As a few of you may have seen, I occasionally Tweet at the end of my work day about whatever dinner I’m putting together. A few weeks ago, this behavior triggered an @reply from a buddy who lives in Burnaby: “Do you live so well because of where you live? Sometimes the suburbs are a pain.”
I’ve been stirring through possible responses ever since. I wondered how gourmet those posts of mine sound, when much of what they boil down to is stew, salad, bread and leaves out of a box. I pondered what my lifestyle looks like through that little Twitter window. Is it fabulous and opulent, in a Martha vein? No idea.
In some ways, the answer to the question is yes, absolutely. You should all move to my wonderful urban neighborhood! That particular day, I had deli cheese from La Grotta del Formaggio, and bread from Fratelli‘s. The two are next door to Cafe Calabria, where I write so much of my fiction. More days than not I’ll pack up the writing, hit the Cave o’ Cheese and/or the bakery, run from there to the supermarket, and be at Chez Dua fifteen minutes later with dinner in my backpack.
If it were the case that I had no dinner plan at, say, three in the afternoon, I could run out the front door, hit the same places, and still have meal components in time to cook. That’s a definite neighborhood perk–especially since I don’t drive. But as it happens, that kind of scrambling rarely forms part of the equation. It’s timewaste-y, and like most of us I consider my minutes precious.
I don’t often notice it, but a lot of thought and energy go into my approach to fud*. In writing this, I’ve realized I go at food in much the same way I tackle writing. I leave the house every morning knowing what fiction I’m going to work on, and I often leave knowing what I’m eating from dawn to dusk. In my wallet is the list of whatever the grocery gods need to provide to make that happen.
It’s important to me that Kelly and I aren’t screaming around at six, hungry, exhausted, trying to figure out supper and eventually settling on whatever’s fastest or closest to hand, even if it’s overly pricey, or not all that good for us. K is working the full-time job that makes it possible to do this with relative ease, to provide food that’s healthful, tasty and affordable. My doing so ensures that we aren’t eating take-out five nights a week or getting home at six, cooking until seven, and eating and cleaning up until eight. But–as every parent and homemaker knows–getting quality food on the boards, day after day, is no wee task. It is, in fact, something you can easily burn out on.
Doing it, keeping it going, and not getting bored or burned out, takes time and focus and… really, all the same things that writing discipline requires.
So, yes, my neighborhood’s location is choice. But I can’t ever imagine letting the food slip too far down the priority stack. Even when K and I both nine to fiving it, we managed to cook most nights. We gave up that couple of hours I mention above; we were also younger, and considerably more peppy. Still, I can imagine Alternate Us as a car-driving Dua, living in the wilds of the Lower Mainland, hitting the grocery hard every couple of weeks with a meal plan and a long list. It wouldn’t be market shopping, but even the Hinton IGA has boutique breads, olives and cheeses these days. It would be a pain to run out of things suddenly–to not have the 24-hour grocery two blocks from home, so close I call it “my pantry”–but I suspect we’d learn how to avoid such emergencies.
As for boredom… I don’t make a big cooking effort every single day. I have become a fan of the pre-washed boite of salad leaves. In wintertime, I make big batches of our favorite soups and freeze them in easily reheated portions. I read a McLeans article once that claimed the average Canadian family only had five stand-by recipes to draw from in a cooking pinch. I can beat that easy, I thought. Now I make a conscious effort to increase my repertoire of basic meals, the things I can make in under an hour, by three or so recipes a year. Since not all recipes are made of win, this generally means trying out something new every four to eight weeks. Not too onerous.
But challenges crop up. Routines get busted. (See, it is just like writing!) This year, spring sold out and extended its run for bleeping ever. It was cold and dark and rainy out, and I didn’t switch to our summer fare as early. All my new recipes, meanwhile, were winter things. I sensed a rut coming on…
… so I splashed out on a countertop grill and started experimenting with meat cuts and even stir fries:
Now I’m playing with grilling veggies and pre-skewered kabobs. Kelly made an amazing grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread (quite a light one, incidentally) with a filling of caramelized apples and onions.
My neighborhood is foodie paradise, no doubt about it. You really can amble down the Drive and grab dinner fixings in twenty minutes. But it’s just as easy to go a block, feeling all hungry and too tired to cook, and know that your evening won’t start until 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. if you do, and then end up in a one-slice pizza place. I try to regard that as a last resort. I’ve bent around the Drive’s abundance and convenience in a way that works for me… and I hope that if we end up in Bugeye, Saskatchewan one day, it won’t change what I eat.
Do you live so well because… is a huge question. It made me appreciate my neighborhood and my lifestyle anew. It made me think about how finely tuned some aspects of my schedule are. It made me worry that if I posted this I’d sound terribly pompous. (Why yes, I do live well, thank you so much for noticing!)
Mostly, it made me realize that the thing I really associate with living well on the Drive isn’t about groceries but about people. Ten friends within easy walking distance. Roots in the neighborhood that mean I get to say hello to some acquaintance on practically every walk to the Skytrain. The Parade of Lost Souls and the recent spate of soccer parties and the hairdresser with her growing kid and all the people who’ve been selling me cheese and bread and cat fud for nigh on twenty years. Marco, at Fratelli’s, made the cake for our legal wedding. The patriarch of the cafe, who gives me unsolicited fatherly lectures on… actually, on living a good life.
As for Wednesday night’s dinner? Grilled buffalo steak… imported from a grocery in Yaletown.
*If you’re thinking Fud is a typo, look here.
Jessica Reisman posted recently about how there’s any amount of advice out here on teh Intrawebs for beginning writers, but not so much of it for those who have been publishing for awhile. I’ve been thinking about this, and about the fact that when I do interviews, one of the questions that tends to come up most frequently is “What’s the best piece of advice you can give a beginning writer?”
This phenomenon seems to me to be one of those things that occurs naturally. If you’ve got to the point where your fiction is selling, you probably have a good grip on what you needed to learn to get to that point. You’re equipped, in other word, to tell someone less experienced a thing or two: how to write in scenes, maybe, or build up conflict, or push through a first draft of a novel.
Writing about what you’re grappling with in the present is more problematic. As we move into the later phases of artistic development–next level skills, they’re sometimes called–we run the risk of either writing about something we haven’t really figured out yet or perhaps just being opaque, inaccessible.
On the commercial side, once we’ve stopped talking about breaking into short fiction markets or chasing agents, what are we going to talk about? Contracts, maybe? But the problems start getting specific. Issues with this agent, clauses in that publisher’s boilerplate… stuff that affects your bank balance and business relationships, not necessarily the things you’re going to want to post at loquacious length about.
So there’s general talk about pushing through difficult stretches and life crises, a little discussion about busting writer’s block, and… what else? I recall an Elizabeth Bear post I really liked, about how she was moving on to learning progressively tougher (for her) stuff. Was that last year? Anyone remember? The Jay Lake link I posted yesterday, about how he’s reining in his draft speed, felt like it was about a next-level issue. Is there a difference in the “just be persistent” encouragement we give to a newcomer and the “soldier on, soldier on” speech we dispense to a writer who’s sold three books but who can’t interest anyone in their fourth? Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?
None of us would probably admit to thinking we have it all down, and I know I have a ton to learn about how to write more gooder. If you’ve seen any useful process or craft posts out there that seem like they’d really hit home for established writers, I’d be interested to hear about them.
In the meantime, and apropos of nothing, here’s a White Crowned Sparrow.
The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.
This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.
“A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”
In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.
Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.
Joan of Arc
As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?
With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)
As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.
This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.
Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.
Here’s a snippet:
Frontispiece: Joan of Arc stands chained in a horse-drawn wagon, wearing a black gown. Leaning against a pair of nuns, she seems almost to swoon. Her right arm is portrayed as bones without flesh. The horses’ ornate curls and gleaming teeth lend a ghastly note, and blackened angels border the image.
The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.
“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.
“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”
“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”
“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”