Turkey-Pies to Croquettes

One of many fascinating aspects of writing historical romances is pondering the food my characters eat.  In real life, how our own food is prepared and served provides information about us.  Most families have beloved recipes that are handed down from one generation to the next, like Aunt Nellie’s cabbage and pineapple salad; or are shared between friends, like the recipe I translated for bernadines, French almond cookies, when I was in high school.

When researching To be Seduced, I found Samuel Pepys’ diary a wonderful source of food and entertainment available in London.  Not only did Sam enjoy the pleasures of the table — he frequently comments on meals, beginning with the Diary‘s first entry — he grasped the propaganda value of food and drink.  At the beginning of his journal, Pepys speaks of gifts of wine and food from his patrons, Sir Edward and Lady Montague (later the Earl and Countess of Sandwich and ancestors of the eponymous earl), and he himself takes great pains to see that his wife Elizabeth presents suitable meals when they entertain guests.

Much of his food sounds strange our ears, but at the time were delicacies by virtue of their rarity or expense.  Venison, for example, was available only to those noblemen whose estates had herds of deer.  To receive the gift of a haunch or other cut, or even meat pies made with it, was a sign of favor in that era.  Wine was another popular gift, for by then much of it was imported and again out of the reach of many.

In  my second book, venison pasty and sack are replaced by the elaborate meals of the Victorian aristocracy.  Unlike the adulterated and inferior food offered for sale to the poor in cities, that on the nobleman’s table was fresh and well-prepared.  According to British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer, the wealthiest classes started growing vegetables such as artichokes, broccoli, and several varieties of lettuce on their estates in the eighteenth century.  Meats available depending on the season were mutton and lamb, veal, pheasant and grouse, rabbit and freshwater fish like trout and salmon (to name only two).  The wealthy ate fresh fruit throughout the year thanks to hot-houses and the ability to afford exotic imports.

Victorians at all economic levels considered the waste of food sinful.  Leftovers were either presented to the servants or saved for subsequent meals in the dining room, provided they could be disguised as something original.  For example, recipes for croquettes abounded.  Minced cooked meat and vegetables were combined with breadcrumbs and molded, then fried or steamed and served with a sauce.  Viewed as a feminine delicacy, men tended to regard them with disdain before rushing off to their clubs for a slab of beef and some potatoes.  I am inclined to sympathise with the gentlemen here.

Sources

This is a very good online site featuring Pepys’ Diary and including several articles and annotations.

Spencer, Colin,  British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Columbia University Press, 2002)

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Dinner and Dancing

Having written about my older daughter a couple of weeks ago, my youngest mentioned that it might be a good idea for me to write about her accomplishments.  She accompanied the remark with one of those threatening glances only a teenager can achieve, the kind that combines an air of long-suffering with the threat of casually mentioning unfair treatment to grandparents.

We were at our weekly mother daughter dinner together that night, something we’ve done since she was six.  It started as a way to make sure she got fed before dance class.  These days she has three dance lessons a week, as well as those for martial arts, plus homework for advanced placement classes in school.  Still, we pick a night to eat dinner together, just the two of us.  Sometimes we talk about school or writing, sometimes we just gossip, sometimes we don’t say much of anything.

She and I differ so wildly in temperament that both of us often feel like we don’t even speak the same language.  I am more emotional, she is driven by logic.  She blazed through the lab section of her chemistry final so fast she isolated extra elements out of sheer boredom (and made only one mistake).  I can’t prove it, but I think one reason her school’s debate coach begged her to join the team is because she and I have spent so much of time defending our opinions to each other.  But week by week, dinner by dinner, we’ve also discovered over the years that we like a lot of the same things: dancing, writing, movies, history.

Granted, she likes jazz and I like ballet, but we both understand the frustrations of getting a new step from the brain into our bodies (in that way, we are all too similar).  But when the light bulb turns on and something that was a complete mystery thirty seconds ago is now easy, we’re the ones who high five each other while her sister and father look on.

This is the daughter I can turn to when I need immediate feedback on a section I’ve just written.  She will be as blunt as my regular critique group, and to me, her praise is as meaningful as theirs.   She has a knack for words.  Even before she started writing, she chose words carefully.

As befits her personality, her work is darker than mine.  She’s outgrown the Twilight saga, but paranormal fiction may always be her first love.  With her fondness for television and movies, I am currently trying to encourage her (this is not a girl who takes orders or even suggestions all that well, at least from her mother) to consider a basic screenwriting class.  She doesn’t have the patience for great detail, but the characters and plots she comes up with sound better than a lot of what’s showing on screens large or small.  (Okay, I’m biased.  But seriously, have you seen what’s out there??)

I don’t know if she’ll ever have her work out in the wide world, mostly because while she likes writing, she doesn’t see it as her life’s calling.  Over our dinners, she’s made clear that she passionately wants to make the world a better place when she grows up, in a concrete, measurable way.  In her case, it will likely be through the channels of the justice system, one way or another.  Her great fascination is with law enforcement: how the system works and where it fails, and why people break laws or obey them.  The girl has done a lot of research on her own.

Watching the sparkle in her eyes as she tells me about something she’s discovered, I am not going to tell her to follow a life path that involves less danger or burn out.  Our dinners together are for listening as well as talking, and she deserves to be heard.  She understands that she needs to create, and hopefully dancing and writing will help ease her stress and clarify her needs, as all acts of creation do.  Meanwhile, pass the fries.

So Obviously, I can’t Choose this Cup

Lately it feels like I’m in that scene from The Princess Bride where Vizzini the Sicilian attempts to use logic to decide which of two cups holds poison.  In one of his recent emails, my editor — who I love working with — gently suggested I should stop jumping eras.  This isn’t a shock.  To be Seduced is placed in Restoration England and my second (so far untitled) book takes place in Victorian-era Scotland.  My current work-in-progress is a medieval.

From a marketing point of view, this is madness second only to starting a land war in Asia.  ‘Author branding’ is a hot topic among romance writers.  It pops up in articles on self-promotion, in advice to acquire an agent, in conversations between writers.  The idea is that readers see your name and think ‘Regency, I’m in the mood for that’ or ‘I’ve been looking for a good werewolf romance, I’ll try her book’ or ‘Oooo, Navy SEALs’.  This does make sense.  When you watch Star Trek you want to see the USS Enterprise, not the Death Star.

Since Kensington has an option on my next historical, I should take my editor’s suggestion and either abandon my work-in-progress to develop another set of characters from my ‘Ideas’ notebook, or try to bring it forward to a later century.  Shouldn’t I write a book with the best chance of selling to the publisher that I am obligated to show it to anyway?

Therefore, I should reconsider my WIP or revisit characters and stories that would fit a later time and place, in my case probably 19th century England.

But what about ‘write for yourself, not the market, because it will change by the time your book comes out’?  Or ‘write what’s in your heart’?  My characters come out of the history I read, and I don’t limit that to one era.  Honestly, sticking with only one time period for reading and especially for writing would drive me off the Cliffs of Insanity.  My characters appear with their time periods attached.  Bringing my WIP forward would essentially destroy its hero and heroine, for they are a product of their time, just as we all are.  If I then abandon this tale for another, am I selling my soul?

Therefore, I should stay with my WIP.

I have two professional goals this year: get an agent and sell another book.  I need a finished manuscript to do either one.  If I present a manuscript with characters that are clamoring to get onto the page, that matches one of the time periods in my first two books, an agent could sell it and make a commission more easily.

Therefore, I should abandon my WIP.

But suppose I finish my current story, present it to Kensington and they pass on it.  I would have a manuscript with characters I love finished that much sooner, and an agent could start offering it to other houses with no strings attached.

Therefore, I should stay with my WIP.

Sigh.  Like Vizzini, I can keep this up for hours.  What must happen is a decision.  Neither of my choices are poison.  The worst thing that will happen if I stay with my WIP is a ‘no thanks’ from Kensington.  I’ll still have a manuscript to pitch to agents.  The worst thing if I shelve it in favor of a different story is that Kensington will say ‘no thanks anyway’ and I’ll have a  manuscript to pitch.

I’ve had the characters for my current WIP floating around in my head for years.  There’s no way I’m not going to finish writing their story.  It’s just a question of whether to do so now or later.

My Secret Life as a Skating Mom

Our oldest daughter is a senior level skater.  My husband and I are way too familiar with early mornings at the rink, twice a day practices and off-ice conditioning.  I have bedazzled more skating dresses than I care to think about over the years and I can usually predict when a skater is going to fall on her jump from the way she sets up her entrance.

Our daughter will probably hang up her skates after this season, which will be bittersweet, but even without getting to the U.S. Championships or international competition, it has been mostly a good road for her.

Skating can be expensive, time-consuming and at times frustrating, but there are tangible benefits.  Our daughter learned valuable lessons from this sport about what is important to success: Commitment and hard work.  The right equipment.  A good coach or teacher.  A good support system.  As parents, we learned to make the hard calls for our budget and say “no” to the competition or workshop we could not afford.  As a result, we don’t have a second mortgage and we do have a coach who gets paid on time.

Our daughter lettered in academics at our local public high school and graduated with a scholarship.  She attributes this to the self-discipline and perseverance she learned from figure skating.  She gained a second father in the person of her coach, who shall be known on this blog only as the Mad Ukrainian.  (We lucked out with him.  He yells a lot, but nobody shows more concern for their students’ well-being.)  The unspoken code of deportment required of all skaters, parents and judges at competitions has also helped her through difficult personal encounters outside skating.  (Never cry.  Never whine about marks.  Never EVER bash another skater, even if you’re an Olympic medalist.  This is bad form, and the Skating Powers That Be will exact revenge.  I’ve watched them do it.)

She learned not just how to win and lose graciously, but that at some point, everyone fails.  She knows now to get up, assess the goal and change it or try again.

She is also able to use her knowledge to coach younger skaters, which is a boon to her wallet (and ours!!) and a credit to the Mad Ukrainian.  She’s worked with international-level coaches and  choreographers over the years.  While she might struggle with the all-important triple jumps, she takes pride in footwork and spins that garner high marks and compliments.

Most important to her and to us, she has learned that competitors and their families can be friends.  She has — and needs — dear friends outside the discipline, but only another skater gets the triumphs and disappointments of the sport.  The same goes for parents and siblings.  We’ve watched some of these young women for years.  By now, our families sit together in the stands and cheer for all of them.  Sure, each mom wants HER daughter on the podium.  But we all know how hard every skater out there works.  We’re not blind or stupid, either.  We don’t focus on details the way officials are trained to, but we can generally tell who should get the best scores.

Figure skating throws up hideous public scandals periodically, but for every incident of knee-bashing and bribed judges, there are countless unseen episodes of kindness:  Competitors squealing “You’re here!!”  and tackle-hugging each other in the rink lobby.  An official taking time to comfort a little girl in a sparkly dress who forgot her routine.  Experienced skating moms guiding new ones through a first competition.  Rivals and their families laughing together at a post-competition dinner.  These are the intangibles that gold medals can’t replace.

Saturday at The Bookworm

I had a lovely afternoon on Saturday, February 13th, at the Bookworm in Omaha!

The Bookworm, an independent bookstore , graciously offered to set up a book signing after I queried them late last year.  Manager and part owner Beth Black set up a table and plenty of chairs in a well-lit corner and even provided a much-needed bottle of water for this nervous author.  I don’t recall having such a severe case of dry mouth in my life!  I hoped Beth wasn’t too optimistic — while I knew several people planned to be there, the chairs outnumbered them.

I should have known better!  At least half my wonderful critique group came, some with friends or family; so did members of the Heartland Writer’s Group, one of my RWA chapters; and members of my church.  I am still touched at the support offered to me by family, friends and colleagues.  Cheryl St. John took pictures for me, and even Victoria Alexander stopped to chat with me a few minutes.  These are two wonderfully supportive authors!  My mentor and president of the Nebraska Writer’s Guild, S. J. Walker, took valuable time out from her horrendous deadline to cheer me on.

I did a reading, talked a bit and answered questions without embarrassing myself too much.  Meanwhile, the Bookworm sold out of their two dozen copies of To be Seduced!  That’s why the stand at my elbow is empty, lol.  Pictured with me is Cheri LaClaire, a member of the Heartland Writer’s Group.  Yeah, I know — I’m looking down.  Really, this is not much of a loss.  And I look so industrious!

The signing ended (on my part anyway) awash in relief, triumph and a sense of blessings bestowed.  Thank you to everyone who attended.  I appreciate each and every one of you!