A few years ago, at my bridal shower, I received many great gifts -- but the greatest gift was a handwritten notebook from my mother filled with some of my favorite family recipes. In loving food and literature as much as I did, Mom also write famous quotes about food in and around the recipes. It was a beautiful, useful gift.
While I was super-excited to try out Mom's chocolate cake, peach pie, and macaroni salad, I was most stoked about her beef stew with dumplings recipe. Beef stew is one of those dishes that varies by family, by region, by season, etc. Everyone who cooks it has their own version. My mom's was rich and almost creamy, topped with light and fluffy biscuit-like dumplings that floated over the stew and cooked half-submerged in broth while the tops steamed in the pot.
Writing and cooking are inextricably linked. It just so happens that I was learning to cook my mom's recipes for my new husband around the same time that I was beginning to write young adult literature. In my experience, they are far more alike than you might realize and they require similar care, similar attention, and similar love.
1. Make sure you have what you need.
In cooking: My first attempt at stew was thymeless, as in lacking thyme. It was only a 1/4 teaspoon so I figured it wouldn't matter. What I didn't understand then is that dried herbs are more potent than fresh, that their flavor and essence imbeds itself in the meat and vegetables and the broth. Without it, the stew felt sort of shallow. That one little detail, that one little ingredient, was far more important to the overall flavor than what type of potatoes or carrots or onions I chose.
In writing: Beginning writers sometimes get tripped up on details -- particularly which details are important. Your reader needs to know what your character looks like, but they don't need a Crayola play-by-play (i.e. Her hunter green eyes flitted over the mauve carpet until she found the missing turquoise dangly hoop earring. Afte sliding into indigo jeans and a magenta top with silver shoes, she swipes blue glitter over her eyes and heads for her yellow bug convertible.) Okay, this girl is a little flashy, but the point is that it's just not necessary to verbalize all that. Focus on one or two specifics to flesh things out, but don't forget what's really important -- likeable characters and a plot that sucks you in.
2. Take the time to piece situations together and to take them apart.
In cooking: There's a reason why recipes specify words like "dice" or "julienne" -- it's because those shapes/cuts/forms are the best for what you're creating. You can "chunk" instead of "dice" but your stew will take longer to cook. You can "slice" instead of "julienne" but your end result might not have the same pleasant mouth-feel. Cooking is about all five senses -- even the shapes of the individual parts are an intregal part of of the whole.
In writing: The two most over-used and absolutely accurate pieces of writing advice are "show, don't tell" and "write the senses." Another early drafting mistake? Trying to fit all those senses into one sentence (i.e. The buttery popcorn smell in the air and the soft fabric on the movie theater seats gave me a real taste for my Sour Patch kids, which were melting like a river in my mouth and creating the colors of the rainbow in my saliva.) I know, gross. But you see what I'm saying?
3. Cook it once. Cook it again. And again. And again. And....yes, again.
In cooking: Is this the only dish you'll cook? Is it the only time you'll ever eat (insert food here)? Cooking is about trial and error. It's about DRAFTING (see what I did there?) It's about trying different versions and amounts and spices and meats and making any recipe yours. I love my mom's recipes, but I don't put minced onion in my macaroni and cheese the way she does. And I don't put celery in anything, because I hate it, even in her chicken noodle soup recipe. You make it your own. It's what you do. It's called cooking.
In writing: Look above. Take out the word "cook"; add in the word "write". Honestly, you must write, you must draft, you must make it work (Thanks, Tim Gunn.) You need to get better, you need to erase. You need to mess up. Mostly, you need to make it yours.
Cooking and writing, for me, are almost one in the same. When I can't do one, I do the other. That's just how I'm built. Everyone has their own creative processes. I bet if you think about it, they're more similar to each other than you realize. But the only requirement - the only required step -- is to foster them.
Kelly Fiore's debut, TASTE TEST, is forthcoming from Walker Books for Young Readers in Spring 2013. Kelly lives in Maryland, where she teaches, cooks, writes, and watches a lot of Vh1 Classic. You can find her at www.kellyfiorewrites.blogspot.com, www.kellyfiorewrites.com or www.twitter.com/kellyannfiore