As the wheel of the year turns to the darkness of the shortest day then back towards the light, many of us like to pause and take stock of our lives and our writing. No doubt the past year has brought pleasant surprises, valuable lessons and perhaps some disappointments, but none insurmountable for a determined eroticist. For much of 2010, I’ve taken you along on my quest to write a second novel, and indeed I’m delighted to say I’ve made some definite progress. At the beginning of this year, my novel was little more than a daydream. Today I have a tight outline, scrappy characters who insist they will not rest until I tell their story, about 10K words of readable draft, and a steely determination that I will finish this project no matter what the fate of the finished book. Although the end is nowhere in sight, the potential humiliation of weighing in each month has assuredly spurred my journey. However, I’m at the point now where talking about my project seems to be detracting and distracting from going with the flow. Besides, there’s something about a brand-new year that seems to call for new themes, new recipes, new infusions of creative energy.
In the spirit of renewal, I’d like to invite you to year-long feast for the palate and the imagination, beginning with an appetizer of inspiration for a story and ending with a sweet finish that takes a long view of the writer’s journey from that first heady publication onward. The column will run every other month in 2011, and I will still be slipping in an update on the second novel when I have something to report, so stay tuned.
Back in October I had the honor to be part of a panel on “How to Sell Erotica” moderated by Jean Marie Stine at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco (a podcast of the panel is available at the Sizzler e-books website. Although I was one of the supposed “experts” dispensing advice, I actually found I learned much from my fellow panelists, M. Christian, Blake C. Aarens and Gina De Vries. I learned even more from our attentive audience, whose enthusiasm and insightful questions about the writing life reminded me that our natural human desire to tell a story nourishes our hearts and minds like delicious food. As I prepared for the panel, I got to thinking about the various steps I take in creating a story—inspiration, first draft, editing, targeting a publisher—and realized how far I’ve come since I began writing erotica thirteen years ago.
I’ve already admitted my guilty fondness for “how to write” books, but even more for chatting with other writers about how and why they do what they do. Soon after the panel, I flashed on an idea for this year’s “Cooking Up a Storey” that made my pulse quicken—why not invite my ERWA readers over for a good meal and a down-home discussion about the craft behind the magic of fiction? In particular, I wanted to compare how I did it when I first started and how I do it now, so that beginners and veterans alike might find something of value in my literary “secrets.” (Shh, here’s a spoiler: there’s only one essential secret—Keep Writing!) At the very least, for an erotica writer, the voyeurism alone is bound to bring on at least one delicious shiver. So please, take a seat at the table and help yourself to my offering of simple appetizers—toasted nuts, sliced baguette and an assortment of cheeses, olives, and raw vegetable sticks with roasted red pepper hummus. As this fresh, new year begins, let’s settle in to talk about the seed of a fresh, new story.
Writers are often asked how they get their ideas for a story. From the time I first started writing seriously, my ideas did not emerge from any rational decision or process. Rather it was almost like magic, the proverbial muse handing me a gift. Then and now, the seed of a story is always a mystery, a question with no easy answer. A story can be sparked by an image in a magazine or a snatch of overheard conversation or a sexual practice I’ve never tried (at least before I started writing the story). One story, “The Cunt Book,” was inspired by Bob Crane’s (of Hogan’s Heroes fame) secret pornography collection. A few months ago, a friend mentioned she was going on a silent retreat and I got to thinking—what would that be like? Soon after I set a story in a silent retreat, where, according to the rules, the only communication allowed is through bodily gesture, the perfect restriction for an erotic story.
The whole universe is our endlessly generous muse, we only need pay attention, or in other words, think like a writer, to see that any setting or chance acquaintance and every desire, especially of the thwarted kind, is material. And yet not every intriguing or sexy tidbit blossoms into a rich story. It must find fertile ground in each writer’s imagination.
Even in my earliest days as a writer, I instinctively “felt” if an idea was worth pursuing, but over the years, I’ve learned to trust rather than doubt my instincts. If an idea, even the slimmest fragment of one, gets my pulse racing and my curiosity aroused, I know I have something worth developing. If a story idea genuinely turns me on physically, emotionally, and intellectually, the story itself always reflects these passions. That feeling, more than any other consideration like marketability, is what gives birth to a new piece of writing.
I’ve also come to accept that every idea that sparks something in me does not necessarily immediately go to the page. Some need longer to germinate. Thus I keep a story ideas file where I type in as much about the story as my mind immediately creates. Sometimes it’s a full plot outline, sometimes just a sentence or two. Then I let it grow at its own pace. I may go back and add more notes as they come to me over time. More than once a themed call has come along months or years later, and the germ of the perfect story lies waiting in my files. Some stories have yet to develop, but I know they’re there.
Thus inspiration for stories involves listening to your heart and watching your imagination at work to see what she does with the ingredients life provides. While I suggested earlier that ideas for stories are “out there,” I believe the rich abundance really comes from within. Straining for a story idea is usually counterproductive though. When I’m cultivating a story idea, I often just let my mind wander during the more fertile times of the day. For me that’s in the morning when I first wake up, in the shower, or while doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or taking a walk. Night owls might do their best work at 2 am, but my constitution is such that I have better luck with sunrise.
Perhaps the question most often asked of erotica writers is whether or not their steamy scenes are based on their actual sexual experiences. I always proudly, and defiantly, answer with a great big “YES,” because in all that ways that matter, my erotic stories do draw from my real life. But it would be misleading to say every stories is gussied up memoir (although a few are, but you’ll have to guess which ones!). The key difference between memoir and fiction lies in another provocative question, one that functions as a writer’s magic wand: What if?
That is, we may start with our office crush or an attractive stranger we spied on the subway or a provocative kissing game back in college, all of which are “true,” but we let our imaginations feed that little seed until it grows into a moist, dewy, irresistibly vulvular flower of an erotic story. It occurs to me that when new writers ask a veteran how he or she gets her ideas, the beginner is anticipating a battle with the dreaded writer’s block. Most writers do face fallow periods over the long term, and sometimes these are healthy breaks soon followed by a time of intense production. However, my trick to banish run-of-the-mill writerly boredom is to bring out my trusty “what if?” Those two simple words ground your story in believability, but let your imagination soar.
The seed of a story is just the beginning of a long process, but it is obviously an essential step. If an idea truly excites you, the writing itself comes easier and the reader feels your connection with your story. In my next column, I’ll discuss the basic elements every story needs and tricks to get you moving on that often scary first draft.
In the meantime, help yourself to some appetizers and let’s toast a year of creativity and discovery to come!
Inspiring the Appetite: Creating a Simple Hors d’Oeuvre Buffet
I’ve always preferred an intimate dinner party to a large gathering. After a few hectic evenings when I’ve been scurrying around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on fancy dishes I’ve made to impress, I decided that when I invite people over for dinner, the real feast is the conversation and I enjoy myself so much more if I focus on my guests and the moment. This isn’t to say I don’t want to serve tasty, “company” food, but to me a truly elegant meal is like a good short story. You do as much sweating and planning and preparation in advance as you can so the actual experience for your reader maintains the fiction I’ve conjured my creation effortlessly.
Of course, a selection of nibbles to “titillate the mouth” as the French say, is de rigeur for a special dinner. But a pleasing meal in an ordinary home doesn’t have to consist of one show-stopping course after another. I save my best cooking efforts for the main course and dessert and focus on careful shopping for a casual appetizer course. Here is a sampling of the sorts of things I have waiting on the coffee table for my guests—and you, if you stop by!—although I don’t include all of them unless it’s a larger party.
What can be simpler than putting out some toasted nuts in a pretty little bowl for your guests to nibble on with some sparkling wine? However, simplicity makes the quality of the nuts all the more crucial. In California, fresh almonds and walnuts are fairly easy to find at this time of year, and my local market has vats of fresh tree nuts. I toast them myself in a 350 degree oven for about four minutes, then stir the nuts and toast them a few more minutes until the fragrance of their oil fills the kitchen. If you don’t have a good local source—or even if you do—I also recommend the Royal Mix (cashews, pecans, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and almonds) from Sunnyland Farms. It comes in bags or a tin toasted, not salted, or toasted and lightly salted and either will likely elicit from your guests a look of ecstasy that suggests they’ve either found God, are having an orgasm or both. I’ve had several guests say they felt they’ve never really eaten nuts until they’ve tasted Sunnyland Royal Mix. Yes, the nuts are that good. Maybe you didn’t make them, but you chose them, and that’s all part of creating a delicious experience for your guests.
Cheese and Bread
The French serve a separate cheese course between salad and a sweet dessert, but here in the wilds of America, bread and cheese tends to be served as an appetizer. If you have a good cheesemonger (I love that word) nearby, you can ask for recommendations for a good selection to serve with your chosen beverage. I live near a place called The Cheese Board Collective, which put out an informative book on cheese with platter ideas and great bread recipes called The Cheese Board Collective Works. Janet Fletcher’s The Cheese Course: Enjoying the World’s Best Cheeses at Your Table is another useful guide with some good recipes. Some of the basic suggestions include: keep the selection small (3 or 4 different cheeses), aim for variety in appearance, texture, strength of flavor and source (goat, sheep, cow) and bringing the cheese to room temperature before serving.
Choose a crusty fresh bread from a good local bakery or make your own. If no excellent fresh bread is available, choose high quality crackers or flatbread rather than indifferent bread. Uninspiring bread is like uninspiring prose. They both leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Raised in a household where canned and pitted “ripe” black olives were the height of culinary daring, I was thrilled to discover the rich complexity of cured olives in my California foodie years. If you have an olive bar in your neighborhood, do a little preliminary tasting, then provide a variety of black and green for your guests, plus a bowl to collect the pits, which I learned from the Japanese are most elegantly dispensed with by shielding your mouth with your left hand and discreetly pulling the pit from your lips. Don’t make eye contact while doing this, although, it occurs to me, brazenly staring someone in the eye might be good edgy foreplay for food erotica!
Another appetizing use of olives is in the Provencal spread called tapenade, which consists of pureed or chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil, which makes an excellent spread for your good bread.
Raw Vegetables and Dips
It seems everyone is trying to eat more healthily these days (or maybe I just hang out with “mature” types), so a tray of crudités, or fresh carrot and celery sticks, pepper strips, and cherry tomatoes, with strips of sweet jicama if you want to get exotic, will satisfy your guests while still letting them feel saintly—and thus more likely to indulge orgiastically in your decadent dessert later. Serve the veggies beautifully arranged on a tray or chip and dip platter with a dip or two. I tend to go for Haig’s roasted red pepper hummus and Baba Ghannouge (a roasted eggplant spread). Their Muhammara, a blend of walnut, pomegranate and roasted red pepper, is also a tasty dip. All of these can be homemade in advance, and there are many other good brands available in supermarkets.
While a selection of good quality nibbles make a great introduction to a special meal, they can also make a perfect picnic in the park or by the fire, with a simple dessert of cookies or maybe some amour on the blanket or the (faux) bearskin rug.
Happy Holidays and Bon Appetit!
Donna George Storey
December 2010 – January 2011
“Cooking up a Storey” © 2010 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.