WRITING & SOUP
Let me begin with this: Winter is not my favorite season. Though I love the snow, snowmen, and how the white makes everything look clean—until the plows come through and pile up gray chunks of frozen street grime, that is—I don’t like to be cold. Not one bit. Soup makes the season tolerable.
So. I was in my kitchen, cooking, and thinking about what aspect of writing to blog about. My ideas wandered around aimlessly for a bit, but, like boys when its bath time, they escaped when I wasn’t looking. All that was left was tending to the soup I was making.
I love soup. Beef stew, potato soup, soup beans, chili, veggie soup…you name it, I can make it. But it’s never the same soup twice. You see, my mom, who’s a good ol’ hillbilly born and raised ‘up a holler’ in West Virginia, taught me a thing or two about cooking. “Use what you have,” is her motto.
So, I decided that, since soup was dominating my brain like a tyrannical sovereign with a wooden spoon instead of a scepter, I’d take my mom’s advice and use the soup.
Let’s say books are soup. There’s no one way to make a book. Different ingredient combinations(all that makes up a book like characters, plot, setting, dialogue, conflict, etc.) and endless numbers of cooks(writers) means innumerable possibilities. When I was first learning, I started with recipes, for both soups and books. Who among us hasn’t heard of the Heroes Journey? Well, I’m suggesting that Joseph Campbell and Betty Crocker are, to quote Elizabeth from Pirates of the Caribbean, “…more like guidelines anyway.”
I’ve read the how-to books to get the nuts and bolts of story-craft. If you’re reading this, you probably have too. But at some point, there’s an idea, a twist or a turn that doesn’t quite fit within the rules. What do you do? There’s an ingredient that makes you think, “It’s not on the recipe card here, but I bet it would be a good addition.” (Exception: don’t ever add water to melted chocolate. That’s chocolate abuse and the Candy Patrol will cite you.) I’ll ask again, what do you do?
I hope you make an effort to see what happens.
Every soup has a main ingredient. Sometimes it’s meat. Sometimes it’s a vegetable. Sometimes it’s noodles! No matter what though, it’s simmered in a fluid environment. The base may be water or broth—both are reasonably transparent, or it may be a “cream-of” soup that’s anything but clear…and even then it could be thin or thick or viscous. Or it may be a spicy-hot tomato base ready for burger and chili beans.
To mimic that “recipe thinking” in story context, every story has a main character (meat, veggie, noodle). They have to simmer in the environment you drop them in, i.e. the main plot you’ve set up for them.
May I suggest, “Use what you have.”
What’s in your cupboard? What’s in your writing arsenal? What else are you going to populate this soup/story with? You know the archetypes. You know the tropes. How can you make this story unique and compelling?
Try something unexpected. No beans for your chili? Open up that box of mac and cheese, stash the cheese flavor pouch for another day and cook up that macaroni!
Your heroine is a Princess waiting for her Prince Charming to arrive? Maybe he’s not coming at all. But why? Maybe she’s psycho and made him up so well she believes he’s real. Maybe she’s not psycho, but he was gunned down on the way over—because of her gambling debts. Maybe he had a drug-induced hallucination(escaping from the pressure of the cost of her wedding plans) and is dying in the ER—but a brilliant doc saves him and the Prince decides to become a monk. Maybe he’s a spy who set the Princess up so she could be murdered at a certain time and place but all this was discovered by the Captain of the Guard who’s been in love with her forever and though he saves her life and reveals the whole ruse…the Princess reveals she was a spy too and the Captain just foiled their one chance to catch the Prince red-handed.
Are you getting what I’m saying? Plots are like soup. Get your environment and your main ingredient, and then anything goes!!!
Every chef has a signature dish, right? Something they’ve put their own personal spin on. When writing, don’t let those ‘guidelines’ confine you. Let some of your unique ideas reside on that page too. But you have to experiment to find out what your unique ideas are. Mix it up.
Try adding the flavor packet from the box of mac and cheese (the one left over from when you cooked the macaroni to add to your chili) to your creamy potato soup.
Push yourself to think harder, one or two or six steps worse than what you’re thinking the plot is now. Push your characters to deal with more or deeper problems. Be willing to try new avenues and learn new methods. In your writing and in your kitchen.
Here’s what I made today:
I’ll call it: NOT JUST POTATOES POTATO SOUP
1 lb. Italian sausage, crumbled and cooked
1/3 medium onion chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 celery stalks, halved and diced
3-4 TBSP butter
2 TBSP flour
2 ½ cups milk
½ cup grated cheddar cheese
2-3 cups water
Salt & Pepper, Ground Rosemary
Cook the sausage and onion together, set aside. Boil the potatoes, carrots, celery together until done. Drain, dump on top of sausage and onions. In the pan you cooked the potatoes in, melt butter, low heat. Add flour a little at a time, mixing it well (or it’ll get lumpy.) Add the milk a little at a time stirring after each addition so it doesn’t get lumpy at this stage either. Add the cheese and stir over medium heat until it thickens. Add water—amount depends on if you like your soup soupy or thick. Pour over other ingredients, add spices to taste, stir and simmer.
**If you rinse off the leaves atop the celery and then chop them up and throw them into the soup, it adds a little color, garnish and flavor.
***Serve with crackers or cornbread.