Category Archives: writing

A Lot of Bits And Some Pieces

Just not much going on around here because it’s hibernation time.

Delighted to report that Logan–who’s grown another inch according to the Nana Hug-O-Meter and verified by measuring tape–scored a three-pointer to help his team win his basketball game. And Kayla–running the 3200 and the 4×800 relay–helped the Boonsboro Girls Indoor Track Team win the State Championship.

Kayla (left) in relay. Photo from HeraldMailMedia.com

Pretty sweet all around.

Meanwhile after work and workouts, I played (a little obsessively) with a Christmas gift from Jason and Kat. When we vacation together, we do fun panorama photos, with staging and considerable choreography. So for Christmas, they got me a jigsaw puzzle comprised of four of those panos. Fun, challenging and unique. And accomplished! Even if a piece appears to have gone missing from Sorento.

The perfect gift

I’m also thrilled my newly reupholstered living room furniture is now in place. And relieved it received potentially future interior designer Kayla’s approval. I like the cheerful, bright and warm look of it, and that I successfully played off the bird pillows I’m so fond of, and the gorgeous throw my agent brought me back from a trip to India.

Otherwise I’m deep into the book, socked in and happy to be so.

Since I’m here, I’m going to (once again) address a few points, as apparently there’s been a revival of chatter, misinformation and odd assertions on the internet.

Roarke is Roarke. Period. No, no, a thousand times no, he was not named Patrick after his despicable father. He is not, has never been a junior. He is very simply, now and forever–before and after and always–Roarke.

Readers dissatisfied with that are just going to have to accept it.

And just because Roarke rhymes with stork doesn’t equal baby. There will be no baby, biological, adopted, fostered, in dreams or conceived by Eve and Roarke in an alternate universe. (Also no to pregnancy scares which is just silly.) This is simply not going to happen for reasons I’ve explained many times. And no, Eve and Roarke will not babysit for Bella. Why in God’s name–seriously–would they? I really think Mavis and Leonardo can handle finding their own child care when necessary.

Eve will not find long-lost relations. This will not happen. Period. Done. Please??? And her father is DEAD. Really most sincerely dead. Doornail dead. Dead as Moses.

Supporting characters will not take the spotlight as Eve and/or Roarke are sidelined by injury, kidnapping, amnesia or alien abduction. They are, and will remain supporting characters.

I’m never, ever going to ask for reader input into storylines. I do not, as some believe, take reader suggestions and work them into a story, or adjust future stories, character traits, dialog or actions due to reader chatter (be it positive or negative). I write in my own little bubble, and that’s never going to change. If a reader feels ‘it’s time’ I shake things up, freshen things up, it may be that reader needs a break from my work. Nothing at all wrong with that.

In very practical terms, in logistical terms, by the time the chatter starts on a new book, the next is already written and with my publisher–and often the next two as the books are published every six months, and my personal process is to work about a year ahead of publication.

So the chatter doesn’t apply for me from a practical or a creative standpoint. Especially from the creative side.

As a writer, as a creator of a long-running series with recurring characters, I have to think both of the long view and each individual book. It all has to make sense within the world created, for the characters drawn, for the interpersonal relationships of those characters.

Trust me, I know the world and the characters.

Now, I’m going to drop myself into a different work with different characters. I like it in my bubble.

Nora

Time and Time Away

After the rush and fun of the holidays, BW and I spend a week away with friends and family at a resort/spa a convenient couple hours drive from home. We’ve been doing this, we figure, for about fourteen years.

The front entrance. Photo by Laura
The snowy landscape. Photo by Laura

It’s a lovely, lovely break. It’s familiar for this creature of habit, it’s comfortable, and it’s pretty.

This year it’s also COLD! Seriously cold, and we’ve had a pretty (since I’m not out in it) snowfall. I had my first spa treatment a few hours after our arrival, and just let everything go. That’s the best. It’s relax and recharge time for me. Read lotsa books time, work a little here and there time, and cook not at all time. And it’s an extra gift to spend that time with people you love and enjoy.

I’ve finished two books, and will start another this afternoon while I wait for my mmmmm deep tissue massage. Which I earned  as I went full out for a two full hour cross-training workout this morning.

I’ll come back, pour myself a glass of champagne then think about what to order for dinner, the one I’m not cooking.

I had a good, solid stretch of writing one day between workout and a facial. Good deal. I worked on a non-book-related project and did a little shopping. When I go home, I have a routine doc’s appointment, and then an event on the weekend, followed by hosting at our house our Kayla’s State champion girls cross-country team.

Girls rock!

Squeezing writing in there as I go. But that’s days away.

I love what I do for a living, love the time and the effort I’m required to put into crafting a story I hope readers will enjoy. I love being able to take some time off with friends and family, love spending the weekend making soup and bread or whatever appeals in my own kitchen. Because I love all of that I’m bound to do a better job of it than if I disliked or resented it.

Here’s what I don’t much like, and more have no real skill for. Handling social media. Coming up with topics for Facebook that will engage readers and make them happy. Laura is queen of all that. If I had to handle it? I wouldn’t have FB pages. Simply wouldn’t. I’d resent every minute I had to scratch my head over what to write, and detest every minute it took away from the work I love. So I’d simply eliminate the annoyance and distraction, and focus on what I love, what I’m good at, and what I owe the reader. My best work.

That’s the bottom line. A writer of fiction owes readers this: The best book he or she can write at that particular time. She also owes them gratitude, of course, for reading, owes them basic courtesy if and when she engages with readers IRL or on line.

And, that’s it.

Though some may disagree I don’t owe readers FB pages or blogs or contests and give-aways to repay them for reading my books, whether they buy them, listen to them, borrow them. I owe them a good book. FB is a marketing tool and a great way to communicate. Laura does an amazing job of crafting posts, selecting photos or quotes that springboard reader conversations. I would not, though I do scan the posts, sometimes the comments, and if it applies, add a comment of my own.

I enjoy writing this blog when I have something to say, or can document through words and pictures something I think readers will have fun with. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Actually my Jason gave me the basic thrust of how to handle blogging here when years back I whined about it. Days in the life, little bits and pieces with photos, fun stuff, personal stuff.

Okay, I think I can do that, and so far, so good.

In the normal course of events, I write 40-50 hours a week. Parts of that schedule maybe eaten into now and then by the business that surrounds writing. Generally I proof galleys in the evening, not during work hours. I sign, routinely, four tubs of books three times a week, not during work hours.

In there I live a life I really enjoy. It’s a really good balance for me.

If I added in what the amazing Laura does, that balance would tip, and tip hard. I’d be unhappy, and believe me, so would you, the reader.

So for those who might wonder why I don’t write all the FB posts, there’s the answer. It’s certainly not because I don’t value the reader, new ones, or ones who’ve read me from day one.

It’s actually because I very much do.

Anyway, I think I have time for a glass of champagne before that massage. After all, this is time away.

Nora

Courtyard chairs waiting for spring. Photo by Laura

Note from Laura (did you expect anything else?):   Since the very first FB post in 2008, I’ve signed what I post though many speed readers do miss it.  For everyone who pays attention, they know it’s me.  And that NR chimes in when time allows.

While neither of us would ever want to live the other’s life, Nora and I have developed a rhythm and understanding and synchronicity over the past 12 years works.  I know what it’s like to be a faithful reader.  I also see clearly how routine and hard work built a career that spans three decades of quality storytelling.

I see the (imo) whiny “why doesn’t Nora love us?” comments and think “she does — she gives you multiple books every single years.” And so we’ll continue to not fix what ain’t broke.

 

New Directions

A long time ago, on a hilltop far, far away, I started writing category Romance. With two pre-schoolers to run herd on, I fed my appetite for reading with short, satisfying Romances I could gulp down during nap time. So when stuck with said pre-schoolers inside for a week during a blizzard, I began to scribble down one of the stories in my head in a notebook. It was intended to save my sanity, and became a career and a passion.

Writing Harlequin-style Romances was a natural choice as I gobbled them during this time period. I’d grown up reading everything–everyone in my house read everything– but at this particular turn of my road, category Romances comprised the bulk of my reading.

My career roots in Romance spread over the next decade or two. One of the appeals to me was this was a genre that could, and did, include everything. You could, especially when the genre and the market evolved, add elements of mystery, suspense, paranormal, horror, comedy, fantasy. As long as the story contained a core romantic relationship, tied things up with a happy ending, you could rock on.

I continued to write category even as I expanded into writing mainstream novels, and produced 100 books for Silhouette before I turned off that road. With Bantam, then Putnam (which became Penguin-Putnam which became Penguin Random House), and now St. Martin’s Press I wrote and continue to write Romantic Suspense, I wrote trilogies–straight relationship or with elements of fantasy and paranormal. I began the In Death series as JD Robb.

The In Death series certainly took me onto another lane of the highway. I thought of these as relationship mysteries/police procedurals with continuing characters set in the near future–which gave them a science fiction light touch.

Mostly they were and are fun and interesting stories for me to write, with core characters I adore and enjoy. That makes them tremendously satisfying creatively.

The Romantic Suspense novels I write drive down another lane on the highway. They’re not a part of a series, sometimes have more than one romantic relationship, generally have other non-romantic relationships–friendships, family–as writing about people is what I do. For these it may be a setting that flicks on the light bulb, or a character type, or a situation. For The Obsession, for instance, that flash was: What’s it like to be the child of a serial killer?

As I write without much of a structured plan, relying more on Let’s See What Happens next, I have to be very engaged in the story, very connected to the characters to see it all through. That first flick on has to pull me in.

The trilogies I do wind down another lane. For these everything’s broader and interconnected. The concept has to tell me, this needs more room, and has a theme or goal that can weave through three books. Whether straight relationship, like the Born In trilogy, or The Bride Quartet, or with those paranormal elements, like The Circle Trilogy or Three Sisters Island, the initial concept always included that central romance, and the romance highlighted in each book would be resolved in that particular book.

I conceived them as one big book in three distinct parts, each containing–whether it be mortal, wizard, business-woman or vampire–that elemental romantic relationship.

Writing on those different lanes of the highway has served to keep me fresh and creatively satisfied–and it seems to me gives readers a lot of choices in my work. Some like the Robb series, some don’t. Some like the more traditional relationship, some are eager for the more magickal, others prefer the suspense.

But when you offer a variety, the downside is those who prefer one gripe when you offer another. That’s just how it goes. If a writer discovers how to satisfy every reader every time, I really want to have a sit-down with him or her and learn the secret. But in the meantime, I have to pay attention to that flick of light and turn down the road where it shines for me.

And so, some time ago, that light flicked on a turn off the highway, a detour, an unexplored road. It’s a little risky to take that turn, see where it takes you. But it’s also exciting. And challenging.

The flash of this light didn’t beam on the Romance of my roots, or how my own work has evolved around it, and frankly, away from what the genre is today. It shined on something different, something I saw as more a Fantasy saga. Relationships, absolutely. Books and stories for me are all about the people in them, how they relate, or don’t. Touches of romance, sure, but at least in the opening book, the story can’t center on a central love story and hold for the rest.

I thought about it for quite awhile, played with it in my head, chewed on it, studied the concept from different angles. The light didn’t dim, so I turned off and followed it.

Year One — the first of this different sort of trilogy — begins a journey, for me as a writer, for the characters within, and hopefully for the reader who wants to take a chance with me. It begins with a global crisis, a pandemic that wipes away much of the population and opens a door to magicks. Black and white, courage and cowardice, the determination to survive and rebuild, the evolution of powers for good or ill. And the light again, that’s hope and love and bravery that shines through.

The process of structuring this story–and laying the groundwork for the two that will follow–presented a creative challenge, the need to take a leap, a lot of sweaty work, a larger cast of characters to develop and connect to, multiple relationships to weave, the logistics of world building. Because even when you’re basically destroying the world, you’re building another.

For the first time in too long to remember a book woke me up at night, or kept me up. What do I do about this, how will I resolve that, how does that even make any stupid sense? It wouldn’t leave me alone, so I knew it had me, however it turned out. I had to follow that light and see where it took me.

Writing it proved hard and bumpy and frustrating and tremendous fun. Finishing it was, for me, monumental. The relief that my editor didn’t say WTF when she read it, beyond enormous. It matters, a lot, to be satisfied with a finished manuscript. It matters, a whole giant bunch of a lot, when an editor a writer knows and trusts, whose purpose is to publish, package, market a book and help it be the best it can be, gives the work two thumbs up.

I already know the following two books that will comprise this trilogy will be hard and bumpy and frustrating and fun. But I’m on the road now, and I’m enjoying the scenery.

Normally, I wouldn’t have a lot to say to readers about a book that won’t be out for a year, or a trilogy that’s only just begun on my end. In this case, since it’s different, since it’s not Romance or built on the framework of the genre, and is a turn off onto a new road rather than a different lane, I thought it fair to let those who follow my work know something else is coming.

I understand some might think: But this isn’t what I want from her! That’s okay, don’t worry. The In Death series will continue. The Suspense novels with that core love story (or stories) will continue to pull me in. But you’ve got to follow the light, go where ideas pull you. And hope that readers take the journey with you.

Nora

Day Seventeen: Sorrento

A misty morning over the sea with skies that range from broody to blue. The blue wins as the morning spreads.

Kat and I decide on another Shaun T, one we haven’t tried yet as it’s on the last disk in the set. Whoa!

40 minutes of fast, fancy footwork. I would love to conquer this one–and that’ll take some time. Still, it keeps us moving, moving, sweating, sweating and laughing. I’ve decided laughing burns more fat and calories. I’m sure of it.

BW joins us–and was warned!–for the 8 Minute Abs. Now we are three groaning our way through it.

From there Kat and I want some upper body. Rather than bands, Kat’s idea is to use our jumbo water bottles. They may only be a little more than three pounds, but it adds a challenge. 30 minutes of this! I can’t remember the DVD. It’s part of Kat’s Beach Body collection, but when it shifts to the push-ups section, Kat drops down on the mat, and I stay up, with bottles doing tri and shoulder work. My weak right wrist won’t handle the push ups. This turns out to my advantage as Kat gasps and moans through them.

A biting fly is hounding Kat, just won’t stop nipping at her. Our Kat is one who’ll capture a bug in the house, gently, gently release it outside. So when she finally smacks, smacks, smacks, the fly into the patio with her water bottle, snarling: Die! Die! Die! It’s a moment.

We emerge, once more, sweaty, righteous girls. The fly was toast.

By the time I’m out of the shower, dressed and set up for the day, my gang’s left to find the post office in a town between here and Sorrento. Just me and the cat for awhile, and my holiday workstation with the view of the sea.

Wall o'pasta in Sant' Agnello. Photo by BW.
Wall o’pasta in Sant’ Agnello. Photo by BW.

Shortly after the gang returns I surprise myself by finishing the book. I’d hoped to make some good progress, but hadn’t counted on finishing. Go, me! But in not counting on finishing, I hadn’t done the usual spell check document by document as I went, thinking it would be simpler to do all that at home on my desktop rather than the Surface I only use a few times a year.

No problem, I think, and start.

Let me explain I use an ancient DOS WP program–I will never give it up! And my favorite geek–Jason–has found a way to install this on all my comps. I write in three chapter documents, so run spell check on the first three chapters. However the internet won’t reach my pretty station, so when I hit a word the program doesn’t recognize, and I don’t know how the hell to spell, I need to come into the kitchen, do a search for the word on my iPad. Not much of a deal, and this routine continues up to doc 6 out of 8 while the rest are watching–and commenting–on a triathlon on TV inside.

Moving along here, very happily. And suddenly, on my misspelling of barracuda, it all freezes. Can’t correct (I KNOW how the spell the damn word!), can’t escape, can’t nothing.

Call my beloved geek. Even he is puzzled by this, fiddles and fools, finally finds a way for me to escape and start the doc over. I do so with him hanging out in case. The in case happens, again on barracuda. Well, jeez, what’s with this? He thinks perhaps the program’s caught a bug, but he runs it on his device, no problem. I’m able to zip through spell check on the remaining docs, no problem.

So baffled, all around, we’ll deal with it all later. And I manually spell check the wacky doc. Apologies in advance to my editor. 

But finally, involving a lot more time and frustration than it should have, it’s done. I find the quotes I want, move into the kitchen, and through the magic of the interwebs, send the book from our holiday villa in Italy to my editor and agent in New York.   [Note from Laura:  I forget the title, but it’s an In Death. Since it won’t be out for a year, we’ll wait on that a bit.] 

Satisfying, and let’s have a bellini!

Hell, let’s have two!

I’m in time to watch the final leg of the tri–two Brit brothers well into the lead on the last grueling section. It makes it sweet to think about these brothers training together, making the Olympic team together, running now almost side-by-side on that last leg. In the last couple miles (MILES!) one bro pulls away into a clear lead, but second bro is holding firm onto second. In the last, nearly to the finish line, first bro takes a Brit flag from one of the cheering onlookers, and carries it with him across. It’s pretty great. He slows down, actually looks behind him–I like to think he’s looking for his brother–before he crosses that finish.

Then he just lies down on the track. His brother crosses about 12 seconds after, I think it was, drops down with him. They clasp hands, pat shoulders. Yeah, it’s sweet.

It’s time to change for dinner and the short drive back to the first panorama restaurant we enjoyed. Even that short drive involves hairpins and on-coming scooters. The view, the food, the happy service make it all worthwhile. Some local red, pasta and pizza, salads so fresh they deserve to be slapped. And the moon peeks round and red over the horizon. That red wash adds the exotic even as it fades on the climb. La Luna is just as striking tonight as it was last.

La luna sul mare. Photo by Kat.
La luna sul mare. Photo by Kat.

A short ride home–we have gelato at home. Mmmm. A fat white moon sailing starry skies, a bowl of gelato. A perfect way to cap the day.

Night sky full of moon. Photo by Kat.
Night sky full of moon. Photo by Kat.

Today’s our last day in Italy. I’m going to appreciate every moment–even if we do 8 Minute Abs!

We have plans for some fun family pictures around our holiday home. But for now my gang’s still sleeping. I think I’ll take a little walk around, rub some rosemary on my hands and enjoy the view. 

BW on the edge. Photo by BW.
BW on the edge. Photo by BW.
Because it's there. Photo by BW.
Because it’s there. Photo by BW.

Nora

Day Four: Capri

Photo by j a-b
Fancy dinner calls for a fancy couple. Photo by j a-b

In the spirit of mixing things up, we take a lazier day after the day of The Big Hike.

This doesn’t mean skipping the morning workout, and Kat’s got some Piyo DVDs. They aren’t for weenies! A forty-something minute session gets the blood moving and the muscles stretched. Then it’s time for my three companions to get their massages. I opt to do a cardio workout as I’m getting TWO spa treatments.

By the time I get out of the shower, everyone’s back and blissed out. It’s handy I can just wear my robe to go down a couple flights of stairs to the spa. Which is lovely and quiet and friendly. Clearly everyone there wants you to have a perfect time. My hot stone massage was a perfect time. All those muscles I challenged on the hike, and in the morning’s workout get a good, deep rub, and that heat? Ahhhh.

I’m pretty blissed myself by the time I walk back to the room. And there, my fam is preparing to take a trip on the chair lift that runs beside the hotel–and way, way up. The way, way up has already answered the question of whether I’d want to go. I settle down to work for the hour or so before my facial. The minute I start I’m back into it and realize I wouldn’t mind a solid three or four hour session at the keyboard. But I have the spa calling.

It literally flies by, that hour, so I’m surprised when I check on the time and see I have to leave right now! So still in my robe–and it’s an added bonus to spend the bulk of a day in a robe–I head down again. I’ve chosen a facial that involves oxygen being blown onto (into?) your skin. Not sure how it works, but it feels like your face is being quietly airbrushed. It’s lovely and relaxing. It also involves a neck and shoulder massage, a soothing mask, hand massage. All together, more bliss. And after my skin looks and feels amazing.

I can see why celebs come here for a week just for the spa treatments.

My gang had a great time riding high above Capri, have the photos to prove it–and had some gelato to cap it off.

Photo by j-ab
Reason # 1 why Nora is not on the lift. Photo by j-ab
Reason #2 why Nora's not on the chair lift. Photo by J a-b
Photo by J a-b
Photo by Kat
…but you have to admit the view are worth the ride. Photo by Kat
Photo by j a-b
The intrepid exploriers, very high above the water. Photo by j a-b
View of Naples from Anacapri. Photo by BW
View of Naples from Anacapri. Photo by BW
The daily gelato. Photo by j a-b
The gelato reward. Photo by j a-b

Housekeeping’s here, and one of the ladies apologizes for not speaking English. Then speaks it perfectly in a conversational way–to ask if we’re enjoying our stay, to tell us we’ll love Sorrento and so on. My Italian’s pretty limited to hello, goodbye, good day, evening, night. And various foods. It always impresses me how Europeans have at least a conversational command of so many languages. Americans should do better there.

I’ll add everyone in our hotel has been a delight–friendly, personable, accommodating. Just as the shopkeepers, the waitstaffs around the island have given off that happy, welcoming vibe. More than making a sale, providing a meal, making the bed, checking you in or out, it’s service. Lovely, competent and cheerful service. It makes all the difference.

But now it’s time for me to actually get dressed. We’re going to take ourselves a walk down a quieter area–still shops to play in. A few more gifts to select and friendly shopkeepers to chat with as the light softens toward evening. We can hardly leave Capri without buying a pretty bottle of limoncello. It would just be wrong.

We wind our way back to the restaurant where we ate our first night. I want nothing more in this world than their pizza. Well, maybe some wine to go with it. It’s all as cheerful and delicious as before. Honestly, nobody prepares food like the Italians, or sees to pretty details as flawlessly. We have our easy, fun, yummy meal–pizza for me and my boy, eggplant parm for Kat, a tuna dish for BW. A little dessert. Nobody walked home hungry.

Photo by j a-b
Photo by j a-b
IMG_0158
Salad, pizza, eggplant parm. Photo by Kat.
IMG_0160
Laura’s guess: BW’s tuna dish. Photo by Kat.

Today, post workout, we have to gather our things, organize, repack what we unpacked. We’ll say goodbye to our amazing home here, and the beautiful island of Capri.

Time for a boat ride. At least, for my shaky system, it’s a short one. And by mid-afternoon we’ll be on Sorrento.

New adventures await!

Nora

The Road to Discovery

The keyboard and the stove are both major tools in my world. I literally burn through multiple keyboards a year. Fortunately the stove holds up a lot longer.
 
However, I approach both pretty much the same way.
 
There’s a reason I don’t teach writing. Well, first, I don’t wanna. But over and above? I can’t tell you. I can’t analyze the process, break it down into parts and steps because I run on instinct.
 
I don’t write from an outline, or have a board filled with sticky notes, character points, photographs. I don’t have a notebook where I sketch out the ebb and flow of a story in chapter blocks. I don’t use colored index cards to track plot, setting, dialogue. And seriously, I can’t tell you about POV shifts, scene transitions, pace and rhythm. They just happen. I do scribble notes along the way, then often go back and scratch my head over them.
 
What the hell does that MEAN?
 
I start with a basic concept, a setting, character types. I ask myself who are these people anyway? If she’s a photographer like the female protagonist in the upcoming The Obsession, I know I’m going to be researching that area, and in researching (which is why I do my own) I’m going to discover something that ends up weaving into the story, often in a major way. But I also need to know–or find out–why she chose that profession. Why isn’t she a lawyer instead, or a musician? WHY photography?
 
I have to give her a name, have a mental sketch of what she looks like, how she speaks. I need to know why she lives where she lives–and what it looks like there. Smells like there, feels like. And in researching the where, I’m going to stumble on something else that ends up being important to the story.
 
I only know the bare bones when I begin, so I sit down with those bones and start writing. I discover as I go. That’s why the first draft of a story is called the discovery draft. It’s a process that works well for me–my temperament, my skill sets, my instincts.
 
Other’s mileage not only may but does vary. No right way, no wrong way to approach the art and science and mystery of storytelling. What works for any individual writer is absolutely correct for that individual writer. Anyone says otherwise? Bullshit. And arrogant bullshit at that.
 
I cook pretty much as I write, which is why I not only don’t but can’t answer the calls for recipes after I post a blog on cooking. Please, please, don’t ask me!
 
When I cook, I generally have a baseline. Yesterday my Kayla and I spent a long day in the kitchen. She wanted to make pretzel bread, ham and potato soup, and my mother’s famed pound cake. Okay, kid, let’s see what we’ve got.
 
I have a launch point for the bread and soup, but I spring off that. It’s more fun, more creative. And I like to think it teaches a young girl to be creative, that everything doesn’t have to be precise and exact and set in stone. I substitute. Don’t have any of that, use this. Or I don’t like that anyway, we’ll use this.
 
Like writing, some is trial and error, some is layer as you go, then go back and tweak. Some is experience.
 
For the bread, Kayla uses the baseline recipe with the tweaks or changes or the what-the-hells I’ve added in or taken out. And I watch her learn, enjoy. I loved showing her how to knead the dough, watching her discover how it changes texture under her hands. How she gets the feel, rather than the precise recipe direction of ‘knead for ten minutes.’IMG_1339
 
Then, while the dough rises, it’s onto the cake batter. How long do you mix the butter and sugar together? Until it looks right–and since she’s been learning under my process, she gets this. A little vanilla, a little lemon extract–and she’s pleased with the scent, notices, comments. This is no whimpy cake, so I’ll tell you recipe hounds it calls for a half pound of butter and three cups of sugar. I think the extracts were a teaspoon each. Maybe there’s two of the vanilla. Then it’s six eggs–one at a time–which she likes cracking (and no shells in the batter). It might be three cups of flour–unsifted. My mother called for cake flour, but I didn’t have any, so I used standard. Some salt, some baking soda, mixed together. And a cup of sour cream.IMG_1340
 
Kayla diligently alternates adding the dry mix with the sour cream, and mixing, mixing, mixing. How long? Until it looks right.
 
She’s charmed by the angel food cake pan. I don’t know if that tool is standard for pound cake, but it’s what my mother used. So we use it. Spraying it with Pam, lining the bottom (again, fascinating my girl) with waxed paper. It bakes at 325 for thirty minutes, then at 300 for another 60 or in our case about 65 until a toothpick comes out clean. That’s the closest I can tell you. I’m marginally more precise with baking than cooking.
 
While the cake’s in the oven, we start on the soup. Though there was a break in there for a pb&j for a hungry girl. And a beater and bowl to lick. I had a lick myself, and my mother was right there with us. That’s as sweet and real as cake batter on the tongue.
 
Again, I have a baseline for the soup, but there’s nothing remotely precise about it once we start. How many potatoes? I don’t know. I do know I’ll be sending about half the finished product home with Kayla, so a lot of potatoes need to be peeled, washed, chopped. Some carrots. Some garlic sauted in olive oil. Some water, some bullion, some wine. How much? Until it looks right. Herbs and spices. Stir it up, let it simmer.IMG_1343
 
Years ago, when our Kat married our Jason, she asked me for a book of my recipes. I did my best, typing them out, adding little notes, compiling them in a pretty book. One day shortly after, she sat in my kitchen and said she didn’t get it. She’d wanted to make my deviled eggs (a crowd favorite) but it didn’t say how much mustard, mayo, various herbs and spices. And neither, she’d discovered, did the vast majority of the other recipes (using the term loosely) have precise measurements. How much???? she asked.
 
I don’t know, I told her.
 
Her solution, as Kat is a very clever girl, was to watch me make deviled eggs, and to figure out it’s–for me–about how it looks, smells, tastes. And so she can (and does) use my recipes as her baseline, to make them her own. It’s how I taught both my boys to cook. It’s how I’m teaching Kayla.
 
Kayla’s interest and enthusiasm are strong right now, so I’m taking full advantage.
 
When it’s time to punch down the dough, I let her go for it. I show her how to pull some off, make it into a tight ball, then let her go for that. She’s a little bummed the dough has to rise yet again, but we have more to do elsewhere.
 
The ham has to be diced and added to the soup, and given some time to cook. The cake’s looking like a cake in the oven, and it smells fabulous. Butter needs melting, then flour added to thicken it, then milk to that. Whisked, whisked, whisked until it thickens enough to add to the soup. Precise measurements? Nope. And you know I think more wine wouldn’t hurt that soup at all.
 
A glass wouldn’t hurt me either.
 
The cake comes out to cool. The dough balls have risen. It’s time for more fun. Boiling water, baking soda. I give her my big slotted spoon, so we can drop the balls in–and Grandda, who’s joined us, sits at the counter and times them with his phone. About thirty seconds, flip the balls over, another thirty, take them out, put them on the parchment-lined baking sheet, drop in the next batch.IMG_1349
 
Stir the soup, drop the balls.
 
We first, use our knife sharpener to get our blade perfectly sharp, then we make crosses on the puffy balls with the knife, sprinkle on some sesame seeds, some sea salt, and pop them in the oven. It’s about 12-15 minutes mostly. I set a timer, but I keep an eye. They’re done when they look done, when they’re a nice golden brown.
 
And the smells in the kitchen are incredible. Fresh bread, creamy soup, lemony cake. The top of the cake’s crackly, and Kayla and Grandda decide they should sort of peel that off and eat it. After all, when we take it out of the pan, turning it over, shouldn’t it be more even on what will be the bottom?
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Why would I argue when they’re having such a good time? And making yummy noises? Plus, the kid baked the cake. She baked it by following her great-grandmother’s baseline, learning, discovering, and making it her own.
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She baked the bread–I was barely sous chef on that–the same way. And the soup was a partnership of whatever works.IMG_1350
 
I know the bread worked as she snagged a roll off the cooling rack so quickly I worried she’d burn her tongue. She didn’t. And had a second one.
 
I sent her home with a tub of soup, a bag of rolls, and half a pound cake. Her family will enjoy the bounty of her labor. More, she spent the day learning, creating, experimenting. As she goes, she may decide her process works better with the precise. But I have a feeling she’ll continue on the road, discovering as she goes.
 
Like the first draft of a book, it’s the joy and effort of that discovery that draws the–we’ll say organic–writer and what’s-in-the-pantry cook to create the unique to them with the hope it pleases others.
 
I’m here to tell you, when it was time for me to sample the day’s labor, it pleased me.
 
Tomorrow, I go back to the keyboard and my scribbled notes to see what’s cooking there.
Nora