Cooking it up with my (head)crew

Sometimes, separating the writer from the character is hard. We find ourselves putting our own traits into those of our protagonist, so they become mirrors of us. They may share the same taste in music, food, or hobbies. Their favorite sports team may be ours; that song on the radio we just can’t stand may make them grind their teeth, too.

One trait that I’ve noticed that comes through in all of my favorite characters is an interest in cooking. Their proficiency levels vary (from Chie’s ignorance about what “simmer” means, to Marshall knowing the recipe for drop scones so well he can make them in his brother’s kitchen without a book), but they always enjoy cooking. It may have different meanings for them – a desire to please, a need to control, sometimes just a way for characters to relax or get to know each other better – but even those meanings are from my own experience.

Even though I’m not actively writing while I do it, cooking allows me the freedom to let my mind wander. It’s a time of day I usually spend alone with my thoughts, and those thoughts almost invariably turn to my stories and characters: Does Paige sneak chopped vegetables from the cutting board while Daniel looks away? Does Ross sway with Amber as she stirs some sauce? Does Axton have to stop making breakfast because the hounds won’t settle down?

No matter who the character is – doctor, dancer, reckless bounty hunter – they’re all me, in a way. I’m no doctor; I’m barely a dancer; I couldn’t track a skip to save my life. But there are more basic traits we share between us, like joy for art, work, and – sure – cooking. In honor of that sense of sharing, I thought I’d share a bit of a recent cooking experience: curried shrimp and mango soup. The photos below detail the real-life steps I took, but rest assured as ingredients were browning, bubbling, and coming together in that Dutch oven, my brain was equally bubbling with ideas for where my next story should go. And, of course, there’ll be cooking.

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If you’re interested, here’s the recipe, originally from Eating Well:

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 serrano chile, minced (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups seafood broth or stock or clam juice
  • 1 14-ounce can โ€œliteโ€ coconut milk
  • 3 ripe mangoes, diced
  • 1 1/4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preparation

  1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, chile (if using), curry powder and thyme; stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add broth (or stock or clam juice), coconut milk and mangoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
  2. Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Return the puree to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook until pink and firm, about 3 minutes. Stir in scallions and salt.

What personal traits – if any – do you find you share most commonly with your characters? What do you see your characters doing when you’re cooking, doing the wash, or some other regular chore? Do you think you’ll try the curried shrimp and mango soup recipe? Let me know in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “Cooking it up with my (head)crew

  1. That’s kind of cool how your characters are connected (though probably not intentionally) by cooking. It’s kind of like you get to be in those different worlds as those different people, or at least, I like to think of it that way.

    My characters have a tendency to have a knack for music. Sometimes they’ll play piano, or guitar, or saxophone, or even just sing. I used to play piano and sax (though, not very well) and guitar I tried to pick up a few times.

    My Adrian character has no such musical talent, which is strange for me to write. She came out more physical than artistic, which is completely opposite of me, so half the time I’m worrying if I’m too much in her head, and the other half of me worries that I may have made her too athletic for a homebody. It’s pretty difficult, trying to write something I’m not familiar with, though it’s fun to say that she sounds like a dying walrus trying to sing!

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    • It’s probably some of my writer’s conceit showing through into my characters’ tastes and interests, but I like to excuse it since it makes me feel closer to them. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Even if Adrian is a homebody, that doesn’t mean she can’t work out! She could keep a chin-up bar in her apartment to use when she’s bored or needs time to think. Since so much of an exercise routine becomes automatic over time, she may use a timer instead of counting reps to measure her workout. That can allow her that head-time you’re talking about. A person who lives alone often has a lot of time on their hands, and if they’re not one to go out, exercise is a valid pastime.

      A lot of my characters are athletic in some sense (again, probably because I’m a jock), but one of them works out a lot because he’s borderline narcissistic. If Adrian is someone who takes a lot of pride in the way she looks, notably how fit she is, she could spend a lot of her home time working out. She might even have an apartment that’s mostly a gym! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing more about your own story. I always love to hear other writers when they’re excited about their own work. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. I find that my characters have the same demeanor. They’re content most of the time and have the same mannerism of shaking and nodding their head. It’s like they want to agree with everything that’s being said, afraid of making waves. I’m too much like that, but there are moments where I can be a jerk. I want that trait to come out in one of my characters.

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    • Writing jerk characters can be a tough hill to climb, because we’re so used to putting ourselves into members of the story…but it can be a lot of fun, too. I like to believe that fiction provides a safe way of dipping into our dark sides or even letting them run rampant a while. One way I found to tap into that was to use characters as mouthpieces to speak against things that annoyed or infuriated me. We’ve all got those!

      Good luck, George, and thanks for stopping by!

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  3. If there was a trait I shared with all the characters I write, I suppose it would be passion. Definitely with Wedge or Cipher does that come through, I think. Or course, then thereโ€™s the unnamed man and spectre tale, or Daniel and Lanceโ€™s unfolding journey which hasnโ€™t reached there yet. So, maybe others are better able to see which common thread ties my characters together in style. And now it strikes me that a majority of the characters I have written have been military, or at least ranked and filed in some degree. Guess I just canโ€™t get away from that ๐Ÿ˜€
    There are plenty of times Iโ€™ve set my imagination to motion in the calm and the homely, just to see what would happen. I think such moments are important to a story, maybe even more so than they are given credit for, because sometimes who we write just need a break, and housework can do just that. How they live those little things can show the impact of events that have unfolded, or things to come.
    Oh, I love me some curry! Be it Japanese, Thai, or some combination of two or more with plenty of spices, I could eat it for days! As such, this recipe is definitely getting a tasting.

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    • I really enjoyed those unnamed man and spectre stories you wrote. They were turning into a very intriguing and original little series. The similarities you share with Wedge in particular really shine in your Rogues stuff, as well. And, I actually appreciate the perspective you bring to your military characters. There’s a lot of firsthand knowledge but it’s also very relatable and natural.

      Using the mundane to highlight the fantastic or wonderful is one of my favorite tricks, too. ๐Ÿ™‚ Must come from all of that daydreaming.

      The recipe is really easy! Even without a Dutch oven (we didn’t have one for years), a stovetop pan works. It’s warm and yummy, especially good for the cooler months.

      Hope you get to enjoy some quiet days, shade!

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  4. So far, most of my main characters are women archaeologists like me. We have some similar interests and experiences, and I’ll argue that’s what led them to me to tell their stories. ๐Ÿ™‚ But we’re also different. Some of them are far more confident in their abilities than I ever will be. And one of them is far bolderโ€”a definite alpha female whose life would make a great movie. I definitely think about them when I’m in their locations and sometimes wonder what they might be doing in my place.

    I hope I don’t disappoint you, but neither my husband nor I are fans of curry. We enjoy plenty of international cuisine, but curry just doesn’t do it for us!

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    • Sometimes, I picture your characters racing around the desert with a fedora and whip, JM. I could see you doing that, too! ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s always interesting to imagine what our characters might do in our shoes, just as it’s fun to consider what we’d do in theirs. When I was walking around the grocery markets in Japan, I couldn’t help but imagine how some of my characters would react to that. I even had the skeleton bones of a story made up for that scenario! Sometimes, our imaginations can get away from us…!

      No worries about the curry, JM. I’m sure there are lots of substitute warm and comforting dishes to fill these colder days for you and your husband. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Neat idea to include a recipe in this post. I like that your characters all have cooking in common, drawn from a favorite hobby of yours. I think it’s difficult to separate ourselves completely from our characters. I know I am usually finding similarities between me and my characters, but I guess if it fits the story then it really doesn’t matter!

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    • Since it was the cooking that made me think about story, I figured I should at least share it for anyone interested. ๐Ÿ™‚

      The separation between author and character can be harder for me if I really identify with that character’s conflicts. of course, the more characters I write, the more perspectives I start seeing, so that’s not always a bad thing.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kate!

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  6. I try to imbue characters with pieces of me and pieces of others. Sometimes a reaction is similar to one I’ve had or a trait is one I share or someone I know has. Whenever readers tell me they hated a character, it’s a bit hard for me. I love them all. Even my villains. I have to see their side and make them come to life on the page. Weirdly, I’ve noticed my protagonists all have a fascination with Victorian furniture. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • I know what you mean, Kourtney – it’s hard to separate myself completely from any character, even the villains (sometimes especially the villains, since they’re so much fun!).

      I’ll have to pay closer attention to the bit about Victorian furniture. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for stopping by!

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      • I see the villains as a little wish fulfillment. I would never let myself cross to the dark side, but playing by the rules in life can be very frustrating. On the page, I get to see what it would be like to not be a decent human being.

        BTW, the recipe looks good, but I’ve gotten to be a bit of a lazy cook lately.

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