Sunday, 26 June 2011

What's for lunch?

The lure of the kitchen
I’m always deeply impressed when I hear about other writers and how they go about writing.  When I read about their routines, they all seem so committed to their characters and to their story.  I imagine them tapping busily away at their key boards, wrapped up in their own worlds and reluctant to stop writing for mundane matters.  I would love to be able to lose myself in creativity, but it never seems to work like that for me.  I don’t yearn to get to work, or drift around thinking about my characters.  No, the question uppermost in my mind from the moment I wake up is: What am I going to eat today?

The sedentary life of a writer is bad enough for the figure as it is, but if you spend your whole day thinking about food it’s even worse.  Not for me an absent-minded rummage in the fridge for something to keep me going for the next 5,000 words.  My first act of the day, after putting on the kettle for some tea and feeding the cat, is to plan my menu.

Pretty, but better minus the chocolate
I don’t like milk (except in cheese sauce) so I never have cereal, and am not a toast person either, so breakfast is a non-event.  At moment I have a grapefruit, which makes me feel very virtuous but which means I’m starving by the time have coffee and all too often the pleasure of that increased by 10.00.  The first half of the morning is therefore dominated by the search for someone who is available to be lured out for coffee, preferably to somewhere where it can be accompanied a pain au chocolat or a plum and almond tart, or if at home by one of Sainsbury’s quadruple chocolate biscuits. Because I can’t be expected to write on a grapefruit, can I?

The coffee issue resolved, I am faced with the massive problem of what to have for lunch.  I so wish I was a woman who loves salad, or is content with a pot of yoghurt.  I wouldn’t even mind being someone who was happy enough with a sandwich, but no!  There’s something so unsatisfying about a sandwich somehow (although not if made with unsalted butter, very rare roast beef and salt with the crusts cut off, obviously, but I can’t have that every day) and I don’t like the way the bread sticks around my teeth.  Hhmmnn, have always thought of myself as easy to please on the food front, but clearly I am unbelievably picky and I haven’t even started on carrots …

Cafe Royal in Edinburgh
Anyway, come 12.30, I’m shifting restlessly on my chair, finding it hard to concentrate and in need of something tasty.  Sadly, tasty in my book usually involves cooked cheese and/or fried onions.  Throw in bacon and potatoes, and you’re talking my kind of lunch.  Leftovers from supper the night before are one of my favourite lunches, but I’m so greedy that rarely have any and it’s never too much trouble to cook something from scratch …. If you’ve got an idea for a filling, healthy, satisfying lunch that doesn’t involve lettuce or bread or pulses, please let me know! 

Of course, the ultimate treat is to go out to lunch.  I had a perfect lunch in the CafĂ© Royal in Edinburgh recently, on a miserable June day that felt more like March.  We ate slow roast rib of beef with perfect mashed potatoes and perfectly cooked green vegetables, and then my companion, as they say in the restaurant reviews had a perfect raspberry cranachan.  Yum, yum, yum.  Last Wednesday I met another friend in Leeds and we went to Harvey Nichols – very Ladies Who Lunch.  Nice place to sit and chat, but food a little too complicated, I thought.  Still, how civilised.  Selfishly, most of my friends work and aren’t available for lunch out every day – although perhaps that’s just as well for my bank balance.

The fact is that I’m never going to be able to diet.  If I won the lottery, I would have a cook who would produce a perfect little tasty, non-fattening something for lunch every day and who wouldn’t automatically cook enough for four, and that would help, but then I probably wouldn’t like not having my kitchen to myself. 

Brandy snap baskets
Cooking is one of the great pleasures in life. The other day I made my Cornish great-grandmother’s pasties to take to the beach and it was the best pastry I’ve made in a long time, even though I says it as shouldn’t.  And my contribution to a supper out this weekend was brandy snap baskets and chocolate dipped strawberries: aren’t they beautiful?

Now, I’ve been writing for at least 15 minutes, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just slope down to the kitchen and see what I can find in the fridge …

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Midsummer rambling

Midsummer day … I should have been out there dancing around in the dew at dawn, but instead dragged myself out of bed to do my obligatory 300 words and my Pilates exercises before starting the day properly.  Since then I have been scowling out of the window at the grey skies because this is NOT what I call a summer.  I know, I know, we shouldn’t complain when other parts of the world have had to deal with such catastrophic natural disasters, but really, would it kill the sun to come out?  We would all feel so much better.

How did it get to be June anyway? It feels like hardly any time since we were skidding around in the snow and ice.  It’s unnerving the way time goes faster as  you get older.  Any day now I’ll have to face the fact that I am middle-aged (some mistake, surely?)  I had a crisis the other day when it came to renewing my car insurance.  I’m not much of a bargainer, but even I raised my eyebrows when my renewal quote came through, and I did what all those adverts tell you to do and went on line to see if I could find a better deal.  This also made for an effective displacement activity (nearly as good as cleaning the filters on my vacuum cleaner - I did stop and wonder what I had been reduced to then!) 

The upshot of all this shopping around was a quote that was £200 cheaper, which was great.  The downside was that it was with Saga (a company that specialises in services for the elderly).  Was I grateful for my savings?  Did I rejoice at the knowledge that having passed 50 I was eligible for all sorts of good deals?  No, I had a full-blown strop about getting old, and went around claiming that I would be putting a blue rinse in my hair and wearing sensible shoes next (hold on, I already wear sturdy shoes, don’t I?) in spite of the fact that is a gross representation of all the fabulous, elegant women I know who are a generation older than me.  I wonder how old I’m going to have to be before I learn to react with moderation???

Well, there you go.  I sat down to update the blog, wondering what on earth I was going to say, but I appear to have written a page anyway. Mind you, it does remind me of one of my favourite cartoons, sent to me – rather pointedly, I felt – by my Chief Plotting Advisor.  As a blogger (albeit an erratic one) it always makes me laugh and wince at the same time.

Happy Midsummer, anyway, and may the sun be shining somewhere!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The pleasures and perils of research

Meanwhile, back at the time slip ...

Having got to the end of the story in the past, I am struggling to get into the story in the present. The truth is that I am missing the sixteenth century. When I’m writing romance, I rarely do much research, but I have been really enjoying reading about Tudor trade and cooking, about clothes and witch trials and bubonic plague, none of which I knew anything about before, in spite of having a Ph.D. in the history of sixteenth-century York (but ask me about disposing of rubbish or noisy neighbours or mending streets, and I’m your gal).

I’d just got to a scene where my heroine, Hawise, gives birth and had realised that once again I knew absolutely nothing about child-birth in the past (or in the present, come to that, other than that it hurts – a lot) when into my inbox popped an email from Samuel Thomas, an historian who was interested in looking at my thesis. It turns out that Sam not only writes about early modern midwifery but is also a novelist.  Based in Alabama, he’s working in a book called Statute of Treasons, which is set in seventeenth-century York.  Serendipity.  At times like those, I think what a wonderful thing the internet is, when you can make connections with people in other countries so easily. 

Sam sent me a couple of his articles and only now do I realise just how little I knew about child-birth before. I particularly enjoyed the account of a “gossiping” in the seventeenth century where the women had gathered together after a new mother was churched, and where the conversation turned ‘as is usual’ to labour and child-birth, then to children and servants, and at last to husbands, ‘Complaining of Ill Husbands, and so from Husbands in General to their own Particular Husbands’.  Most of us may not have servants to complain about nowadays, but in my experience when women get together, we still tend to talk about children and our relationships, and I love those moments when we can recognize how much we share with people in the past.  The clothes and the food and the customs may be different, but stripped of that, we’re the same, with the same everyday preoccupations and concerns. 
Now I’m absorbed in Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book, or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, first advertised for sale in 1671.  There is so much in it that I would like to use, but it’s a fine line between details that lend authenticity to the story, and research that overwhelms the plot and characters.  As a newbie to writing historical fiction, I’m struggling to find the right balance and to remember that just because I find something of interest as an historian, it doesn’t mean it will contribute anything to the story as a whole.  So I am having to be very firm with myself and stick to the storyline for now.

Oh, and remember that the present is important too.  Which reminds me, I’d better get back to it …

Friday, 10 June 2011

How not to use a plotting board

Bang on target!

Just a quickie, as I am desperate to keep to my writing schedule.  Amazingly, my new regime has worked, in spite of the fact that my 6.30 am starts  have slipped back to 7.00 am.  I had planned to have finished 20,000 words blocking out the story in the past by the end of today, and here I am, at 21,000+ words, with only a few pages to go, so am bang on target! 

I have been enjoying this stage of writing the time slip, although it is clear that the story has changed and some radical rewriting will have to go on at the next stage, not to mention some major research. 

The Board: much prepared, never used
Still, that was the purpose of the exercise, to find out where the story was going, and inevitably it has veered some way off my original plan.  After carefully writing out scenes on cards, I stuck them all up on a board, as per all the ‘how to’ manuals, and have never looked at it since.  I suspect this means I am at heart a ‘pantser’ and not a ‘plotter’, although normally I am someone who likes to know exactly what I’m going to do and where and when I’ll be doing it.  

It’s interesting how the story develops in the writing, though, and how obvious it becomes that a character has changed or that a scene I thought would be important can go, while another one has to go in.  I’ve been writing the story in the past, and when that’s done (tonight, if I pull my finger out and get on with it), will go back to where I left off the partial and do the same for the story in the present.  Then all I need to do is put it all together and rewrite completely from the start. 

All.  Right. If I think of how much still needs to be done, I can easily start to hyperventilate, so I am closing my mind to it for now and sticking with the small, easily achievable goals.  Am delighted to discover that this is keeping the frenzy at bay … for now!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A prehistoric weekend

Avebury, but not as it was on Sunday
Well, Wiltshire turned out to be not so sunny after all, so my plan to read in the garden didn’t quite work out.  Never mind, it was a very nice weekend, and on Sunday we braved the drizzle to walk around Avebury

For anyone who doesn’t know it, Avebury is a village set in the middle of a massive circle of megalithic stones that are even older than Stonehenge.  The stones aren’t as big as at Stonehenge, but it is still an amazingly impressive monument, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the sheer size and scale of it.  Here I am sitting on the Witch’s Seat (oh, ho,ho,ho) in my summer garb …

We also went to Silbury Hill and the West Kennet long barrow, in keeping with the prehistoric theme of the weekend, so although the sun didn’t shine, it was still really interesting. I’d love to know more about that period.  One of my favourite books is Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel, the first and still the best of her Earth’s Children series.  No one else has made that world so vivid, and I loved the fact that the story was based on real excavations and her own research into cooking, weaving, flint knapping etc.  

Having bought all the later books,  I was delighted to see that she has a new one out – The Land of Painted Caves - but made the mistake of reading the reviews on Amazon before I ordered it.  Generally I don’t take much notice of reviews, as everyone’s tastes differ, but in this case they were so overwhelmingly negative that I decided to save myself the disappointment.   Finding an author you really enjoy is one of the best things in life, I think, and whenever I do, I can’t wait to read my way through their backlist.  It takes a lot to lose my loyalty as a reader, and I can’t help feeling a little guilty for not making up my own mind.  And perhaps I will – just with the paperback version!

Do you read reviews?  Do they influence what you do and don’t buy?  

Friday, 3 June 2011

Oh, no, not another royal wedding ....

Whoops … just packing to go away for the weekend when remembered that I haven’t updated this blog.  My mind is on a sunny Wiltshire weekend, so have been scratching my head a little for inspiration, until I realised that I should probably be promoting Ordinary Girl in a Tiara, which is released next week.  The trouble is that it feels as if it has been out for ages, not just because I have posted out all my spare copies, but because of a certain event on 29th April – everyone is so over royal weddings now! 

Still, if you enjoyed  Will and Kate’s wedding (notice how everyone has suddenly started calling her Catherine?) and wished you could have had a glimpse behind the scenes, I hope you’ll like Caro and Philippe’s story.  There were lots of resonances with the real royal story, although Caro is a lot more ordinary than Kate/Catherine, and a lot less stylish.  I was delighted to see Will and Kate drive away from the palace in an Aston Martin, as Philippe also drives an Aston Martin, which indeed has a small but starry role in the book, and now everyone will know exactly what it looks like!

I’ll be back after the weekend.  May the sun shine wherever you are,  and for those of you who fancy a little reading and aren’t sick to death of royal romances, here’s an extract in the meantime:

Philippe lay stretched out on one of the sofas and reached down to pull a sheaf of documents from the red box on the floor beside him.  ‘You wouldn’t believe a country this small would generate quite so much paperwork, would you?’ he grumbled, flicking through them.   ‘Report and accounts from the potato growers of Montluce … Waste management solutions for the city of Montvivennes … Forests have been felled to print these reports and who’s interested in them?  Nobody!’
‘The potato farmers might be,’ Caro suggested.
‘Show me a farmer who wants to read a report!’  Philippe looked up at Caro, who was sitting at the table, laptop open in front of her.  Her lips were pursed, the fierce brows drawn together.  ‘What are you doing?’
‘Checking my account at … Can you believe it? I’ve only had one message in a month, and that’s from Mr Sexy, so it doesn’t count.’
Philippe sat up  ‘What are you checking dating sites for?’ he demanded, outraged. ‘You’re with me.’
‘Only temporarily,’ Caro pointed out, cucumber cool.  ‘I wouldn’t want to miss out on someone perfect.  The good guys get snapped up straight away.’ 
‘You couldn’t do any snapping up anyway,’ said Philippe crossly.  ‘You may only be a temporary girlfriend, but you’ve still got a good month to go.’
To his annoyance, Caro clicked on a link, and he got up to see what interested her so much.  ‘I wouldn’t arrange to meet him or anything,’ she said.  ‘I could just make contact and see if we’ve got anything in common. A sort of cyber flirtation.  You don’t want me to miss out on Mr Right, do you?’
Philippe was standing over her shoulder, glaring at the profiles on the screen.  ‘Which one is Mr Right?’ 
‘I was wondering about this one.’  She pointed at a photograph of someone who had called himself  Homebody.  He was a serious-looking man who described himself as loyal, trustworthy and affectionate.
Her hair was tumbling down from its clip as usual.  He wanted to tidy it up, clip it neatly so that it wasn’t so … distracting.  Or did he want to pull the clip out completely to let the silky mass tumble to her shoulders?  Did he want to push his fingers through it and tilt her face up to his? 
Philippe scowled.  That wouldn’t be allowed, or at least not according to Caro’s rules.  He couldn’t believe he had agreed to them.  She was supposed to be his girlfriend.  He ought to be able to put his hands on his shoulders, or kiss the side of her throat.  He ought to be able to cajole her away from that stupid site and over to the sofa so that he could kiss her properly. 
But they were outside the bedroom and there was nobody else around, which meant that he wasn’t allowed to touch her at all.  And he had given his word. 
‘Affectionate?’ he jeered, taking out his bad temper on Homebody instead.  ‘You might as well get yourself a dog!’
‘I think he sounds nice,’ said Caro defiantly.  She scrolled through Homebody’s profile.  ‘Look, he’s a teacher.’
‘Why’s that a good thing?’
‘He’ll be sensible, and reliable, and good with kids.’
‘Not if he’s anything like any of the teachers I ever had!’
She ignored that, and read on.  ‘He likes eating out and staying in – just like me.’
‘Everybody likes eating out sometimes and staying in sometimes,’ said Philippe, determined to dismiss Homebody.  ‘That doesn’t tell you anything.’
‘You don’t,’ said Caro.  ‘When do you ever have a cosy night in?’
‘We’ve stayed in a couple of evenings.’  Philippe had been surprised how much he’d enjoyed both of them, in fact.  He’d never done the whole lying-on-a-sofa-watching-a-DVD thing before.  With a glass of wine and Caro commenting all the way through it, he had been able to see the appeal, definitely.
‘Only because you’re here in Montluce.  You wouldn’t do that normally, wouldn’t you?’
Philippe couldn’t remember what normal was any more.  There was only this life, with Caro.  Coming home from some tedious meeting and finding her humming in the kitchen.  Enduring his great aunt’s lectures, knowing that she would be able to make him laugh afterwards.  Watching her engage with everyone she met, watching her smile, taking every opportunity to touch her.
Lying in bed with her, talking, laughing, making love. 
Waking up with her in the morning. 
That was normal now.
Sometimes he would sit on the stool at the counter and watch her moving around the kitchen, while he told her about his meetings, and she listened to what he said, unlike the First Minister or the Dowager Blanche.  She’d listen and ask questions and challenge him, and Philippe had a horrible feeling he was going to miss all that when she went.
Because she would go.  She was always looking talking about her plans for the delicatessen she wanted to open when she got back to Ellerby.  Philippe wanted to tell her to stop it, but how could he?  It wasn’t as if he wanted her to stay forever.  There was no question of that. He was only here until his father was home, and then he would go back to South America.  He could fly when he wanted, party when he wanted.  He could date sophisticated women who wouldn’t know where the kitchen was.   There would be risk and challenge and uncomplicated relationships.  That would be much more fun than red boxes and watching Caro cook.
Wouldn’t it? 
‘This Homebody guy sounds catastrophically dull,’ he decided. ‘ You’d be bored witless at the end of one of those cosy nights in.’
‘You don’t know that,’ said Caro, obviously perversely determined to see Homebody as the perfect man for her.  ‘Look, he says he’s got a good sense of humour.’
Philippe was unimpressed.  ‘Everyone’s going to say that,’ he said.  ‘He’s hardly going to admit that  he’s dullness personified, is he?’
‘We’ve got lots in common,’ Caro insisted. ‘He ticks all my boxes: steady, decent, ordinary.  A guy like that isn’t looking for a glamourpuss or a sex kitten.  He wants someone steady and decent and ordinary - like me.’
‘I don’t know why you persist in thinking of yourself as ordinary,’ said Philippe, throwing himself back down onto the sofa. 
He felt edgy and restless at the idea of Caro with another man.  What if Homebody was the one for her?  He would be the one coming home to find Caro pottering around in the kitchen. He would be able to reach for her in bed and have all that warmth and passion to himself.
Was everything he was showing Caro really going to benefit a man who could describe himself as Homebody?
‘Ordinary girls don’t dress out of a jumble sale catalogue for a start,’ he said, forgetting that he’d come to appreciate her quirky style.  No matter how eccentric the clothes, Caro wore them with flair.  Not that he was going to tell her that.  It would be no fun if he couldn’t give her a hard time about her wardrobe, would it?  ‘They don’t spend their whole time in the kitchen or hobnobbing with the staff.’
As far as Philippe could tell, Caro was on first name terms with every footman, maid in the palace. She knew everyone in the kitchen, and had met all the gardeners on her walks with Apollo.  She was always telling him about Yvette’s worry about her elderly mother, or the fact that Michel rode a motorbike on his days off, that Gaston grew wonderful tomatoes or that Marie-Madeleine had a crush on the head butler, which no one, including Philippe, could understand.
‘Ordinary girls don’t have servants to hobnob with,’ Caro pointed out dryly.  ‘I’m just being myself.’

From the book: Ordinary Girl in a Tiara
By: Jessica Hart
Imprint and series Harlequin® Romance™
Copyright © 2011
By: Jessica Hart

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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