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 ...