December 08, 2009

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW Posted by Sheila Connolly, with a little help from Sarah Atwell That's one of the first rules you learn in writing. Write about something you're familiar with, so you can give your story authentic flavor, color, texture. There's one major exception: most mystery writers haven't killed anyone. I've met a lot of mystery writers, and they're all really very nice. But I do know that many of us have done such odd things as visit morgues and prisons, and even taken shooting courses, in order to get our details right. We also post all sorts of gruesome questions on various loops as we look for accurate information: "What would a body look like after being submerged in a swamp for a week?" "How far does blood spatter?" I'll admit that Sarah and I had never seen the Southwest when we started writing the Glassblowing Series. When I did travel there, I was blown away by Tucson and the surrounding area. It was so unfamiliar, so unlike anything I had ever encountered growing up on the East Coast or in California (where I lived for ten years). In a way the setting became a character in its own right–the dryness of the air, the ubiquitous cacti, the mountains always on the edge of your vision. My protagonist Em Dowell was herself a transplant from Back East, so she was always aware of her surroundings. The Orchard Series, on the other hand, was born from my chance encounter with a house built by an ancestor of mine. I've always joked that it was all those dead relatives in the town that kept calling me back, but I fell in love with the place and ended up using it in a book, and then a series of books, because I wanted to have a reason to keep going back. Once again my protagonist Meg Corey is an outsider, a city girl, so she starts out by feeling completely out of place in the small rural town–and finding a body in her back yard doesn't help! But over the course of the series she comes to appreciate small-town values, and she's making friends and finding her own niche there. Like Meg, I'm learning as I go–and now I've picked a lot of apples, and planted organic lettuce, and walked through boggy fields, and toured farmers markets and cider mills. And talked to farmers and orchardists about the economic and practical realities of small farms in this day and age. Next fall I'll be launching a new series, which is about as diametrically opposed to the Orchard Series as you can get (except for the intelligent and determined protagonist in each who will keep on solving murders). It "stars" the City of Philadelphia, and my heroine is an insider, someone who has lived and worked in the area for many years. She's involved in the cultural community, so you lucky readers are going to get all sorts of glimpses into what really goes on behind the scenes in museums and historic institutions. This time I can say that I have lived in the Philadelphia area and I worked there for over a decade, and yes, that included stints in two museums. I also worked for the City itself, so I know something about how the city works. As a result, I know the sights and the sounds and the smells of the place–the bustle of the underground corridors between train stations, the wonderful vistas where you catch glimpses of the opulent City Hall, the quiet corners of history like Ben Franklin's burial site. I hope to use all of these to make the books in the new series come alive. But I have a favor to ask of you. So far my editor and I have been calling this "Book 1" of the "Museum Mystery Series." Marketing hasn't chimed in yet with names. So tell me: what's the first thing you think about when you think Philadelphia? What terms will immediately clue you in that a book is about not only the city, but also about its history and its cultural community? All suggestions welcome, including title ideas. (So far the only strong contender we've come up with is "For Whom the Bell Cracks.)
Martha Stewart Made Me Do It Happy Holidays from Kate.... This is not a column about insider trading. Aren't you relieved? This is a column for those of us who are trying to get through the holidays with some semblance of style (the occasional shower, clean jeans, or bit of glitter) without having to guild the turkey carcass or serve seventeen kinds of cookies on our collection of antique silver platters covered with homemade doilies. This year, I am so far behind that I can't say for sure that we will be having Christmas, but I'm trying. When I can remember. Which is why I'm thinking that it's a grand idea, this business of making a list and checking it twice. I'm not sure it applies so well to a woman of a certain age. That's me. The woman who can no longer remember anything. Whose store of proper nouns has been stolen, with the rest of my vocabulary not far behind. I thought this season was supposed to be fun? Normally, I'm so organized. My holiday shopping is done by mid-November, so I can deliver presents to my brother's family at Thanksgiving. This year, aside from buying that dump truck load of books I mentioned last week, I've done nothing. No baking. No holiday cards. No stocking presents. No tree. One spindly little amaryllis that might eventually produce a bloom. The charmingly ugly construction paper turkey my niece's students made is still taped to the dining room window. I have no idea what I'm doing, despite daily trips to the post office. I may have to break down and make some lists. For example, this Saturday, I expect that shortly after 7 p.m., the doorbell with start ringing and 50 or more of my closest neighbors and friends will arrive for a holiday party. This is a party that I can blame, entirely, on Martha Stewart . Nearly thirty years ago, she published a cookbook called Entertaining. A neighbor bought it for his wife, who made fantastic hors d'oeuvres that she served at a party. My husband was impressed, bought me the cookbook, and we decided we had to have a party. The party has gone on ever since. I'm still using Martha's recipes, and the part has become a neighborhood tradition. Years ago, I used to cook for three weeks. I'd make dozens of phyllo dough triangles stuffed with curried walnut chicken, and dozens more with spinach. I'd make artichoke toasts and tiny orange muffins with smoked turkey. I'd make a hundred miniature smoked salmon and leek quiches. I'd chop, roll, bake, marinate, and freeze. I'd peel eggs for hardboiled eggs by the hour. That was when I was young and supple and not desperately trying to cut another 10,000 words out of a manuscript. That was when I could stand in the kitchen for six hours at a stretch without moaning, "Oh, my aching back!" One year, just as guests started arriving, the power went off. I couldn't finish cooking my trays of goodies. No problem. I put sterno in the oven to keep things warm, put out every candle in the house, and borrowed a camping lantern so I could work in the kitchen. Lulled into happiness by candlelight and bowls of margaritas, every had a fine time. No one even knew we didn't have power until three hours later, when the lights suddenly came on. It was a magical evening. Now, party time is almost here, and, with no memory and no list, I can't quite remember what it is that I'm planning to serve. Eggs again, probably, since two of my neighbors have already declared that they are stealing the platter and eating them all. That brought a prompt, "We SHARE in this family." Golden brown Asian chicken wings, a recipe I got from a colleague in the Maine Attorney General's office. Smoked bluefish pate, from one of my old Thea Kozak's quick and dirty recipes. Crab cakes with caper sauce because my husband grew up in Maryland. Pedro's Secret, aka The Giant Taco, because we always have it, and it's so much fun to put all the layers together. Meatballs and tiny sausages, because they don't take any work and everyone loves them. Shrimp, likewise, with the Martha Stewart touch of a red or green pepper full of cocktail sauce in the center of the platter. The almond-stuffed dates with bacon are still a question mark. The wise hostess stays with her own demographic. It probably won't matter whether I remember to serve food at this party or not, because all my friends also have memory issues. Together, we'll make it work. We'll light the candles, put out something on some kind of platter, put out the annual bowl of margaritas, and celebrate the season. Once again, we'll blame Martha, and love, and friendship and have some of that fun this season is supposed to be about. (At right, Sheila's apple cake, from One Bad Apple. Delicious!) P.S. Martha could use some competition, or an updating. Anyone got a great hors d'oeuvre recipe to share? The smoked bluefish can be found in the recipes section of my website. Let me know if you want that Mahogany Chicken Wings recipe.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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