Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mise en Place

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 4

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the tools you need to cook or write. This week, I want to talk about prep time. If you watch any cooking videos on Netflix and YouTube (My two favorites are Binging with Babish on YouTube and  The Chef Show on Netflix) you will see chefs routinely have all the ingredients they need for a recipe right at hand, often in the exact amounts and separated into cute, little bowls or ramekins.

This is called “mise en place,” which is a fancy French term (like a lot of cooking terms) that means “everything in its place.” Obviously, this beautiful presentation of prepared ingredients is great for videos because it makes the cooking appear effortless and speeds up the process on camera (no need to measure and pour when you can simply pour). But, professional chefs do spend time on preparation prior to cooking. (Well, they have a staff of cooks to do that, but you get the point.) And you can even purchase “mise en place” containers for your kitchen.

Even if you don't have a professional set of specialty bowls to hold all your ingredients, You still need to have things like salt, pepper, and other spices easily at hand while preparing a meal because recipes often call for specific amounts at precise times during the cooking process. You also need to cut up any aromatics (onions, carrots, celery, etc.) ahead of time so you don't have to take time away from stirring a tricky sauce to find and dice the next set of ingredients. 

I actually do the whole mise en place set up when making pizza at home. I dice up onions, olives, mushrooms, and peppers, cook and crumble bacon and sausage ahead of time, chop spinach and, sometimes (if I don't have leftover sauce in the fridge), prepare some marinara. I do all of this well before I start making pizzas. So, while my family sees pizza as a quick meal, there is a whole lot of prep that goes into making that “fast food” fast.

I do all this prep specifically because it allows me to build the pizzas quickly, just like at my favorite pizza chain, Mod Pizza. And, really, any time I am making a sauce or soup or anything that requires more ingredients than just simple, dried herbs, I do all the prep first (and build in the prep time needed to my meal preparation time estimate). If I want to put a family meal on the table at 7 p.m., I generally start chopping onions around 5 p.m. (Note: I use a lot more onions now than I ever used to before I started watching cooking shows.)

From a cooking standpoint, this all makes sense, right? You need to have everything ready to go once you light the stove so you don't end up scorching the pan while you chop the next ingredient. That's not to say you cant improvise in the middle of making a dish and go search your spice drawer for something to add a little pizazz. I do this all the time (and I will talk about improvisation in a future blog). But, in general, I think we can all agree it is better to prepare your ingredients ahead of time.

Well, guess what? The same goes for your writing. Surprise! Okay, I'm sure no one is all that astounded by this revelation. If you want your writing to have any depth beyond the words on the page, any lasting legacy beyond the rising and falling action in the plot, you need to spend some time on research, and not simply to get your facts right.

In fact, the best writers spend a great deal of time on research before writing a single word. Robert J. Sawyer, a highly successful writer friend of mine, does more research before writing than any author I know. I asked him how much time he spent researching Robert Oppenheimer and the events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War 2 before he wrote The Oppenheimer Alternative

Rob told me he spent an entire year doing research before writing a lick of the novel. He lists 132 books in the bibliography at the back of the novel that he used as research. Rob says he read about half of those cover-to-cover and skimmed the rest or used them as references materials while writing.

Now, Rob is a successful author who can afford to spend a year on research, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should skimp on our preparations. The fiction I write is mostly set in other people's worlds. That doesn't mean all my work is done for me, though. I must read what has been written about the characters I am using so they feel right to readers. I need to research the worlds I am writing in so I don't make mistakes when describing places that have appeared elsewhere. Whenever possible, I try to do the bulk of this research before I start writing. 

So, what kind of preparations do you need make before writing? Let's take a quick look at some of the “ingredients” you need to prepare before you begin writing your next story.


Obviously, you need to know what your story is about before you write it, but there is more going on here than that, and may levels of preparation. I often write detailed outlines before I start on a novel. but other authors find chapter-by-chapter outlines too constraining. I actually wrote Strangled by Death, my upcoming Kolchak: The Night Stalker novel, with only a rudimentary outline, and this process can be very freeing. 

However, at the very least, most authors will lay out a plot structure before just diving in. You want to know where the action will rise and fall so you can build the tension effectively from beginning to end. The three-act structure isn't just a cliche in writing, it's a useful tool for telling compelling stories.


Again, this is a fairly obvious ingredient. But this is an area where lack of preparation can really doom a story. If your characters lack dimension and depth because you failed to put in the time to flesh them out, they won't pop off the page. Not only won't they be memorable, but readers will fail to connect with them at all. They will become little more than stick figures you move around to push the plot forward, and it will show.

So, before you write, get to know your characters. Delve into their personal histories, find out how they think, what they like and hate, how they speak, and how they react when under pressure.And, if you create a minor character while writing who is there to do more than just move the plot along, take the story off the burner for a moment and take some time to prepare a backstory or character study of that figure before you move on.


Preparing the right setting for your story is just as important as creating strong characters. If you're writing a story set in the real world, setting the story in a big city versus a small town makes a statement. Setting it in Chicago versus Seattle makes a statement. Setting it in Europe or Asia or South America makes it a very different story than setting it in America. 

Then, once you choose the setting, you MUST put in the work to make sure you get that setting right. If you're creating a fantasy or science fiction world, you need to know how the realities of that world work. Is there magic? How does it function? Is there technology? How does it affect the world and the people in it? Many fantasy novelists spend years creating their worlds before they even start writing. And don't think you're off the hook by setting the story in the real world. If you get the names of streets wrong or don't understand the geography of the setting, you will ruin the story for anyone who knows that locale.


Much of this category could be covered under character and location. You need to know and understand the history of these elements just as deeply as you know their present. For example, if you set a story that turns on racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama you absolutely need to know how the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 impacted the civil rights movement.

Even in fictional settings, however, history is an important element of a story. As I mentioned in location above, you will need to spend time creating the history of the fictional setting for your story, and know how it impacts the current situation where you have placed your characters. If you don't spend time researching or creating this history, the world of your story may feel hollow or fake and could fall apart on close inspection.

One last piece of advice about history, that I believe I first learned from Tracy Hickman at a panel on world building. He said that your world must work. It must function for the people living in it. It also should be basically at peace prior to the beginning of your story (at least on the surface). Your story begins the moment something changes that disrupts the status quo.


If you are writing a story where the disruption that kicks off the plot affects a lot more people than just the main characters, you will also want to spend time researching the impact that this disruption will have on your setting, your characters, and even your plot. 

Let me provide an example. In one of my favorite Robert J. Sawyer novels, The Terminal Experiment, the main character accidentally invents a device that can detect the soul when it leaves the body. The story itself, is about the personal journey of Dr. Peter Hobson after the existence of this device (and proof of the human soul) goes public. But, throughout the book, Rob provides glimpses of the repercussions of this hugely impactful event on the world around the main character.

On a more personal level, spending time before you start writing considering how the events of the story will impact the main character — how those repercussions and ramifications will weigh on the character and, potentially, change the character — will make your character's story more impactful for the reader.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Of Side Dishes and Subplots

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 3

I spend a decent amount of time thinking about what side dishes I will prepare to accompany the main course of a meal. As mentioned earlier in this series, I grew up in the Midwest, so was (and still am) a big fan of meat and potatoes dinners, and my early dinners often were variations on this theme.

Some things just go together, right? Steak and baked potatoes. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Pot roast with carrot and potato wedges cooked in the pot. 

This cadence went further, with fish and rice, fried chicken and corn on the cob, spaghetti and meatballs (and garlic bread), and, of course, one of our big favorites (to say anyway, because it's fun) — Pork Chops and Applesauce. (Try saying that like you're bugs bunny pretending to be a gangster. Trust me, it's hilarious.)

Over the years, I have tried to break out of the tried-and-true side dish combos to find meals that are fun, filling, and flavorful. I learned how to make risotto as well as rice. I found and created recipes for scalloped potatoes instead of making them from a box. I stocked my fridge with veggies beyond iceberg lettuce and carrots to make salads with multi-layered flavors. And I tried out different ways to cook vegetables, like roasting, steaming, and (our favorite) sautéing with shallots.

So, when the question, "What's for dinner?" comes up, I invariably find myself standing in front of the freezer looking at my choices. I can't settle on a main dish until I find the right set of side dishes to serve with it, side dishes that complement the main dish, work well alongside it and add to its flavor instead of fighting those flavors.

One day, recently, while standing in front of the freezer, I realized that I do the same thing when I  craft subplots to add to a story. It occurred to me that subplots and side dishes are nearly identical in form and function in their separate arenas. 

So, let me go through a few key similarities between subplots and side dishes, as I see them, and a couple points to consider when adding them to your main plots and main dishes.

Fill the Plate

One of the main things that both subplots and side dishes do is to help fill your plate. Writers can't always fill an entire 300-page novel with a single plot (and for the reasons listed below, most don't want to). Subplots help fill the pages of the book. They are extra little stories being told alongside the main story, and as such, need a beginning, middle, and end, as well as some growth for the characters involved in that plot.

Side dishes are exactly the same. Plating is important to the proper presentation of a meal, and unless you are in what we used to call "hoity-toity" restaurants that put a single bean in the middle of a plate with a splash of sauce, you need more than one course to fill the plate. That's where the side dishes come in.

Support and Reflect

A subplot's real main job, though, is to support the main plot and, often, to act as a mirror to shine a light on the themes and action happening in the main plot. For example, in my short story, Banner-Jarl, in the Uprising anthology, I tell two stories simultaneously, one in the present and one in the past. In the main, present-day story, the main character, Grendl (a bounty hunter) is chasing a bounty through the Underhive. In the sublot, set in the past, It is Grendl who is being chased as he tries to escape to the Underhive.

Side dishes also need to support and reflect their main dishes. This is one reason why sauces are made using the same pan used to brown the meat, so you can capture the fond (meat crust baked onto the pan after browning) into the flavors of the sauce. Sweet side dishes (like applesauce for pork, pineapple chunks served with ham, and cranberry sauce with turkey) provide a nice mirror to the savory aspects of the main dish.

Provide a Break

 Another way to use a subplot is as a break from the main action. This can be done to provide a breather for the reader after a particularly emotional scene or to heighten the tension after a cliffhanger. Switching to the subplot for a scene or a chapter while the main character's life hangs in the balance is a great way to keep readers turning pages. Bringing in your comic relief character to provide some light humor after a particularly heavy scene filled with intense emotions gives both the reader and the characters a little space to breathe before you head back to the main plot.

This works almost identically for side dishes. A mouthful of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes (or mashed butternut squash, which we really love now) in between tearing bits of spicy barbecued beef from massive ribs gives your mouth and taste buds a break. Cold sides like coleslaw, salad, fruit cups provide a nice break from steaming-hot mouthfuls of fried chicken or fish. A nice, light, steamed vegetable like broccoli pairs well with a dense, inch-thick steak.

Something for Everyone

Another wonderful benefit of having subplots in your stories and side dishes on the table, is that they help you provide something for every palate. What happens if you reader doesn't like the characters in your main plot? They stop reading, that's what. But if you have side characters in there that provide different outlooks on life, have different issues than the main character, are different ages, genders, backgrounds, etc., you have a better chance of finding some commonality with various readers so they find something they like in your story.

This goes for side dishes as well. Not a big fan of the spice in the barbecue rub, well fill up on corn and coleslaw. Don't really like brussel sprouts? Well, take a second helping of roasted potatoes instead. This is one reason, I like making roasted vegetables. For one thing, it's a great way to cook brussel sprouts. But, also, if you're roasting carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower along with the sprouts, there's something in there that almost everyone will like.

Don't Overshadow

One last point to consider about how subplots and side dishes are similar is that you never want them to overshadow your main plot/main dish. The star of the show is the main dish or plotline. That's what sells the book. That's what you tell your family is for dinner. You don't say we're having brussel sprouts for dinner with a side of steak. And you don't describe "Much Ado About Nothing" as the story of some bumbling cops in Verona.

Like a side dish, which takes up only a single section of the plate, a good subplot only occupies a fraction of the story (probably less than one-quarter at most). If your subplot starts taking over the main plot, it may be time to take a look at what story you are writing and make some changes. If that sub plot is more interesting and the characters more alive than your main plot, consider switching the emphasis of the story to the subplot. If you've done your job and the two plots are complementing and/or mirroring one another, this should work just fine, although it might be a tough sell to your editor and publisher if they were expecting a story about the main character.

Another way that subplots and side dishes can overshadow, though, is in quality and flavor. If your subplot is way more interesting than your main plot, you need to do something to spice up your main plot. If your side dish is the star of the plate, then you may not have spent enough time making sure the main dish is up to the quality that your diners are expecting.

Subplot/Side Dish Synergy

One important point to consider when adding a subplot to your story or choosing a side dish for a meal is how they work with, add to, or complement the main dish/plot. Obviously, you don't want to detract from the overall enjoyment of the meal or story by adding something unexpected. While sweet and sour sauce works because of the combination of flavors, A highly tangy, acidic side dish like a salad with strong onions and peppers might not be the best choice to put with a rack of sweet, Carolina barbecue ribs.

And, yes, comic relief can help cut the tension of a highly emotional scene. One of my favorite uses of this is in Hamilton when they cut to Jefferson saying, "Can we get back to politics now?" immediately after the emotional scenes surrounding the death of Hamilton's son, Phillip. That being said, you won't often see a dramatic main story interspersed with a subplot that is all comedy all the time. 

Instead, you want the two stories to play off one another, delve into the same themes (often from different angles), and even hit high points and low points together as the two stories progress throughout the book. In my novel, Soulless Fury, two almost identically important stories are happening at the same time as one character is chasing the other. The viewpoint switches back and forth and both characters suffer losses during their separate stories. These happen right before I bring the two characters together, so they are, separately, at similar points in their story arcs when the confrontation occurs.

This dovetailing of plot and sublot is one of the most exciting uses of the subplot. How often have you read a story where the character arc in the subplot hits a climax near the end of the book and that minor character — because of where they are in their arc at that moment in time — has some small but dramatic impact on the story of the main character? That is subplot synergy at its best.

In the world of side dishes, I can't think of any better example of this synergy than garlic bread. It's savory, spicy with the same spices found in the spaghetti sauce, crispy where the spaghetti is soft, and — best of all — can be used to soak up extra sauce from your plate or as a base for pouring sauce on top to make a pizza later on.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Tools of the Trade

 Nexus of Writing and Cooking (Part 2)

When I started cooking, I knew nothing about knives or pots and pans (or even spices and seasoning). I had a basic set of nonstick pans, a few glass baking pans (just like my mom used), some plastic spatulas, and measuring cup. I honestly didn't really know how to use any of them correctly.

This was not how I started as a writer. Before my first published story, I had taken years of English classes in high school and college, edited and written professionally as a newsletter editor and then later as both a magazine and book editor, and read tons and tons of books. I was not yet really reading critically (by which I mean, dissecting a story as I read it to see the choices the author made on things like plot lines, characterization, rising and falling action, crises points, etc.), but that would come in time.

My point is that when I started cooking, I didn't really have the tools of the trade or know how to use them. Because of this, my cooking was amateurish. It was fine for my family and I could follow a recipe with the best of them, but it was definitely lacking something (butter, mostly, if you ask any professional chef) and my mistakes far outweighed my successes when I experimented.

Here now are some of the writing and cooking tools I have learned to use over the years and why it is important to learn them early.

Basic Writing Tools

Strong Grammar. It all starts here. You might think it's a bit pedantic (and, yes, some people do get pedantic about grammar), but clear writing requires clear grammar. Yes, you can abandon grammar in your writing, but you must do so purposefully and with good reason, not because you don't know better. For example, you can have a character who doesn't use good grammar when speaking, which makes a strong statement about that character.

Word Choice. This is the big one for me (almost bigger than "show, don't tell"). First and foremost, avoid using "is" and "are" as much as possible. The English language can be agonizingly frustrating in its complexity, but we have stolen some of the best words other languages ever created. Use them! Nouns and verbs are the lifeblood of writing. Finding the right ones for every situation not only makes your writing stronger, it makes it more concise. Strong nouns and verbs don't need modifiers. I'm not saying don't ever use adjectives and adverbs, but sparing use will make them stand out and be more impactful.

Sentence Length. This is a rule I learned late in life. I was definitely one of those writers in school who loved long, complex sentences that went on for entire paragraphs. When I discovered the power of short sentences, it transformed my writing. I still use long sentences, but I try to use them purposefully. Sentence length is a sign to your reader to either speed up or slow down. Short sentences will drive your plot forward and are great for action sequences. Long sentences slow readers down so are perfect for when you want the reader to pay close attention while you explain something they need to understand.

Show, Don't Tell. Anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer has heard this aphorism.On its face, it means you should use concrete details when describing scenes and action. Don't just say, "she hit him." Say, "She slapped his cheek the imprint of her fingers were visible in the red imprint left behind." But more than that, show don't tell should influence all of your writing. Show the emotion on a character's face instead of telling the reader he looked sad. Have a character, in their own words, tell the reader and the other character in the scene what she is thinking instead of just narrating that for us. Paint a picture. Don't write an essay.

Basic Cooking Tools

Chef Knife.This is the "word choice" of cooking tools. It is the most important thing to get right. For years, I had no idea how to use my chef knife. I held it wrong and used it for everything. It is the perfect tool for dicing and chopping vegetables, but isn't really all that good for meat. When you hold it correctly (see the picture above) and hold your veg with your fingers curled so your fingernails become a guide, you can chop faster and more precisely. This makes your work so much easier and your finished product more professional.

Kitchen Scale. More important for baking than cooking (where precision is critical because it's basically chemistry), a good kitchen scale can also help you with portion control and when following recipe directions. Until you have a frame of reference for how large  4-ounce or 8-ounce piece of meat is or how much flour you need to add 250 grams to your pie crust dough, you will want a kitchen scale to help.

Meat Thermometer. I refused to use thermometers for a long time, but now that I have a really good one that gives me a readout almost immediately, I never serve meat without checking it first. This is really important for smoked meats where you need to heat to a very specific internal temp and any time you want to leave some pink inside a thick steak without serving raw meat to your friends and family. 

Stainless Steel Pans. I will admit that I have always used nonstick-coated pots and pans for all my cooking. I was deathly afraid of scorching my food and ruining both the meal and the pan. But, I have learned that stainless steel pans are important because those bits of baked on food are pure flavor when it comes time to make a sauce. Sauces scared me just as much as stainless steel pans, so I guess that's why it took me so long to come around. But searing a piece of meat and leaving all that "fond" behind to be scraped into your sauce is what it's all about. (Note: I plan to write a future blog all about my fear of sauces, so stay tuned for that.)

Why Basics Are Important

There is an old saying that goes something like this: You have to learn the rules before you can learn how to break them. The famous example of this is Picasso, who had learned the rules of perspective, but chose to use flattened perspective for purpose.

This is basically true. I like to use "and" repetitively in lists instead of simple commas and a single, trailing "and" at the end. I do this to add emphasis and give the writing a certain cadence. I like to think it's artistic, and I probably do it too often (a sentiment my editors definitely embrace). But, here is the thing. I am doing this purposefully. I am choosing to break the rules and I have reasons in my mind for doing so. And I am always aware that if I choose to break the rules, I may sacrifice clarity, and if that lack of clarity leaves readers in the dark, I have failed as a writer.

But, more importantly, rules also provide a much more concrete benefits to both the writer and the cook: Speed and precision. Using strong verbs and nouns doesn't just make my writing stronger, it makes it shorter. Sure, I often spend time staring at the ceiling searching my brain for the right word (or going on rhymezone to find synonyms). But I can often use five words instead of 25 to get a point across. Knowing how to correctly hold my chef knife sped up my dicing (and made it more precise so the end result vastly improved). 

Taking the time to know the basics pays dividends over the entire course of the rest of your career. Look, I know I am not a professional chef. At best, I'm a semi-talented amateur. I wish I had learned how to use a chef knife correctly twenty years ago or taken more than a couple cooking classes. On the other hand, I am glad I learned to choose my words more carefully — and vary my sentence length, and show don't tell, and all the other little rules of writing I learned — way back when. Without putting in all that work to learn the basics, I wouldn't be a professional writer today.