraced a creed I lost sight of somewhere along the way, but was able to come back to after hearing the CEO of the company say it: Be fearless.

Write on!

An Interview with Author T. S. Chaudhry about The Queen of Sparta

Queen of Sparta

If you’re into historical fiction and have a penchant for the ancient world and classical history, The Queen of Sparta is an excellent account of the Persian Wars from the view of the formidable Spartan Queen Gorgo. I recently had the opportunity to interview the author, T. S. Chaudhry, about the book, and the meticulous research that makes this portrayal so rich.

Out of all the figures who are described in the works of Herodotus, what was it about Gorgo that inspired you to focus on her?

The whole idea behind the Queen of Sparta came to me when I first read Herodotus. I read his Histories as a teenager when I was preparing to take my ‘A’ level exams in England. Herodotus paints a vivid and romantic picture of how a relatively small number of Greeks managed to defeat a two million-strong Persian invasion. However, he provides us with no direct answers as to how the Greek resistance was organized and by whom. Leonidas could have been a candidate for this but he dies relatively early in the struggle. The Athenians Themistocles or Aristeides could have organized it but the former is shown by Herodotus as a brilliant tactical trickster rather than a strategic genius and the latter is, at the time, a discredited politician who carries little weight in his native Athens, let alone the rest of Greece. And there was no other significant male personality to lead the Greeks. So it had to be a woman, and in a patriarchal Greece, she had to play her role behind the scenes. And Herodotus provides us with ample clues about her: the little girl who prevented her father from making a blunder by warning him against the temptations being offered by a Miletan tyrant; and the young Queen who could find a secret message where the brightest in minds in Sparta could not – a woman who clearly impressed Herodotus. The Persians could have still won the war but they did not because someone was orchestrating the resistance. Reading in between the lines of Herodotus, I had no doubt that that person could have been none other than Queen Gorgo.

What were the defining moments in describing Gorgo in the story that helped you conceptualize her as a character?  

In the history of the Persian Wars there are key events like the Ionian Revolt, the battle of Marathon, and the Persian invasions, where the Spartans behaved in certain, some might even say peculiar, ways. They refused to support the Ionian Greeks in their revolt even though a generation earlier they liked to portray themselves as their allies and protectors. The Spartans delayed their arrival at Marathon at a time when shying away from any battle was considered characteristically un-Spartan. And then whole sequence of how the Persians were slowed down, split up and finally defeated presented more questions than answers. And for me the only explanation to all these recorded historic moments was Gorgo. I conceptionalized her as person who did things a little unorthodoxly, especially in a place like Sparta where strict conformity was the rule, if not the only rule. Her non-conformity comes out both in her personality and in her physical appearance.

Today, we would call Gorgo a person who thinks outside the box and the box in Sparta was pretty solid and confining.  By thinking outside the box she her save Greece, she challenges long-held Spartan attitude towards their Helot slaves, and appreciates Sherzada’s viewpoints.  Even though she can be ruthless, she has a strong moral fibre that makes her stand up for what she thinks is right. She is at her best in moments of crisis, when her back was against the wall; and becomes the very picture of grace under pressure. That is the image I hope the readers will also see.

The meticulous research is evident throughout the novel, and in particular, the detail on ancient warfare is excellent. One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is integrating research with the plot and the characters. How do you achieve that balance?

The most difficult part of writing this novel was that the plot had largely been defined by history. I could not tell a credible story about a real Spartan Queen without deviating too much from what history had recorded about Gorgo and her times. And, indeed, initially the plot was so restrictive that some of those who read the earlier versions of the manuscript encouraged me to drop the entire project. But the more I read the history of the period, the more I became aware of the many gaps in our historical knowledge. This enabled me to narrate a story without actually changing any of the historical facts. For example, there is no record of what happens to Gorgo and her son after the defeat of the Persians allowing me sufficient scope to develop the story the way I wanted to.

The vast majority of the characters in the novel are indeed non-fictional and I had to restrict myself largely to their respective historical roles and stories. But again, gaps in recorded history enabled me to create a few entirely fictional characters, especially the main male protagonist, Sherzada. Some of my readers might find him unbelievable but he was not at all anachronistic. Modern historical research and evidence supports the notion of travel and contacts between peoples over vast geographical distances. Herodotus himself attests to long distance contacts. In fact, Sherzada’s journey to the Baltics is largely based on Herodotus’ own description—werewolf included.

Contacts between South Asia and Greece in particular were not unusual. People born in the Indus Valley died fighting for the Persian Empire in the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. and in later battle against the Greeks as they were to die fighting for the British Empire in the Battle of the Marne in 1918 and both the World Wars. Nor is the character of Sherzada out of sync with the times. His character is very typical of a warrior of his time.

So the plot emerged through a crazy combination—partly determined by straight-jacket imposed by recorded history and elsewhere from the very large gaps our historical knowledge of the period has left for us.  I am not at all claiming that this story is historically accurate, but it is certainly plausible and it is a story that has not been told before.

In the notes about the book, you cite a quote by Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty” in reference to your choice of providing a view of both sides of the war. At what point in crafting the novel did you decide to develop Sherzada’s character to more evenly balance the points of view?

In fact, Aeschylus makes a cameo appearance in the novel, more as comic relief than anything else, which is ironic because he was more famous in his lifetime for his tragedies.

But you have hit the nail on the head by describing this as an underlying theme of the novel. There are essential two factors which led to the development of Sherzada’s character.

The first goes back to my first reading of Herodotus as a teenager where I saw the whole account of the Persian invasion as being largely one-sided.  To be fair, Herodotus tried to be balanced wherever he could to the extent that another famous historian Plutarch accused him of being a “Barbarian lover.” But I did not see it that way. Though I have been raised partly in the West, I am a Pakistani who is no stranger to subtle ethnocentricities which come out even when Western writers try to be even-handed and objective. So I wanted to be the first non-Western writer to give a non-Western viewpoint to what was a core event in Western history—perhaps opening myself to the very same criticism in the process.  Initially, the entire story was going to be presented by Sherzada’s point of view, but I was sensibly advised that it would be more interesting to have both Gorgo’s and Sherzada’s viewpoints presented in the novel side by side. But then I again, I also wanted to blur the lines between “East” and “West.” That is why I underscore the Greek links with India in the beginning to make the point that Ancient Greek history is as relevant and important to Asia as it is to Europe.

The second factor comes from my personal experience as a scholar and diplomat who had dealt with real life conflicts.  In war zones throughout the world, the veracity of Aeschylus’ quote has been impressed upon time and again. There are rarely conflicts which are black and white. Most conflicts are characterized by (no pun intended) multiple shades of grey. I have worked on peace processes in South Asia, the Balkans, and Africa and I have seen no conflict in which truth has not been the first casualty and no war in which every side, rightly or wrongly, felt they were in the right.  And each side always has its story.  In this case, I felt that another side of the story—though not necessarily a Persian version—needed to be told and the writing of history—even in fictional form—need not always be the prerogative of the victors.

You present an interesting concept with Gorgo’s father—rather than being cast as a mad king, he is transformed as a visionary who practices realpolitik. What inspired this unique portrayal?

Throughout history men of vision have been condemned as madmen or worse, the treatment of Galileo being but one example.  I too would have relegated him to the status of a madman, had I noted the amount of ink Herodotus invested in King Cleomenes. For any apparently insignificant, and supposedly mad Spartan King, Herodotus devotes a disproportional number of pages to his exploits. So he was clearly a man our historian took very seriously.  Sparta is not a major power in Greece before Cleomenes, rather it is seen a local rival of Argos.  After Cleomenes, it is suddenly one of the most important states in Greece, if not the most important. So Cleomenes must have done something to make that happen.

Modern research also supports the view that there was more to Cleomenes than what met the eye, though historians even now continue to debate which side of the line dividing genius and madness he was really on. To me, Cleomenes was an eccentric; a weird and wonderful politician who could cut through the fluff and see the reality for what it was. It was not that he was a nice person, in large part he was not. Yet, like many Machiavellian characters he knew how to play the game of realpolitik to deliver the best possible outcome for Sparta.

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

I am currently writing the “prequel” to the Queen of Sparta called “Fennel Field.” It describes the events leading up to the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. (roughly a decade before the period covered in the Queen of Sparta). “Fennel Field” is the literal English translation of the Greek word “Marathon.” Many of the characters of the Queen of Sparta make an appearance in Fennel Field with some of the minor ones playing the major roles and vice versa.

“Fennel Field” is a story of a half a dozen or so individuals, including at least one woman, who are caught up in a chain of events that they cannot control and yet inadvertently end up contributing to the outcome of what has been called by many historians as the first decisive battle in Western history.

The ebook can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. A print version is forthcoming.

Follow news about Queen of Sparta on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

 

Open Access and Harvard’s DASH Project

HAA Open Access lecture A revolution is quietly taking place in libraries. Challenges to copyright law grow as the importance in sharing research in the Digital Age becomes evident. The high cost of peer-reviewed journals is breaking library budgets. As with the traditional publishing model, there is a great need for change in order to maintain a sustainable model. Open access is the key to this in academic research. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Harvard Alumni Association where two advocates of Open Access talked about the university’s DASH project. DASH collects scholarly articles, theses, and dissertations from across the university’s schools. To date, more than 19,000 works can be searched, viewed, and downloaded. Started in 2009, DASH’s global reach has grown significantly. Articles and theses have been downloaded more than 3 million times. The contents of the projects are indexed by major search engines like Google. People from around the world share accounts of how DASH has helped them, and DASH solicits these testimonials on every download. For example, a person wrote to say they had found vital information to bring to the doctor to find a treatment that may be more effective. The doctor agreed, and the experience provided a successful outcome. Open Access One of the speakers, Peter Struber, is director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications and director of the Open Access Project. Harvard is the first university to adopt an open access policy, and the faculty vote was unanimous. At least 50 other university have adopted Harvard’s model, and more are doing so all the time. Faculty have the option to opt out of sharing their work, but many see the value that has previously not been possible in peer-reviewed journals. Unlike expensive journals that have a limited reach, making research openly available enhances scrutiny and the ability to check the reproducibility of results. Outside of the academic world, policymakers, journalists, nonprofits, and citizens from anywhere in the world can view and use the research for their own purposes. Peter Struber’s book on the topic, Open Access, is (of course) freely available on DASH, and well worth the read. Kyle Courtney, an attorney affiliated with the Harvard Library and the Office of General Counsel, talked about the inaugural Fair Use Week, which took place from Feb. 24 to 28 of this year, and will go national in 2015. The future of libraries lies in digitization, and as the ambitious efforts of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) have shown, a thorough review and reform of copyright law is essential to the future of libraries and academic institutions. Newly staffed with a “copyright first responders” team, Harvard Libraries now provide guidance to those seeking insight into open access. And as with DPLA, the biggest challenged is with orphaned works—books whose authors (or rights holders) or publishers are unreachable, and the copyright is indeterminate. This is one of the key issues to be resolved. Open Access lecture 2 How has DASH come in handy for me as an author? My “How Do They Feast?” series delves into how food is portrayed in fiction. Cooking is a passion, and I love to be able to feature food in my stories. I believe it helps readers connect to the stories, and I love the challenge of accurately showing the cuisine of a particular culture. I have a novel set in the Ancient Near East in the works, and a preliminary search on the term “culinary” gave me a paper on the early advances in agricultural life in Sumer. Avoiding anachronism is all that much easier when you can see what food people had access to. A search on Mesopotamia in general gave me access to several papers by scholar Jason Ur (students of Mesopotamian history will get the irony of his surname). The release of formerly classified images from satellites show roads and locations that were not known. Dozens of other papers in this topic can help me better establish the cities, culture, war, and trade in ancient Sumer. It’s an amazing resource that will help everyone collaborate and learn in new ways, and is one of the highlights of innovation in the Digital Age. Go check it out—and see how it can help you. *And in addition to DASH, you can also scroll down to the right sidebar on this site and search what’s available in the DPLA’s archives as well. Many thanks to the DPLA for developing this useful and widely sharable app! 

Epic Feasts: An Interview with Chelsea Monroe-Cassel

If you’re an avid Game of Thrones fan, you may have heard of A Feast of Ice and Fire, the official cookbook for the series. It all began with a fabulous blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which continues to post recipes inspired by the books. The cookbook is a delight not only for George R. R. Martin fans, but also for people who love to explore medieval cooking. As the cookbook’s popularity grew, fans from all over hosted feasts, leading to the publication of the Party Planning Guide. I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelsea Monroe-Cassel about the phenomenon and learning about other inspiring literary culinary cultures and what’s next for the Game of Thrones foodie world. And let us know—if you were to travel to the realms of Westeros/Essos, where would you want to eat?

GOT cookbook

How has your exploration of food in George R. R. Martin’s world changed after the publication of A Feast of Ice and Fire?

Hugely. I used to be a picky eater before living overseas about 10 years ago, and while I would say that the experience cured me of that, the cookbook and historical recipes have really broadened my knowledge of food, from ingredients to techniques. Four years ago I’d never heard of grains of paradise or blancmange, or gone foraging for wild foods, but now odd ingredients and recipes are a solid part of my life. It’s a blast!

You have a wonderfully close connection with fans—how has this shaped content and engagement on the blog and through your social media channels?

I think it’s fair to say that this blog would not have been a success, and wouldn’t *still* be a growing success, without its fans. There were definitely moments throughout the process, especially while making 6-8 dishes a day for the cookbook deadline, when I thought I just couldn’t keep it up. But the enthusiasm from readers has proved to be an amazing motivator, and keeps me flipping through old recipes to find something amazing to share with them.

You’re in Westeros for a weekend—which region’s cuisine would you like to try? Is there a particular House you’d like to dine with? Chaotic weddings aside, of course!

Great question! It would depend on the season; like many fans, I think that attending a feast in Winterfell would be absolutely fantastic. The roaring hearthfires, hounds gnawing bones in the corner, great spits of meat and lots of mead and ale. It’s just the thing to ward of winter blues! If it were summer, though, I might have to go with King’s Landing. Because they are so centrally located in terms of trade, they get the best of everything Westeros and Essos have to offer. And hey, if the Lannisters are serving up peacock or swan, who am I to turn it down? ;)

Have any other culinary cultures in literature interested you as much as A Song of Ice and Fire?

It’s a little funny…ever since starting this project a little over three years ago now, I haven’t been able to read a book without looking for food references. Stephen Brust describes amazing food in his Vlad Taltos series, as does Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games series. A few other authors who really put some love into their food descriptions are Naomi Novik, Saladin Ahmed, and Brandon Sanderson. But my big other fictional food favorite has to be Scott Lynch and his Gentlemen Bastards series. That man can describe food!

One thing I have found when it comes to fictional food descriptions is that the author is either trying, or not. This seems to be the case in almost everything I’ve read. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been disappointed to read a great book, only to find that the characters are eating a featureless stew with ale.

With all the Game of Thrones-themed parties, it was a great to see the party planning guide published. What was your favorite aspect of putting the guide together?

I really liked being able to share cool ideas that my friend group has helped me come up with. My creativity is mostly focused on the food for a party, so it’s awesome to have other fans on board for planning games, decoration, etc. I tried to put all of that in the guide so other people have an easier time managing their own parties!

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects, wherever they may bring us?

Well, I’m mostly delving into the realm of ebooks; I’m working on a Dornish cookbook supplement with Random House, and have been working on a Shire cookbook in my own time. Both of those should hopefully be out in not too long! Other than that, I dabble. I have a couple of partial novels that I’d like to wrap up, as well as a few other book projects in the wings.

Thank you, Chelsea, for stopping by—we look forward to the upcoming works (and future visits to the Inn at the Crossroads!) 

Announcing Whiskey and Rue

Whiskey and Rue Collage

This is a novel I never thought I’d write, but that’s what happens when the Muse visits. Sometimes there are surprises. Most of my inspiration comes from the ancient and medieval worlds—both European and Middle Eastern. My shelves are lined with books about Mesopotamia, the Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad, Irish, Norse, and Germanic history, and Moorish Spain. I’ve spent months studying Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides, chasing yet another idea for a new novel. I’m very, very close to delving into the epic fantasy series that I started in high school, which finally saw the light of day in the form of a short story in the anthology Shadows of a Fading World. So how did I come to be visited by a Muse inspired by the Old West?

In 2008, as the world’s economy headed for disaster, I was considering a move to Tucson, Arizona. With a new master’s degree in a shining frame on my wall, I headed out west in hopes of setting a new path and pursuing a PhD. I had been to New Mexico in the mid-90s and fell in love with the desert. Friends said Tucson was worth checking out. I spent some time there to get a feel for the place, and really dug it.

While wandering the city, I found myself at the Arizona Historical Society. I was warmly welcomed by two people at the entrance. “This is a big place, you know,” said the woman who greeted me. “If we don’t see you in a few hours, I’ll send my partner here to look for you.” And truly, it was the largest historical society I have ever visited, complete with a massive replica of a mine, with mannequins dressed as workers. Nearby was a replica of an apothecary from the 1800s, and rooms and rooms of interesting items from the state’s past.

The glass display case I came to stand before seemed innocuous at first. A framed police report caught my eye. A women nicknamed “Roadrunner,” who was known for consorting with the cowboys (a pejorative term at the time, mind you!), had shot her lover. The defense held that she suffered severe mental side effects from herbal abortives and an insanity plea was used. Just months before, the man who shot President Garfield also used the insanity plea—the first major case to use it in US history. I took a few notes and went on my way.

Weeks later, I couldn’t shake what I had read in the police report. I contacted the historical society and asked if they had any additional information. Not only did they have the complete court transcripts and press clippings, but also subpoenas and the decision made by the jury which was handed to the bailiff at the time of the woman’s conviction. After sending a small donation to the historical society, they made copies and sent me a large file containing everything.

May Woodman Conviction

Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society

What was fascinating was that May Woodman wasn’t allowed to testify. Men spoke for her. There was no doubt she shot her lover, Billy Kinsman, but there was also evidence that she was beaten while pregnant. Some shady testimony from a doctor suggested that this medicine—whatever it was—did negatively impact her state of mind. She tried to commit suicide twice after being convicted of manslaughter. She was sent to Yuma Prison, where she was the only female prisoner. She got involved in an illegal cigar-manufacturing scheme, and during an inspection, federal officials found thousands of cigars hidden in her cell. To avoid a brewing scandal, she was released, and put on a train to California and told never to return to Arizona territory again. And that is the last we hear of her.

To date, Whiskey and Rue is the most unusual story I’ve ever written. It’s far from the style of the ones I’ve done in the past. It took less research, there were far more thematic elements and a certain writing style that echoes my love for Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and for the first time, I didn’t use an outline. The novel has undergone three massive revisions since I started working on it in 2011. It takes a sliver of my thesis, in showing the quest for women’s rights and the negative influence of control and conformity. One could say Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper is a strong influence as well in terms of developing these thematic elements.

What makes May Woodman interesting is that she provides an interesting perspective of Tombstone’s history. When we think of Tombstone today, the gunfight at OK Corral is the first thing that springs to mind. Much ink has been spilled over what happened that day. May’s story is but the briefest of descriptions in books about Tombstone, living in the shadow of the Earps and Clantons. She lived there at the time, and no doubt knew many of the men involved. She operated a cigar stand in Barron’s Barber Shop on Allen Street, across from the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and a block away from where Virgil Earp was shot out of vengeance for the gunfight at OK Corral. May shot Billy on the same street corner where Virgil was badly injured.

There are some difficult issues here. I’ve said it’s the darkest thing I’ve written, and that’s saying something for an author whose first book is about Vlad the Impaler. It plumbs the depths of a desperate and isolated woman who constantly finds herself in trouble. However, May’s voice is very strong, and she was determined to have me write this story. I’m moving ever closer to sending it off to an editor, and it’s on track to be released in fall 2014. Hopefully in time for the 132nd anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral. If dark westerns are your thing, stay tuned.

 

 

Worldbuilding with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

PicMonkey Elements Collage

Culinaria elementi: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

While a displaced group of Satanists (and those curious about them) wandered Harvard Square in search of a venue to perform a black mass after the on-campus event was canceled due to rabid controversy, I waited in line to see Michael Pollan, who was giving a talk about his latest book, Cooked. Michael Pollan is a witty and engaging speaker. I can’t say the same for whoever performed the black mass—though finding out their costumed procession, reportedly including a caped man in a white suit and horned mask, led them to the sometimes-infamous Hong Kong restaurant, was highly entertaining in itself. Sadly, no photos have been posted that I can find.

The Michael Pollan event hosted by Harvard Book Store, however, was as orderly and interesting as one would expect from the august shop. The author discussed the evolution of his books, starting with the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores the development of industrial agriculture and the food business and how it connects to any number of dietary fads and the dangerous rise in diseases such as type 2 diabetes. In Cooked, he gets to the source of food production, and takes the reader back to the origins of cooking and its relationship to the natural world.

Divided into the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the book discusses man’s initial use of fire and subsequent evolution. With the advent of agricultural societies came steaming and boiling, and cooking became a collaborative effort. To explore each element, Pollan takes on a mini-apprenticeship. He begins with fire, at a famous BBQ place in North Carolina. He’s given a tour by the pitmaster—a place flanked by grills, where the meat is slow cooked at low temperatures overnight. Out of this “smoky crypt” comes the whole hog sandwich, a delight of various cuts of meat. The practice harkens back to ancient times, when priests were in charge of sacrifices.

For water, he describes the process of processing grain. Soups and softer foods provide an opportunity to wean babies at a younger age, and the ability for elderly people to better eat. Life is prolonged. Civilization grows.

With air, he takes us to breadmaking. He spent time with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where he learned everything about the importance of sourdough starters and how the smell of a starter is key to the success of the finished product. An avid surfer, Robertson balances two passions, and Michael Pollan spoke with great enthusiasm about his time at the bakery. What we learn is that in cooking, the essential factors are practice, patience, and presence. You have to be there—no dithering about on social media—lord knows how often I’ve burned something after losing track of time while answering an email, leaving an abandoned pot of something to burn on the stove. He’s right. It’s a consummate hobby that requires keen focus.

Cooked

But industry sped things up, and it’s become the norm. Recipes are falsely sped up to shorten preparation and cooking times. Best-sellers carry titles like “30-Minute Wonder Meals.” Many people are clueless in the kitchen without the help of a microwave. Pollan’s argument is that it all needs to slow down. Let the dough rise for hours. The slower the process, the more flavorful, the more nutritious the result.

With the invention of the flour mill came pristine white flour. The nutrients were stripped. Immediately, people began to get sick. So industry added the nutrients back in—but in the form of fortified stuff…like Wonder Bread. It was all fake, filled with chemicals, and it’s been hurting us ever since. He made an interesting comparison: with the rise of the labor movement, Europe fought for time. They spend more time cooking than we do. In the US, we fought for money, and there is a difference in rates of diabetes and obesity, though numbers are now rising all over the world.

Finally, with earth, he talked about cheesemaking. As someone who adores naturally produced cheese—the more odiferous the better—I was fascinated by his description of cheese left to age in barrels. While steel is industry standard, it’s been found that the powers of lacto bacilli kill of dangerous bacteria, which actually flourishes in steel. The barrel is more effective, and produces a more authentic and flavorful cheese.

“Cheese is all about the dark side of life,” Pollan said. While other scents are more thoroughly described, there is a tendency to avoid describing cheese in too much detail. It’s earthiness is visceral, it “puts us back on all fours.”

This unique perspective of cooking and how humanity and civilization evolved with food production was a powerful experience. It led me to think more deeply about how food is portrayed in fiction. Fiction is about transformations—primarily in characters, but also in places and situations. How are characters impacted by their food supply? In an apocalyptic scenario, how does a linchpin serve to cause an environment collapse? If a society is in the early stages of collaborative cooking, how does it change as more people build settlements and rely on grains? What happens if a crop is blighted? In a futuristic setting, what would happen if a city entirely dependent on high tech went black, and people couldn’t access proper food?

There are any number of ways the essence of this book could be incorporated into a story. One of the best things about worldbuilding is to sit back and think—what if? Cooked provides plenty of fodder to answer that question.

Old hearth

 

A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook

GOT beef and bacon pie with leek soup

It’s been nearly two years since this beautifully designed cookbook was released. I admit, I haven’t cooked from it as often as I’d like, but so far, each dish I’ve made has been wonderful. Originally started as the Inn at the Crossroads blog, authors Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer followed the journey of the characters within George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series through portrayals of the food in the books. Before the book deal came along, they had a sizable following. Then they showed up bearing a basket of their food to one of George R. R. Martin’s readings as he launched the book tour for A Dance with Dragons, and the rest is history.

What makes their efforts so wonderful is that they pair each dish with a medieval and modern version. I love to try making recipes from history, but I can’t help but experiment when I’m in the kitchen. When writing about food in my stories, I try to portray each recipe as authentically as possible. While my focus in my novels has been medieval, I’m nearing the modern age (as close to it as I’ve ever gotten, anyway), with a novel set in the 1880s. This makes obtaining recipes and some ingredients much easier, to be sure!

When cooking from the Feast of Ice and Fire, I’ve mainly stuck to the recipes from the north: oatcakes, honeyed chicken, and onions in gravy. In 2012, I even cooked a game of Thrones-themed Thanksgiving. This weekend, though spring is at hand, I went for heavier, warming dishes—the medieval version of leek soup and the modern version of the beef and bacon pie. Both were amazing, especially the beef and bacon pie. I revised a bit: instead of stew meat, I upgraded to sirloin tips, which were lovely, moist, and tender. I’d also recommend not skimping on the bacon for the latticework top—go for the gourmet brands—you’ll notice the difference in the richer flavor!

GOT cookbook cover

Where to next? The decadent dishes of King’s Landing are tempting. Being partial to Middle Eastern cuisine, which seems to be the major influence of describing Dorne’s food, is an area I’d love to see more of. If you’re a fan of the series, or fantasy in general, this cookbook is a must-have, and following the Inn at the Crossroads blog (and their Facebook page is a delight as well—not just for recipes, but other distractions, such as the hilarious photo gallery in which they re-enact scenes from the series using Peeps (i.e., Game of Peeps).