Here, Have Some Pie

Pumpkin, this time.  All of ours is gone; and so is the cherry pie.  Some of the apple still remains, but not for long.

The weather here is unseasonably cold; the outside thermometer is reading 3 degrees Fahrenheit.  Normally we don’t get weather like that until mid-December or later.  Local opinion is that we’re going to have a cold winter; the question remaining is whether or not it’s going to be a snowy one.   Snowy is good, because snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are a big part of the local economy, such as it is, and a winter with substandard amounts of snow is the equivalent of  major crop failure.

But pie makes all things good.

Pumpkin Pie

  • 1 unbaked pastry shell
  • 1 can pie-pumpkin
  • 3 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 1 and 1/2 cups canned evaporated milk (One 12-oz can.  Not sweetened condensed milk; not evaporated skimmed milk.)

Place the pie shell in your pie plate.

Mix the spices well with the brown sugar.  This breaks up the lumps in the brown sugar and keeps the spices from clumping together when you add the liquid.

Combine the eggs with the sugar and spices; beat well.

Add the canned pumpkin.

Add the milk and beat well.

Pour into the pastry shell.  (Actually, the way we do it around here is to add the filling to the shell a ladle-full at a time.  Better control that way, especially if it turns out you’ve got more filling than shell.  We use our largest pie plate for this recipe.)

Cook at 350 Fahrenheit for 45-55 minutes.  (Test it after 45, and give it another 10 minutes if it isn’t done yet.)

When a knife inserted into the filling comes out clean, the pie is done.


The kind that says “Ingredients: pumpkin.” Anything else is pumpkin filling, and an abomination before the Lord.

Family Feasts and Rituals

We’re gearing up for Thanksgiving dinner already — tonight is pie production, because Thanksgiving dinner is nothing if not a pie delivery system.  This year we’re only doing three pies (cherry, apple, and pumpkin) because there are only going to be four of us at the table.  Come Christmas, when all three of the unmarried offspring will be temporarily in residence, we will be doing at least four pies (the current loadout, plus blueberry, and quite possibly some kind of chocolate cream pie as an extra.)

One of the things that a lot of science fiction and secondary-world fantasy often lacks, in my opinion, is this kind of tradition-laden family gathering.  Partly it’s because the protagonists of science-fictional and fantastic stories are so often loners, either by circumstance or by choice — they’re orphans, or they’re wanderers of one sort or another, or they’re estranged from whatever relatives they’ve got.  (Which is a pity, I think; nothing complicates life, or a plot, like family.)  But partly, I suspect, it’s because making up plausible and consistent holidays and family rituals that are convincingly alien but nevertheless feel like the real thing . . . is hard work.

(This is also where I like to give a nod to one of my favorite fictional Thanksgivings, the season four episode “Pangs” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It has everything, from the manic freakouts over getting the traditional recipes exactly right, to a look at some of the more problematic historical and cultural issues surrounding the holiday, culminating in a shared meal where everybody — even the captive vampire tied to a chair — is entitled to a seat at the table.)

Weather, We’ve Got Weather

And I might even have had a blog post last night about short stories, and how long it takes to write one, if we hadn’t been in the part of northern New England that had freezing cold and high winds all day yesterday, and had the power go out for nearly five hours yesterday night.

Which wouldn’t have been bad — only annoying, and boring, and putting a serious delay in all the work I had in hand for the evening — if we didn’t also heat the house with electricity.  We toughed it out by candlelight for the first couple of hours, until our laptops ran out of juice; then we gave up and huddled under the down comforter and all the blankets until the power came back.

Then we spent today playing catch-up, and putting the finishing touches on the short story we were working on when the power went out.  This is a short story that either took us a couple of weeks to write, or took us about nine years.  We would periodically pull it out, and work on it some, and throw out bits and put in more bits, and come up against a brick wall and put it away again . . . and this went on, as I’ve said, for years.

Then about a week ago, revelation hit and the wall broke and we had a finished draft.  The rest of the work was revision, seven drafts of it.  (I figure I’m in good company; the humorist James Thurber once claimed that most of his seemingly effortless casual pieces for The New Yorker went through at least six drafts before submission.)  Next comes sending the story out on a blind date with an editor somewhere, with all the concomitant angst and uncertainty.

Persistence.  Persistence is key.

We didn’t have the external spur of an anthology we’d promised the story to, and we’re not primarily short story writers anyhow; otherwise, the process might not have taken so long. A good part of the final, successful effort involved throwing out all of the short story’s misguided attempts to turn into a novel.

More Internet Fun Stuff: Adopt a Skull

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has a skull collection, and they’re working on restoring and remounting them.  And they’re looking for sponsors! For only $200/year, you can contribute to the work on a particular skull, and have your name on a plaque next to it.

What does this have to do with writing?  Not much, except that most of the writers I know are fascinated by the weird, the unusual, and the specialized esoteric, and the Mütter Museum qualifies on all counts.  I note on their web page that they’re now partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is an institution I remember with great fondness — I wandered in there one day shortly after arriving in Philadelphia for graduate school, took a random left turn, and walked straight into a room full of artifacts from ancient Sumer that I’d hitherto only seen in a Time-Life history book.

“Wow,” I said to myself, or words to that effect.  “I’d never have seen this if I’d stayed in Texas.”

Amusing Stuff on the Internet

As a renegade medievalist and lapsed philologist with a bad case of Tolkien’s Disease (I haven’t yet had a novel break out into appendices full of invented language, but give me time), one of the things I keep an eye out for on the web is sites maintained by and of interest to word nuts like myself.

Today’s find is All Things Linguistic, where one can find links to discussions of what is and isn’t a sandwich (ham-and-cheese yes; paninis maybe; s’mores are an edge case) and Katharine Hepburn’s accent and translating Jabberwocky.  My favorite at the moment, though, is a Tumblr devoted to sample sentences — you know, those example sentences in language and grammar books that are mostly just dull but every so often seem to have been radioed in from another, stranger planet:

If there is both a direct object and an indirect object, then the indirect object precedes the direct one:

You should never have fed   that fish   steroids.

(To which all I can say is, Mad Science for the win!)

Support Independent Booksellers!

It’s not that I have anything against large booksellers, or against chain booksellers . . . but I do believe that a rich and varied bookselling ecosystem is a good thing.

Right now, Star Cat Books is running an Indigogo fundraising campaign to help with the startup of a used-and-new bookstore in Bradford, Vermont, specializing in science fiction and children’s books.  They’re looking to raise $8000 by the end of the campaign, and have just secured a matching donor for the next $2500 of the fundraiser, so for a limited time only any contributions made will go twice as far.

A Culinary Follow-Up

Or, cooking outside the present era, this time with a recipe from the 1400s:

Armored Turnips

  • 1 pound turnips, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 pound (or thereabouts) provolone cheese, thin sliced
  • butter

Parboil the turnips. Drain.

Generously butter a baking dish.

Layer the turnips and the cheese in the baking dish, finishing up with a layer of cheese.

Cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the cheese is bubbly, and serve it forth.

This is the simplest version of this dish, the way that I learned to cook it decades ago in the Society for Creative Anachronism.  There are versions of it with sweet spices, and with savory ones, easily found on the internet (just Google “armored turnips”, and Bob’s your uncle), but this is the one that I know.  The original version I learned was meant to serve about thirty people, and used five pounds of turnips and one of cheese; it scales upward to a hundred or so if you’ve got the kitchen and the cooking crew for it, and that many mouths to feed.

A Few Things a Writer Should Probably Do at Least Once

At least if he or she is working in the fields of the historical or fantastic:

  • Fire a rifle or handgun.   If you don’t have the sort of friends who own firearms and back pastures where they can set up tin cans on fence posts, visit a shooting range.  (But the effect of a bullet on a full tin can of dubious green beans or corned beef hash is a lot more impressive than holes in a paper target.)  If you’re working on stuff set in the black-powder era, see if you can find a black-powder enthusiast for a demonstration.
  • Build a fire starting with tinder and matches.  Starting with flint and steel, or with even more basic gear, is rather more hard core than necessary, though if you happen to know a Boy Scout or a historical recreationist who’s into that sort of thing, you should take the opportunity to observe the process if you can.  It explains, among other things, why so many fictional wizards keep a handy firestarting spell in their back pockets, and why the ancient Romans were so big on keeping a fire burning in the Temple of Vesta.
  • Try on some armor and a helmet.  Cultivating the acquaintance of some historical recreationists, again, is good for this.  You’ll most likely end up in chain mail, because plate armor is a lot more size-specific.  But the narrowed field of view and dampened sound inside a closed helm are certainly instructive.
  • Wear the clothing of another era, for insight into how movement and demeanor are affected by it.  What can and can’t you do in hoop skirt and corset, for example; or in high heels, a powdered wig, and a sword?
  • Cook and eat a meal from the same era.  Bonus points for doing it over the fire you started with tinder and matches.
  • Get far enough away from major urban areas to see the night sky unaffected by the glow of city lights, and hear the world without the background rumble of machinery and hum of electricity, and smell the world without the overlay of internal combustion engines and industrial processes.  You don’t have to stay there; just visit it for a few hours, or a day or so.

And that’s just for starters.  Not all research is done in books.

A Couple of Notes on Dialogue

Note the first:

When you change speakers, you start a new paragraph.  Seriously, they should have taught you this one in grade school, or high school at least.  I’m starting to suspect that it gets neglected because nobody expects most students to ever need to write dialogue.  O tempora, O mores, what is the world coming to, and all that jazz.

Note the second:

When you’re writing a scene with a lot of dialogue, and feel the need to throw in small bits of action and stage business to break up the steady back-and-forth, or to show one speaker’s reaction to something the other person has said, the action bit goes with the dialogue belonging to the speaker who’s doing it.  To illustrate:

Not like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.  Jane looked at him with disbelief.

“Sure, you do.”

But like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.

Jane looked at him with disbelief.  “Sure, you do.”

Don’t make your readers have to go through a scene’s dialogue twice in order to be sure of who is doing and saying what. Accidentally confusing your readers is bad.

Confusing your readers on purpose is a different kettle of fish.  I personally don’t know why anyone would want to do it, but some writers do, and those writers have audiences, so if that’s your style, then go for it.  But if you’re going down that path, not confusing anyone by accident becomes more important, rather than less.

A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

The book cover theory of genre fiction, as articulated by Debra Doyle, aka me:

Short (classic) form:

If it’s got a rocket ship on it, it’s science fiction
If it’s got a unicorn on it, it’s fantasy.
Once a book has a rocket ship on its cover, the only way to change it back into fantasy is by the addition of the Holy Grail

The inevitable smart-ass in the back of the room: But what if it’s the Holy Grail in the shape of a rocket ship?
Me: Then you’ve got the Hugo Award.

Special bonus side-cues:

If the cover features a person in heavy-duty powered space armor, it’s military sf.
If the cover features a person in a fancy uniform/dress coat with gold braid and similar decorations, it’s space opera.

A zeppelin on the cover means alternate history.
A female person in corset and bustle, or a gentleman in a top hat, in the presence of either gears or zeppelins, means steampunk.

And finally:
Any otherwise mundane cover can be made into a fantasy cover by the addition of random sparkles.