a brouillade, obviously

“Do you like eggs?”
She laughed. She looked at me, so I laughed too.
Wolfe scowled. “Confound it, are eggs comical? Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”
Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”
“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”

—Nero Wolfe, conversing with Lucy Valdon, in The Mother Hunt, chapter 17

I enjoyed reading this article, for a few reasons: “It’s Not Fake French, It’s Frenchette

One reason is that it reminded me of this song, which I always sort of liked.

Also, it answered the question that I’ve always wondered about: Why does it take Nero Wolfe 40 minutes to scramble eggs while he and Archie Goodwin are hiding out in Lucy Valdon’s house? Clearly, I now know, he was making a brouillade:

For each order of brouillade, a pan of eggs has to be stirred constantly over a small flame for a long time, until they look like grits. (There’s a reason you don’t see brouillade on many menus.) Dropped on top are a few excellent snails in parsley and garlic, a buttery garnish for very buttery scrambled eggs.

(Rex Stout, who wrote the Nero Wolfe mysteries, was a gourmet in real life — I was sure there was a real dish behind this casual mention.)

My father (to switch gears) taught me that there are only two kinds of writing: good writing and bad writing, and you should appreciate and enjoy the good stuff wherever you find it.

These, also from the “Frenchette” article, made me smile:

The dining room is in back, behind a pair of arches and up a step so slight that its only conceivable purpose is to raise the insurance premiums; every time I approached it a worried server materialized to tell me to look out.

The entire roast chicken is juicy without tasting of brine, a rare thing these days. Hidden under the drumsticks and thighs are rafts of baguette that sat under the rotisserie, imbibing every drop that fell from the bird. Some diners might say bread wet with drippings is too homespun for a dish that costs $68. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

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storytelling lessons from big finish

I first discovered Big Finish Productions because I found out that they did audio dramas based on Dark Shadows, starring members of the original cast (at this point I think almost all of the surviving major cast members have done at least a few) .

One time, when a new Dark Shadows CD arrived in the mail, some marketing genius at Big Finish threw in the first disk of a Sapphire & Steel audio. I’d never heard of the Sapphire & Steel TV show (I don’t think it was ever shown in the U.S.), but I played the CD and I was hooked. A supernatural mystery, set on a train, obviously based on Murder on the Orient Express but you have to pay attention because the references are never explicit? Starring the wonderful voices of David Warner and Susannah Harker? I’m there.

(I’ve realized that audio drama is really my favorite storytelling medium, and it’s nice to find contemporary ones. No matter how good Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was — and it was really good, especially when it was on five days a week — the last one was made in 1962 and there won’t be any more.)

So, Dark Shadows led me to Sapphire & Steel, which led me to Professor Bernice Summerfield (because actress Lisa Bowerman was so good in Sapphire & Steel in a recurring role), and so on.

So, two lessons:

1. If you’ve got a long series of stories, you don’t have write a new story after the end of the last one — you can insert new stories anywhere in the sequence.

I’ve written about the Tony and Cassandra mysteries before, and it seems they were popular enough that more were demanded, even though their shared career had a pretty definite ending. So, a new series came out, with more mysteries set before that ending, in the middle of their time together solving supernatural mysteries. Because why not?

I’ve felt a bit constrained recently, in writing about Jan Sleet and Marshall solving mysteries, because then I have to explain where they live and their daughter and so on — which is a lot of backstory to fit into a mystery short story. In a novel it’s not a problem, but it throws a short story out of balance.

So, now I’m writing a new story, set before A Sane Woman — before U-town, before marriage, before their daughter. Back when the great detective and her loyal assistant traveled the world, reporting on wars and solving mysteries and slowly getting the hang of working together.

It’s going pretty well so far.

2. Flip the genders — at least as a test.

A new series that Big Finish is doing is Jenny — The Doctor’s Daughter. Jenny is the “daughter” (a clone, really) of the Doctor.

In the long history of the Doctor, he has been male (well, until now 🙂 ), his companions have mostly been female, and his villains have been mostly male. So, for Jenny’s stories, the people producing the show took the scripts and experimented with flipping the characters from male to female to see what it did. Some worked and some didn’t, but now the series has a female Time Lord (Jenny), who has a male companion, and mostly female villains. I really like three out of the four stories, and I’m hoping there will be more.

If done mechanically, of course, this type of thing can be a disaster, but it can also get you out of a rut in your storytelling. Try it — you can always flip them back if it doesn’t work.

I tried a similar experiment when writing a Stevie One — not to try making the characters women (most of them were women anyway), but to make them explicitly Black (I say explicitly because often I don’t specify race). It was an interesting process.

For more in the Storytelling Lessons series, go here.

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these are a two of my favorite things

1) I don’t remember why I read this — but I’m glad I did: “And now, Conan The Librarian: 8 fictional shows, games, and books we wish were real

At first I was pleased that they mentioned eXistenZ — a movie that I was obsessed with for a while — and then I was even more excited that they also praised the book The Diamond Age. Two of my favorite things!

I wrote about eXistenZ here: u-town.com/collins/?p=1238 (there are a whole series of connected pages linked to from there, if you don’t mind spoilers). And I wrote about The Diamond Age, or at least one specific scene, here: u-town.com/collins/?p=5454

2) After a process of rewriting that went on for much longer than anticipated (and which was probably longer than it needed to be — but I was having fun), “The Bus Station Mystery” is all spiffed up and improved. It’s not hugely changed (same mystery, same suspects, same solution), but expanded in several areas. More room to breathe, and to get to know the characters.

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three minutes and thirty-seven seconds of wonderful

(I particularly like the end, where the mandolin guy goes over to hug her and she curves away from him and then pushes him away. “My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will disprove your faith in man,” after all.)

On another topic:

I’ve been rather unproductive recently — writing-wise. I have finished the rewrite of “The Bus Station Mystery.” It’s pretty much the same as it’s always been — same story, same characters, same resolution — but more filled out. The characters are given a little more room to breathe (and suspects are better suspects when you have a clear sense of who they are). I’ll post a link when it’s updated online.

So, I’ve been wondering what to tackle next. What’s nagged at me for a while is the story I’ve been calling “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…” It’s got a good beginning, a solid end, good characters… and I’ve finally figured out what the problem was (and a possible solution).

The problem is that there are a lot of characters with a lot of fairly complex backstory, and it’s difficult to figure out how to cram all the history into this story for readers who’ve never read my stuff before.

Well, it just occurred to me that I could do what I did before, with The Jan Sleet Mysteries.

That was a series of stories that were designed to be read in order (a “stealth novel,” as I called it later), so each one could rely on what a reader learned in the earlier ones. Well, why not have “The Stevie One Adventures,” including Stevie One, One Night at the Quarter, and “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” (or whatever it ends up being called). The two earlier stories (novellas, really) provide all the backstory that a reader of the third one could require, and Stevie One, in particular, works really well for new readers.

Proving once again, as I’ve said before, that I can try to write short stories, but novels are really the distance I’m trained for.

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true in the treetops, true on the ground

Editor (brandishes a few sheets of paper): This story is great, You should write like this all the time.

Writer: Why, thank you. (looks at the sheets of paper more closely) But… I didn’t write that.

Editor: I know you didn’t. I wrote it. I said this is how you should write.

This was from many years ago, from the comic strip Shoe. The two characters were journalists, not fiction writers (and they were birds), but this has always stuck in my mind when giving (and getting) feedback.

It’s all to easy, when giving feedback, to fall into this approach: “You should have written this more the way I would have written it.”

I lived, very briefly, with someone else who wrote, and we had this comic strip up on our refrigerator. We referred to it quite often.

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things have birthdays, too

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web…

(Okay, I do have to mention that it always strikes me as pretty amazing that all of this — all of the Web-based stuff that we take for granted now — is based on the work of one man. And — maybe even the most incredible thing — he didn’t use it to become a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.)


Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, made some comments recently about the state of his invention, on the occasion of its 28th birthday.

He’s right about the centralized nature of a lot of things now, with so much concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, such as social media companies. This has been a big change since some years ago, when there were a lot more personal websites and blogs and so on.

In addition to the birthday of the Web, there’s been another birthday recently:

Ulysses turns 100 this month, and you should totally read it

And, yes, you totally should read it.

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