Week #3: Rules
Or: Learn Them Before Breaking Them
Last post we brainstormed the appetizer and the beginning of the story. Better said, we threw a soup together and slammed a thousand words into a word document. The soup simmers away on the back burner. The story turns over in the back of my mind along with feedback from friends who’ve added their grease to the plot.
Now things are getting serious. I proposed to grill an expensive piece of venison for the main course. I am not a meat eater therefore I am not a meat cooker. I am a meat destroyer. I have never made an edible roast except to plunk a chunk into a slow cooker overnight. Am I overreaching my area of expertise? Should I just forget about it and make a tofu stir fry?
This is the point where I need to seek help. There are plenty of well-meaning meat eaters out there who readily and graciously share their experiences. Teachers of the trade who are willing to impart their wisdom, share their rules born from trial and failure. Scientific rules–the ability to cook is really an understanding of chemical processes, reactions of certain substances as they are combined, heated and cooled.
Like my story. We have two women meeting after two years in a restaurant called Tragic Hearts. And we have a dead body. Oh no! It’s becoming a murder mystery? I’m not a mystery writer! Well, I’ve never written a mystery before but murder has now become the hub of the conflict. Here too I need to seek help: writers who blog and write how-to books, sharing their tricks for us to read and expound on. And writing a mystery involves understanding certain reactions as words form paragraphs and paragraphs form structured ideas. One should flow with purpose into the next as an understandable, working, concise story forms. Emotions are heated, cooled, causing certain reactions.
Refreshing rules is a constant venture, yes, but now is not the time to learn them. Structuring the story is for me like preparing this piece of venison; much too costly and time-consuming to screw it up. I better have a game plan before I start. All the work and investment will be for naught if I get this wrong. Or force me to throw the whole thing out and start over.
Grilling meat on this rainy November afternoon is out of the question. So I petition our experts (surf the internet) and find that this piece of meat I bought can be successfully browned on the stove and then cured to perfection in the oven for two hours at 80° C (175° F.) I think even I can handle that. I have a workspace where this project can unfold, come what may. And I’ve decided on mashed potatoes today–adds a bit of creamy, buttery comfort on this chilly autumn day. Peeling potatoes is also a therapeutic, mechanical movement just right for daydreaming. And I’m hell-bent on making a savory chocolate sauce, just because I want to throw a conflicting, unexpected twist into the whole experience. I now have a structure to use the next two hours effectively.
I need my story to flow in a similar fashion. I love to free write but I need a plan to move within. An outline. For me the structure of the story is not only like cooking a meal but also comparable to building a house. I have the framework, the walls, the doors, the windows. Once the structure stands, I can move in and decorate as I see fit. An outline for a short story can be a few sentences describing what I intend to achieve. For a novel, the outline is more involved.
I am a big fan of NaNoWriMo. The novel I am now working on is a product of that. And this is just the right time of year to be discussing that, now that November is right in front of us. The first NaNo that I participated in and finished was accomplished with moderate planning. The characters were already alive and the story half-formed. I made a tentative outline as I went along and made it through to 50,000 words. Last year, though, I took the whole month of October and outlined and researched so that November could be dedicated to free writing. Out of that came a 50,000 word first draft, bare bones, start to finish.
The venison roasts in the oven. Protein coagulates, juices brown, a tasty crust forms on the surface of the roast. Potatoes soften in boiling water just waiting to be slathered in butter and creamed to perfection. After skimming and discarding the recipe for Mexican Mole, I set to creating the perfect chocolate sauce. Onions brown in oil with a few spicy chilies. Add garlic to the hot oil, inhale and slake with homemade venison broth, not caring that the smells of browning meat permeate every inch of my body, my hair and the house. Add tomatoes, roasted nuts and puree the whole lot in the mixer. Pour the sauce back into the pot. Break off 70% baking chocolate, let a piece melt on my tongue and feel wanton longing rising in my heart as I sink the chocolate into the hot mixture and see its melted godliness spread on the surface.
I remove the venison from the oven and stand over it like a defendant awaiting a verdict. Touch the knife to the meat’s surface. The juryman hands the decision to the judge. The knife slides through the meat as if it was hot butter. A smile escapes the judge’s usual stoic expression. A muffled cheer bubbles up from awaiting friends and family in the courtroom. Absolution clears the clouds and an angelic ray of sunshine pierces the dirty windows of the courthouse. Music and birdsong crescendo and then echo and the scene fades to black. Roll the credits.