April 29, 2008

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I CALL IT RESEARCH Posted by Sheila Connolly One of the things I love about being a writer is that so many interesting activities can be lumped into the category "research." For me, that means touring glassblowing studios and tramping through apple orchards at all seasons of the year, and digging through archives, and poking around other people's basements, and going to antique shows so I can take pictures of arcane machinery that I might want to use in a book, sometime, maybe. I've always loved learning how things work. My father was an engineer specializing in mixing systems, who worked for a company that made gears. That may sound dull, but the gears were ten feet tall, and operated a weird and wonderful range of machines. His projects ranged from pumping coal slurry across the Mojave Desert to mixing the elastic for ladies girdles (I hope somebody here remembers what a girdle was). So I figure I came by this curiosity naturally. In the series that will debut this summer, my heroine inherits an apple orchard and decides to manage it to make an income. She's a city girl, and clueless about all things agricultural, but she's smart and willing to learn. The first book, One Bad Apple, deals with her arriving at this decision (while trying to figure out who stuffed the body of her ex-boyfriend in her septic tank); in the second (as yet unnamed) book she wrestles with the ongoing organic vs. pesticide controversy. As my husband is an entomologist, I have many resources available for this. The third book, which I will begin in the fall, is going to be about...food! I have set the series in a small, struggling New England town, with no industry and few amenities such as restaurants. So, since I am endowing the town with an economic renaissance, I will give them a decent restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but one of the trendy contemporary farm-to-fork kind, which utilizes fresh and wholesome local produce. This one will be opened by a pair of transplanted Bostonians, who are as clueless about running a restaurant as my heroine is about running an orchard. But all will be well in the end, as soon as they clear up who murdered the latest of those pesky dead bodies that keep showing up in this quiet little town. Therefore I must do food research. Poor me. I confess that I have been a foodie for many, many years, and I even worshipped at Alice Waters' iconic Chez Panisse in my youthful days in Berkeley. But going to restaurants is a passive approach, and I want more hands-on experience, which led to my signing up for a local cheesemaking demonstration, described previously in this blog. More recently I ventured into Cambridge to witness an event staged by the Chefs Collaborative, entitled a Pig Fabrication. In my literal mind, fabrication means making something. What this event involved was watching chef Jamie Bissonette (of Boston restaurant KO Prime) disassemble a whole pig into the pieces we recognize from the supermarket, in an hour or so. Presumably one can move on to fabricating something wonderful from the pieces (and the charcuterie samples were delicious!), but the class was about what comes from where. Let me say up front that the insides of the pig had already been removed, save for the kidneys. It was a relatively small pig, about 140 pounds, or so said the chef (gee, I remember when I weighed 140 pounds, in college. I was larger than the pig carcass.). But the late piggie still had head, tail, feet and everything in between. The class was made up of an interesting mix of people: some chefs, who, surprisingly, had never seen where their meat came from; a few food writers; some local students; and a few anomalies like me and my daughter–maybe thirty people in all. Chef Jamie was fast and funny, and clearly devoted to his calling, and we all watched with rapt fascination as he dismembered the creature, transforming it from animal to potential dinner. And I have to say this class was immensely valuable to me. I wanted to hear someone who respected–or more, revered–food. Who reveled in the process of making something wholesome and still subtle that other people would enjoy eating. While I had known intellectually that any thrifty cook would save all the bits and pieces and turn them into sausage, I had not realized the wide range of end products that could emerge, depending on how they were handled. I did not know that long, slow cooking will reduce even cartilage into something tender and toothsome (there was a very pretty pate made up solely of pigs ears–really). And that's what I want to bring to my fictional restaurant–the passion for food. In 1900, 38% of the population of this country was involved in growing or raising food products; by 2000, the number was 3%. For a century and more we have embraced the ability to ship food faster and further, which now means halfway around the world–asparagus from China! lamb from Australia!–but along the way we've lost sight of the richness of flavor that comes only from food that you picked that morning, or the day before. I'm excited to find that a lot of other people–farmers, restauranteurs and consumers–now recognize this and celebrate it. And I plan to sample as much as I can. I love research!
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Eeyore livelies Up Posted by Kate Flora The title of today's post comes from a reggae song urging the listener to "lively up yourself." Sometimes writers, who spend far too much time alone in our rooms living in our heads, need to take that advice, so this week I left my room and headed south to the Malice Domestic conference in Crystal City, Virginia, to a great event at the Barnes and Noble in Annapolis, Maryland organized by my friend, Marcia Talley, and then on to the Festival of Mystery, sponsored by Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. It was a blast, and it reminded me of one of my earliest perceptions about the mystery writing business: that mystery writers are the most interesting and generous group I could ever hope to be a part of. Part of being at a conference is catching up and remembering how much I like my colleagues. It is about celebrating who is up--such as Guest of Honor Charlaine Harris, an overnight success now after twenty-seven dedicated years. Charlaine is wonderfully funny, and despite the incredible success of her Sukie Stackhouse vampire books, absolutely grounded. She did her interviews and gave her Guest of Honor speech in the same natural, self-effacing way she has always done everything, and her pure delight in this recognition by her peers, in the presence of her beloved family, brought us all to our feet to celebrate the moment with her. There are also the authors who need consolation--those whose series have been dropped or their latest book rejected by an editor. There are the aspiring authors I know to be talented writers who are still struggling, a year after I last saw them, to get an agent or interest an editor in their books. Most of us have been there. It is a very up and down business, so when we say, "I feel your pain," we really mean that we have felt it. May even be feeling it right now, but they are more in need of consolation. And there truly is some comfort in knowing you aren't alone, and hearing stories of others who have recovered from these doldrums and gone on with their careers. I especially like the moments when my friends triumph. Watching New England sister-in-crime Hank Phillippi Ryan win an Agatha for best first novel was pure joy. Hank is slim. She is glamorous. She has the wardrobe we would all die to own and be able to wear. And Hank is nice--genuinely nice. She is unusually generous. She is lovely and talented. She is exactly the girl we would have hated in high school except that she's for real. She's not just being nice to get your vote. She IS nice. And so her sisters from the New England chapter clapped with tears in our eyes when she received her silly little teapot. (Hank is second from the left.) Other highlights: Going to the Guppies (Sisters in Crime's web group The Great Unpublished) lunch and exchanging hugs with blog buddy (or, more aptly, blog wrangler) Lorraine Bartlett, or Lorna Barrett or whoever she decides to write as next. Lorraine truly fits the bill of "people in this business who are seriously nice." She hounds me to publicize myself, and when I lag, she does it herself! It was the best fun to watch her sell stacks of her Lorna Barrett book, Murder is Binding, while smiling her sweet smile and exuding the great vibes of someone who is really having a wonderful time. Going on to Annapolis with Marcia is more great fun. Even though I am "grown up," Marcia is the person I'd like to be when I really grow up. She's the smart girl who also has good manners. She's the really fine writer who mines the emotions of the everyday. She's the author of the memorable first line: WHEN I GOT CANCER, I DECIDED I WASN'T GOING TO put up with crap from anybody anymore, which appears in Sing It to Her Bones. At Marcia's yearly writer's sleep-over, I get to know new authors and catch up on all the gossip in the business. We all do a fabulously well-attended event at Barnes & Noble (where the CRM is a peach) and then go out to Cantlers and eat seafood by the water. Spring is farther advanced than in New England, and driving down the winding roads among the flowering trees and trailing wisteria is heaven. The girl's road trip ends in Oakmont, PA, where Richard and Mary Alice, owners of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, have rented a church hall where we will all assemble to sign books. With the jammed parking lot and readers lined up for a block, waiting to get it, it looks more like a l andrush than a book sale, and it is the peak event of the season. After the event, we all go back to the bookstore, where we eat pizza and drink wine and sign the bathroom wall. Marcia tells me about a great collection of short stories I have to buy. Ellen Crosby bemoans the loss of her luggage, containing the dress she needs to wear to be a presenter on Thursday at the Edgars. For this week, beginning at Malice and ending with the Edgars, the mystery community really feels like a community. I meet new authors, catch up with friends, get filled with story ideas and inspired by the talent, humor and perseverance of my peers. Tomorrow I'll take the train down to New York to watch a first-time author I published received the Robert L. Fish Award for the best crime story of 2007 by a new author. I'll hope, throughout the Edgars banquet, that he will also be coming home with an Edgar. By late Thursday night, when the Edgar banquet is over, I'll be ready to come home, close the door, and dig deeply back into Joe Burgess. But for now, I am out in the world, getting lively...

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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