Friday, July 29, 2011

Recipe for Strange Research

For this recipe, you may need to start with a taste for beets and some other stuff, otherwise, this might suck.

1. In writing a murder mystery, describe one 16th century non-invasive autopsy. Garnish with gory details, and add a dash of humour (optional). This is best done during a Muskoka Novel Marathon, in the dead of night (so to speak), preferably while one is hungry for a midnight snack. Ensure that beet soup is somehow implicated in the murder.

2. Have cravings for beet soup for the next 2-4 weeks. Research medieval recipes and accidentally discover that in England, prior to the mid-to-late 16th century, beer was actually a stimulant and was not made with hops.

3a) Discover what goes into borscht. Laugh off your cravings, because cabbage does loud and entertaining things to your insides.

3b). Get tired of eating the same routine of Oatmeal Raisin Crisp, bagels, sunflower seeds, fruit snacks and beef jerky. Add colour to your diet.

4. Buy the following items, and have absolutely no idea how to cook them as an ensemble:

- some pearl barley
- a chunk of ginger root
- a few bits of raw garlic
- four raw beets of varying sizes
- some beef broth
- a bunch of carrots

5. Soak the pearl barley. It's dusty and tastes like crap if you don't wash it first. Trust me on this. And don't ask me how long to soak the barley. Just keep rinsing it until the water runs clear, I guess.

6. Boil the beets, skin and all, for about 15-20 minutes in an inadequate pot. If you think it's going to boil over, it probably will, so keep the temperature about medium-high or lower.

7. Simmer the barley for about 15 minutes. They should come out al dente (they're still a little tough, but they don't crunch). Do Steps 8 through 11 while you're waiting for the barley to soften up. Stir like you know what you're doing. Oh, and don't put anything in the water except for the barley. If you add salt, your mouth will shrivel up like a slug when you're done: there's plenty of salt already in the beef broth, depending on the brand you use.

8. Skin the beets (and your knuckles) while they're still warm. Grate the beets (and your knuckles). By the way, don't wear white.

9. Grate some carrots. You might want to avoid baby carrots for this. They're convenient and everything, but you may end up with a very sweet soup if you don't use the grown-up carrots. You also have a smaller likelihood of grating your knuckles again, using the bigger carrots. And yes, I know, carrots are "out of period" for the story, but so what. They were going bad in the fridge.

10. Peel and grate the ginger. During this stage, if you followed Step 7 to the letter, you may rediscover where your knuckles were grated. Ginger stings. A lot. And uh...yeah, don't try to suck the ginger juice out of the open wound.

11. Peel and grate the garlic. Or, if you're a keener and/or if you got one for your housewarming party, use a garlic press. I don't have a garlic press, and I'm too lazy to go to IKEA to buy one right now. (And same thing as with the ginger: if it gets into the open wound, just wash it off. You'll get a real surprise - and halitosis - if you suck garlic off your stinging knuckles.)

12. Prepare the beef broth. This can be as easy as opening up four of those OXO cubes and applying the right amount of hot water, or as complicated as trying to remember where the blankety-blank you put the can opener this time. Depending on the thickness and saltiness of the broth, you may want to add some more water. I used about four cups of broth made from OXO cubes (one cube : one cup of boiling water), then I added another 1-2 cups of broth 'cause I'm a dummy and put salt in with the barley.

13. Dump out the barley water. Be careful not to dump out the barley with the water. (Hint: colanders aren't just for mac and cheese.)

14. Throw everything into a big enough pot. (You may want to look carefully at the quantity of all your ingredients and do some mental math before putting everything into the first pot you lay hands on. If you don't, you'll end up doing extra dishes like I will be, later tonight.) Make sure you add all the ingredients: beets, carrots, garlic, ginger, broth, and what barley you didn't accidentally throw out. Double-check the counter(s), the sink, the stove top and the fridge for anything you may have left out.

15. Simmer everything that's in the big-enough pot for about 15-30 minutes. I don't know how long it took. I just kept getting up and trying it. If the barley had a "chewy pebble" texture, I kept the soup on the heat, stirred it thoroughly, then went back to work for a couple of minutes. As soon as the barley and the beets had a decent texture, it was good enough to eat. (Note: if you get distracted and the soup becomes glue, throw it out before it burns and start over.)

16. Once the soup is adequately done, turn the heat off. Let your masterpiece cool off for a couple of minutes. Scoop soup into receptacles of your choice (preferably bowls), and enjoy!

17. Check your hands and clothes for beet stains. Make mental notes where stains would be best used in your story.

18. After consuming some of your concoction, run to the nearest mirror and stick out your tongue. Note that it hasn't changed colour (even though your hands are probably, ahem, beet-red), but do note that there are probably bits of purple, fibrous material sticking to your tongue and teeth.

19. Go back and make careful updates to your extremely descriptive autopsy of a semi-naked body in the throes of rigor mortis.

And that's how you cook up some accuracy in your murder mystery. Stirring, isn't it?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Muskoka Novel Marathon and the Haunted iTunes Playlist

Allow me to set the tone for you.

First: read an anthology of short stories, devoted to (arguably) the greatest historical crime fiction writer of all times, Edith Pargeter, alias Ellis Peters (pictured left), creator of Cadfael.

Second: go to sleep. Dream of an unscrupulous woman in a holy place: a butcher by trade, seeking by deception the killer of a nun in her own abbey. Dream of a bitter struggle between doing what's right and doing what must be done - butcher against abbess, wife against dowager, woman against woman in difficult times. An epic clash of wills in a time when the Catholic church was All Powerful, Protestantism was punishable by death, and women were chattle.

Third: wake up and realize you have the whole danged plot worked out in your head, and there's still seven months until the Muskoka Novel Marathon.

Next: pass the next few months not writing. Practice the three r's of writing: reading, revising and research.

Give up on researching medieval monasteries in the 12th century; why not instead look to an equally turbulent turning point in history: the reign of Henry VIII, that notorious husband of six wives (who apparently loved Abba), that infamous wearer of codpieces, heretic and founder of the Church of England, master of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and namesake of the most contagious and irritating earworm of all time. ("Second verse, same as the first!")

And why not set it during the reign of the Tudors? After all, this time period falls in the midst of the Renaissance, some time after the discovery of the New World and all its possibilities, and when Protestants and Catholics alike were captured, tortured and martyred.

While you're at it, research martyrs, monastery life and...well...butchery.

Advance seven months. Prior to leaving home sweet home, upload a few hours of medieval and renaissance music to ye olde iTunes playlist. (Ordinarily, this is taboo. Usually, I'll listen to the era-appropriate music for at least a week in advance of the marathon, until I begin to absorb it by osmosis; anything too new, and I'm distracted by its novelty.)

Next, arrive at the ordained time and place, computers, snacks and heart in hand.

Spin in increasingly frenetic circles (sometimes doing laps around unsuspecting newbies at the marathon - true story) until the zero hour ticks its final second.

Sit. Crack knuckles (sorry, Mother).

8:00 p.m. Loose terrifying battle cry. Open file, title the blank sheet: Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint.

Press play. This is the first song in the new playlist. (To enhance the mood, open this link in a new window and play it while you read the pursuant paragraphs.) Spiriti, by the Medieval Baebes.

Begin: Describe a scene in which a middle-aged woman is on the run from pointed fingers, hate and gossip. Take her down to a desolate beach of black sand. Stumble upon a carcase, washed up against the rocks.

Have the harried woman slowly approach the corpse of a woman.

Tide is coming in.

The lady butcher creeps forward, possessed by a sense of terror and evil. Press on through the stench of murder most foul.

Have the sea rush in toward them.

The eyes of the corpse open and fix upon the horrified stare of the woman who found her.

The mouth opens, as if to speak.

Another crushing wave of seawater; the undertow pulls the feet out from under the lady butcher, causing her to fall beside the corpse.

The corpse holds her gaze. Her mouth opens again -

- And run out of awesome, spooky song.

So began my third 72-hour novel marathon! About 50 minutes later, the first ten pages were done, and a new story was begun.

Add some distractions, the obligatory mid-marathon migraine, some pickles and Bournville chocolate (the latter two were care of my mother), and I was off to the races.

Unfortunately, I seemed to have left my fastest muse at home. The one that came along with me liked to take me down long and twisty paths through Wikipedia and Google Images. When I wrote, I was composing at only 2/3rds my normal speed, and I was at a great risk of being supplanted as the Most Prolific. I had a title to defend!

But really, I couldn't care. It was all about the story, about the characters, about capturing a moment in time, faithfully and delicately, and conveying it to the reader. The work was slow, but some of the! When I read back over them the following morning, my jaw fell. Embedded in the gritty clay of the rough draft, there were gems I hadn't even recalled writing. Images came across exactly as I had seen them in my head.

And as usually happens, somewhere between the 6th and 66th hours, the writers suffered the giggles. I recall one particularly raucous moment when Jacqui Morrison blurted out a long (and insane) laugh. That set off Kevin Craig, whose chuckles made me giggle. Before long, there were seven or eight of us laughing uncontrollably, without really knowing why. Apparently Jacqui was laughing at something she had just written. Unfortunately, none of the rest of us seemed to find it as funny as she did - it was a case of "You had to be there", I think - so we spontaneously stopped laughing and went back to work without further ceremony.

And throughout the event, I was listening to Tudor-era music that made me stop and scratch my head, like, Hoyda, Hoyda, Jolly Rutterkin and Be Peace! Ye Make Me Spill My Ale by the Hilliard Ensemble, and So Spricht Das Leben ("So Sayeth Life") by the Medieval Baebes.

Then there was one of those blissful moments, late, late in the evening, when all was quiet except for the clicking of keys. I unplugged my haunted playlist and listened, exulting in the moment - I was among writers, writing! - when suddenly, softly but as clear as day, someone in the far corner said "S&#@%." She stared at the screen, shook her head, and went right back to work.

And then, there was one particularly giddy moment when I needed some living research. I was trying to describe a non-invasive autopsy, and Google Images can only help so much. So, sometime past midnight one night (they all blur together), I walked over to Kevin Craig, and giggling, I said, "Don't laugh. I need a favour." He laughed and asked what it was. "I need you to lie down on the floor and open your mouth." Not fifteen seconds later, Kevin Craig was lying on his back with his mouth wide open, his hands folded across his chest and his ankles crossed, with me peering past his uvula to the back of his throat, and with four photographers snapping pictures.

I hope someone will send me a copy.

And of course, there were the heart-to-heart discussions scattered about, inside and outside the venue, conversations I tried to ignore, but spiritual exchanges I couldn't pass up witnessing. I was a participant in some of them. Desk-neighbours became partners in time - pace-setters and lunch-reminder-ers (Susan, Sheila, Shelly, Shirley, Sharon - here's lookin' at you, kids - and no, I didn't just pull that list out of the 's' section of the Name Your Baby book). And if you weren't giving a shoulder massage or a back-scratch, chances were very good that you were on the receiving end of one.

We bonded.

Next, add one birth! My oldest friend (in terms of tenure, not age) gave birth right in the middle of the marathon. (Well, right in the middle of it, temporally, not physically. She was in a Port Perry hospital at the time. We were not.)

I'd been waiting all weekend for that phone call, and at last it came. I answered the call - which dropped before I could get out the door - and I answered it again when she called back. I walked around six or seven blocks and bought Gatorade or something without really thinking of it. Stuck between the 16th and 21st centuries, tagging along behind a lady butcher-turned-medic, I listened as Sarah told me all the highlights: gender, size, weight, time and temperament, and means by which the baby was born.

Suffice to say, the baby - and his birth - worked his way right into the story. Of course, it meant another two hours lost in research, but the result was realistic and exciting - and it has the possibility of being truly poignant, if I can paint the narrative with enough nuance and plain speech, and not over-sweeten it.

I had honestly thought this to be my last marathon, considering how much the previous marathons had taken out of me. The first I remember vaguely as a fit of mania, followed by a long period of exhaustion and depression; the second I remember as a long, bleak valley of exhaustion, pain and disappointment in the human race (that was the weekend I had to sit idly by while man and woman beat and slap each other over whose lighter it was).

But this one I'll remember as new beginnings and fresh success, bracketed by family time and vacations. And yes, I'll go back again. We raised over $8000 for the Muskoka Literacy Council - which has now been annexed by the YMCA Employment Centre - and the writers, I think, forged new bonds of friendship. Deeper connections, sincere bonds - not just as writer-to-writer, but as genuine friend-to-friend.

It was this peace, sincerity and tenderness that crept into the DNA of this book, and despite the fact that it's a murder mystery (and has some gory parts in it), I think its warm spirit will carry this book into the world.

Sincerity, compassion, charity, friendship, humour...and new beginnings.

The story's not done yet, but it's a very, very good start.

Veni Vidi Scripsi!


With warm thanks to Paula Boon and Karen Wehrstein for helping to organize the event (both pictured below - Paula's the blonde, Karen's looking at the camera, and as usual, I'm the one who's looking lost and confused).

Thanks also to Dawn Huddlestone (who took the above picture) and to our Dutch den mother Mieke, who helped to set the tone and capture the moment. Thanks, of course, to all my fellow writers, without whom the event could never have been.

P.S. If you can read this, won't you consider helping those who can't? Consider supporting literacy programs in your area. Teach someone to fish, and they will feed themselves - and others - for life.