I’ve been looking at the statistics for this blog, and selected some of the year’s most-visited posts for your delectation.
I’m a guest today over at Leah Braemel’s Blog, chatting about some of my writing goals for the new year.
This post was originally written for the Romance Junkies blog.
I love food, both eating it and reading about it, and that interest sometimes translates into my work. I use food for several different purposes, most notably to establish setting and to deepen characterization.
My book The Moonlight Mistress is set in the early days of World War One, and there are scenes set in Germany, England, and France. Not only did I take into account local cuisines of those places, and what people might ordinarily eat in 1914, but what might be available to eat in the specific situations I was portraying.
For instance, in an early scene, two characters are trying to escape Germany. They stop in a small town and buy “sausages, cheese, fresh bread, a thermos of strong coffee, and bottled beer and lemonade,” even though the French character would really rather have croissants. This idea is revisited when they’ve arrived safely in France: “She could really have croissants, with thick creamy butter and clots of strawberry jam.” In fact, they get buttered rolls and an “omelette…dense with soft cheese and thin ham and fines herbes,” subtly giving an impression of safety through plenty of good, fresh food.
So far as characterization goes, the character Crispin likes a particular kind of chocolate, “nutmilk choc,” and it appears several times, as a gift from his sister and when he shares his favorite with others. This is a fairly simple use of food as characterization.
I got a bit more complicated with a werewolf character, Tanneken. Her appearance, a small woman in widow’s weeds, contrasts with her sometimes savage werewolf nature. I tried to show these contrasts through the ways she eats while in a tea shop, and also show that she has recently been through a terrible experience.
For example: She…ate a madeleine in one bite, then another. She chewed, swallowed, and said, “You will not lock me up. I would kill you first.” She took one of the cream pastries and studied it a moment before popping it into her mouth. She’s very hungry, but also somewhat detached from the everyday business of it. Her words are at odds with her behavior.
The waitress set down their plate of sandwiches. Madame Claes took one and popped it into her mouth. She did not appear to take any pleasure in the food, Pascal noted. She simply ate it for fuel, like a soldier too long in the field. The point of view character picks up on the above and learns something about her.
“I prefer to strike directly whenever I am able, since my government will not allow me to be a soldier. Even though I can rip out a man’s throat in less than a heartbeat.” She picked up the last remaining madeleine and nibbled on it, delicately. And, here, the contrast between manners and words is even more direct.
Food detail also works wonderfully as contrast between the actual situation and what the characters feel. A conversation about afternoon tea takes place in a shell hole, while the two soldiers are under bombardment: “What was tea like at home, when you were a boy? Cucumber sandwiches and little cream Napoleons? Or beans on toast?” We learn much more about the characters through this seemingly innocuous discussion than we would if they had simply continued to talk about the military situation.
I’m only sad that my book is set too early in the war for me to include ANZAC cookies. Which are delicious.
I post this section from Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission because I love it for what is says about Bach (Johann Sebastian) as well as about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
O’Brian was an incredible writer, and I think this passage shows it.
‘[London Bach] wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young man has set up on his own, having inherited his master’s music-library. We searched through the papers – such a disorder you would hardly credit, and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees – we searched for hours, and no uncle’s pieces did we find. But the whole point is this: Bach had a father.’
‘Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem to have known other men in much the same case.’
‘And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.’
‘A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?’
‘I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great Passion according to St Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well, and I brought away several pieces, ‘cello for you, fiddle for me, and some for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear it played really well – to hear Viotti dashing away.’
Stephen studied the ‘cello suite in his hand, booming and humming sotto voce. ‘Tweedly-tweedly, tweedly tweedly, deedly deedly pom pompom. Oh, this would call for the delicate hand of the world,’ he said. ‘Otherwise it would sound like boors dancing. Oh, the double-stopping . . . and how to bow it?’
‘Shall we make an attempt upon the D minor double sonata?’ said Jack, ‘and knit up the ravelled sleeve of care with sore labour’s bath?’
‘By all means,’ said Stephen. ‘A better way of dealing with a sleeve cannot be imagined.’
Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen’s departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it. The opening movements were full of technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely-argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.
During a pause in his evening letter Jack thought of telling Sophie of a notion that had come to him, a figure that might make the nature of the chaconne more understandable: it was as though he were fox-hunting, mounted on a powerful, spirited horse, and as though on leaping a bank, perfectly in hand, the animal changed foot. And with the change of foot came a change in its being so that it was no longer a horse he was sitting on but a great rough beast, far more powerful, that was swarming along at great speed over an unknown countryside in pursuit of a quarry – what quarry he could not tell, but it was no longer the simple fox. But it would be a difficult notion to express, he decided; and in any case Sophie did not really care much for music, while she positively disliked horses. On the other hand she dearly loved a play, so he told her about….
[from pp.47-48, 154-155 of The Ionian Mission, Patrick O’Brian].
Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an inward sword have more slowly bled,
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head.
And over the stairway, at the foot–oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel, with the small, sweet, tinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs,
From the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred.
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
To lovers–to mothers
Here, too, lies he:
Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women’s hearts to see
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead
For this will stand in our Market-place–
Who’ll sell, who’ll buy
(Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore’s and huckster’s face
As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.
— Charlotte Mew
I’ve always thought this poem would be a great background or theme for a romance novel.
Love is the Master
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
By my passion of love for Love
I have ground sweet as sugar.
O furious Wind, I am only a straw before you;
How could I know where I will be blown next?
Whoever claims to have made a pact with Destiny
Reveals himself a liar and a fool;
What is any of us but a straw in a storm?
How could anyone make a pact with a hurricane?
God is working everywhere his massive Resurrection;
How can we pretend to act on our own?
In the hand of Love I am like a cat in a sack;
Sometimes Love hoists me into the air,
Sometimes Love flings me into the air,
Love swings me round and round His head;
I have no peace, in this world or any other.
The lovers of God have fallen in a furious river;
They have surrendered themselves to Love’s commands.
Like mill wheels they turn, day and night, day and night,
Constantly turning and turning, and crying out.
–Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi
“All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what’s keeping things running right. We’re bugs struggling in the river, brightly visible to the trout below. With that fact in mind, people like to make up all these rules to give us the illusion that we are in charge. I need to say to myself, they’re not needed, hon. Just take in the buggy pleasures. Be kind to the others, grab the fleck of riverweed, notice how beautifully your bug legs scull.”
–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I’m on vacation until the new year, but I set up some blog posts anyway. There will be a slight lack of introspective musings on writing and genre in them, but hopefully some entertainment value.
Behold one of the most amusing examples of dialogue I have ever read.
“Wallis,” said Maturin. “I am happy to find you here. How is your penis?” At their last meeting he had carried out an operation on his colleague in political and military intelligence, who wished to pass for a Jew: the operation, on an adult, had proved by no means so trifling as he or Wallis had supposed, and Stephen had long been haunted by thoughts of gangrene.
Mr. Wallis’s delighted smile changed to gravity; a look of sincere self-commiseration came over his face, and he said that it had come along pretty well, but he feared it would never be quite the member it was.
–Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War
In The Moonlight Mistress, it’s mentioned in passing that Antwerp fell to the Germans. Here’s a first-person account about that event which I didn’t get to use in my novel (yet!).
Excerpt from A War Nurse’s Diary: Sketches From A Belgian Field Hospital (1918):
“We felt in taking these buses that we were no longer robbing the Marines. Many of them were with us; many more were dead and had no use for them. It was now 3 P. M. on Thursday. As soon as the five buses arrived we commenced loading them up with our wounded. Those who could sit up were placed on top and the stretcher cases lay across from seat to seat inside. We formed a long procession, for there were five private cars as well. My car was the first to get loaded, and 1 was put in charge of the inside passengers. Shall we ever forget the loading up of those cars? They tried to save all the theatre instruments. What an eternity it seemed! Just sitting still, with the guns at last trained on to our locality.
One of the young doctors ran upstairs for his kitbag; half-way up, the wall suddenly collapsed, revealing the next house in ruins. He left that kitbag behind! Even to the last minute patients arrived, chiefly British. Just before we started a tall Marine in a navy jersey and sailor’s cap was helped in. He sat in the corner next to me. All his ribs were broken down one side, and he had no plaster or support. Opposite me were two Tommies with compound fractures of the leg. 1 placed both legs on my knees to lessen the jolting.
The Marine suffered in silent agony, his lips pressed tightly together, and his white face set. 1 looked at him helplessly, and he said “Never mind me, Sister; if I swear don’t take any notice.” Fortunately, they had pushed in two bottles of whiskey and some soda-syphons; I just dosed them all around until it was finished. Placing the Marine’s arm around my shoulders, I used my right arm as a splint to support his ribs, and so we sat for seven and a half hours without moving. Then another nurse took my place and I went up on top. During the first part of the ride I bethought me of that tube of morphia, and it came in very useful, as I gave each of those poor sufferers one or two tablets to swallow.
How can I ever describe that journey to Ghent of fourteen and a half hours? No one but those who went through it can realize it. Have you ever ridden in a London motor bus? If not, I can give little idea of what our poor men suffered. To begin with, even traversing the smooth London streets these vehicles jolt you to bits, whilst inside the smell of burnt gasoline is often stifling, so just imagine these unwieldy things bumping along over cobble stones and the loose sandy ruts of rough tracks among the sand-dunes, which constantly necessitated every one who could, dismounting and pushing behind and pulling by ropes in front, to get the vehicle into an upright position again, out of the ruts. When you have the picture of this before you, just think of the passengers—not healthy people on a penny bus ride, but wounded soldiers and sailors. Upon the brow of many Death had set his seal. All those inside passengers were either wounded in the abdomen, shot through the lungs, or pierced through the skull, often with their brains running out through the wound, whilst we had more than one case of men with broken backs. Many of these had just been operated upon.
We started from the Boulevard Leopold at 3 in the afternoon. We arrived in Ghent at 5.30 next morning. For twenty-four hours those men had had no nourishment, and we were so placed that it was impossible to reach them. Now that you understand the circumstances, I will ask you to accompany me on that journey.
Leaving our own shell-swept street which seemed like hell let loose, we turned down a long boulevard. From one end to the other the houses were a sheet of flames. We literally travelled through a valley with walls of fire. Keeping well in the middle of the street we constantly had to make detours to avoid large shell-holes. At last we arrived at one of the large squares near the Cathedral. That appeared to be intact, whilst the Belgians had taken Rubens’ and Van Dyck’s famous pictures and hidden them in the crypts.
Every sort of vehicle in existence filled that square. It would have been possible to have walked across on the top of the cars. The only way to get out of Antwerp was across the Scheldt by a pontoon-bridge made of barges with planks between. It would not bear too much traffic, so the authorities let the people and vehicles cross one by one, still looking at passports.
For one and a half hours we stood there waiting for our turn to come. Just after we were safely over a shell struck the bridge and broke it in half.
From Antwerp to St. Nicolas is about twenty miles. It was the Highway of Sorrow. Some people escaped in carriages and carts, but by far the greater number plodded on foot. It was now 5 P. M. on an October evening; there was a fine drizzling rain; it was cold and soon it was dark. Along that road streamed thousands, panic-stricken, cold, hungry, weary, homeless. Where were they going? Where would they spend the night? Here was a mother carrying her baby, around her skirts clung four of five children, small sisters of five or six carried baby-brothers of two years old. There was a donkey cart piled high with mattresses and bundles and swarming on it were bedridden old men and women and babies. Here was a little girl wheeling an old fashioned cot-perambulator, with an old grey-bearded man in it, his legs dangling over the edge. Suddenly a girl’s voice called out of the darkness, “Oh Mees, Mees, take me and my leetle dog with you. I have lost my father and he has our money.” So we gave her a seat on the spiral stairs outside.
Very soon all the ills that could happen to sick men came upon us. The jolting and agony made them violently sick. Seizing any utensil which had been saved from the theatre I gave it to them, and we kept that mademoiselle busy outside. All along the road we saw little groups, weary mothers sitting on the muddy banks of a ditch sharing the last loaf among the family. After some time of slow travelling we came to St. Nicolas. Here the peasants ran out warning us, “The Germans have taken the main road to Ghent and blown up the bridge.” So we went on by little lanes and by-ways across the sanddunes and flat country that lie between Belgium and Holland.
We were very fortunate in having with us a Captain of the Belgian Boy Scouts. He knew the way and guided us. Soon the order went forth from car to car, “Lights out and silence!” Later on we saw the reason for this; across some sloping fields by a river we saw the tents and glimmering lights of the Germans. We passed very few houses, as we avoided towns and villages; any habitations we saw were shuttered and barred, for the people hid in terror expecting every one who passed to be the dreaded enemy. All this time our men were in torture, constantly they asked “Are we nearly there, Sister? How much longer?” I, who was strong, felt dead beat, so what must they have felt? One weary soul gave up the battle and just died. We could not even reach him to cover his face as he lay there among his companions.
From St. Nicolas I was faced with new anxiety. Where were our friends who went to Ghent with the first convoy of wounded? Had they taken the main road and fallen into the hands of the Germans? I thought of all the tales I had heard of the treatment Englishwomen received at their hands. At any place where people were visible we anxiously inquired if three buses had passed that way earlier. We could get no satisfactory answer.
Soon we began to meet the first detachments of the Expeditionary Force. In a narrow lane with a ditch on one side lay an overturned cannon whilst a plump English Major cursed and swore in the darkness. Then a heavy motor lorry confronted us; one of us had to back till a suitable place came in the narrow lane where we could pass. Later on we met small companies of weary Tommies, wet and footsore, who had lost their way. Our Scout Captain warned them to turn back, telling them the Germans had by now entered Antwerp, but they did not believe us. Even had they believed us, they had their orders to relieve Antwerp, so to Antwerp they went, never to return.
At last that weary night came to an end. For some hours I had been relieved by another nurse, and sat on top in the rain and cold. The medical students were so worn out that they lay down in the narrow passage between the seats and slept, oblivious of our trampling over them. Before dawn we entered the suburbs of Ghent.”