July 25, 2010

Chocolate and reality


EMoon wrote to the forum in response to my ‘how do you write good fight scenes’ the other night in Stoked:

YES. And YES again. Coming from the gut and the connection to reality. YES. Doing stuff in real life, other than sitting alone with typewriter/computer*. Imagination works best on plain food like blisters and bumps and scrapes and (though drama becomes increasingly undesired, if ever it was) enough human drama to know what it feels like to be yelled at, insulted, ridiculed, and to have done some of those bad things yourself. (Writers, however, work best on excellent food, including chocolate and beverage of choice.**)

Riding horses, yes. (A woman once wrote wanting me to tell her what it felt like to ride a gallop, because she–who didn’t ride and thought horses smelled bad–was going to write a book about a girl who tamed a wild horse because. Headdesk.***) Outdoor stuff: hiking, camping, scrambling on rocks, walking on different surfaces (loose sand, damp sand, mud, rock, turf, etc.), being up at dawn sometimes (sorry to those who hate dawn, but it has its characteristic smells and colors)† and midnight and all other times of day and all weathers.

Skills your characters have–try them, do them badly, but do them. Even one crookedly-knit scarf with uneven stitches will give you the body-feel of the hands moving in that rhythm. Even one batch of bread that doesn’t actually rise, or is wet in the middle when you thought it was done gives the full sensory experience of handling the materials, kneading, smelling it at different stages, etc. Even if you never hit a target, shooting a longbow, crossbow, or other projectile weapon will give you that necessary sensory memory.

[Note for those of you whose computer screens are showing aberrant colouration:  THIS is where EMoon’s comment stops and I start.]

Yes.  It’s pretty simple really:  get a life.  Peter used to say that the best training for writing fiction was to go out into the real world and get a proper job, which is pretty much the same thing:  don’t live exclusively in your head, even if you have a very good head, stocked with the finest, most complete information on everything.††  Get out and do stuff.  It doesn’t have to be a life like a banker or a lawyer or your parents ††† would applaud.  But it needs to have more than Twitter, Facebook, and a blog in it. ‡

            Although this then brings us to write what you know.  Which is also good advice . . . sort of.  This is obviously a particularly aggrieved question for those of us who write fantasy and/or science fiction:  I’ve done my homework on vampires, dragons and pegasi, sure, but not out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.‡‡  I talk about this in the FAQ somewhere:  one of the best things about writing fantasy is that you get to make up your own rules.  One of the worst things about writing fantasy is that you have to make up your own rules, and you have to make sure they all hang together, and then you have to follow them. 

            But to invent a good world with all kinds of stuff and critters and rules that this one doesn’t have, you need to have an instinctive, physical understanding of what a world needs, as well as a good imagination.  And the more real-world stuff you’ve done, the better your extrapolation is going to be to your own unreal world.  My discovery of homeopathy bears more than a passing resemblance to Mirasol trying to get her head around being Chalice.  I’ve done enough camping to conjure Greentree.  There are a lot of critters in my books because critters are important to me‡‡‡—and the one book that doesn’t have any important critters§ in it has baking instead.

And after last night I thought we should probably have a recipe.

Three-Chocolate Truffle Brownies

These are based on Chocolate Truffle Triangles from Big Soft Chewy Cookies by Jill Van Cleave, but I found a few of her instructions peculiar, I’m a lazy cow and I hate leftover egg whites, and besides, I wanted more chocolate in mine.

2 sticks/1 c slightly salted butter, soft room temperature

½ c granulated sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 ¼ c all purpose flour

6T unsweetened cocoa powder

10 oz semisweet/dark cooking chocolate:  this is one of those things that varies a lot brand to brand and country to country.  I now prefer so-called British dark cooking chocolate to the American semisweet stuff I used to import, which seems to me too sweet for some purposes.  Whatever you use, break it up in pieces

¼ c espresso or strong coffee or very strong hot chocolate

8 ounces white chocolate, broken up

1/3 c whipping cream

Oven at 350°F

Cream 10 T butter with the sugar until smooth.  Add egg and vanilla, then flour and cocoa.  Mix till dough forms.  Press evenly into an ungreased 8 inch square pan.  Bake till edges just begin to pull in, about 15 minutes.  Let cool.

Melt dark chocolate and ¼ c butter together.  Stir till blended and set aside.

If you’re using coffee or espresso you need 2 T more sugar:  dissolve in your chosen liquid when it’s hot.  If you’re using hot chocolate, make it VERY STRONG and not too sweet.  Cool to warm and stir into melted chocolate.  Cool just till it gets claggy, then spread over the baked crust.  Chill in refrigerator until set, 2-3 hours.

Heat cream till just not-quite-boiling.  Take it off the heat and start dropping broken-up bits of white chocolate in while whisking like mad—white chocolate isn’t chocolate, and has a malign chemistry all of its own.  Also whisk in remaining 2 T butter, which will stabilise it if it shows signs of misbehaving.  Let cool till spreadable and then lather it over the dark chocolate in the pan.  Another 2-3 hours in the refrigerator till it sets thoroughly.

Cut in teeny-tiny squares and brace yourself, or possibly your pancreas.

Dairy-free notes:  I can’t help you with the butter, because I do use butter.  But you can make hot chocolate successfully with soy milk which works fine here (in Playing with Your Food there is a recipe for using coconut milk, which I’ve never tried in the truffle brownies, but seems to me it ought to work).  And I’ve had two successes using soy milk with the frelling white chocolate at the end and one disaster.  I like white chocolate, but it has its little ways.  My best suggestion there is the whisking like mad part.

POSTSCRIPT, THE NEXT DAY:  it belatedly occurs to me that some white chocolate has milk solids in it, so anyone super-sensitive needs to read the label.  I can get away with it here, but I don’t eat it often either.  And there will be milk-free white chocolate at your local health food shop, or there should be.

* * *

* Or even occasionally piece of paper and white-knuckled grasp of writing implement.  I noticed with interest that Melissa Marr—who isn’t even forty yet—tweeted recently that when she’s away from her desk she usually writes in a notebook.  Golly.  I’m a little-knapsack-laptop addict, but I still write longhand in bed (and sometimes on the sofa), and, while this is kind of a special case, when I take homeopathic cases I do that longhand too, although I may mug it up on the computer later.  Not unlike getting that first scratchy longhand story draft on the computer . . . or that first even scratchier sketch of a piece of music onto frelling Finale.  Whatever works, which is the gist of all of this.  Whatever.  Works. 

** Absotively.

*** Geezum frell with knobs on.  The ones that haunt me are the teenage girls who want to teach their horses to go without bridles, just like Harry and Aerin.  GAAAAAAH.

† I’m very fond of dawn, approached from behind.  It’s afternoons I could do without.

†† And people run when they see you coming, because you’re probably going to try to offload some of it on them.

††† And I am not talking only to kids and teens here.  There are lots of people who’ve never shaken their parents’ expectations, and may go to their graves in a placatory posture, even when the old trout(s) died decades ago.  This is sad.  Don’t do it.  If you were unlucky in the parent department, remember it’s your life.   

‡ She says, looking nervously over her shoulder.  Hellhounds instantly raise their heads, perpetually ready to be interested in something.  Oh, right.  Hellhounds.  I’m safe. 

‡‡ I did my research on bees too, and threw almost all of it all out again.  But then I knew what I was throwing out.  This is another important skill:  laying down the right kind of soil for something else to grow in.  Or like Harry and Aerin’s horses going without bridles:  this is perfectly possible, but it’s in the highest degree unlikely that you’re going to have an entire regiment of bridle-free cavalry.  You might as well have dragons and be done with it. 

‡‡‡ And my dressage training was crucial for the bridle-free cavalry. 

§ Well, no, I wouldn’t really call vampires and weres critters.


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