Cooking it up with my (head)crew

Sometimes, separating the writer from the character is hard. We find ourselves putting our own traits into those of our protagonist, so they become mirrors of us. They may share the same taste in music, food, or hobbies. Their favorite sports team may be ours; that song on the radio we just can’t stand may make them grind their teeth, too.

One trait that I’ve noticed that comes through in all of my favorite characters is an interest in cooking. Their proficiency levels vary (from Chie’s ignorance about what “simmer” means, to Marshall knowing the recipe for drop scones so well he can make them in his brother’s kitchen without a book), but they always enjoy cooking. It may have different meanings for them – a desire to please, a need to control, sometimes just a way for characters to relax or get to know each other better – but even those meanings are from my own experience.

Even though I’m not actively writing while I do it, cooking allows me the freedom to let my mind wander. It’s a time of day I usually spend alone with my thoughts, and those thoughts almost invariably turn to my stories and characters: Does Paige sneak chopped vegetables from the cutting board while Daniel looks away? Does Ross sway with Amber as she stirs some sauce? Does Axton have to stop making breakfast because the hounds won’t settle down?

No matter who the character is – doctor, dancer, reckless bounty hunter – they’re all me, in a way. I’m no doctor; I’m barely a dancer; I couldn’t track a skip to save my life. But there are more basic traits we share between us, like joy for art, work, and – sure – cooking. In honor of that sense of sharing, I thought I’d share a bit of a recent cooking experience: curried shrimp and mango soup. The photos below detail the real-life steps I took, but rest assured as ingredients were browning, bubbling, and coming together in that Dutch oven, my brain was equally bubbling with ideas for where my next story should go. And, of course, there’ll be cooking.

If you’re interested, here’s the recipe, originally from Eating Well:

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 serrano chile, minced (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups seafood broth or stock or clam juice
  • 1 14-ounce can “lite” coconut milk
  • 3 ripe mangoes, diced
  • 1 1/4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preparation

  1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, chile (if using), curry powder and thyme; stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add broth (or stock or clam juice), coconut milk and mangoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
  2. Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Return the puree to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook until pink and firm, about 3 minutes. Stir in scallions and salt.

What personal traits – if any – do you find you share most commonly with your characters? What do you see your characters doing when you’re cooking, doing the wash, or some other regular chore? Do you think you’ll try the curried shrimp and mango soup recipe? Let me know in the comments!

My Masking Face

I’d meant to write a post about keeping balance in our lives, especially as writers, since many of us spend a lot of time sitting sequestered away in front of a computer. I was going to advise keeping a good exercise regime (I try to do 20-30 minutes every morning, plus walking or running through the day), a good eating schedule and habits (veggies and fruits are good and good for you!), and a regular sleep cycle (many of us ignore sleep in favor of work, studying, or even writing, when getting enough or even more sleep can actually help us do those things better). Then I had a horrendous work week that turned into two weeks – now approaching three – and I realized that I don’t even take my own advice. Instead, I put on a specific kind of mask: what folks at my institution call my PennFace.

“Pilot” by George Hodan; public domain image

Similar to the Stanford Duck, the image of which is a duck swimming placidly across the water while its legs kick furiously beneath the surface, PennFace is a term used to describe the mask some students wear to cover up their anxieties, fears, and stress. They walk around campus with smiles on their faces, saying, “I’m all good!” to their friends, and generally acting – on the outside – that everything is going swimmingly. On the inside, though, or behind the closed doors of their dorm room, they may sweat, cry, or curl into the fetal position while they wish for the world to leave them alone for a while. I have that closed-off feeling a lot, but I try to project myself as being confident and carefree.

Everybody has their own issues, and everyone deals with their issues differently. But nobody wants to burden anybody else with their problems. I certainly don’t. So, I put on my PennFace. And, that works. For a while. But we can only go so long before we have to stop running, stand up straight, and face our issues. The mask does no good then: when it’s only us and that which plagues us. The difficult part for me to admit is that that stop running bit isn’t so terrible when I finally do it. In fact, it’s very, very often a good thing, and what helps me get back on track with the rest of my life/job/whatever. Like the heroes about whom many of us write, we have to face our fears, and those moments of truth usually make us stronger.

We make the decision to stand up and confront our troubles alone. We don’t have to take the next step alone, though. Family, lovers, friends, coworkers, therapists, teachers, clergy – there are so many people out there willing to help. Asking is hard. But doing everything alone is so much harder.

Some people enjoy conflict and chaos: they thrive on it. Personally, I prefer control and routine. But, life by nature is chaotic, and how we deal with that chaos affects how we live. I still pull out and put on the mask, a lot more often than I probably should. I’m learning, though. And, I’m finding I like seeing my real face in the mirror a lot more than I like seeing my PennFace there.

How do you cope with your “PennFace?”

Friend Focus: 4amWriter’s Writer…Uninterrupted Goes Indie

EDIT:
Writer…Uninterrupted: A Handbook for the Emerging Writer
available now from Amazon!

Hey, everybody! 4amwriter is going indie!

If you don’t know who 4amwriter – Kate Johnston – is, click the link above and head over to her blog to find out. You won’t even need to come back here, because she can speak for herself much better than I can do, but I’ll share my experience of Kate anyway, because I always like a personal touch when I read recommendations. And, if you know the kind of writer I was before Kate, you’ll get an understanding of how I’ve grown with her help.

I first “met” writer, editor, and activist Kate Johnston about three years ago, through a writing blog called LimebirdWriters (archives still available and worth it!). Over the course of reading her poetry and prose, and looking through her articles and commentary, I learned a lot about writing in general, as well as my own voice. I even took advantage of an editing offer Kate had a few years ago, for which I sent her the first 1000 words of my 2012 NaNoWriMo story, “Anywhere but Here.” Her feedback for that scene was awesome, so much it pains me that I’m still trying to sort out the best way to rewrite this story, to be worthy of those comments. Kate’s helped me with other scenes over the years, too. So, when I read that she was jumping into independent publishing with a series of books on helping writers be better writers, I knew I had to help spread the word.

My acquaintanceship with Kate doesn’t even begin to scratch this lady’s surface. Head over to her blog and read about her adventures in writing and life – of both the 2-legged and 4-legged variety! You will not be disappointed. And, while you’re there, click “Follow” so you’ll know when her “Writer…Uninterrupted” series hits the virtual shelves. You’ll be glad you did so.

 

“The Best Simplicity” [Another “Finding Mister Wright” short]

I’m currently finishing up my 2014 NaNoWriMo story, but, yesterday, I got a flash idea for a short Valentine’s Day free-write. As most of my free-writes tend to be, this one takes place in my “Finding Mister Wright” universe, with its familiar cast of characters. Like “Tuxedos and Sugar Plum Fairies” and “Namesake,” this short story takes a step back from the cast’s present day. Unlike any of the previous FMW pieces, though, this one looks at life from Daniel’s perspective.

I’ve written for Daniel in his other incarnations before, but I’ve never written specifically for him, here, in this body, personality, and time. I don’t know if it was entirely successful a departure from the other characters in the FMW universe, but his conflict was certainly interesting to examine. Also, I had way too much fun writing this story.

“The Best Simplicity”
(~3000 words, 12 pages; PDF opens in a new window)

Valentine’s Day is about love. Not necessarily romantic love, though we often translate it that way for our purposes. Whether you’re dancing the night away with your partner or enjoying a stay-at-home dinner-and-a-movie night – or wherever you are in the world, and whomever you’re with – I hope your adventures are filled with the same love I’ve tried to share with these words.

My Rollercoaster Days

My Rollercoaster Days

Artist unknown

Artist unknown

I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster, lately.

Students are back, which makes my work days both easier and more difficult. It’s great to be around that enthusiasm and excitement, especially at the start of a new semester, but they come with a set of headaches, too: technical issues, personal issues, conflicts, conundrums, and an air of chaos that’s been missing during the summer months. I know as soon as they settle into classes, the craziness will die down. I just need to make it that far.

Family-wise, I did some traveling over the summer. Mostly up to the old family homestead, which was fun, but the journey is tiring. Especially when work follows the next day. I’m back to Japan again in October, which I’m definitely looking forward to, though I could do without the minutiae involved in planning three different people’s schedules.

My stories are what truly keep me going day to day. Wednesdays and Thursdays tend to be my best days of the week, because I post new chapters on Wednesdays, and the feedback always gives me a jolt. I’m no longer so insecure that no feedback will make me drop a story mid-stream, but I fully admit seeing a new comment appear in my email inbox gives me a short adrenaline rush. Of course, that doesn’t last, but I go back every day or so to re-read some of the more thoughtful comments and questions to restore my confidence.

The other day, on my commute to work, I passed the painting above. It was just sitting there, alone, on the sidewalk by the station. No name on it, and nobody around. I knew it probably wouldn’t be there on my return walk, so I snapped a photo of it. I’m glad I did. That painting reminds me there are other people out there struggling, many in much greater ways than I am, but some in ways very similar to me. It also reminds me that there are really only four things in any person’s existence that truly matter: learning, laughing, loving, and living. We can all do those, no matter where we are in our lives, our careers, or our relationships.

I’ll keep working, naturally. I’ll keep spending time with my family. And, of course, I’ll keep writing. But when the ups and downs of my rollercoaster days start to wear me down, I’ll do my best to remember what I learned from seeing this painting on the street. Will you do, too?

Flipping the coin

Last time, I talked about writing villains. Everybody had great comments, but Vanessa’s sparked a new idea in me. In my head (sometimes on paper), I have backstories for every character who walks onto my pages for any more than a sentence or two. Most of these backstories are rather simple, because I don’t see the point in spending too much time on a character who is basically just a spaceholder. But for anyone with any significance to the story, they have their own story. But Vanessa’s insight offered me a different perspective: basically, that we storytellers should remember that every good villain is the hero of his or her own story.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your villain needs to have heroic traits. But, their motivations and characterization should come from a place of realism. The best villains are often ones with whom a reader can personally identify. I don’t know if I managed that with the villains illustrated in last week’s post (actually, I doubt it), but it’s a good characterization technique to remember. So, this morning, I drafted up a couple of would-be storylines for each of those principal antagonists, posted below. If nothing else, it was fun to look at them from a new angle. I’d recommend doing something similar for your own antagonists – you never know when you might be struck with new inspiration.

The Red Widow

It’s a man’s galaxy. That’s what they say. Certainly, it seems that way to a girl sold into slavery for men’s pleasure. But this is no ordinary slave girl. This is one who learns from her so-called “masters”: how greedy, vain, and susceptible men are. Especially to a woman’s charms. Justiciar, pirate, or politician: no matter the insignia on their collar or the banner on their ship, men have their weaknesses, and she knows them all. Her marks have called her many names: Anya, Elsbeth, Illia, Una. But the galaxy knows her better as a woman as smart as any justiciar, as savvy as any pirate, as sly as any politician. It knows her as Red Widow. And she’s going to turn this man’s galaxy upside-down.

Into the Light (Lohengrin, the Swan Knight)

Abram had a son, once. A bright, beautiful boy full of possibilities. A gentle boy cherished for his kindness and skill with a tanner’s knife. The air would sing with the strokes of that knife, and wealthy women and men would come from across all districts to watch and buy his work. Abram loved his boy. But the Darkness loved him, too.

One day, that Darkness came for him, in the form of another smooth-faced boy, and lured Abram’s son away. Away, into the Darkness. What choice for a father but to save his only son? And the only way to save him from the dark was to lead him back into the light. With fire.

The Darkness has taken other boys. The Lost Boys, they are. But he will save them. He will take up arms and become their knight, to set them free, body and soul. He will be Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, their savior.

The Body Electric (Reilly)

The Dahl Army gave Reilly everything: a job, a purpose, even something like a family. For twelve fine years, he fought, laughed, caroused, and conquered by the sides of his fellow commandoes and their skilful sergeant. But on what is supposed to be a routine grab-and-go mission on Artemisia, the unthinkable happens: the op goes sour. An explosion and fire burns away half his soldierly body. And what does Dahl do? They dump him like scrap.

When the Hyperion salvage team finds him rotting in an Artemisian infirmary, they see his potential, and make him an offer: Become part of the Body Electric, a soldier enhanced for the technological wars. Of course, a soldier with potential needs a purpose, but Reilly has a purpose: hunt down his old teammates who left him to die, starting with his glory-hungry sergeant, the man responsible for it all.

Every Shot a Kill (Strenk)

Walking around the galaxy with the S&S munitions manufacturer family name stenciled on his uniform has never meant much to Lukas Strenk. Guns are just tools, only as good as the man who holds ‘em. And he is a great man, the best in the Inner Ring. Every shot from Strenk’s Orion rifle is a kill. But even the simplest kills can go wrong. When Galactic Defense redacts his latest target assignment after knowing the job’s already been done, they blame Strenk, of course, never mind his 100% success rate and the value of his name. “Get yourself gone or get yourself dead,” the GD Justiciar tells him. Strenk’s only answer is a bullet.

To hell with the shifting, shifty so-called rules of the Inner Ring. When the galaxy gives you lemons, you shove ‘em straight up its gaping *** and lick the residue from your fingers.


Once again, I think Strenk came out on top as my favorite of these, though I enjoyed the exercise for all. Have you ever flipped the coin on your antagonists? Have you ever found you identify more with a villain than a hero in a story? Let me know!