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.

How Wonder Woman Got Into Harvard

Wonder Woman Event

Jill Lepore is one of those people who can expertly, yet completely organically, engage an audience. Her off-the-cuff speaking style and sheer exuberance is charming. Her lectures are fraught with details that sometimes flow at high speed, and reactions from the audience are frequent and often accompanied by gasps and bursts of laughter. The crowd gathered last week at the Radcliffe Institute for her presentation on her latest work, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Harvard man William Moulton Marsten is the inventor of the lie detector. So is there a connection between his pursuit of finding the truth and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth? Indeed. There are many links to Marsten’s life and the heroine who joined the Justice League in the early 1940s. Strongly influenced by the aims of the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, Dr. Marsten created the character of Wonder Woman with specific goals in mind. She was to “set a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” according to the press release from 1940. An expert in psychology, he sought to create psychological propaganda for the new type of woman.

Lou Rogers Art

Harvard peppers his story. Called “Holliday College,” Wonder Woman storms the gates time and again in the early years of the comic. Many sources were used to produce Wonder Woman’s backstory. Some inspiration is partially derived from the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. When viewing art that inspired the comic, a strong correlation is drawn to artist Lou Rogers, who drew many illustrations for the cause of women’s right to vote. In Wonder Woman’s early adventures, being bound in chains was a frequent plot device. Seeing portrayals of her bursting from the chains with broken links flying out attached to words like “prejudice, prudery, and man’s superiority” had a dramatic effect, one which has unfortunately been lost over the decades with the death of Dr. Marsten and his replacement making Wonder Woman a much more docile figure.

Parallels to the suffragette movement are seen throughout the comics. White horses became a symbol of the movement, particularly when Inez Milholland led a procession in 1913, tiara and all. What followed were frequent images of Wonder Woman riding a white horse, championing a range of causes for the 1940s audience. She was an activist for a progressive era, and she also fought corruption—and many of the issues she spoke out against reflect many of the issues we see today—corporate monopolies, unfair systems, and so on.

Inez Milholland 1913 parade

An early prototype for Wonder Woman? Inez Milholland, at a protest in Washington, DC, tiara and all!

Researching Dr. Marsten’s was a delicate business for Lepore, due to his unconventional lifestyle. The family protected many of the details over the years. After graduation with his bachelor’s from Harvard, he married sweetheart Elizabeth Holloway. As a professor at Tufts University, he fell in love with Olive Byrne, and the three became involved in a polyamorous relationship that cost him his career in academia. He later served as an advisor for Universal Pictures, helping them gauge the level of fear a movie-going audience could take with their outpouring of horror films that seem to campy to us today. The threesome had 4 children in total, two by each woman, and Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for more than four decades after Marsten’s death in 1947.

With the introduction of Olive in his life, the feminist influence grew even stronger. Her mother and aunt, Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, co-founded the birth control rights movement. When Ethel went on a hunger strike (for talking about birth control broke obscenity laws), a deal was made with Margaret so Ethel could be released. This early effort to raise the issue of birth control eventually became Planned Parenthood.

As World War II raged, the Justice League fought the Axis powers and became a central theme to many comics. Once the war was over, a multitude of comics foundered and went out of business. Some later were reinvented in later decades as the comic world grew. But Wonder Woman was always there, though her ascent was a bit bumpy at first. When she first joined the League, she was a mere secretary, signing the letters of membership for kids who signed up. But once she gained momentum, she was a force to be reckoned with.

Wonder Woman Event 2

 

Wonder Woman’s story took a dramatic decline after Dr. Marsten’s death. When Elizabeth and Olive offered to continue to the story, they were told on no uncertain terms by DC Comics that ladies couldn’t be involved in comics. The job was handed to new writers, who watered down her activist persona and made her much softer, and all doe-eyed over Steve Trevor, the pilot she helps when he crashed on Paradise Island in the first portion of the story. A revamping in the 1960s made her style groovier, but it was clear she had lost her way as a feminist powerhouse. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better.

Jill Lepore commented on recent Wonder Woman comics, and how, much like a lot of entertainment these days, is glorified violence and little substance in terms of character. Despite the overwhelming slew of movies based on comics, with several on Batman and Superman, sadly, they’ve been slow to put Wonder Woman on the docket. And as awesome blogs such as The Mary Sue and i09 show point out, our heroine is even left off the toy shelf sometimes, as can be seen in this Target display, where she’s not to be found at all among the members of the Justice League. While I haven’t read The Secret History of Wonder Woman yet, the title occupies a top slot in my list of books to dig into soon. Knowing Lepore’s brilliance in research, this will prove to be a fascinating read.

Leaving the lecture, I wondered what Dr. Marsten would have thought if he had known that the heated discussions of his day are ongoing, and even sliding backward. Wonder Woman’s legacy should be more than a tantalizing outfit or besotted gazing at Steve Trevor. She stood for something of immense value—the belief that little girls could grow up and achieve anything. Today’s political discourse about women is horrifying. Amplifying women’s roles in entertainment and culture is a key step in changing that, and it’s time to put Wonder Woman on that white horse again and march her down Main Street, USA, and indeed, across the world, to make for a better future.

Wonder Woman White Horse

Boston Book Festival 2014

 

BBF MBTA poster B

I did something a little different at the Boston Book Festival this year. I signed books in celebration of the release of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. Coincidentally, the Boston Book Festival (BBF) occurred on the anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral, which is a central event in the novel. I joined the Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE) earlier this year, and the benefits have been many. Ads in their catalog (designed by yours truly for the fall issue) have been seen at major book festivals across the region. When I saw the chance to have a presence at BBF to sign books at the IPNE table, I jumped at the chance. It was great to get to talk to so many avid readers and indie authors who were interested in learning more about the organization. I didn’t sell all my books, but something clicked—being out among 25,000 people gathered to talk all about reading, I felt like a real author. It was surreal to look at the nametag later, as I waited for one of the panel discussions to begin.

The moment my books were packed up (special thank you to my awesome husband, donning his new Sleepy Hollow-esque coat á la Icachabod Crane, for carrying my books, just like in high school!), I dashed off to attend as many sessions as I could. And as always, it was a challenge to decide between so many excellent choices.

CF at BBF

 

A series sponsored by The Writer magazine proved to be among the most interesting. I attended two called “Read Like a Writer,” one focused on suspense and the other on historical fiction. Designed like a creative writing workshop, copies of excerpts were distributed to the audience. Each author read their excerpt and explained why it resonated as one of the most important passages in their book. The common thread across all of them was that in each case, the author felt the paragraph best summarized the novel. What was interesting about the conversation with the audience was how people interpreted each sentence. The moderator zeroed in on word choice and sentence structure, and participants responded by talking about what each sentence meant to them.

This was particularly poignant for me during the historical fiction session when Susanna Kaysen compared her famous Girl, Interrupted with her new novel, Cambridge. I didn’t realize it was her at first, until she talked about how people reacted to Girl, Interrupted. Most people, she said, believed she had “cut a vein and let the words pour out onto the pages.” This wasn’t the case. Each sentence in Girl was carefully thought out. It was much more than an outpouring of deep emotion. She worked hard on the story’s structure and message, and depth of character.

Aspiring writers in the audience in each of these two sessions asked the authors where to look for guidance on writing? The advice: book across genres can be the best teachers. Rather than read a how-to book, they suggested, examine your favorite books and find out why they are your favorite. Pull apart the scenes, the descriptions of characters and settings, and figure out what makes them successful. There’s no better way to suss it out than by example. Sure, some of the how-to books are useful, but there are many mediocre ones out there, and a new writer would be better served by finding the best fiction that resonates with them.

Libraries of the Future

The session that absolutely blew me away was “Libraries of the Future.” Led by Matthew Battles of Harvard’s metaLAB, it was an information-packed presentation on how access and structure of libraries represent society as a whole. As one of civilization’s oldest institutions, the library says a tremendous amount about its people. In medieval times, they were curated by churches, and only church personnel had access. The carrels so many graduate students earn backaches from are based on the ones monks used centuries ago. When libraries became open spaces for the public, how books were storied changed. The Victorians believed in being able to better oneself through knowledge, and the library took on a more paternalistic role. As social movements grew, so did the access to knowledge. The Occupy Wall Street movement produced pop-up libraries for people to read the history that led to the protest. This is not the only social movement to do so. It’s happened many times in the past, and has become a fixture in most movements since the protests that came with the Industrial Revolution.

The final panel I attended was “Finding Our Way: Navigation Through The Ages,” with Boston Globe writer Hiawatha Bray and Harvard physicist (who works at CERN) John Edward Huth. It was a breath-taking description of the history of navigation. Indeed, Hiawatha Bray was so exuberant he was positively breathless by the end of his presentation. One hour was simply not enough to explore this topic, but fortunately, he told us, there is much more to come. On Friday, November 14, the Radcliffe Institute is hosting a day-long event “Lost and Found: A Science Symposium on Navigation.” Mr. Bray will have plenty of opportunity there to go into more detail about how navigation technology evolved.

GPS was not originally designed for the end-user. It was mandated by the FCC to help with emergencies, but as phones became more sophisticated computers, the GPS became a useful tool for everyone, and the software has now enabled us to find our way. But, the question was, how does that affect the journey? Has something been lost now that our heads are down and staring at a screen to catch up on emails and follow the arrow on Google Maps while we find that out-of-the-way specialty grocer in a neighborhood we don’t know well? In Somerville, art is everywhere. Looking up from the phone offers amazing chances to people watch—to immerse yourself in your environment. And that’s something that has become a problem, said Professor Huth. Knowing your environment is a skill. And knowing what to do if technology fails is another issue. Too often he heard people bemoan their lack of sense of direction, but really, if they paid more attention to the details, finding their way wouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s all about honing observational skills and understanding “the language of the environment.”

NESFA

How people get lost has created many terms for it—all seafaring cultures have specific words for being lost at sea, and have tricks about observing reflections on the waves and patterns of wind to figure out where they are. Today, there are databases that track the patterns of types of people: hunters, mushroom foragers, children, and seniors who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, because each category behaves in a similar way when lost. The database can be used to help search teams use their resources for the best chance of success. Professor Huth also said that when it comes to being lost—really and truly lost—the people who have the best chance of survival are the ones who don’t form a rigid hypothesis. Not getting fixated—much like the panicky fighters we see in horror films and shows like The Walking Dead—is key to survival. I only wished they had time to talk about the sun stones used by Vikings to navigate on cloudy days—hopefully, that will come at the Lost and Found Symposium later this month at Radcliffe.

Before this year’s Boston Book Festival, the organizers of the event sent an email that revealed their sudden realization of the existential theme of it. Upon reviewing the session titles, they realized how much as to do with journeys and destinations, both literal and metaphorical, and it was an amusing observation. One thing is for sure—as a destination, the Boston Book Festival is one of the city’s treasures; it always transports me to multiple worlds with each presentation, and I can’t wait to be part of it again next year.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

Kitchen

The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2% salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use every day. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.

Consider the Fork cover

As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant.

Whiskey and Rue’s Promotional Launch on Amazon’s KDP Select

Whiskey and Rue Full Cover

The 30-second gunfight at OK Corral on October 26, 1881, has captured the imaginations of fans of the Wild West culture for 133 years. Much ink has been spilled to speculate about the precise words that started the fight, who started it, and how it unfolded. From the 1950s onward, the Earps were generally portrayed in a positive light, with dramatic black-hatted villains “getting their due.”

History is always more complex than that. When I first traveled to Arizona and found the story of May Woodman, who was a known friend of the cowboys (the term being a slur at the time, indicating criminal thugs), her troubled past sparked something—a new Muse came to me—one inspired by Cormac McCarthy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. May wanted an independent life. She got swept up in the saloon life of Tombstone. She was entangled in a destructive relationship with a miner, and the historical documents I used for research offered disturbing details about abuse and efforts at a forced abortion that caused severe mental side effects due to the hallucinogenic nature of the herbs used. She shot him head on the same street corner Virgil Earp was attacked in retaliation for his involvement in the gunfight at OK Corral. It felt like May’s ghost wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave her voice to tell her story.

Tombstone was a fascinating time in US history. It exemplifies the hard work, innovation, and grit so many people describe the very essence of the country being comprised of. So this is May’s story. Her struggle to find a life of her own, and the shocking scandal she became embroiled in as the only woman in Yuma’s prison at the time. She helped run a contraband cigar manufacturing operation, and her sentence was commuted after thousands of illegal cigars were found in her cell.

Books on Tombstone tell the story leading up to her imprisonment, but no one seems to know what happened to her after she was put on a train and exiled from the territory of Arizona. Whiskey and Rue sheds some light into her story (albeit a hazy light, with clouds of cigar smoke and the strong smell of booze).

And to commemorate the official launch of the novel on the 133rd anniversary of OK Corral, and my appearance at the Boston Book Festival to do a signing at the Independent Publishers of New England table, the ebook will be free on Amazon from Friday, October 24 through Sunday the 26. Please enjoy, and thank you for supporting this indie author!

 

How Do They Feast: Conspiracy Edition! Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and a Recipe for Bagna Cauda

One thing you should be prepared for when reading Umberto Eco is the density of the work: the historical references, the fact that the story is so carefully wrought—after all, as an academic, Professor Eco’s specialty is semiotics, the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Closely related to linguistics, the field delves into the meanings and relationships of signs and symbols, and Eco’s work is often fraught with secret societies, conspiracies, and the complex web of history.

The Prague Cemetery opens with a long rant of prejudices by Simone Simonini, a forger, murderer, and here, the originator of the Protocols of Elders of Zion, the notorious fake text that fueled 19th-century anti-Semitism and was in part responsible for inspiring Hitler’s terrible plans. Though I enjoyed seeing Eco’s process for creating this elaborate conspiracy of Freemasons, Satanists, and political and religious machinations, the book didn’t capture my imagination the same way Focault’s Pendulum did. The divergent narrative voices, while showing the events from a variety of angles, were hard to pull together as the arc of the story developed.

Eco

I greatly appreciated his approach to the novel, however. I too love to find real people in history, do tons of research, and take a long time outline and write a book. In an interview with the Paris Review, he talked about the challenges of writing this novel. The subject matter was difficult, he said: “With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer. Fortunately some of my colleagues had done the same. Shakespeare for instance, with Richard III.”

I wondered the same as I wrote Whiskey and Rue. Dealing with domestic abuse, mental illness, and an abortion forced on a woman who didn’t want one made me want to abandon it more than once. But the story itself and the characters were too powerful to abandon. Like the dean I worked for as a teaching assistant often said, art is a medium to make us confront difficult issues—ones that humanity needs to face and remember in order to strive for the better.

One aspect of The Prague Cemetery that took me pleasantly off-guard was the description of food. Simonini is very fond of his food. Each ingredient is listed, and each step of the cooking process, are outlined in inviting detail. I wanted to write about several, but one favorite I know well stood out: bagna caöda (a.k.a. cauda, or calda). A delightful blend of garlic, anchovies, and butter cooked in a small terracotta pot, it’s the best hot bread dip you’ll ever have. And it’s also served with vegetables. Simonini lists cardoons soaked in cold water and lemon juice, peppers, Savoy cabbage, potatoes, or carrots. Anything, really! Below is a recipe I adapted long ago. Make the recipe, and read the rest of the Paris Review article about Umberto Eco, and enjoy!

bagna cauda

Bagna Caöda

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup butter
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups peeled garlic cloves (depends on how big a fan of garlic you are—in my house, the more, the merrier!)
1 3 oz. jar of anchovies, chopped (the nice glass jarred version is better than canned, but canned can certainly be used)
1 pinch Aleppo pepper
1 pinch Italian seasoning, like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset

  1. Preheat oven to 275 Fahrenheit.
  2. Mix all ingredients in small casserole dish.
  3. Let simmer, covered, in oven between and hour and hour and a half.
  4. Serve with bread and vegetables.