A blog for readers and writers of crime fiction
I love it when food plays a role in cozy mysteries. Luckily for me, there are dozens of books that revolve around delectable bites in some fashion.
I’m currently reading A Clue in the Stew by Connie Archer. The series centers on Lucky Jamieson, who operates a restaurant where the menu items are predominantly soups. The author provides descriptions of the delicious varieties and accompanying sandwiches and such without bogging down the story with too many details. It’s just enough to whet my appetite. Plus, there are recipes in the back, which is always a nice bonus.
If soup isn’t your thing, you can find cozies that involve donut shops, cake shops, or ice cream parlors. Joanne Fluke has the long running Hannah Swensen series, which takes place at The Cookie Jar. While each mystery book contains several dessert recipes, Fluke has also put all the recipes together in a mouth-watering cookbook.
For variety, there’s the Goldy Shulz series by Diane Mott Davidson. Goldy runs a catering company and makes anything from scrumptious brunch casseroles to savory hors d oeuvres to luscious desserts, with several recipes included in the back, of course.
Sometimes I don’t know if I read these books to solve a good murder mystery or make myself hungry reading about all this great food. Even something as simple as Hercule Poirot drinking a cup of hot chocolate makes me sit up and take notice.
Maybe it’s because eating and reading are two of my favorite activities. Judging by the number of titles published each year that involve mysteries and food, I’m not the only one.
I saw the Manus x Machina exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. This wedding dress is a "scuba knit" that its creator Karl Lagerfeld, apparently without irony, described as "haute without couture," or maybe it was "couture without the haute."
Either way, I thought Lagerfeld must know very different brides than I do.
The exhibit was about more than fancy clothes. It was also about a movement during the French Enlightenment that strove to elevate crafts to the same status as art. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert created an encyclopedia of the "science arts and crafts" (1751-72). That book said the trades, like dressmaking, were as noble as arts and sciences. The book was part of a movement to remove the prejudice against manual labor, and it documents the creativity and complexity required to create works like this dress.
The struggle for egalitarianism continues to this day. Auteur theory and the star system (in Hollywood and Silicon Valley!) have pushed back against the view that the maker of chairs or dresses is as valuable a citizen as the designer who creates wedding dresses that can also serve as shark bait. And whenever the subject of guilds or unions comes up in conversation with other technical writers, there is often a palpable shrinking away, as if having a union or guild is to jump down the class structure a rung or three.
But what has all this to do with crime fiction? Well, I think one can sense a certain condescension in some conversations about crime fiction genres, at least with some reviewers and other self-appointed experts. Cozy crime stories, where food or crafts or talking cats may figure prominently, are no less an endeavor for the writer than bloody misanthropic investigators who use their gift for detection only when a fist to the jaw won't do. Lest you think I'm prejudiced against the private eye genre, though, know that I have defended Hammett's work as literature to the howls and derision of people who find a value difference, not just a difference of genre, between The Maltese Falcon and The Sun Also Rises.
I'll continue to read some of my favorite cozies, noirs, and thrillers without worrying about their literary "value." The art and science and craft of writing is indeed noble, and I respect everyone who gets to "The End."
I enjoy crafts in fiction and, though owning ten thumbs, grew up appreciating the art involved. But I’ll concentrate on food here, a subject I like far too much, but the “eat” part of “eat, drink, and be merry” became part of my philosophy when I arrived in San Francisco in 1962 and discovered ethnic restaurants.
What people eat or how they do so says much about character without any other commentary.
The detective, who lives on hamburgers, fries, and black coffee served in thick mugs, probably smells of greasy diners and, I am willing to bet, never mentions washing his clothes or only changes his shirt between books. He is obsessively focused and is probably a happy loner. Think of many older, noir detectives in particular.
Then there is the detective who likes to cook. The meals may be simple, but they sound yummy. He may even be vegetarian or find the art of preparing food a form of meditation. In the background, he probably plays music. He also changes his shirt at least once in the course of the book, forms deeper relationships (although they can be troubled and eventually end), and actually remembers to feed his cat. He has a cat! He is the somewhat reluctant loner, rather intuitive, and often bends the rules. Kind of Harry Bosch or Joe Pike or Elvis Cole.
Then there is the detective who adores food, eats out at his favorite restaurant where the owner stays open just to serve him dinner, and takes all his female suspects or witnesses out for a good meal while judging their veracity by how they react to the food. He may enjoy solitude, but so does his girlfriend of many years. He may not have a cat, but he weeps when his favorite ancient tree is cut down to build some modern thingie. He may even try to save dying seagulls. He pretends to bend rules, but actually just puts a new spin on them. A bit along the lines of Salvo Montalbano.
The other great thing about food in a book is dialogue. People usually talk when they are eating, a mulling over or collection of clues. If the dining companions are silent, there is a good reason.
And how better to add all those senses: color, smell, taste, sounds? All possible in the course of the meal, and all can punch up atmosphere.
Is there a downside to food in books?
Yep. I get hungry….
I'm not the best one to give food advice. If I lived alone, I'd turn my kitchen into a crafts room and order in from the Ice Creamery down the street.
But I do have a couple of fun food projects that I'm able to share. They were drummed up by Gerry Porter and her 11-y.0. granddaughter, Maddie who live in the Miniature Mysteries by Margaret Grace.
YIELD: 12 mini hamburgers
I box vanilla wafers
1 box soft chocolate cookies (SnackWells or the equivalent)
1 tube green frosting
1 tube red frosting
1 tube yellow frosting
1/8 cup sesame seeds (optional)
DONE! You now have 12 hamburgers, with lettuce, ketchup, and mustard.
Be creative: add a smooth ring of white frosting for an onion, a square of orange frosting for cheese, or smooth the red ring so it looks more like tomato.
Here are some eerie looking cookies for a mystery book launch.
I cheated (which I usually do at cooking) and started with a roll of cookie dough that's in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. I chose peanut butter because it seemed closest to "skin" color.
Step 1. Instead of cutting the dough as directed, lop off pieces and shape into a long skinny "fingers." The first time I tried this I made the shape too wide and got very, very fat fingers. [You'd think I'd know about thermal expansion.] A roll about the diameter of a pencil works well.
Step 2. Place the fingers on an ungreased cookie sheet. Stick a slivered almond slice into one end of the finger—lo, a fingernail!
Step 3. Squeeze red frosting (blood!) (another cheat, using a readymade tube) on the opposite end from the nail. If you lay the fingers out facing the same way, you can just run a line of frosting down the sheet, capturing all the fingers with one swoop.
Step 4. Bake according to package directions and SERVE.
Margaret Lucke's story "A Fair Day for Murder," featuring artist and private investigator Jess Randolph, is included in Happy Homicides 3: Summertime Crime, a brand-new e-book anthology/boxed set of cozy mysteries, available on Monday, May 23. To mark the publisher is sponsoring a drawing for a very cool beach bag containing
By Margaret Lucke
Research--sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's a burden. Which it is at any given moment depends on what I'm researching (is the subject interesting or boring?). And when (am I tight on a deadline, or do I have time to explore the topic a bit?) And of course, how.
I've found that methods of doing research fall into four categories, which I think of as the Four L's: Library, Lecture, Lunch, and Life. I'm using each of these labels somewhat broadly and loosely, of course.
LIBRARY is my shorthand for all kinds of reading material -- books, newspapers, magazines, and all of the huge amount of material about, well, anything that the Internet puts right at our fingertips. It amazes me how much I can learn in seconds without moving from my desk chair, when not that long ago locating a fact I needed meant a trip to the library and several hours of poring over reference books. I still like finding information in books and I have a large collection of them in my office. And I love real libraries -- support your local public library, everyone! It's a real asset for you and your community.
LECTURE refers to author talks, panels at conferences, speakers at meetings, classes, workshops -- all of the ways that someone shares their knowledge with a group of other people. For example, at recent meetings of writers organizations I belong to, search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers gave a demonstration, a police detective described how he finds and busts the perverts who spread child pornography, author Jan Burke explained 25 things a crime writer should know about forensics, and a medical examiner told us what her job is really like. None of those topics pertain directly to what I'm writing at the moment, but they all add layers to my knowledge of crime, investigation, and the justice system, and also to my confidence that I'm following that old advice to writers: Write what you know.
LUNCH is the one-on-one version of Lecture. Find an expert to who can answer your questions and ask that person directly. I call it Lunch because sharing a meal lets you have a relaxed conversation and paying for it gives you a small way to show your appreciation for the person's time. Of course lunch only works if your expert is nearby and willing. A telephone conversation or an email exchange sometimes works better. Most people enjoy talking about their area of expertise with someone who is really interested and already somewhat knowledgeable (so do your homework first).
LIFE means research that draws on your own experience -- in other words, learning by doing. Photographs, maps, and guidebooks are helpful, but when you want to capture the feel of the neighborhood where your story is set, nothing beats walking down its streets. The best way to find out what it's like to shoot a pistol is to go to a gun range and fire one. Riding along in a police car shows you what a cop's day is like. Obviously some things we write about are best left to our imaginations -- no one would advocate for actually committing a murder in the name of research for crime fiction (or for any other reason). But when you've done, seen, heard, smelled, or tasted something for yourself, it enriches your depiction of it in your story.
Whether it's fun or a burden, research is necessary if you want to tell your story authentically and well. It also has another important function -- it's a great way to procrastinate and to avoid getting down to the actual writing.
Which is what I should be doing right now …
It's 7:30 AM, Bristol, UK. The sun has been up for HOURS even though you lot back home in California are fast asleep (at least, I hope you are)! My body is at about 90% acceptance that we're in a new time zone and that it should just follow the sun for cues about when to go to sleep and when to wake up. After five days on the road, it's about time my body wised up!
I tried to outsmart jet lag by making the journey from California in two stages--a few days in New York City to see a play, visit a museum, and soak in the busy buzz of one of my favorite cities. Even though I can't walk far without stopping to rest (arthritis), it's still one of my favorite places to be. What didn't fit into my plans was that, perhaps due to age (hey, I thought 50 was the new 30?!) or sheer stubbornness, my body clung to West Coast time for the entire stay.
My first day in London I did the unthinkable--I napped in the afternoon! This breakdown in Traveller's Discipline meant my body felt free to wake up at 3 AM. My stomach, which is usually iron-clad, also rebelled. Thankfully the nice man who drove me from London to Bristol is a natural-born storyteller (HomeJames.info: Geoff Hill and company are the *BEST*). My driver was curious about the current state of American politics, and had had an adventure or two himself, so the ride was that most blessed of things when you aren't feeling your best--uneventful and entertaining!
Now, here at the Bristol Royal Hotel, they kindly put me in a room that feels like the best of Downton Abbey combined with 21st century comfort. Here's the view from my sitting room:
True confession: I thought I was free of any Anglophile tendencies, but my childhood spent reading Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple mysteries has left me with a soft spot for this part of the world. Thanks for letting me join you, UK mystery writers, at CrimeFest 2016! I'll post another update Saturday with more snaps and news. For now, join me in delicious anticipation of a weekend spent reading and talking about crime stories of all kinds. You can follow the fun on Twitter at #crimefest2016.
There’s no doubt research can become fun where you lose yourself in the moment or a burden when you want the real facts for your novel. I obsessed over finding the correct weapon used in Elizabethan times for Sour Grapes, the second book in my Shakespeare in the Vineyard series. I chose a halberd, a long handled iron weapon ending in a combination of axe-blade and spearhead. In modern times, the halberd has a thin flexible blade with a button tip to prevent injuries. The points can be made out of wood and silvered over to look like the real thing. An audience can’t tell the difference. When swords are drawn on stage, a scabbard, a sheath to hold a sword, is used. It can be made from tin piping and covered with leather to protect the actor.
I’ve done a lot of reading and research about the Amish and Mennonites, also known as the Plain People for their plain clothing styles. The Mennonites hold many of the same beliefs as the Amish, although they tend to be less conservative. Most Mennonite groups do permit the use of cars and electricity, although some require their cars be painted black. In my third book in the series, Vineyard Prey, I’ve introduced Sadie, an ex-communicated girl for leaving her community to advance her education. I’ve always had a fascination with the Amish and being from Ohio it was easy to visit Amish towns in Ohio and in Pennsylvania, and to enjoy their beautiful farms, wood working, and excellent restaurants. Amish children attend one-room schoolhouses to the eighth grade, which is why my character Sadie chose to leave. One of the teachings of the Amish faith is called the ban or shunning. This is based on the New Testament command not to associate with a church member who does not repent his sinful conduct. The purpose of this discipline is to help the member realize the error of his ways and to encourage his repentance, after which he would be restored to church fellowship.
At times, research has been a burden for me. I’ve decided that’s because I don’t outline my books and I don’t know what it is I need to learn about before I start writing. It can be disrupting when you’re typing along and suddenly realize you don’t know anything about weapons from Elizabethan times. That type of research takes time and patience if you want to get it right. On the other hand, new ideas pop up for your book during your research, a new path to take that you hadn’t thought of. That can be exciting and why I’ll probably never outline.
This is the week we're looking at "both sides" of research... do you enjoy it or not? Is it en enjoyable aspect of story creation or a misery?
Well, for me, it's a bit of both.
Researching new subjects and then writing about them is something I've been doing for decades as part of my day job as a science writer, so it wasn't too big a stretch to apply those skills to fiction. But, I had to learn draw different boxes around my efforts. In the science writing I do, the topics are always very well-defined and the article length has limits. So, whether it's explaining a new method for detecting how aging bones fail or describing how a spaghetti tangle of nanotubes are particularly effective in identifying minute amounts of chemicals, I knew I'd better not fall down the rabbit hole of research, or my 1500 word article would easily stretch into something twice as long.
The curse of fiction-writing is that there are no prescribed boundaries/limits to the research efforts. The rabbit hole can turn into a black hole, sucking all one's time and energy in to the point where the sheer gravity overcomes any writing momentum. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I got about research came to me courtesy of a Leadville historian, back when I was just beginning research for the book that became the first in my Silver Rush series, SILVER LIES. He told me: "Select your timeframe that you want to write about and focus your research there. I've seen too many writers who set out to write books in and around Leadville who just get lost in the history."
I took that advice to heart, and with each book I've defined the timeframe over which the story takes place, whether a week, a month, or several months. That way, I can at least set limits on the historical setting for each, which keeps the curse (or burden) of research somewhat under control, which is a blessing!
Of course, that doesn't stop me from obsessing over details about galoshes, wallpaper, or funeral etiquette of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Even obsessing doesn't necessarily mean I get it right, however. Like Michael, I give it my best shot, and try not to beat myself up too much when I get something wrong.
And inevitably, I always get something wrong. As Mark Twain once said, "It ain't what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain’t so."
Okay. Having written that, I better doublecheck. Research break...
...Lo and behold! According to an article in Forbes magazine, "Policing Word Abuse," Twain never said that at all!
Rather, it's a variation on a quote from Josh Billings, the pen name of a little-known humorist back-in-the-day, named Henry W. Shaw, who was also a good buddy of Twain's (at least they are in a photo together, as you can see below). Billings' quote appears in his 1874 book Everybody's Friend, Or Josh Billing's Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor (which has illustrations by Thomas Nash and is free, so hey, worth checking out on Google books).
This is what I found (with painful spelling intact) on pg 279:
"It iz dredful eazy tew mistake what we think for what we know ; this iz the way that most ov the lies git born that are traveling around loose."
So there you go. Research lesson (re)learned.