Tempering – for chocolate and writing

A few months ago I set off to the supermarket planning to buy a chocolate orange, and – to my horror – there weren’t any. They were completely out of stock of one of my favourite forms of chocolate! When I got back home, disappointed and bad tempered, I remembered a programme I’d seen on TV over Christmas, which had been about various different chocolate manufacturers, both big and small, and I remembered  that they’d shown a small-scale chocolatier who’d made his own chocolate oranges using a mould shaped like a tray of orange segments.

I had a little browse on eBay, and soon learned that these very same segment-shaped moulds were readily available… A few days later I was back at the supermarket, but this time searching for a little bottle of orange essence and a good supply of cooking chocolate. I bought several white, milk and dark bars, just to be on the safe side, and then rushed back home to unwrap my newly-arrived segment-shaped mould. Two hours later and I had my very first, home-moulded chocolate orange sitting on the kitchen worktop in front of me. Well, when I say chocolate orange, I actually mean a pile of chocolate orange segments – sticking them together into a ball proved to be beyond me.

This got me interested in the whole world of chocolate moulding, and it wasn’t long before the segment-shaped mould had been joined by moulds shaped like leaves, pyramids, flowers and coffee beans. The coffee bean-shaped mould quickly became my favourite, and I soon discovered that the chocolates that came out of it were particularly delicious if I put a whole, decaffeinated coffee bean into the centre of each hole, before the chocolate had had time to set.

Soon I was making them not just for me and my family, but also to give to friends. But then I discovered a problem – although at home I could keep the moulded chocolate in the fridge until I wanted to eat it, when I took it out of the house to give it to someone else, it soon started to melt. I googled this and learned that if you want home-moulded chocolate to keep its shape when it was out of the fridge, you had to temper it. This involved yet more googling, followed by the purchase of a proper kitchen thermometer, as the process involved warming the chocolate to a very particular temperature (which varied, depending on whether it was white, milk or dark), then cooling it to another very particular temperature, and then warming it again before pouring it into the moulds. Apparently, this process would keep it solid at room temperature – which was what I wanted.

When I was moulding some chocolate the other day, it occurred to me that tempering chocolate is a bit like editing writing – you’re working at it; changing it and moving it about – all the time, trying to make it much less messy and a lot more snappy, until finally its strong enough to hold its shape, out in the real world.

The dog doesn’t necessarily approve of all this chocolate moulding, though. It’s poisonous to dogs so he never gets given any – even when he puts his head on one side and looks as cute as he can. I think he’d much prefer it if I decided to turn my hand to making home-made dog biscuits. Hmm. Maybe another time – for the moment, there’s still some cooking chocolate in the cupboard that needs using up…

Trifle

When you get a rejection from an agent, or fail to get long-listed for a competition, what do you reach for to make you feel better? For some people, it’s chocolate, sweets, pints of ice cream, wine or cappuccinos. But although I love all those things (especially chocolate), and they certainly all have a part to play in my writing life, for me the thing that helps me the most with rejection, is trifle. Strawberry trifle, if there’s a choice at my local supermarket – which, happily, there often is.

Why trifle? Well, I just think there’s something wonderfully comforting about the gloopy custard and the sticky fruit, that makes it the perfect food when you need a moment to take the rejection on board and mentally regroup. Of course, the dog is always very sympathetic when a rejection comes my way, clapping his paws to his face in horror when I tell him that, yet again, an agent has said no. But once I’ve told him all about it and got the trifle out of the fridge (it’s always best to have one on standby, in my opinion), he sits beside me in a companionable silence until I’ve scraped the last smears out of the bowl, and am ready to put the laptop back on and send my manuscript straight back out again to the next agent on the list. Somehow the trifle makes it all better and lets me shake it off and move on without my optimism taking too much of a hit, each time.

So the next time a rejection drops into your inbox, may I recommend that you give the humble trifle a chance to prove it’s worth? Of course, with enough effort and submissions, one day it won’t be a rejection, but a request for the full manuscript – or maybe even an offer of representation – that comes winging its way into your inbox. And, when it does, you’ll have to decide whether the trifle should stay at the back of the fridge until it’s exceeded its use-by date – or whether it can morph into what will surely become the best food of all – celebration trifle!      

A Grandchild for Barbara

You might remember that last summer, Barbara the banana plant grew her first baby banana plants, or ‘pups’ – Baby Bob and Barbie – who sprouted out of the side of her trunk and were soon big enough to move out into smaller pots of their own.  (https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/babies-for-barbara/).

The big banana-related news for this summer is that not only have we had further baby bananas since then, but Barbara is now set to become a grandparent, as Baby Bob has recently sprouted a ‘pup’ of his own! Bob’s pup isn’t quite big enough yet to cut off and plant into its own pot, but it will be in the next couple of weeks. No actual bananas have grown on Barbara yet though (or indeed on any of her offspring), even though the dog keeps gazing hopefully up into her leaves, in the hope that one may soon appear. I’ve tried to tell him that it might be a few years before that happens, but he just casts his eye pointedly towards Valerie the vine and Olivier the olive tree. ‘Come on!’ he says. ‘Those two don’t seem to have had any difficulties fruiting in their first year – Barbara’s on her third summer now!’

But I think we’ll have to keep ordering our bananas from the supermarket for a while longer, and the dog will just have to be patient. We all need a bucketful of patience to get us through the Coronavirus pandemic, with its home working, home schooling, and general theme of everyone being stuck in one place for most of the time… No one knows how long the situation will go on for – but while I’m at home, at least I can watch Barbara’s family growing – and hope that by the time she does eventually produce some fruit to call her own, the pandemic will be over.

Haircut Time!

Just before lockdown started back in March, everyone in my house went for a haircut – and it’s a good thing that we did – at the moment hairdressers and barbers are due to reopen this weekend, but even then, it’s not going to be easy to get appointments straight away. Although those of us with long hair aren’t too desperate just yet, the short-haired members of the household are looking much more shaggy than they used to. With this in mind, at the end of March, I sent away for a pair of hairdressing scissors, and just a couple of weeks ago I also sent away for a set of hair clippers, so that I could trim hair for the shorter-haired family members – although neither of them have plucked up the courage to let me actually have a go at it yet…

For the dog, things have been different. He was due for a haircut in late March, and by that time it wasn’t possible to get him groomed, so by mid-May it’d been over four months since his last cut. His hair over his eyes had become so long that we had to tie it up into a ponytail on top of his head when we took him for walks, just to stop him from crashing into lamp posts. When I did finally manage to arrange for him to get it cut towards the end of May, he looked so different – and very startled indeed!

I used to take for granted that I could get my hair cut regularly, and I’d blithely book in my next appointment whenever I went for a trim, without even giving it a second thought. Now, it’s different – we can choose between having messy hair or having hair that’s been cut at home by an amateur hairdresser (which may well also be messy!) – unless, of course, you happen to be lucky enough to live with a trained professional, which not many people do.

A lot of people have also taken advantage of the fact that they don’t need to leave the house much – if at all – to experiment with new hair styles during lockdown, and many of us who previously had straight hair, me included, now just leave it to go either wavy or curly. If we can’t really go anywhere anyway, and it ends up looking messier than we’d expected… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

But not being able to get my hair cut, hasn’t stopped me from cutting words out of my writing. I don’t need to pay a professional ‘word-dresser’ – or editor as they’re usually known – to tell me that what I’ve written is often rambling and tangled, with split-ends sticking out in all directions. I’m trying to get into the habit of cutting and tidying whatever I wrote the day before, as soon as I put the laptop on each morning. So – if you can’t get your hair cut, at least you can cut your writing – and try to keep it as tangle-free as you can!         

It’s all subjective…

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Having received feedback on my writing from a few editors and agents over the last year or so, the entirely subjective nature of this process has really been on my mind lately. Whenever I send off a manuscript – either for an agent to consider, or maybe to a competition – so much of what happens next depends completely on whether that specific piece of writing ‘speaks’ to that editor, agent or judge, and appeals to what they personally happen to want to read, on that particular day. Their view of what I’ve written might be different the next day, when they haven’t had a difficult commute to their office, or when they’re just about to go on holiday for two weeks, or when their goldfish hasn’t just died, or when they’ve just become a grandparent for the first time… Or maybe they’ve realized that someone in their office has just taken the last teabag. Anything and everything in their lives, whether big or small, will colour how they perceive the submissions that they receive at any given time, on any given day – and there’s nothing that you can do to influence that!

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for choosing to send it off to an agent who deals with the kind of book that you’ve written, getting the spelling, grammar and punctuation right, writing a good cover letter, making your characters believable, structuring a good plot, showing not telling, etc. – everything you need to do, in fact, to make your writing ‘good’. But there’s just no getting away from the fact that everyone has different preferences and is influenced by different external factors. A whole range of things might – or might not – persuade an agent to leave the washing up until later and sit down to keep reading what you’ve written, until they get to the end.

My own reading preferences are quite wide-ranging. When it comes to children’s books, I like fantasy books, atmospheric books, books with magic, books without magic, sad books, dark books, happy books, funny books, historical books and futuristic books. Pretty much everything, in fact, but we all know that some books just sometimes grab you more than others, and there are some days when you really couldn’t face reading something atmospheric or sad, and you just want to pick up something light-hearted. Or sometimes the main character might win you over to a particular book, because you see something of yourself in them, and can sympathize with their situation… Or it might just be to do with the kind of mood you’re in when you first pick up whatever it is that you’re reading.

So, next time you get a rejection that says, ‘This isn’t for us, but do please keep trying’, try and take it at face value. By all means, take a moment to feel sorry for yourself, eat a big bar of chocolate and tell the dog all about it. Dogs are so great at sympathy! But then remind yourself that even though this agent didn’t want your story about a time-travelling llama who wears a Fedora and only eats bananas, maybe they might have wanted it if they’d opened the submission on a different day, while in a different mood – and, who knows, maybe the next agent on your list might just be in the right place to read it, when it lands in their inbox.

Zoom-tastic

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Although lockdown is now being slightly eased, up until recently it has felt really difficult not been able to see friends regularly. Before the virus arrived, I took it for granted that I could meet up with people, face to face, whenever I wanted to. And then Coronavirus came along, life was locked down and that was the end of that. Until – like everyone else on the planet – I discovered Zoom.

Some people don’t like Zoom, Skype, Teams, and all the other teleconferencing sites, and find it frustrating that although they can see people, it’s only ever through a screen. But although it’s not the same as being in the same room, at least it’s the next best thing. I like being able to see people’s faces while I’m talking to them and Zoom and Skype make that possible. In fact, because of Skype, I’ve seen my mum more frequently recently than I ever did last year. There are Zoom meetings, Zoom drinks, Zoom quizzes, and Zoom writing groups.

The dog finds video calls confusing – he hears a familiar voice and looks around, glances briefly at the screen I’ve pushed in front of him (or what he can see of it, through his ever-lengthening fringe), and then wanders away looking disappointed. For him, meeting friends, old or new, is all about smells, and not being able to sniff at someone when they come over to speak to him, makes the experience not worth having. So, most of the time he’s happy to slumber in his corner, while video calls go on around him.

On Twitter, much is being made of the backgrounds that people choose to use for their Zoom and other video conferencing calls and, although you can drop different backgrounds in, electing to be seen inside the Tardis if you want to, most people in public life seem to sit in front of a nice bookcase, demonstrating (I’m sure they hope), either their intelligence, or their range of interests – or, at the very least, their ability to arrange a shelf of books into a pleasing pattern.

In the last couple of weeks, it’s become possible to meet up with people face to face again – although still at a two meter distance. But I hope that Zoom, Skype and the rest will stick around, and hopefully carry on giving us more options for meeting up with people more frequently – even if the dog continues to heartily disapprove of sniff-free communication.

Lockdown – the final frontier!

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Writing in lockdown isn’t easy. I live with three other people – my husband and two children, as well as the dog – and although in normal life it’s just me and the dog at home during the working week, things have changed, and now we’re all at home all the time, for the duration of the virus. This makes for a busy house, where it can be very difficult to concentrate on doing any writing.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this whole current ‘lockdown’ situation, and it occurred to me how similar it must be to the way in which potential astronauts are prepared for trips to the International Space Station.

Listening to the younger members of the family objecting loudly to the suggestion that they should keep their bedrooms tidy, I think about how budding astronauts must have to get used to spending long periods of time with the same small group of people, in a restricted and confined environment. They need to accept that they will not spend any time with anyone else but will be with this same group for months on end, regardless of whether they start getting on each other’s nerves, or not.

Later on, pulling on a pair of disposable plastic gloves in preparation for a trip to the supermarket, I wonder about the fact that hopeful space-goers have to learn to carefully plan any trips that they might need to take outside, wearing appropriate clothing to protect themselves from the hostile environment outside the Space Station.

And, surely, the astronauts get a similar sense of excitement when they hear that an unmanned vehicle will soon be arriving with fresh supplies on board, as I now feel when I manage to book a rare grocery delivery slot, and know that we’ll have more fruit in a few days’ time.

Flipping open the laptop to Skype my mum or Zoom my friends, the astronauts floating in orbit above me are probably doing the exact same thing with their free time; like me, knowing that they won’t actually see any of these people face to face, for months to come.

Of course, there are a few differences between my locked down house and the Space Station passing over my head. Down here, we don’ have to exist almost solely on powered and dried food, and up there they have neither children rampaging around the place, nor gravity. But – think of all the training they receive before they enter their own version of lockdown! They get lessons in everything from hairdressing to how to remove a colleague’s appendix.

Although I’m really hoping that no one is going to expect me to do any surgical procedures, I have bought some hairdressing scissors. So far, the short-haired members of the household have been pretty clear in their views about not letting me come anywhere near them with my new and very shiny scissors. But, you never know – in a few weeks or months’ time, when their hair starts to touch not only their collars but maybe even their shoulders, they might start to change their minds…

Thinking outside the tube

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No, I don’t mean the London Underground – I mean the kind of tube that you’re left with when you’ve just wrapped up tomorrow’s sandwiches and finished off the last of the silver foil.

Before I had a dog the cardboard tube would go straight into the recycling, along with any empty plastic bottles, egg boxes and cereal boxes that had come to the end of their useful life that day. Or – had they come to the end of their useful life? Well, not anymore – when you’ve got a dog, they have a lot left to give.

Dogs instinctively know how to be creative (and destructive too, to be fair, but let’s just think about the creative bit, for now).  When I pull off the last piece of silver foil and leave the brown tube beneath exposed, the dog’s ears immediately prick up. He knows that sound and he leaps up and comes rushing over. He puts his head on one side as cutely as he can. ‘Have you finished with that?’ he says, raising his furry eyebrows hopefully. ‘May I…?’

When I give it to him, he trots happily away to his bed where he settles down, holding it more dexterously than you might expect between his front paws while he examines his prize.

It’s not just a tube, to him. It’s all kinds of things – a chew toy… a container for storing dog treats in… something to roll along the floor… something to fetch… and, sometimes, something to whack me on the ankle with, when he needs to tell me that it’s time for dinner.

I’m trying to follow his example by thinking more creatively about everyday items, in an effort to generate more story ideas.  So, that teapot on the kitchen shelf – could it be the home of a fairy or a genie… or be filled with treasure… or imbued with a witch’s curse… or the hiding place of a clutch of stolen jewels… or even a time machine? Hmm. It could be any of those things in a story. But, right now, it’d be great if it really was a time machine and it could take me back a few hours to the point where I was still doing the shopping – I really should have remembered to buy some more silver foil…

Doggachino

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I drink quite a lot of coffee, and, because I spend quite a lot of time writing at home, a year or so ago I decided that it would make sense to buy a proper coffee machine for the kitchen. It has long ago since paid for itself, as it means that I no longer pop out to cafes to get cappuccinos (sorry, Costa!) – although I do now have the dubious pleasure of having to descale it every few weeks.

When I first had the machine, I’d take a quick break from writing to make a coffee and the dog wouldn’t bat an eyelid – he’d just snooze happily on, in his bed in the corner of the kitchen. But then, for some reason I decided that it would be nice to give him a dog biscuit every time I had a coffee – just to make sure that he didn’t feel left out. He thought that this was a very good idea, and, from that point on, the smell of ground coffee being spooned out of the bag and into the machine was enough to make his eyes pop open and his ears prick up.

A little while after this I started worrying again about whether he might still not feel fully included in the coffee drinking ritual. This was the point at which his blue plastic bowl came out of the cupboard – the rather battered (and slightly chewed), bowl that was used, not for regular dog food, but just for special treats…

It seems that a spoonful of warm, left-over milk froth, mixed with a little bit of cold water, is all you need to make a ‘doggachino’ that my writing companion is always be happy with.

These days, every time I stop writing and trot across the kitchen to the coffee machine, his ears prick up. I get out a dog biscuit. He wolfs it down and then looks expectantly up at the high kitchen cupboard. Will the blue bowl be coming out? He wags his tail hopefully (he’s a very hopeful dog – a true optimist). And very often, yes it will. After our coffees and biscuits (bone-shaped for him and digestive-shaped for me), it’s back to the writing. As I settle back down at the laptop, he gives a little snort of satisfaction and then returns to his bed in the corner – back to his dreams of running on the beach or chasing rabbits. But although his eyes might be closed, his nose is still alert and ready to spring into action at any time. After all, it’s unlikely to be long before the next coffee break comes around!

Ten thousand steps

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Being a writer involves a lot of sitting down, and, for a long time, I didn’t really worry too much about that. But when I went to a writer’s conference last autumn, and I found myself out of breath after the relatively short walk from the accommodation to the conference venue, I knew that I needed to do something about my lack of exercise.

When I got home from the conference, I had a word with the dog about it. I usually take him out for at least one short walk each day, but I was thinking of extending this and I needed him on board to support me with it – it would be no good trying to go on a longer walk, if my furry friend was dragging along behind me, desperate to get back to his cosy corner of the kitchen and his radiator. Happily, he was prepared to indulge me and so I started getting ready to take him out. Once he was wearing his smart red lead, he sat and watched me as I went online and downloaded a phone app that would count my steps. The app suggested that ten thousand steps a day would be a good starting point, and, with no idea at all of how far that was, I clicked the button to accept that as my daily aim.

We set off, the dog’s tail up and a bounce in his step as we strode off down the street, both of us excited about the prospect of getting fitter and burning extra calories (thereby allowing us to eat more biscuits).

I expected that I’d be nearly at the ten thousand steps mark by the time we got home from our morning walk, so imagine my surprise when I checked the step counter app as I came back in through the front door – two thousand steps. I gave my phone a shake – maybe the app wasn’t working properly. But that was it – two thousand steps was all that I’d walked.

I fired up the coffee machine and rewarded both myself and the dog with an extra biscuit anyway, but this wasn’t good. It seemed that ten thousand steps was a lot more than I’d thought! I tried carrying the phone around the house with me to increase my step count – and for a little while I even tried taking smaller steps – but eventually I realized that to achieve my daily goal I was simply going to have to walk a lot further.

At first I worried that this was going to impact too much on my writing time – but once I’d given longer walks a try, I found that walking was great thinking time. Quite often when I set off, I’d be thinking about whatever writing I was working on at the time and worrying about how I was going to move the plot on, only to find that by the time that I arrived back at the doorstep, a solution would have arrived in my brain.

Certainly the dog seems to be enjoying the extra exercise, and I’m pretty sure that both of us are getting fitter. Sometimes these days, we even manage to hit our ten thousand step goal, and that is definitely something to celebrate – with even more extra biscuits, of course!