Writer’s Workspace: 4/30

Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I wish I was working on: the final five chapters of ABSENT (I am, at last, that close!)

What I’m actually working on:  writing an exam for my World Prehistory class.  But, if I’m lucky, I’ll finish that before the day is out and be able to return to the last frantic push to finish revisions on the novel 🙂  Newly added to this version: sex, death, and a side of betrayal.  Much juicier than version 1.

In general, the last week was one of nearly apocalyptic productivity for me.  I wrote over 10K words, watched almost no television (except, of course, Dancing with the Stars), and let everything else slide (laundry, errands, grocery shopping, personal hygiene…okay, kidding on that last one, but you get the idea).  Hence both productive and apocalyptic.

I also, for those of you following my mission to get healthier (e.g. lose 10lbs by August 31st) stayed pretty well on my new regimen this week.  I made all 3 of my cardio workouts and 4 of the 5 scheduled stretching/back-exercise sessions, meaning I had to write SHAME on my chart of shame for one day 😦  I did even better with the eating portion of the equation, keeping the calories below 1800 four days and below 1600 on three days.  I lost 1 pound, which puts me ahead of schedule.  Hopefully I’ll be strong willed enough to keep this going.  Wish me luck (please!).

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Snippet from the screen: “The morning of the funeral was brilliant and clear, which felt wrong to Emily.  Indecent, somehow.  Sun reflected off distant minarets and the chaplain from the British base said a few words over Alexa’s grave.”

On the iTunes: “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys

Keeping me company:  nobody, and everybody.  Sid is home this week (and the next two!) as he takes a vacation between jobs (yes, the upheaval has been resolved and Sid will be starting a new position in late May…more to follow when the details are declassified ;).  So, Ramses, being a disloyal little feline, is snuggled up down the hall in Sid’s office.  No doubt they are plotting my downfall together (or at least thinking of ways to make a mess in the apartment).

Out the window: disappointingly normal early spring weather.  Gone are the 80 degree days.  It is sunny and cool.  I know I shouldn’t complain, but heck…it’s chilly!  I want me some global warming induced summer sun!

No time to procrastinate today, so no time to hunt down procrastinatory links for you, dear Reader!  Apologies…but I’m off to the gym!

Archaeological inspiration

The Nabonidus phase Ziggurat in the late 1920's

As I bring revisions on draft #2 of ABSENT to a close, I’ve taken a brief commercial break to revisit my research.

The final third of the novel is set amidst the 1920’s-era excavations at the archaeological site of Ur, Iraq, and as much as my story is about magic and time travel (and adventure! and romance!), I want it grounded in real details.  I want it to feel authentic.

Reading through the first draft, one thing that struck me was how generic this portion of the novel felt.  Sure, I’m an archaeologist and I should be able to bring an archaeological expedition to life in prose, but I work in Central America — literally a world away from Mesopotamia.  Plus, I work in the 21st century, not 1925.  I realized drawing on my personal experiences wasn’t going to be enough; I needed to go to the source to understand what the Ur Expedition was like.

So, I spent the last four days pouring over the Ur Expedition Reports, a series of manuscripts penned by Sir Leonard Woolley to present his interpretation of two decades of archaeological research.  And quite a productive few days it has been.

The way archaeological work was conducted in the early part of the 20th century was so different from how we work now. 

Woolley employed an army of Iraqis to literally peel away millions of tons of soil and expose huge swaths of the ancient city, plowing down through jumbled historical and prehistoric time periods in various parts of the site, including the ziggurat, terrace, cemetery, and surrounding city.  The man excavated with a zeal that would be completely unsustainable (and un-fundable) today.

My goal in reading up on the excavations wasn’t just to get the specific terminology and time periods of Sumerian archaeology down, but also to find a part of the site for a particular artifact (invented and important to the plot) to be discovered.  It needed to come from a part of Ur that would make sense for the artifact (it being religious & political in nature), as well as one under excavation while my characters are there (late 1925-early 1926).  I combed through the reports and finally found the perfect spot, a part of the Court of Nannar excavated more or less within my time frame.

The spot in question is a sunken room sealed with bricks and buried beneath a destroyed building inside the court.  Woolley describes it as a possible gigunus (translated as “the dark dwelling” or “the place which should not be looked upon”) — the perfect spot for a dangerous object to have been hidden away.

Woolley’s reports were also surprisingly useful for capturing the mood of the setting.  The story takes place in the winter, apparently an unlovely time of year out at the site.

Woolley writes, “It is a melancholy prospect. The flat horizon is broken by a long ridge of wind-blown sand which emphasizes rather than relieves the desolation. All is desert now. A featureless expanse of grey mud and yellow sand.  During the ‘blue month’ of late December and early January the wind blowing out of the northwest desert brings so piercing a cold that the water in our clay drinking-jars is frozen solid.” [Ur Excavations, Vol ii, p. 2]

Wordy, maybe, but evocative.

Agatha Christie at Ur, 1930's. With Max (on left) and Sir Leonard Woolley (on right)

For hints as to what life was like on the dig and around the expedition house, fate has lent me an additional boon.  The late, great Agatha Christie herself visited the Ur expedition in the 1930’s.  She not only spent some time there (and met her future husband, Max Mallowan) but she also set one of her novels, Murder in Mesopotamia, in the expedition house.  The novel is full of lovely details, including a map of the layout of the expedition house and plenty of descriptions penned by someone who’d spent time there.

Between the Expedition Reports, Agatha Christie’s novel, a treasure trove of old photographs found online (like those included in this post), and my own not-infertile imagination, the generic planes of the final third of ABSENT are starting to pop up into something resembling a real place full of real people.

Yay, research!

Now, to finish the damn thing.

*cracks knuckles*

Regime Change

In my opinion, to be a happy and productive writer, one must also be healthy.  Despite my insatiable love of food (see yesterday’s blog post), I’ve always striven to be as healthy as a I can.  In some regards, I do quite well.  I eat almost no processed foods or beverages and I cook most of our food from raw, whole, organic products.  In other areas, I miss the mark by a mile.  My favorite foods are full of fat — cheese, butter, cream, cured meats.  And then there’s the whole exercise side of the equation.

I hate to exercise, and when it comes to things I don’t enjoy I can be one big lazy fool.  Motivation is a major issue and I’ll latch on to any excuse to avoid exercising.  When I was younger, my metabolism was awesome and I could get away with this.  Not so anymore.  I’ve gained 10lbs in each of the last two years.  While I might be starting with the advantage of being slim, that won’t be the case much longer.  Extrapolate out 10lbs of weight gain a year for a few more years…a troubling and unhealthy trend by any measure.

So, regime change time. I have to start exercising and eating more moderately (let’s just say that little trip to France didn’t help matters).

Enter another problem: I am a woman of extremes.  I’m always either boiling hot or freezing cold, starving to death or so full I’m gonna throw up, bursting with energy or so tired I JUST CAN’T GO ON.  This little character flaw extends to every exercise and weight loss endeavor I’ve attempted.  Usually I wake up one morning and announce I’m going to get fit and lose weight.  I rush to the gym, totally overdo it for about a week, and starve myself on a calorie restriction diet.  This results, as you might imagine, in injury or physical collapse.  The outcome:  I stop exercising.

Time to learn the art of moderation.

I resolve to exercise and eat moderately with the goal of gradually, rationally losing 10lbs by the end of the summer.  Since I’m big on accountability (it’s the only way to avoid the “any excuse to stop” mentality), I’ll use a few tools to help me stay on track.

First, with regard to food, I’ll keep track of my calories on fitday.com.  This site is free and provides a number of handy pages for counting calories, entering activity (calories burned), and tracking progress.  It informs me I’ll need to keep my caloric intake under 1800 calories a day to meet my goal by August 31 (either through calorie restriction, calorie burning, or a combo).

Second, I’ll reinstate a tool that’s helped me in the past: Miranda’s Chart of Shame.  This is a simple excel spreadsheet I worked up that displays each day of the week with the type and amount of exercise I should do that day.  If I do it, I get to cross it off.  If not, I have to write SHAME in bright, huge, block letters on the day in question.  The chart is printed and displayed on the front door of the apartment, for me to look at every time I come and go.  It’ll be there, JUDGING ME, every minute of every day. For the first month, I’m going to start gradually with 3 days a week of cardio, 1 of weightlifting, and 5 of stretching and exercises for my back (from an injury sustained the last time I tried to exercise regularly).  After a month, I’ll reassess based on my progress.

Third, I’ll post my progress here on the blog — the good, the bad, and the ugly.  At the end of each week, as part of a general weekly update, I’ll include whether I met my exercise and dieting goals for the week or not.

I’m hopeful this system will work.  It is a good time of year to start adopting better habits, after all.  Nicer weather makes it more enticing to go out and exercise, and all that colorful spring produce makes it easier to eat right.  So, wish me luck, guys…and if you want to join in my crusade to get healthy, let me know!

Food for Thought: Lemon Tart

It’s a rainy spring Sunday and I’ve decided there’s no better way to embrace my inner-sunshine than to bake a simple, gorgeous lemon tart.

The work involved is minimal for such a sumptuous and impressive desert.  Best of all, you can fill the hour or so you’ll need to wait before eating the tart with some writing time.

The tart recipe I offer here is one I learned at a cooking class in Nice, France.  It riffs on a traditional lemon tart by adding local olive oil to both the crust and filling (Nice olives produce a light, mild oil that pairs well with the tart lemons).  While this may sound strange, it only imparts the faintest essence of olive oil to the taste and gives the crust a cookie-quality and the filling a silkiness that’s the stuff of dreams.  Trust me 🙂

Lemon Tart with Olive Oil (serves 4)

First, you need to make a pastry crust.  This sounds intimidating, but the crust here is very resilient and hard to mess up.  Start by cutting 1/4 cup of cold unsalted butter into pieces.  Place them in a bowl and sift 1/4 cup powdered confectioners sugar over them.  Add 1 1/2 TBS of finely ground macadamia nuts (or almonds, if you prefer).  You can pulverize the nuts in a baggie with a mallet, or use a nut/spice grinder.  To this, add 1/4 tsp sea salt and sift in 2 TBS of flour (you’ll need 3/4 cup flour in total, so measure out the full amount and then sift in just 2 TBS of it).

Work this mixture with a pastry paddle, a spoon, or your fingers.  The goal is to get the dry ingredients well integrated into the butter.  Don’t worry if it looks a mess.  Once it’s mixed, sift the rest of the flour in and add 1 egg yolk (separate and discard the white) and 3 1/2 TBS olive oil (if you can’t get an AOC Nice oil, select something light and mild).  Mix this all together with a fork.  It’ll be quite wet.  You may even want to put the bowl in the fridge for 10 minutes or so to stiffen the dough up before you work it into the tart pan.

Plop that dough out into the tart pan (you’ll need a 9 1/2 inch one with a removable bottom) and, using your fingers, work it until it thinly covers the entire bottom and sides.  You want this to be thin – such that you can almost see the tart pan through the dough.  Pay special attention to the corners.  The dough on the sides will sink slightly while the tart bakes, so make sure you get the corners extra thin to start.  If the dough gets too soft to work with, just toss the whole thing in the fridge a few minutes to firm it up.  Scrap the excess dough off and discard.

Bake the tart shell in the oven at 425 degrees for about 10 minutes.  Watch it carefully near the end so it doesn’t burn.  You want a nice, golden brown color.  Set the shell aside to cool while you prepare the filling.

For the filling, begin with 3 plump lemons.  Roll them on the counter before you juice them (this helps release the goodness within).  Squeeze the juice into a bowl, discarding any seeds.  Before cutting and juicing the final lemon, use a microplane grater to zest 1 lemon.  You can add the zest right into the bowl with the juice.

In a small pot, crack 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks (separated from the whites; whites discarded).  Whisk these together with 3/4 cup of granulated sugar.  Whisk in the lemon juice and lemon zest and sift 2 tsp of cornstarch over the mixture.  Whisk the entire mixture over medium low heat until it thickens.  The idea is to keep whisking constantly so the lemon curd aerates.  Once the mixture is fairly thick, remove it from the heat and whisk in 4 TBS of unsalted butter.  Then whisk in 2 TBS olive oil, the same type you used for the crust.

Pour this mixture into the cooled tart shell and put in the fridge for at least an hour to set and cool.  Rather than drive yourself crazy waiting to cut into the tart and devour it whole, take this time to sit down and write.  The tart, after all, will be your reward for a good word count 🙂

After you’ve achieved at least a couple hundred words, or can wait no longer, whip a little lightly sweetened cream.  Cut the tart and serve with a dollop of cream.

Happy writing and eating!

Love the one you’re with

There comes a point in the birth of a novel when your perception of its quality morphs from a shiny gem full of promise to a pile of refuse steaming in the New York summer sun, redolent of piss and feet and failure.  This point is different for everyone, but for me it tends to slither along right around the time I’m reaching a hard-won milestone in the life of the manuscript —  in this case, the end of the second draft.

The characters, previously so endearing and unique, begin to feel like stale automatons parroting tired cliches.  The setting, once a wonderland of color and surprises, begins to bleach to beige.  The plot, so vital and twisty and cunning, wheezes like an old man set in his routine.  And the writing!  God, even the Bard himself couldn’t do anything with that pathetic prose.  Not worth the price of the pixels displaying it!  Just drag it across the screen to the trash bin and set yourself free!

These thoughts crowd in your head, shoving out everything else, and cramp up your fingers till it’s agony to type even a single word.  Worst of all, though, is that slutty little new idea that’s been flirting and taunting for the last few months.  It’s promising you a new novel, one that’s alive and fresh and certain to be your breakout story.  “Put down that flabby old cow of a second draft,” it purrs.  “Come hither unto me.”

This little peccadillo of a problem, of course, is all an illusion.  It’s the work of the evil magician, Lazy Miranda.

There’s nothing wrong with the novel I’ve been laboring on for the last 17 months.  On the contrary, with the application of just a bit more concentrated effort it’s going to start really singing for the first time.  But evil Lazy Miranda doesn’t want that.  She doesn’t want to put time into anything that reeks of “hard work”.  She wants to watch Dancing with the Stars and eat too much chocolate and think about new ideas.  AND SHE MUST BE DESTROYED.

Well…let me amend that slightly.  She must be destroyed as soon as Dancing with the Stars is over.

Garçon, another glass of wine, please!

I have returned from the south of France, refreshed, nourished (literally), and a half a size bigger than when a I left.  The trip was just as it should have been: super-relaxing and centered around leisurely 3 hour lunches with lots of wine.

Highlights included a cooking class in Nice, during which we managed to sear duck breasts and fry panisse (while drinking) without burning either ourselves or the food, wandering (full of zabaglione and slightly drunk) through the narrow, winding streets of vertiginous Apricale, Italy, and pretending to be brain-starved zombies while exploring the uber-creepy abandoned WWII Maginot Line bunker in a downpour atop the hill village of Saint Agnes.

We racked up a total of 6 Michelin stars (3 2-star restaurants), two of which rank among the best meals of my life (Chevre d’Or in Eze and Mirazur in Menton).  There was also lots of sleeping, hiking rocky paths round rugged, sun-drenched caps jutting into the Mediterranean, exploring castles, and poking (e.g. eating our way) through the offerings in the morning markets of Menton and Nice.

Given all this, it may surprise you (as it certainly surprised me) to learn I also edited over 150 pages of manuscript.  Apparently I work best when the sun is out and wine is on regular offer.  I think I’ve got about 2 more weeks of work to go and then ABSENT will (FINALLY) be ready to send to readers.  So, that’s awesome.

The one thing that did not happen, either while on vacation or in the 24 hours since I’ve been home, was any sort of preparation for my classes this week.  Sooooo….I’d better get to that!

Keep the wine chilled for me, I’ll be back soon 🙂

Bon voyage!

Well, it wasn’t pretty, but I’ve got a more-or-less completed rough (really, really rough) 2nd draft of my novel, ABSENT.  It’s not in a fit state to send round to my writing group yet.  So, in that sense, I failed to meet my goal 😦

Still, it clocks in at around 80k and is complete enough to print out and take along on my journey over the Atlantic…for which I depart today!

I picture myself sitting on the patio overlooking the azure Mediterranean, sipping wine, and editing away.  A more accurate reality will probably be the replacement of the editing with a mid-afternoon nap, but who knows?  It could happen.

In any case, I won’t be online much for the next 10 days, so I bid you all a fond adieu (for now, at least!) and I’ll see you when I get back (no doubt 10lbs heavier and permanently hungover).

Well…I’m off and missing you all already!  Try to hold down the fort while I’m gone, will you?

Gloriously unrealistic goals

In four days time I’ll be boarding a plane bound from JFK to Nice, France.  That leaves me 4 days to complete the second draft of my archaeological time travel novel, ABSENT, thereby making my self-imposed deadline.  I’ve probably got about 30K to go, which means I’ll need to write/revise around 7.5K per day (not counting teaching classes and getting ready to go on vacation).  So, I probably won’t make it.  But if I love anything, it’s a lost cause.  So I’m pretending I can make it.  I’m going for it.

Because if I do succeed, I bet I’ll enjoy my time here a whole lot more:

To finish, I’ll obviously have to ignore everything but writing.  Soooo, that means I’ll see you, Dear Reader, on Thursday.

Anyone else out there gunning for a wildly unrealistic goal this week?  Do share.