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?
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.
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.

52 thoughts on “The Road to Discovery”

  1. This is a perfect example of how to approach life. There are few hard and fast rules. Whether it’s writing, cooking, drinking wines, exploring tea, making furniture, painting or whatever you like to do, learn the basics and then adapt to who you are and how you feel at the moment. When we stop trying to do things “the right way” we find the way that’s right for us. And we’ll be flexible enough to know that what was right last week might need a tweaking this week. Life should be filled with creativity and discovery instead of have-to and perfection.

    1. Well said, I so agree with this philosophy. my kids have asked for recipes and discovered that I have rarely weighed anything and have had to resort to watch me do it..

  2. I love the way you describe your time with Kayla. It makes me smile as this is the way I cook too. I start with a recipe (whether it’s an old family one written like yours, as a baseline or another I’ve found somewhere) and go from there.

  3. This is how I cook too! I have a question unrelated to this post. Hoping Laura or Nora will take pity on me. I’ve tried to research what has happened to the author Linda Howard? After Nora, she was my favorite romantic suspense author for years. She started a series with Linda Jones that never continued and I swear the last book published with her name on it (years ago now) wasn’t even written by her. Anybody know anything?
    Thanks. Cannot WAIT for The Obsession to get here!!

      1. Thank you! I guess I hadn’t tried hard enough on Facebook? I don’t know. Still it’s good to know LH is alive and well. Ididn’t find any info on why she isn’t publishing but I did find that LJ is publishing a sequel to Blood Born. Interesting. Thanks again.

    1. Check out
      “Writers, friends. We talk about food, writing, books, pets, food, travel, weird happenings with electronics, and — oh yeah — food. After all, we need our strength for writing.”

    2. Sandy Linda Howard has a new book coming out May 10, 2016 called Troublemaker.

    3. Linda H is a fav of mine too. You can find her on Facebook using Linda Howard/Linda Jones. She kind of keeps everybody up to date on what’s going on in her life. She doesn’t publish as much, but she does still write. She has a collaboration coming out soon w/Jones, and a self-published one in April, I think. Enjoy!

  4. What a great time for you and your granddaughter! The memories you are forming will stay with her forever!

    As a retired teacher, I can appreciate what you said about your writing style – everyone does indeed approach this task differently. Like you said, there is no one right way to do this! Thanks for sharing your day with us!

  5. I see that your creativity (even in the kitchen) and demonstration of love (for your family, etc.) is what makes you the brilliant author and person you are. Thank you for sharing this wonderful day with us. You are still a wonderful teacher – even if you don’t wanna be. It just flows from you.

  6. LOL! A fun post to read. I have to say the guilty look on Grandda’s face is wonderful. Did he really think he could sneak a taste and not be caught? I’m just imagining how great your kitchen smelled. mmmm….. 😀

    PS: The cake looked really good.

  7. Your cooking by instinct reminds me so much of my grandmother. When you asked how to make something, she would give you the ingredients. It would be a handful of this, a bit of that, etc. I do miss her Doughboys (fried dough, but much lighter than you get at fairs). I also don’t measure sometimes when cooking certain dishes and my meatballs are seldom the same.

  8. How fabulous a grand-daughter you have. What a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon! My mother cooked the same way. She made wonderful polish dishes and when I asked her for recipes for them, she said well, I don’t measure….the dough is a “feel right” and some are “taste right and what I have in my cabinet”. I tried like your Kat watching to write things down once too and I thought I had it but trying it out, it didn’t taste like hers. Some didn’t even LOOK like hers! I cook like that now too….improvise and experiment.

  9. Awesome Nora!!!!! I do the same with my 3 grandkids 🙂 Chris III isn’t doing to bad, he makes a good Mac & Cheese. Tatum is a hot mess, she needs more patients, her brownies turned into weapons, but, she’s getting there. Kerrigan, she rocks in the kitchen, she even sets a attractive table . Anyway, I can relate with you on how much fun it is to spend this kind of time with your grandkids 🙂 Thanks for sharing your moments

  10. My children wanted a cookbook of the family recipes and I just had to do my best but the bottom of each page had a section called moms notes where I could put I do this or that or don’t do that. My kids love it. Nora you cook like I do. Love your books. The movies are ok but I always want to say no you left out this and this lol.

  11. Nora mentioned choosing what her heroin looks like, but she almost always resembles her! More of that baseline stuff in action.

    1. I can’t possible resemble the bulk of my heroines! I don’t understand how anyone would see that. I have tall girls, short girls, curvy girls, lean girls, redheads, blondes, brunettes, raven-haired, short, long, straight, curly. Dimples, sharp cheekbones, wide mouths, overbites, underbites, etc, etc.

      But, I do have the baseline of all usual female parts in common.

      1. The detail and research that goes into your characters is what brings them alive for me. it must be a fascinating process for you. Your attention to the smallest details makes it possible for the readers to see them in 3D …they’re not flat. Not just the characters, either; the details involved with all the locations brings them alive. One of characteristics that drew me to your books is how you describe the feelings and thoughts of ALL the characters …not just a few main ones. You are able to show the thoughts of the male characters, as well as the female. I remember you remarked once, many years ago, how growing up with brothers helped you with this. A lot of who you are must come out in your characters…and hah! hah! ..I’m not referring to the serial killers 🙂 .
        Thank you for your sense of humour & honour ..and so much more, that comes out in your books.

        1. Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more, Annie. That “3D” versus “flat” aspect of the characters — it’s not only the inclusion of detailed information, but also how the information is presented so that it becomes an integral part of the story. I’ve read so many books by other writers in the “romance fiction” genre in which the (often VERY detailed) descriptions of how characters look, what they’re wearing, how rooms are furnished, etc. merely add length without transporting you to the world in which the characters live and providing insight into the characters themselves.

        1. I’d say, having read (and re-read, and in some cases re-re-read!) a HUGE number of her books, Nora Roberts (and her alter ego J.D. Robb) does a fantastic job of depicting heroines, heroes and supporting characters with a great variety of physical appearances. If you’re reading only the novels in the In Death series, then yes, the heroine and hero look the same from one story to the next, as do the recurring supporting characters (well, Peabody does gain and lose weight, and of course the color of Mavis’ hair changes every time we see her!). 🙂

          1. I think I have read the In Death books 4 or 5 or more times. Actually listened because I don’t read them. I just say how many times I’ve read them instead of writing re-re-re-re-re-read/listened. 🙂 I agree with your post!

  12. What a great deposit into her memory bank!

    Great day, great story, great sharing! Thank you

  13. I once heard that a recipe is a formula that isn’t hard and fast but malleable to customize to your own taste. Baking is a little more precise and less forgiving, and since I HATE to measure and be so precise, I prefer to cook. A little of this, a little more of that, just tweaking or adapting to include what we like, what I have on hand in my pantry, which is well-stocked with essentials like chicken stock, crushed tomatoes, dried pasta, and such. I rarely bake and stick to things that only require 6 ingredients, at most. No sifting, no separating of eggs. I know my limitations when it comes to patience so my baked goods and dessert repertoire consists of 3-ingredient shortbread cookies, a couple of easy cheesecakes, microwave peanut brittle, and a killer chocolate silk pie. And anything out of a box! I take the help where I can get it and buy pre-made pie crusts and frosting.

    You’re not only teaching your granddaughter a skill that will serve her a lifetime of pleasure but also making priceless memories.

  14. I have no doubt Kayla loved the cooking/baking process, and the bounty she was able create and take home was wonderful. However, these times spent with her grandmother Nora, will be what she’ll hold precious and treasure the most! No better recipe for her life than that, truly the icing on the cake, IMH O!! Beautiful post. Thank you.

  15. Nora , I also cook bake & make hot chocolate with a baseline. Nothing ever comes out the same way twice. The only time I measure is when I try a recipe out for the first time or have to whittle it down from serving more than one or two people. As for your books it is easy to see in the books that you do the research yourself . It comes through because it is thorough and enjoyable . The process of writing,cooking , baking is a creative process. The person who creates knows when they are done. I know in baking & cooking if it looks right & tastes good it is done. People have asked me for my chocolate chip cookie recipe which never comes out the same way twice, so after I explain there is no recipe but I will give them the basic ingredients, I don’t measure either I say do it to taste , & feel, I have been told it does not taste like mine. I have said it is not suppose to taste like mine it is suppose to taste like theirs.someyimes people don’t get it . thank you for giving us a window in your world with your granddaughter . She looks a bit like you.

  16. Loved reading this. I’m a baseline cook for sure when it comes to most things. I can remember my children asking for a repeat on something I’d made. I would have no idea other than basic ingredients what I had done. My mother was even worse with the baseline. Her baking recipes for cakes and sweets was vague at best.

    The best part of all of this is the memories you’ve made with Kayla that she’ll carry with her the rest of her life.

  17. Your baseline recipes remind me of my potato salad. It’s really simple–just potatoes, Best Foods Mayo, lemon juice, garlic and onion salts and sometimes garlic and onion powder. No boiled eggs, no pickles and no precise recipe! I “invented” my version more than 50 years ago and in spite of trying to figure out precise measurement, it’s still comes down to taste!

  18. <3 <3 <3 One of the nicest cooking compliments I've ever had… "Have you watched your mom cook? She never does the same thing twice and it always tastes the same!" Love hearing about your day, your writing, and teaching your kids/ grandkids to cook. Thank you!

  19. This reminds me of how my mom cooked/baked. She was of Ukrainian descent. I asked for her recipe for paska (a sweet bread). She told me the ingredients and guessed at the amounts. Then she said, “Add flour with your right hand and pinch the dough with your left. When the dough is no longer sticky to the touch, it has enough flour.”

  20. I bake and cook the same way as Nora. A little bit here and there. Bake until done. I’ve had friends ask for recipes and I try to write them out best as I can,but my mother never wrote anything down either and I learned from her. It’s wonderful that you can pass on your family recipes to your grand daughter.

  21. What beautiful memories for you and Kayla! I remember the look my German grandma gave me when she asked about the noodles sitting on the cutting board. I told her the book said to ‘rest them’. She not only poo-poohed THAT, she gave me an awesome noodle recipe (full of ‘until it looks right’) that requires no resting whatsoever. Makes me smile at the memory every time I make them. Good memories all around.

  22. Gosh I am so late in replying. Last night was spent with my grandchildren. Today has been recuperation day. The best advice I had was from a friend of mine who sad… ” Go have fun, come home and hibernate.” so that is what I did in spades.

    Cooking or writing or anything that you do has to have a starting point and who’s to say there is a right or wrong way? I do digital scrapbooking and while some of my friends in the group choose a paper and elements first, I choose my photo first and pick the papers and elements to fit the photo. No it is not for everyone, but it works for me.

    I can never duplicate anything. My soups is never the same, and more especially my meatloaf. I use the same ingredients but it is never the same as the one I made the last time. I substitute a lot of different things… No garlic hmmm maybe I will toss a bit of cumin in that pot of beef stew… ok not bad… and so on.
    My future daughter in law watched me today make Frito Salad. It was fun to see her surprise when I just threw all the salad ingredients in with some of this and that and added a bottle of Catalina dressing to the mix and top our bowls with crushed Frito’s ha.

    I am reading a Vision In White. I am getting all misty eyed I suppose because my son is getting married in a few months. Going online, looking at wedding dresses and veils and all of the other things that go into a wedding. I am just along for the ride because her mom is getting married too and they are able to share this special time together.

    Good night in my corner of the world. Can’t wait to read the next blog post! It will be great I know… take care Beth

  23. I so enjoyed today’s blog!!! Sounds like a wonderful day!!! What I wouldn’t give to spend a day cooking with you! Lol

  24. This is also my preferred method of cooking and even baking, although I’m a bit more precise with measurements when baking. I do try to write my adjustments down for the next time, though. 🙂

  25. I picked up a trick for dough balls. Instead of a standard egg wash- I turn them into my version of garlic knots. I use a little EVOO, add fresh garlic which I run through my garlic press- add garlic powder, a pinch of salt, & a pinch of paprika for color. Brush on top of dough balls, pop in 350 oven, for app. 15 minutes. The house smells divine, & they taste heavenly. All assuming you like garlic.

  26. Oh, thank you so much for this post! From now on I’m going to say “That’s how Nora does it too” when people question my approach to writing. Outlines, schematics, lists of characters… I can’t deal with them, but – even though I am a published author- I feel insecure when people tell me that’s the “professional” way to work. Well, not anymore.
    I guess it’s just how some people roll. Cooking works the same way for me too. And even knitting and sewing. Like you said, recipes and patterns are only a baseline.

  27. I cook and bake the same way. What looks right. This was a great story as my 14 year old step granddaughter asked me to teach her to cook and she will be coming up north this summer to spend a week learning and I will teach her about bases and then the joy of creating

  28. I always blamed my lack of cooking skills on my mother. I’d ask how much of this or that to put in and she’d say, “Until it looks right.” I guess maybe that’s standard, so I’ll give her a break. I just plain old don’t cook very well!

  29. Nora, your mother’s pound cake sounds very like my mother’s Million Dollar Pound Cake, except I do have the recipe for it….and it tastes so good the next day with fresh strawberries (sublimated with a bit of sugar for those juices) piled on top. Mom’s uses vanilla & almond for the flavorings & not sour cream. Hmm, may have to try…and have the family accuse me of heresy!

    The potato & ham soup looks so good I may be fixing that for supper tonight! Many thanks!

  30. Love this post, as I have learned over the years to cook the same way. When we first got married, I had to have measurements for everything..LOL 30+ years later, I cook like you do, find something that looks interesting and just tweak or modify it from there. My family enjoys it, and my daughter is learning -finally- to do the same thing. I love your books/blog and posts, keep them coming!

  31. When I first married I followed the recipes as if my life depended on that – it might 😉
    It was so stupid to get all stressed out because I happened not to have such item or not knowing what it was.
    One day when moving I don’t know why I had to decluter and between this and that I gave all the recipe books away. I thought I’d baked and cooked enough items to invent or improved adding this and removing that. No need for all those recipe mags and books.
    I was right. I bet that’s why I love to cook. It’s a play. I’m just waiting for my own grand-Kayla 🙂 if those children of mine ever mind to do their duty 😉

  32. My Mom cooked the same way!!! About this or that!! But, eventually you learn what “about this” is!! Thanks for sharing that story and all your books!

  33. Nora- This write up was so profound in many ways. First because cooking is a total joy to me and I explore it in all ways and with fun. Just winging it and I create the best things.
    Second, because recently (only 2 months now) I gave myself permission to go for it with writing all the stories and fantasies that have been crowding my head since my 20’s.
    I just started writing and the story just flowed out of me. No outlines, story boards, etc… I don’t even know what those are when I read on other romance writing and critique sites.

    The story is amazing and the 2 characters and their lives, emotions, fears, etc… have all came out, intertwined and wound up in love. It’s been brilliant. If I get stuck, I take some a day and let things bubble as it were and then the next flow or way around the dilemma unfolds. Sometimes, I even wake up at night with the next wave of creativity and have to write in down in a notebook to transcribe later.
    It’s been freeing for my soul in a way I never imagined. Thank you for writing a validation that one of my favorite authors works in almost the same way!!!

  34. And here I was thinking your AutoChef did it all for you! Wow – what a fabulous piece to read while taking a (very short) break from devouring Brotherhood. (I thought I’d be waiting for weeks to get my reserved copy from the library, but my incredibly observant husband spotted an unreserved copy on the “new books” shelf and snagged it for me. If I cooked and we had a pool, he’d be getting spaghetti & meatballs followed by pool sex!)

  35. Thanks for sharing insights into your family and writing life! I’ve often wondered how you consistently come up with such wonderful stories. I also appreciate your method of cooking, as my grandmother taught me the same way you are teaching Kayla. When my Gramma Keenie passed away, I was given her “recipe” box, which consisted of ingredients but no measurements, except for the odd one such as “lump of butter the size of a pullet’s egg”. It still makes me smile when I pull a card out of the old box and have a go at recreating a dish.

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