Cooking the Books

A culinary inspired approach to writing fiction

Quite possibly the mark of a truly literate society is not how much we read, but how much we write. Of course, a high proportion of what we write is rubbish (the M6 Toll has a substratum of discarded Edwardian novels, most forgotten within a year of their publication), but nothing good was a ever written without the writer taking the risk of writing rubbish.

If you are a writer —  and almost everyone seems to be these days — then good for you. Publishers — a publisher’s bookseller told me recently — are becoming more and more risk averse, and so less and less likely to publish anything new and interesting, but that matters less and less. If you have something to say, set up your own blog, or post it on Wattpad, or Figment, or wherever you read. I met for the first time a few months ago an avid reader who only reads things on Wattpad.

We may read (as we learned in the film ‘Shadowlands’) to know that we are not alone, but we write in order to be read. In return for someone giving us their time, we promise them a feast of imagination, at least for fiction. Your writing may never pay off the mortgage (though, if you’re also prepared to write long business documents, it may well do), but if one person’s life is turned around because of it — even if they were the only person who ever read it — then it may be the most important thing you ever do.

The promise of a feast takes us to this article. There are many ways of constructing your novel, screenplay, short-story, epic poem or triple-album length narrative song. There is the plot method, as championed by Aristotle (and by me, but I suspect Aristotle’s name carries more weight), the character method, as championed by the whole of modernism, the snowflake method, as championed by much of the internet, and the ‘pants’ method (or, in proper English, ‘trousers’), much favoured by NaNoWriMo writers, also known as ‘making it up as you go along’. I was a firm ‘make it up as you go along’ person for years (I cannot bear to use the term ‘pantser’). However, this only resulted in me actually finishing two novels over twenty years. If trousering works for you, please, go ahead and keep using it. If you are looking for a new method though, less Greek than Aristotle, less Cold War than modernism, then allow me to offer you:

Cooking the Books: the Culinary Method for Writing Fiction

I owe the inspiration for this, as with so many other things, to JRR Tolkien, whose seminal essay ‘On Fairy Tales’ should be read by everyone who likes story, even if they hate fairytales. The other best book to read, in my opinion, is ‘The Way To Write For Children’, by Joan Aiken, even if you hate children (or, more probably, books written for them).

In On Fairy Tales, which is published in the book ‘Tree and Leaf’, Tolkien talks about the ingredients of story. He does not go so far as to propose a method—he was not that kind of scholar—but I think we can take his idea and usefully extend it.

I love cooking. My favourite dishes are Steak Provençale, Chicken Xim Xim, Balti Chicken Danzak, Flemish Stoofvlees, Bolognese sauce with pasta, Chilli Con Carne with bulgur wheat, chargrilled hamburgers with fresh pineapple, Cassoulet, and Chicken and Apricot Tagine, with cous cous. It seems to me that there are four aspects of cooking which can readily be applied to writing. They are these:

  1. The ingredients
  2. The method of preparing the ingredients
  3. The method and length of applying heat
  4. The presentation.

The Ingredients

There is nothing wrong, it seems to me, before writing, in saying ‘what ingredients do I like to have in a story?’ A lot of writing takes the ingredients, briefly fries them, and presents them in the simplest possible way on a plain plate, in the way you might receive them in a cafeteria. Nourishing, I am sure, but not creative. For example, if you always like to have a murder (in fiction, of course), then a police, crime or detective story would be the equivalent of briefly frying and then plainly presenting. Genre fiction, in as much as the disparaging term is useful, is often a question of taking the genre ingredients, cooking them as little as possible, and presenting them as much like other dishes in the genre. Of course there is merit in that. If you go for a pub meal and order steak and chips, you don’t expect the chips to be sweet potato chips marinated in Welsh yoghurt, and the steak to be an ostrich steak in a Polynesian sauce. If you want to read a good whodunnit, then nothing will satisfy the craving like a good whodunnit.

Nonetheless, for the more adventurous — or perhaps if you have been serving up steak whodunnit for a while, and want a change — that ingredient can be combined with other ingredients which will give it quite a different tang than the plain taste of frying.

I introduced my brother-in-law to steak Provençale the other week. He said he enjoyed it, and wanted to know what gave it the ‘kick’. The answer, of course, is half a rasher of bacon, soften the onions in olive oil, add a glass of red wine, add Provençale herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, or whatever you prefer), pepper, fresh chopped garlic (not crushed, please), cubed tomatoes, and allow to simmer for an hour. After that, add in chopped carrots, and a quarter of hour later, chopped mushrooms and half a glass of port. Get a griddle really hot. Season the steak with fresh ground pepper and Maldon sea salt, and then griddle for exactly 90 seconds each side. Serve in the Provençale sauce, either with frites or cous-cous.

A different choice of ingredients — for example, the addition of paprika and fresh peppers, to make Steak Piperade — would have given quite a different dish.

If you want to have a murder in your story, what other ingredients do you enjoy tasting? Very few Shakespeare plays (I can only think of Henry V) fail to involve a trick of some kind, whether it be the poison blade in Hamlet, or the Dover cliff trick in King Lear, or the trick played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, or the disastrously unsuccessful ruse at the end of Romeo and Juliet. No one would try to characterise Shakespeare as a ‘trick’ writer, and you could not possibly say that the principal enjoyment of his plays is in the tricks (though the trick which ends the rebellion in Henry IV part II is staggering). However, for the connoisseur, ‘trick’ is a Shakespeare signature ingredient, in a way that it is not in Dickens or Austen.

So, the first part of the culinary method is to make your list of ingredients. A murder? A trick? Templars (someone once told me to always include Templars. I confess that I have yet to include them even once)? For myself, I always like to have a fight, preferably with swords. Perhaps you enjoy some element of the supernatural, or, in classic Scooby-Doo fashion, something which looks supernatural but isn’t. Many readers like a puzzle of some kind. If you enjoy reading it, by all means put it in (but let nothing tempt you to put in an ingredient which you dislike in order to pander to the readers).

Use many different kinds of ingredients in preference to many variations of the same ingredients. In my kitchen I have some sixty bottles and tins of herbs and spices. However, a dish into which I poured a little of all of them would have no distinctiveness at all. In cooking Cassoulet, it is better to include carrots, leeks and parsnips rather than just more carrots, and including two different kinds of carrots would do no good at all. In Lord of the Flies, having begun with the ingredients of a choir school, an air crash and an island, William Golding goes on to add the ingredients of democracy, a crashed pilot, and the Biblical image of the Beast. He could have proceeded to simply explore the island, but the result would have been no more than a rehashed Robinson Crusoe, or, worse, Swiss Family Robinson. By including different kinds of ingredients, he produced a book so powerful that everyone should read it once, but (in my opinion) no one should be forced to read twice.

Use fresh ingredients wherever possible, rather than quickly microwaving something from Iceland (the supermarket, rather than the country). By this I mean do your own research, draw on your own experiences, imagine your own things, rather than recooking them from other novels. Joseph Conrad used ingredients from three newspaper stories to trigger The Secret Agent. Any number of different stories could have been told with those ingredients, but the story he did create was uniquely compelling.

Television may be our greatest enemy in this respect. Literary TV Dinners offer us every kind of proxy experience, and the arrival of Netflix (without ‘chill’) and Amazon Video make it even worse. You can now rewatch all the episodes of Jonathan Creek before writing your locked-room mystery. I love Jonathan Creek (even the most recent series, which everyone else seemed to hate), but too much Creek and your story will be little better than fan-fiction, once removed. I’ve seen a fair few hospitals on television, but actually working in one (Birmingham Children’s, as it happens) was nothing like anything I’d seen on TV. In a bizarre twist of Providence, I once investigated a confidence trickster, finally presenting my findings to the police, who arrested and prosecuted him. It did not in any way resemble any police or crime drama I have ever seen.

Whether you make up your ingredients entirely out of your head (in which case, you do not need to seek ‘authenticity’), carefully research or vividly remember them, these fresh ingredients will be much more tangy than anything you could get out of a box, reheat from a TV dinner, or rehash from a novel you enjoyed reading.

Finally, on ingredients, do you have a signature ingredient? For me, if cooking from the East, it is freshly crushed Cardamom, and if from Europe, red wine. Graham Greene always included an element of Roman Catholicism, Dickens always included at least one outrageously larger-than-life character (Captain Cuttle, Uriah Heep, Magwitch in the graveyard, and so on). To read Jane Austen is always to taste the inherent injustice in regard to women of the inheritance laws of her day. The signature ingredient cannot be the main ingredient, at least, not after the diners are used to it, but keeping it in helps to identify the cook.

Method of Preparation

How do you prepare an onion? You can blanche it, soften it in oil, soften it in butter, present it raw, fry it, batter it or bake it. You can also just put it in with the stew and allow it to look after itself, but onions generally taste more distinctive if prepared in one of these distinctive ways. Some dishes are always the poorer for being prepared in one way rather than another. My wife, who is Dutch, despairs of the British habit of boiling vegetables until they are completely soft (is it that we are afraid the vegetables, if not entirely cooked, will attempt to mount some kind of rebellion?) Cous cous, when merely prepared in hot water, is to me utterly bland by comparison with the method I learned in Paris, which was to soak in warm water for fifteen minutes, steam for fifteen minutes, toss in oil or butter, and serve while still crackling in the pan.

The same is true for fictional ingredients. Consider a simple story about insurance fraud—but with the ingredient of murder added. Imagine, if you will, an insurance company which is losing millions through bogus ‘crash for cash’ scams. The Board takes the (unethical) view of ethics that if you are going to act unethically, you may as well act utterly unethically, so they hire a hitman to drive around in areas where scammers are active, and, once a crash has been forced on them, he shoots the scammers in the head and makes his getaway. The insurance company then orchestrates a ‘viral’ (or astroturfed) social media campaign to spread the conspiracy theory that the scammers were killed by insurance company for that very reason. A couple of months later, once the fuss has died down, they do it again.

To the best of my knowledge, this is an original plot. The ingredients, scam, unethical Board, business buying a hit to send a message to criminals, are not new, but the combination should have a bit of tang to it.

However, they way those ingredients are prepared will either make this an entirely original story, or will simply boil it down to being a hitman thriller, of which there are very many.

So, what can we do with those ingredients?

First, we should take the freshest ‘crash for cash’ scams, of which there are many news reports. A bit of research into how they operate will not go amiss, right down to the business of false invoices, dodgy doctors signing off people with whiplash, and so on. That, in itself, will not ensure originality. Indeed, fifteen years ago an episode of Due South pursued exactly that same line. So, what can we do about it?

Well, we could either look at preparing that ingredient differently, or perhaps one of the others.

What about the hitman? Crash for cash scammers tend to target elderly drivers or young women with children — people they think are going to be most shaken up by the crash, and therefore the least likely to protest or ask too many questions. A young woman hitman (or hitwoman) with children at least gets us away from the stereotype, but we are in danger of rehashing TV’s Sherlock or the film The Long Kiss Goodnight. What about an elderly hitman? A Miss Marple or George Smiley gone rogue? Or a hitman in a wheelchair — not just someone pretending to be in a wheelchair (which has been totally done to death) but someone who genuinely has to be in a wheelchair. Or what about a young woman who is a genuinely terrible driver, who the insurance company trains as a hitperson? We may be getting close to Nikita territory here, but we can make sure we prepare the ingredient so we don’t get there.

There is a level of diminishing returns in over-preparing the ingredients. Miss Marple’s evil twin, who happens to be a terrible driver, who is also in a wheelchair and has to take care of two troublesome grandchildren is not really going to have much more impact than developing the ingredient with just one of those things, and perhaps characterising in other ways.

We ought to consider how we prepare the other elements as well. For example, it may not be the Board at all who are behind this, but a rival company that wants to take over their business. It is going to use the scenario first to scare off all the crash-for-cash scammers, and then to utterly discredit the first company. And so on. There is no ingredient that might not benefit from a little consideration, a little care in its preparation, rather than just being chucked into the stew with everything else.

Cooking time

To bake, boil, stew, grill, griddle, or put in a pie? Just such a question, of course, kept Tolkien’s trolls talking until dawn came and turned them to stone. Steak can be eaten almost raw (indeed, in the Ardennes, they eat ‘Americaine’, which is raw steak, to the consternation of any actual Americans who try it), whereas pork must be thoroughly cooked.

There are fictional ingredients which — to my palate — need more cooking than others. I felt the issues of child-abduction and torture in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights were presented too raw, especially when used to attack the Roman Catholic church (I am not a Catholic, and have no axe to grind here, still, I found it tasteless). At the other end of the scale, the whole rigmarole of Tess of the D’Urbervilles which was plotted to allow an innocent woman to hang for a crime she did commit (paradoxically) seems to me overcooked. Indeed, the story would have been all the better for not ending as it did, which would have allowed many of the other flavours to come out, rather than be dominated by the conclusion. As it stands, Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be (and has been) summarised as ‘Tess is going to die, and she does’, whereas, up to the point that we know she is going to, there is a great deal going on of remarkable subtlety.

JRR Tolkien always denied that the Lord of the Rings was about the wars in Europe, but his descriptions of the battle scenes certainly owed a great deal to his own experience in the First World War. However, he left that on ‘slow cook’ for a very long time before allowing it out into fiction. Some ingredients need this. If you have just been badly hurt by an abusive relationship, writing a story ‘raw’ about it will give an entirely different result from keeping that ingredient back until you can write with more perspective. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write it. Having cut my cooking teeth (as it were) in Belgium, I despair of the British habit of ageing steak for thirty days before cooking it. I want to take the freshest possible steak, and sear it for exactly 90 seconds on each side on the hottest possible griddle. Most of Britain, it seems, would disagree with me. The result is quite different, which is why I generally don’t order steak in British restaurants, and, when I do, as often as not wish I hadn’t afterwards.

Generally speaking, as with cooking, the richer the idea, the longer the cooking time. Jerome K Jerome one day started writing Three Men in a Boat, and it more or less came to him as he wrote, which may explain the appallingly weak ending, preceded (and, for once, not spoiling) the utter delight of the chapters up to then. Three Men in a Boat is a light work, of delicate touch. If he had let it stew for a couple of years, I doubt it would have been so good. Nostromo, on the other hand, is richer fare, and before he wrote it, Joseph Conrad imagined every street in his fictional Sulaco, and then told the story second hand through his raconteur Marlow.

Returning to our putative crash-for-cash story, we can go in two directions with cooking time. On the one hand, as a short story or as a thriller, this deserves to be written right now while the whole crash-for-cash thing is topical. Hopefully, insurance companies will have found a way of dealing with it in a couple of years (and, hopefully, not by the method in the story). On the other hand, if divorced from its topicality, it might deliver a better result. What about setting it in the 19th century, or in the Byzantine Mediterranean? What about in the far future (though not aboard a spaceship called ‘Nostromo’), where the ‘crash for cash’ notion has been transmuted into something else?

Baking a dish gives it a hard crust, while stewing it lets the flavours of all the ingredients infuse each other. In ‘hard boiled’ detective stories, now conflated with roman noir, we feel every blow of every fist. Raymond Chandler took the hard boiled style epitomised by Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon fame, and gave it a longer cooking time over a softer flame. The film The Maltese Falcon is better than any of the Sam Spade stories, including the one it was based on, but no filming of The Big Sleep or the other Marlowe stories has ever come close to Chandler’s ‘hero in the wrong story’ protagonist, partly because of the way he allows other interests to work their way in, most particularly in The Long Goodbye.

Presentation

About half the days of the week, I put the pans on the table and we serve from them. They are nice pans, and it has a slightly rustic feel, not out of place given that we live in the countryside five minutes walk from Shakespeare’s Avon. One day a week, typically, we eat Balti, for which I have heavy iron Balti dishes, purchased from a commercial catering supplier in Birmingham twenty years ago. The other days I present the food with varying degrees of elaboration, sometimes including a five-fold candelabra. We always have music and soft lighting, and follow the meal with coffee. We rarely eat dessert, but sometimes we do. Occasionally, I do a seven course meal with aperitif, two courses of starters, main course, dessert, cheese, and coffee to follow.

How you choose to present the meal depends a lot on what you are cooking, or alternatively, if you have decided on a particular presentation, you have to decide what to cook differently.

I like hamburgers with fresh pineapple, but wouldn’t do them as part of a seven-course meal. On Tuesday evenings, we fence (we are a couple that makes sure we fight once a week). That generally means a pasta dish, and eating early. Thursday evenings I fence, so Cassoulet.

Once you have your story, presenting it can take it in different directions, but over or under-presenting it can damage it. The ‘Encyclopdia Galactica’ entries in the original Foundation trilogy were inspired, as were the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entries in the series of the same name. The equivalent sections in Dune (with deep apologies to people who love every word of that book) are tepid by comparison. Three years ago, I wrote a novel called ‘the Saxon Thief’. Last year, my mother indicated she would quite like to read it. It was in an unfinished state, so I finished it off and sent it to her. She commented that all the characters seemed to have the same ‘voice’, so I went back and rewrote every single line of dialogue (notwithstanding that, the two agents I pitched it to, curse them, showed no interest. I suppose I had better circulate it more widely). At least my mother preferred the new version. No one else has read it.

John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is, apart from the ending, one of the most perfectly presented books in English, with all the poet laureate’s art going into every page (he also wrote Sea Fever, voted as Britain’s favourite poem). He earlier novel, Dauber, by contrast, is almost unreadable — the slow writing combines with the Rizla-thin plot to make a book which should really never have been published. A sharper, less self-indulgent presentation would not have made Dauber into a good book, but it would at least have made it less painful reading.

I was, I’m afraid, schooled in Modernism, when Modernism was still a thing. My natural writing style is savagely minimalistic, giving the reader as few clues as possible and letting them figure out what’s going on for themselves. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to unlearn that, especially because most of the things I want to write about don’t naturally lend themselves to minimalism, or Modernism.  Sometimes it takes someone else to look at your work (teenagers are the best, because they say what they think) to tell you that they really can’t follow what you’re writing, and please include more explanation.

The point I’m making is that the first three aspects—ingredients, method of preparation, cooking time—get you to what the story is, but thought must also be given to how you tell it. This goes far beyond deciding whether to write in the present-historic (personally I hate this, but will put up with it in the Hunger Games et al because of the quality of the story) or the past, first or third person, limited or omni, or other such mechanical choices. Presentation also goes beyond writing style. Except for the shortest of short stories, which are the literary equivalent of a snack, you are setting out not only the meal, but also the theme and decor of the restaurant, the demeanour of the other diners, the other items on the menu, and even the weather and time of day outside. The clearest possible indication that The Big Sleep is not going to be in the mode of Sam Spade is in the first three lines:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit…

This is to be a story in which time, date, weather, geography and personal grooming are all going to play parts. There is going to be time for reflection, for description, and for a languid self-observation. Chandler wasn’t merely trying to write a better Sam Spade (though he did think that he could write hard-boiled better than it was being written), he was also writing a riposte to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes always knows what’s going on, and chides others that they see without observing. Philip Marlowe never knows what’s going on, despite genuinely detailed observation. Indeed, we, the reader, observe far more through the eyes of Marlowe than we ever do through John Watson, and yet are left as bewildered and bludgeoned (frequently) as our narrator.

Making a meal of it

So, there you have it. Ingredients, Preparation, Cooking and Presentation. If this inspires you to write differently, or helps you get past a dry (or hungry) patch, then my best wishes go with you. If, on the other hand, it has done nothing for you, console yourself that it has taken you less time to read it than it did for me to write it—which, sadly, is all too often the fate of a meal. However, once, just once in a while, like the couscous I ate in Paris in April 1986, it will live forever in the memory.

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