Research is vital (and fun!)

Research is an important component of writing – even in fiction. Of course the common advice is to write what you know, and that advice is absolutely dead on. However, details matter. So for a writer, it pays to educate yourself.

stove

Toward that end, I spent a wonderful afternoon at a friend’s house learning how she cooks on her woodburning stove. Mona, the main character in my novel MOTHER MONA, is a city girl who rarely cooks for herself at home. Most of her meals involve take-out or the salad bar at the local organic grocer. However, when she travels to a remote Alaskan cabin to be with her sick daughter, there’s no grocer for miles. Nor is there any electricity, gas or running water. Mona has to learn to cook on her daughter’s woodburning stove. And Mona learns, as I have today, that it involves as much art as science.

Luckily for me, today’s lesson involved baking three loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread. YUM! My friend Athanasia has been cooking on a woodburning stove for years. She’s lived the off-the-grid lifestyle for much of her life, and let me tell you she makes it look easy.
bread
It’s not. And we didn’t even go into the wood-chopping part.

I took notes on when to close the main regulator, when to turn the bread so it doesn’t all brown on one side (because the fire is hotter closer to the wood box), how to manipulate the burner rings on top to accomodate your tea kettle or fryer (cast-iron cookware is heavy!) and how to make your house smell pretty simply by adding a bit of dried lavender buds to the bread-warming drawer.

Of course, any good researcher will tell you thoroughness is of vital import. And so, as I drove home I tore off and ate about a third of the steamy warm loaf of whole wheat she sent with me. Oh yeah!

Sadly for Mona, her first few tries at woodstove cooking come out looking nothing like this. But let’s just say that’s an area in which I already have plenty of expertise. I’ve already done that research, thank you very much.

kettle

NOTE:                                                                                  (It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the bottom of this kettle is actually inside the stove here. The fire box is directly below it. That round piece you see normally lies flat, but can be removed so the bottom 1/2 inch of the kettle fits directly over the flame. There is another ring that also can be removed to accomocate a frying pan. How cool is that!)

Making a good Mother

Woman taking cherry pie from oven

Yeah, no. Not that kind.

As a matter of fact, I am sitting at my desk NOT doing laundry, not baking banana bread, listening to my kids argue over which episode of Go Diego Go to watch … but hey, it’s a snow day. Nevertheless I am fully appreciating the irony here. Feel free to take part.

The Mother I am referring to, actually, is the novel I am working on, “Mother Mona.” Here’s the gist of it, from the back of my imaginary best-selling book:

Mona, a 49-year-old divorced CPA from Newport Beach, was never a contender for Mother of the Year. However, her daughter Beth needs her now. Beth’s pregnancy has gone wrong, and Mona’s son-in-law Sasha asks her to come help her daughter recover after childbirth almost kills her. Mona travels to the remote Alaskan island where Beth and her family live – without electricity, in-floor heating or running water.

 Mona is completely out of her element in the remote Alaskan cabin. There’s a humungous spider named Pip living in the outhouse. After years of living on takeout and salads, her daughter’s wood burning cook stove is a complete mystery to her. She refuses to feed slimy slugs to the ducks that happen to despise her. One more meal of canned salmon and she’s going to cry. Her daughter is distant, her son-in-law is absent, and her quirky, homeschooled grandchildren think she’s nuts. Her only friends are a small group of Russian nuns that live on a nearby island and a  64-year-old Alutiiq hermit who thinks like a pirate.

The thing is, writing a novel is a lot like being pregnant for the first time. You obsess over every little detail. You stand in line at the grocery store and jot different names on scratch paper under “milk, bread, tomatoes.” You read every writerly book, magazine article and online blog you can find, and hope like heck that you’re doing it all right. It’s all you can talk about – even as you watch the eyes of friends and acquaintances gloss over like dead salmon on a hot beach. And worse, the writing muse will kick you in the gut without warning, waking you up at night and making you gasp out loud in public. Your concerned husband will ask if you’re OK, and you’ll reply, “Ouch! I just figured out what was wrong with chapter 3!”

Sadly, no one feels the urge to pamper writers like a woman in that “delicate condition,” although I would maintain that being in the midst of writing a difficult scene is a pretty delicate condition to be in. No one offers to rub your feet or cook you dinner. No one urges you to take it easy “for the sake of the novel” or eat because you’re “thinking for two now.”

So, that being the case, I suppose I’d better get a load of laundry going and feed the kids something healthy for lunch. Like any good mother would. Just as soon as I finish these last few pages.

Write, as always

OK, so I’m a sucker for a good pun. Nevertheless, these three words sum it all up pretty well.

Here I am, and the ripe old age of … ok I’m not going to tell you but let’s just say it’s divisible by nine … and suddenly my life has taken a new turn. I am writing again.

It’s been a while. A long while. Twelve years? Thirteen? It was something I “put away” because I knew I wanted to focus on being a mom first. An admirable intention, sure.

But I think writing is either in your DNA or it’s not, and if it is, trying to be anything else is a little bit like attaching an empty balloon to the faucet and letting it drip. For a while, you’re fine. But pretty soon the balloon fills and fills and fills and then WHAM – off it goes and water sprays everywhere. It’s been like that lately… short stories spraying all over the room. I am even working on a novel, thanks to my incredibly wonderful and gifted oldest daughter dragging me to a NaNoWriMo meeting last fall. You can’t possibly sit in a room full of writerly people wriggling with anticipation to hit the keyboard and not catch the fever. Did I write a 50,000-word novel last November? Hell, no – are you crazy? (My daughter did!) But I started one. Wham, there went the balloon.

So, first and foremost still, I am a mom to five amazing kids. Since we homeschool, you could say we hang out a lot. Which is great, because truth is WAY stranger than fiction, and you can’t possibly be around five kids all day and not be a little nuts. Life around here is never boring, which in writer-speak means “this is ending up in my next story.”

And that novel? Maybe you’ll read it someday. Because I have no intention of putting that balloon back.

Exploding-water