Category Archives: Inspiration

Working Atmosphere for Me

When I visit with people at the various book signings I attend, some new authors or people who want to try their hand at writing are always curious about the environment in which I write.

In his book, On Writing (which I highly recommend), Stephen King mentions that he normally and prefers to write in a room with the door closed but with some type of classic hard rock (AC/DC) blasting from speakers.

I'm a little different. I have a multiple monitor setup and often when I'm writing I will have some movie or television show playing on one monitor while writing on the other. Whatever I'm streaming is usually something I've seen before, often a series where I particularly like the writing or characters. An example of this would be Showtime's Shameless since I've seen all of the episodes repeatedly and I think 90% of the work on the show is genius level (by everyone involved from the writers to the actors).

Sometimes I feel like listening to music and so I will imagine that the novel I'm working on has been turned into a movie, and try to pick out some songs which would fit on the soundtrack. For instance, I'm working on a book about a supernatural or weird western twist on the Doc Holliday story. My playlist for that one includes the songs in the list below (in case you don't know them I'll also put the YouTube video for it and then the link to where the song can be bought on Amazon if you'd like) as well as some others. If you'll notice, the genres are mixed but each of them fit a scene I have in my mind. Often, if I know I'm going to work on a certain book on a day, I'll listen to the playlist songs to get me in the mood and to start the ideas flowing.

Aren’t You Glad…

First, I want to say that I love being a writer. Except when I don’t. 

Right now I’m working a couple of novels and a true crime book that is kicking my…well, you know. I’m 40+ pages into the true crime book, am pretty comfortable with all of the material (that’s where my time as a trial lawyer is proving helpful) but I can’t get an outline completed that I like and don’t really want to just do the thing in a linear fashion. Plus, unlike my usual stuff, when the facts don’t cooperate I can’t just make stuff up and trudge on.

I’m not a big fan of silence when I write although I don’t really want to talk, I usually play movies or music videos on one of the computer screens and work on the other and that’s what I’m doing today as I try to break my writer’s block and wait for my muse to show up.

My video playlist is extremely varied, as are my musical tastes. One video mght be Blue Oyster Cult and the next one a tune by Ma Rainey (blues artist from the 30s). The Sex Pistols are on there as is N.W.A. 

On this particular day Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” popped up (I don’t care, it’s a funny video, I’ll insert it below) and there’s a stanza in there that I just love:

Pictures of last night

Ended up online

I’m screwed

Oh well.

It’s a blacked out blur

But I’m pretty sure

It ruled

Damn!

It was particularly interesting because last night Karren and I watched Terminator Genisys, which is about how Skynet takes over and destroys the world because of everybody wanting to be online all the time.

Social media is great in a lot of ways. It allows me to unilaterally talk to my fans, to friends, and to meet new people all over the world. I’ve got several writer “friends” across the world that I likely would have never had the chance to interact with absent Facebook. There are others who aren’t writers but are friends because I asked or they asked and they seemed interesting (and it turns out they are!).

But I am so, so glad social media didn’t exist during those years before I settled down and particularly in high school. I have to temper what I put on my blog and elsewhere because I know my Mom and my kids read it. Mom would probably still have a stroke if she knew all of the misadventures I’d pursued and the kids (adults now) would regard it either as permission or hypocrisy that what I did and what I told them not to do are polar opposites.

 But the good thing about being a writer is that I can stick some of the memories into a book somewhere and people (at least the ones who weren’t there) won’t know if I made it up or if it is a bit of personal history.

I can’t fathom why so many people, my age and younger, have the inclination and want to take the time and effort to put their entire lives online for others to see.

I know I wouldn’t have done it but I also know I probably had some acquaintances who would have and likely my endeavors would have been chronicled just because I was there. There was one party where friends woke up in the front yard the next day, plus the dog had vomit all over him and even he looked ashamed (the dog, not the friend).

The thought of having all of that preserved for posterity anywhere other than my mind just makes me shiver.

 

Setting the Atmosphere Through Food (and a Roast Beef Po-Boy Recipe)

As I've mentioned before, most writers pull off of their backgrounds when they set the atmosphere and tone of their books. Some do it by smells (who can forget the sour smell of Bourbon Street on a weekend morning), some do it by sounds (Ernest Gaines is great at this, conveying a sense of poverty by the creaking of worn out bed springs), and others are visual. I often do this by describing a food.

In No' Chance I referenced both the Lucky Dog hot dogs found throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans as well as po-boys served at Johnny's Po-boys there. This is probably a holdover from the family dinners we used to have out at my great grandmother's house in the small community of Bellwood, La. Ma and Pa Alford lived in the heart of the Kisatchie National Forest that became the setting for The Bottle Tree. We used to go there on Sundays and Ma would spend all morning cooking so that we'd have a huge lunch and the day revolved around that meal.

The recipe below is one that reminds me of New Orleans, the taste instantly sending me to the humidity, sights and smells of the Crescent City. This one is made the New Orleans way, dripping with "Debris Gravy". It's also great to make homemade french fries and use them in place of the meat to make the po-boy, but then covering them in the gravy. You have to remember, most of the New Orleans and Cajun foods (two different kinds) were developed because people were poor and had to make do with what they had. This one can be made from inexpensive ingredients but the taste is rich!

I started with a recipe from NOLACuisine.com and then made some changes to suit my family.

I hope you try and enjoy it.

 

Roast Beef Po’ Boy with Debris Gravy Recipe

For the Roast:

1 Beef Chuck Roast (app. 2 ½ pounds). Don’t trim the fat since it adds flavor.

2 Garlic Cloves thinly sliced

Kosher Salt & Black Pepper

Cayenne

Flour to coat roast

3 Tbsp Lard or Vegetable Oil

1 Medium Onion, Diced

1 Medium to Large Carrot, Diced (I prefer to shred it using a cheese grater)

1 tablespoon finely Chopped Garlic

1 Cup Beef Stock

1 Cup Chicken Stock

Water if necessary

2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce

1 Tbsp Hot Sauce

2 Sprigs Fresh Thyme (you can use dried if you don’t have fresh)

1 Bay Leaf  (fresh or dried)

Kosher Salt and Black Pepper to taste

 

Cut small slits into the roast, about every 3 inches, try not to pierce all the way to the bottom. Stuff the sliced garlic into the slits.

Season the Roast very liberally on all sides with the Salt & Black Pepper, season with Cayenne to your taste, I don’t use much.

Coat the roast in flour. You want enough to form a light crust when you brown it in the oil. This step will make the gravy just a tad thicker.

Heat the fat in a heavy bottomed Dutch Oven over high heat, when the oil starts to smoke, wait a few more seconds, then carefully add the Roast cut side down. Brown very well on all sides, without burning it. Remove to a plate.

Drain off all but 1 Tbsp of the fat in the pan, add the onions and carrots, cook until just before the onions start to brown, add the garlic (be carefult not to burn the garlic) then place the roast back in the pan, then add the stocks. Finish, if necessary, with enough water to bring the cooking liquid 3/4 of the way up the roast. Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then back down to a very low simmer. Simmer covered for 3-4 hours or until the meat falls apart when you look at it (you know what I mean, very tender).

For the Debris Gravy:

Carve the meat into very thin slices, it will be hard to do and will fall apart, that is good. All of the bits and pieces, that fall off are your Debris (pronounced Duh-bree.)

Add all of the bits and chunks to you cooking liquid after skimming off the fat from the surface, keep the carved meat with a little liquid on a warm plate, covered tightly with plastic wrap.

Bring the gravy to a full boil and reduce until it coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Our family adds all of the meat back to the gravy when it has reduced and lets it sit there for a while to moisten the meat.

  

For the Po’ Boy:

New Orleans Style French Bread  (we found out that if you can’t get the good, crusty French bread to make this then you can use the canned Pillsbury Crusty French Bread and it is surprisingly good)

Cut the bread 3/4 of the way through so that the bread folds open as opposed to slicing it all the way through. If you slice it through the sandwich will fall apart. If you are using fresh baked bread wait for it to cool before slicing.

Shredded Lettuce

Mayonnaise

Roast Beef (see above)

Debris Gravy

 

Slather the bread with a very generous portion of Mayonnaise on the inside of the upper and lower halves. Place about a cup of Shredded Lettuce on the bottom half. Cover the lettuce with a generous portion of the “sliced” Beef. Drown the beef with Debris Gravy.

 This recipe will make 4 big Po Boys.

Inspiration and Ambience – New Orleans

To those of you who know me it will come as no surprise that one of my favorite places in the world is New Orleans. I lived there when I was a child and it got into my blood and has never left. 

For a long time I visited there at least once a year, sometimes three or four, but I haven't been back since Katrina hit and when I was invited by some friends to visit there for Mardi Gras 2012 I jumped on the chance.

Unfortunately, scheduling meant I couldn't get there until Monday afternoon, so I missed most of the smaller parades as well as Bacchus, but I was still excited just to see any part of it.

I love the drive down there, although it can be frustrating since the bridges over the Atchafalaya River Basin and the final stretch into the Big Easy can become blocked by the slightest thing, causing unbelievable traffic jams. This time the roads were busy but clear.

The friends had suggested I take a different route once I got to town because of the road closures and traffic . Usually I take the Vieux Carre exit off of I-10, which puts you right into the French Quarter but they advised taking 610 off of 10 and then taking Elysian Fields to St. Claude, St. Claude to Rampart, and Rampart to Iberville on which the hotel was located.

You may be asking why I would be so specific as to the route I took but for those of you familiar with N'awlins will recognize that that path took me right through Treme, the section of the city where Jazz was probably born and also the namesake and location of the HBO series which is one of the best shows on television right now.

It truly, truly gets you into a New Orleans frame of mind, especially if you are a history nut like me, to drive that route and watch the residents of New Orleans, because there aren't a lot of tourists there, making their way to and from the parades. Back to Treme in a minute.

It is impossible for any writer to come to New Orleans and not spot people and places that inspire them. I saw one pretty young woman in a flowing sun dress pedaling her bicycle through the neighborhood, dodging cars and costumed pedestrians, a loaf of french bread in a paper wrapper sticking from her bike basket. Her dress was obviously a little older, she wore no makeup, and the bicycle was beat up but she had a big smile on her face. You could read how happy she was to be out and around that day and how much she loved the city.

The issues with race, a bad economy, the fact that the city still wasn't (and may not ever be) back to normal, and that it was drizzling rain were all banished from thousands of minds when the Orpheus Krewe rolled that night. We had a great place and were bombarded with beads, part of which we kept and part of which we shared with the kids around us.

I remember right after Katrina and getting incredibly mad when some politician remarked that New Orleans shouldn't have money poured into rebuilding when it might flood again and all I could think of was that the man obviously had never been there or at least not where I was.

A writer, I can't call myself an artist, draws material from whoever they see and wherever they are. That's one reason why New Orleans keeps popping up in my work, like in No' Chance, when the gang heads for a showdown there. I have no doubt that people I saw and met over the last couple of days will show up in my work eventually.

I also have to say that I had one of the greatest life experiences ever when I was leaving NO this morning (Ash Wednesday). It may sound a little morbid, but it is what it is.

When we were driving out today I decided to take the long way out and swing back through Treme. I had the soundtrack from the series playing and the song was by the Treme Brass Band. I took a wrong turn but could see the road I wanted to get to a few blocks up and decided just to go that way. Within a few feet I was amazed to see a New Orleans funeral procession (Google it if you don't know what I am talking about) come around the corner dancing their way back to the church just ahead. I was even more astounded to see that the band playing for the mourners was the Treme Brass Band, the same one that I was listening to. 

We lowered our windows, turned the music off, and listened and watched until the procession broke up.

For me, it was one of the coolest experiences in my life. Although it was a funeral, which is why I said it is morbid, for me to happen upon a traditional funeral…in New Orleans…in Treme…with the Treme Brass Band playing…on Ash Wednesday…on my first time back in so many years…it meant a lot to me.

And now, from the HBO series that is absolutely phenomenal, Treme, I bring you Steve Zahn and his character's take on President Bush's reaction to Katrina.