Monday, May 17, 2010

Salt To Taste

The Sister is a Good Cook. I invite myself to her house early and often, and The Husband even proposed, many years ago, that when we built our house, we should add on an apartment for her.

Yes. She is that good of a cook.

Me, now, I can fix a mean glass of iced tea. Beyond that, and the fried chicken no southern girl is allowed to grow up without knowing how to cook, well, cooking at my house is a big toss of the dice.

How is it, you may ask, that I am not a Good Cook, having grown up in a household with a mother who was a Good Cook and a sister who was a Good Cook, and a grandmother beside us who was a Good Cook?

Easy. With all those Good Cooks, I never had to be anything beyond a Good Scullery Maid. I can wash dishes. I can feed the scraps to the dog. I can set the table. And I so can entertain the Good Cooks.

That's what I did. I'd sit on a stool in the kitchen and tell stories, in between errands like, "Can you get me a bell pepper?" or "Stir that pot of beans," or "I need a plate."

The Poor Husband. He'd eaten The Sister's and Mama's cooking for three years before we married, and he thought that I would be a Good Cook, too.

The secret to being a Good Cook is in the seasoning. No matter what I do to my green beans, they never taste the same way that The Sister's beans do. No matter how tender my pot roast, it never has that rich, dark, melt-in-your mouth flavor that almost rivals chocolate.

The Kiddo is going to be a Good Cook, if she applies herself. She can taste something and tell you, even at age 8, EXACTLY what it needs. And she's right. No, she doesn't say, "Oh, this needs a teaspoon of salt," or "a little wine vinegar and it'll be perfect," but it's coming. Because already? She can taste something and say, "Mommy, that's too sweet," or "Mommy, I think it needs salt."

The skill of seasoning is mostly in-born, but it can be learned. Try-harder-cooks like me, we have to put eagle eyes on Good Cooks, make them slow down, pour that palmful of spices into a measuring spoon and write down the ratios religiously.

I thought of all this as I was reading Margo Berendsen's blog about beginning a novel. Margo was talking about whether to begin with dialogue or description or action -- a thought-provoking question for sure. I began to think about how I start my own novels off -- smack-dab in the middle of conflict, and then follow it with a small slice of backstory.

Then I started thinking about backstory, and how it is like seasoning a rich, bubbling stew. Too much, and it weighs the dish down. Too little, and someone is reaching for the salt shaker, saying, "Dunno if this will help, but something's missing."

My approach to backstory is to put in as little as possible to begin with -- and taste often. I use my CPs to do the tasting, and after that, my editor. If they stop or stumble, then I add more backstory.

It's one of those things that takes a deft hand, just like The Sister and her seasoning. Some rules of thumb I've learned from my editor and my CPs:

1) Trust The Reader: Often, the reader requires very little explanation, and will trust you to provide the details as the story unfolds.

2) A Little Dab Will Do Ya: Start with the absolute minimum when you're adding backstory, a portion of a sentence, a whole sentence, never more than a paragraph or so on a page, and never more than a few paragraphs to a chapter.

3) Begin At The Beginning: If you're finding yourself telling more backstory than you expected, maybe it's because you really want to tell the story of an earlier time in the character's life.

4) You Can Always Add More Later.

This last? Self-explanatory. If your editor or agent needs more than your minimalist approach, she'll let you know -- and she'll let you know exactly where it's needed.

Now if only editors and agents could help me with my cooking ...


Piedmont Writer said...

Cynthia, I was a professional chef for many years and a great cook as well. I'm going to tell you the secret right now -- you have to cook with love. You can cook anything, and as long as you do it with love it will be fantastic.

However, if you don't like cooking, you need to pick five recipes, or things that you do like to cook. Those can be your signature series. Pot roast, fried chicken, whatever else you love, or dearest husband's favorite or The Kiddo's.

Then when you cook them, you'll already know it's their favorite, and because you love them, you want to make their food fantastic, and it will taste fab! I once got 3 marriage proposals off a pan of lasagna. (Did not accept any but...) Hope this helps.

Oh, and thanks for the writing tips!

Linda G. said...

Gosh, if I could only convince you to add a little more salt to your vocabulary, we'd practically be twins. ;)

Toby Speed said...

I've been working on learning this skill (backstory, not cooking) for maybe seven years, and I'm still trimming from the first few chapters of my novel because there's just too much. Trusting the reader and remembering that I can always add more later are hard for me. But I find that as my manuscript grows, new opportunities to add backstory later on are appearing. Sometimes my characters talk about something in their history, and the backstory comes out naturally! It's a surprise to me, a happy one.

Thanks for your insightful post, Cynthia!

Nelsa said...

I can identify, Cynthia. Cooking (like gardening) is not my friend. My mom is a great cook and my dad can make anything grow just by looking at it. Me? Well, like Piedmont Writer said to do - I've picked four dishes I do well - pork loin roast, spare ribs, lasagna, spinach risotto - and try not to do them too many times so the family gets sick of them. The rest of the time I do mean take out.

But it is in the love and in the seasoning. Maybe that's why we write more than we cook - we love it and we love tinkering with it till we get it just right.

Mia said...

LOL, my mom is an excellent cook and made sure I knew how to cook. Yeah, I was making roasts and chocolate tortes and baked chicken at 9. Crazy :)

I liked your tips on writing :) I definitely agree that there should be a balance with backstory. Not too much, not too little. Just right. I like to start my stories with action/conflict, and add a sprinkle of backstory here and there. I still add too much, though :/

Tawna Fenske said...

So when are you going to make me some of that fried chicken? :)


Karla Nellenbach said...

ha! I like to say that Food Network taught me how to cook, and my mom taught me how to enjoy the end result...not to say that my mother isnt a great cook. she is, but she has the standard few recipes that she mixes and matches to create new my dad says "we're shake n bake people!"...and your writing analogies are spot on! nice post :)

L. T. Host said...

I totally hear you on the whole no-need-to-learn-to-cook thing. My mom was a gourmet caterer, my grandma was great at all things Polish and my sister grew up to be a professional pastry chef... what need was there for me to learn?

It's only in the last two years since I've been with my fiance that I've made an effort to try. It's happening, slowly, but I am learning. Great post!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You always have such a great viewpoint on the writing (and apparently cooking too). I'm getting better at world-building without backstory, but lord have mercy, it is not easy. Part of it requires front loading everything in my brain first. Then write.

Stephanie Faris said...

I find myself diving in, then critique partners/contest judges tell me I missed setting the scene! I'm bad about just assuming my readers can see what I see.

Cynthia Reese said...

*over intercom* Anne, please report to Cynthia's kitchen, stat!

Seriously, if it's in the love, then ... oh, my, I'll never get it right. The Sister charitably says my cooking is good, but I compare it to hers, with bad results.

Linda, I'm striving for a sodium-free vocabulary. Not always successful, mind you, but I'm trying. And you will not tempt me, you will not -- awwww, flibbertygigdet!

Toby, it's so tempting, isn't it?? I have to just about tie myself to the mast to resist the siren call of backstory in my own writing. Glad to see you around!

Nelsa, we are definitely long-lost sisters. The Husband points out that I'm the woman in the world he knows that has actually killed cacti. Get the use of the plural, Yes, I'm a serial cactus killer.

Mia, I know HOW to cook. I just don't know how to cook WELL. If you ever tasted The Sister's cooking, you'd understand The Husband's bitter disappointment.

Tawna, you and Linda show up this weekend, and I'll fry the chicken. Promise.

Karla, the most successful dishes I've tried on my own are the creations of Rachel Ray, so I love me some Food Network.

L.T., I so feel your pain. Don't they just expect you to know how to do it in your sleep? A little of this, a dash of that ...

Susan, I think that's the real reason we writers use so much backstory. We're figuring out the story as we write. No shame in taking it out afterwards -- it IS marginally easier than taking out the salt.

Steph, I hear you -- in my last book, my editor astounded me by asking me to put in what I would have considered gobs of backstory up front. I trusted her, and it worked. But at least I knew WHERE to put it.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

So you're not the're the WRITER!!! Works for me. :0)

KarenG said...

This explains why after a mad writing session that consumes several days, I want nothing more than to go to the kitchen and have a mad cooking session. They're so closely related!

Angie Paxton said...

I really enjoyed this post! Your parallels between writing and cooking are great. Too bad there isn't a fool proof recipe for becoming a published author ;^)

Cynthia Reese said...

Kathi, I am SO not the cook. So not.

Karen G, when that sensation comes over me, I just lie down for 15 minutes or until the feeling goes away.

Angie, apparently there's not a fool proof recipe for turning a non-cook into a cook, either. :-)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love to cook. And bake.

And you're totally right- spices and backstory need to be used in moderation. Too much garlic and you'll scare everyone off. Too much backstory and your reader will be drooling on your pages you so lovingly crafted.

Of course, I always start my novels way too early. Then I have to chop away until I actually get to the action. But it gets me started!


Agree with your advice. Especially like your habit of opening with action and adding backstory later--though yes, it's ok to simmer, simmer, the cooking metaphor.