Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A pinch and a dash

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I love to cook. There is nothing more gratifying that chopping stuff up, throwing it in a pot and watching it become dinner. So few things in life bring that same kind of immediate gratification. Hard work = payoff. Cool! So while many people treat cooking like a chore, I look forward to the adventure and I’m always beyond delighted when people love the food I make.

Until someone asks for the recipe.

Recipe? What recipe?

I mean, I understand the concept and I use them when I’m baking, but in every day cooking I tend to be a bit more freeform. I look in the fridge, pull out a bunch of stuff and throw it together with a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. I can always tell you what went into the dish, but the exact amounts – um – I haven’t a clue.

Which probably shouldn’t be a surprise. I love making to-do lists, but very rarely do I actually follow them. And while I’ve tried to follow an outline when I write, I tend to go off track somewhere around page 70 and the outline becomes obsolete. I love the idea of being prepared, but there is something about improvisation that motivates and interests me. Which is kind of a problem when I’m writing. I mean, I write mysteries. In theory, I should know where I’m going when I start. I should know who the killer is so I can leave clues. But even when I think I know what ingredients I’m going to add to a story, I find myself adding a pinch more pepper and a lot more basil and suddenly my initial vision is completely changed. Hopefully, for the better.

For me, cooking and writing seem to require a flexibility to go with what works as opposed to what is outlined or expected. Just because a recipe says you are supposed to add a teaspoon of something doesn’t mean you have to. Just because a mystery typically contains certain ingredients doesn’t mean you can’t change things up.

At least this is what I’m trying to tell myself as I work on my new manuscript and plot dinner for tonight. So tell me Stiletto readers and writers – do you use always use a recipe when you cook? And if you are a writer and use a recipe – do you also find you are inclined to use an outline to get the story from the beginning to The End? Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. Never use a recipe...never use an outline. I actually turned in a proposal for the book I'm working on now that looks completely different from the w-i-p. (Hope my editor doesn't mind.) I've tried to impose some kind of order onto my writing but it just doesn't work for me. Great post, Joelle! Maggie

  2. God, no. I use recipes for cooking and baking, but I can't write by outline. So far I've been lucky and have been able to sell my mysteries on two paragraphs each. It isn't hard to stick to the program when you're that loose, so for the most part, what I promise in the 'outline,' I can deliver in the manuscript. "There's this house, and then this dead body in the water, and there's an island, and smugglers, and in the end, they figure it out." Like that. :-)

  3. I don't bake anymore. Love to cook though and thought I might look at a recipe, I never really follow it even when I've specifically shopped for all the ingredients. Nothing I love better than homemade soup--and this is the time of year for it, even here in California.

    I don't outline, but I do write down ideas and things I need to remember along the way.

    Great post.


  4. I definitely follow the recipe when I cook and bake. When I write, well, I try. But like you, I get off track, and I need to fill plot holes I didn't see coming.

    Cooking/baking is purely function, not creative, for me. I'd be perfectly happy having someone serve up all my meals for me. Since my family would starve if I waited for that to happen, I take a break from my off-course manuscript to follow a recipe or two.

  5. Oh, I wish I could cook without recipes! Although I have tried a bunch of off-the-cuff pasta dinners lately, just throwing in a little of this and a little of that. Sometimes, it's brilliant, and other times I feel bad that I'm making Ed eat it. ;-)

    As for writing, I don't like to work with outlines because I don't follow them (I had to use outlines contractually for my YA series and writing them was the hardest thing I've ever done). It's much more fun to go with a general idea of the story and build from there.

  6. Susan - I always tell my husband that we might end up ordering out for pizza when I experiment. Thankfully, we have yet to resort to that.

  7. Cooking I do some of each: I follow recipes pretty closely at times, especially if it's the first time on a dish so I know what the foundation result will be and that helps me depart the text next time. But, I do lots of "what the hell have I got in the fridge and what can I turn it into?" cooking, too.

    Writing I go much more structured. And, for me, it's all goal based: when I'm writing something I often do at least minimal outlines or lists and always, always work from the question "what is the goal of this piece or passage, or what do I want the reader to have a chance to take away from it?". Now, there's still room to wander in answering the question, but I need to keep my eyes on the prize in writing.

  8. I have to echo Susan on this one. I follow recipes to the letter, yet avoid outlines with my books.

    Fun post, Joelle!