#writers, when good #storytelling requires #fieldresearch, you better be prepared.

I’ve been putting it off for months. Last week’s interview with Laurel Wanrow, however, brought matters to a head.

It’ll take too much time. C’mon, is it reeeeeally necessary for the sake of the story? Just watch a video or something.

Jean, you’ve got no life experience for context. No member of your family ever did it. No mere video will give you the sensations and emotions, to build upon for the plot and character development.

So what?! I can still make up stuff.

Jean, you gotta do it.

No!

You gotta.

I don’t wanna!

Do you care about the story or not?!

…Yeah.

Then you go in there and face that source of embarrassment and anxiety.

NO NO NO NO NO NO!

If you truly care about your next Tales of the River Vine story, you must…

…have a go at canning.

My ineptitude in the kitchen is legendary. I’ve started no less than three fires in my oven. I’ve burned food to the bottom of pots so badly we had to throw the pots out. Even the most basic of cookbooks goes all twisty-turny in my brain so that I switch ingredients, switch steps around, mix up cooking times, etc.

But field research isn’t about doing what’s easy, or doing what we already know well. It’s time to step outside those comfort zones and experience something new, dammit!

Now granted, there’s only so much one can spend in the name of field research. It’s not like my family’s budget allowed for me to take a hot air balloon ride solely for “experience” to write “No More Pretty Rooms.” I simply drew on the experience of parasailing with an improperly buckled harness. Puh-lenty of excitement and terror in that memory from the teen years.

So to begin this adventure into canning, I get some books from the library with emphasis on making small batches with natural ingredients.

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(Yes, I was won over by Marisa McClellan’s inclusion of many pictures so I had a clue what the finished product should look like.)

I poured through the recipes with focus on canned fruit. Something with a realistic fruit for Wisconsin, and with minimal ingredients to befit an impoverished pantry in the wilderness. (That, and fewer ingredients means a smaller dent on the food budget.) Gimme something with five ingredients or less, you books!

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Aha!

Look at that: four ingredients. Peaches are…okay, they’re a bit of a stretch, but doable, as peaches supposedly came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Since Wisconsin became a state in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to expect peaches are in the state by the early 1900s, which is when “Preserved” takes place. The only other items I need are a lemon, some sugar, and bourbon.

Welp, the kids weren’t gonna touch the stuff anyway.

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That be a lot of peaches.

Okay. I gotta just hack them up to get the pits out, boil the jars, boil the fruit and then plunge them into ice, skin them, cook sugar water, pack peaches, pour some cooked sugar on them, add the bourbon, then cook the lot. Sounds straightforward enough.

So, first: a pot and a round cooling rack.

You know, the round cooling rack YOU DON’T HAVE.

NO! I WILL do this! I just need to utilize that beloved resource most assuredly available one hundred years ago: The Internet.

Aha! I can build one of my own with aluminum foil! That’s…not entirely appropriate, but at this point, I don’t care. I didn’t buy 6 pounds of peaches for nuthin’. I need the sensory experience of canning, not the…you know, technical whozamawtzits.

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With foil grid thingey in place, I can start boiling the jars. I’m only making four pints’ worth, so I can get these jars done in one go.

Eeeeexcept they don’t fit in our pot.

Well…whatever, I gotta slice the peaches up.

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“Eeeew, peach brains!” says Bash, all too eager to poke’em around. Blondie makes puking noises. “I’m never eating peaches again.” Biff just shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and continues reading his Calvin and Hobbes, devoid of interest.

“Scoot you, Mommy’s workin’.” I go over the book’s directions again to see what else I can do while the jars are heated. Hmm, I gotta simmer the lids, okay, and then cook sugar water into syrup, and boil the peaches for one minute at a time to be tossed into the ice-water for peeling.

Well I can’t wait to see you swing that, Jean, since you only have TWO WORKING BURNERS on that stove. 

Bo comes in from work to find the kids munching supper and me staring at the stove, utterly flummoxed. “Well?”

“This is going to be an epic failure,” I say, and lob another peanut butter sandwich over the kitchen counter to Biff. “We don’t have a stock pot or the right cooling rack. And we don’t have four burners.” I tip a tablespoon’s worth of  hot water from our electric kettle onto a small bowl with the lids.

“Waaaaaaaaaait, wait wait.” Bo puts his lunch cooler down and looks at the directions. “You did read this before you got started, right?”

“Yes!” I’m all indignant about it, but how well did I read it, really? I was so fixed on finding a recipe with minimal ingredients, let alone fixed on canning in general, that I didn’t once stop to study the logistics of it all. I just assumed one needed a pot, some, jars, and some fruit. Wasn’t that how it used to be?

If field research is to be helpful, we can’t treat it as some slipshod affair. One can’t try ice fishing without the right gear. One can’t learn to sew without certain materials. So one sure as hell ain’t gonna can fruit unless she’s got some basic tools like four working burners on a stove. Had I bothered studying the recipe’s logistics, I’d have seen the futility of this field research and saved myself a lot of time…not to mention six pounds of peaches.

“Honey. Schmoopie. Darling.” Bo takes me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead. “I love you. I love how smart and creative you are. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re not afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. But with all that research and prep, you’ve been foiled by boiling water?” He turns off the burners, pulls down the Halloween Oreo cookies for the kids.

“No. I’ve been foiled by that flippity flappin’ stove.” I harrumph and try to peel the peach skins, despite the peaches not even being ripe enough for this exercise, or cooked long enough, or cooled long enough.

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Of course, it doesn’t work.

Hmm. Maybe I can utilize my frustration into the narrator. Maybe he doesn’t get the canning done the way he normally does because he’s being distracted by taunts over transformers and peach brains and grilled cheese and…maybe not that last part, but still, there’s an emotional bit of field research done here.

And a wise lesson learned, too:

GET A NEW STOVE.

No, no…well yes, there’s that.

Always have a chest freezer in case you end up with two baking trays filled with peaches that will hopefully keep for a winter’s worth of peach cobbler.

Yes, okay, I GET IT. My point, patient writers and readers both, is this: never let ambition lure you into the field before your creativity–and your common sense–are ready.

coverOctober is almost here! That means a new installment of my monthly newsletter will be hitting your inboxes on the 1st. I like giving kudos to kindred creative spirits in my newsletter, as well as sharing updates about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus and other writing endeavors. If you haven’t subscribed yet you can do so here

 

 

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

 

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

31 thoughts on “#writers, when good #storytelling requires #fieldresearch, you better be prepared.

  1. Great storytelling here, Jean! And if we can’t laugh at our own mistakes — and get others to laugh too — well, we’re doing something wrong, I think. Canning is definitely harder than it looks. I watched my grandma do it when I was growing up and I have friends who do it now. And…. yeah, I’ll just let those friends do it, thanks. Having the right equipment really is half the battle, the same as with many other “advanced” cooking tasks. So the lesson from this story that I’m getting is: if I want to research doing some old-timey or adventurous thing, don’t try to do it myself from scratch, but instead tag along with some expert friend and see how it is SUPPOSED to be done – not that way that I’d end up botching it, LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! Exactly! I have friends who make their own yogurt and preserves and frickin’ butcher their own meat while little kids are running around and stuff, and I just think, “either you were born 150 years too late, or you’re waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more adept at the Jack of All Trades mindset than I could ever hope to be.”
      It’s probably a mix of both.
      Bo felt a little bad too because he has an episode from the Food Network show GOOD EATS that talks about canning. “If that show wasn’t lost in the garage with other flood basement stuff, I think you’d have gotten a way better idea of what you needed to do.” I gotta agree–book pictures make it all look so easy….ah well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hear you — there are some tricky cooking things that I’ve figured out, and yet somehow I can’t even manage to butcher a *chicken*, much less anything bigger. Ah well, it’s all about the practice. And watching the right videos, I agree!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha! I pictured you over the stove much like me when all four kids need me to ‘hold something.’ “I’m not an octopus!” I usually tell them. Out of burners=out of hands.
    I’d suggest some freezer jam to start your culinary canning journey. I think you can even seal the jam in jars by turning them upside down and not boiling them in water. If not, as it says in the name, you freeze it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! I’ve some peach cobbler recipes for the slow cooker that don’t result in tears and food poisoning, so I’m set for those now. 🙂
      And the canning recipe did indeed require bourbon–“boozy peaches.” 🙂 I’m still wondering how that would have tasted…probably pretty sweet, until the alcohol wallops me between the temples. ;-P xxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

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