Cooking figures into many of my novels and many readers have written to my website to ask for recipes, which is lovely. There’s only one problem: I don’t use recipes. Curiously, this also brings up a parallel discussion about writing…or at least how I write. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, it’s true; I do love to cook. I have been cooking for myself and others virtually every night for something going on forty years. I have a dear friend who says, “I know it’s a bad day for you if you haven’t been to the grocery store at least twice.” This is a slander; I only go once a day. But I do so every morning. If I happen to have a morning appointment and come in later, the store staff (who’ve become friends on the small island where I live) yell at me: “You’re late!” I am not making this up.
But if you saw me at the store, what you would see is a very tall man standing stock still and staring into the far distance. Maybe I’m in the meat or fish department, but I seem to be attached to the floor by something stronger than just gravity. Shoppers wheel their carts around me like I am a store fixture. This is me thinking. It can take a while. Maybe I’ve spied a nice cut of wild-caught Northwest sockeye salmon, and I’m thinking: Poached? Grilled? Do I have any more homemade basil pesto in the fridge? What else is in there and what could we do with it? I’m like a juggler tossing ingredients around in my head to see what comes together.
And this, I confess, is also how I write, though admittedly not standing like a statue while in the grocery store. I don’t use a recipe to cook and I don’t use a recipe to write my novels, by which I mean I don’t outline in advance. I’ve tried it in the past and outlines feel like a straightjacket to me. The plain fact is that I have no idea where the story will take me or who I’ll meet along the way.
Instead, I usually have three basic ingredients and I wait to see how they want to be combined to become something tasty. First, I always have in mind a setting—a specific place, a landscape, usually somewhere in rural Britain where I’ve always seemed to feel at home (despite having grown up in New York City). To me, the setting is a character. It is a place that has a story it wants to tell and it shapes the people who inhabit it. Maybe it’s the craggy mountains of North Wales, or the storm-wracked coast of southwest Cornwall, or in my latest novel, the barren waste of Bodmin Moor.
Second, I usually have one or two characters in mind who, when tossed into the pot, begin to simmer and develop as they interact. Pretty soon, other ingredients—new characters, events, surprises, show up to enrich the plot. Where do they come from? I wish I could tell you. It’s not like there’s some larder to draw from which I might say, okay, a half cup of this troubling event, a tablespoon of this new character, and so on. It just doesn’t happen that way. Years ago, I explained this process to my literary agent and he chuckled: “Look,” he said, “if you’re not surprised every day, your readers won’t be, either.” And I am indeed surprised every day. I taste what’s cooking every day by re-reading what I’ve written the day before. It might need a pinch of salt for flavor, a minced clove of garlic for sharpness, a dash of chopped thyme for depth. In this regard, I’m a slow cooker. It can take weeks, even months.
The third and final essential ingredient is some underlying theme I discover I am interested in exploring. It might be the complexities of the notion of fidelity, or the impacts of betrayal, or the cost of greed, or in one case the long-term effects of childhood abuse. Sometimes it takes a while for the theme to emerge and become established. In cooking, it’s like thinking: do I want to take these ingredients in an Italian direction? French? Asian? Moroccan? Sometimes you don’t know until you’re well underway.
In the end, I suppose, it’s about trust—trusting that the result will leave my guests—and my readers—delighted yet hungry for more. Writing, like cooking, is like a small gift I can give to others every day.