My grandmother had a rather spectacular recipe book. It doesn’t look like much – a battered exercise book with the cover torn off – but it contains magic. All the family recipes are in there, and although she died when I was very small, I feel that I know her little through the Baumtorte, the Apfel Kuchen and the Sachertorte recipes.
Here are her Vanilla Crescents. I loved rolling these out as a child and coating them in sugar. They make me long for evenings in front of the fire, licking sugar crystals off my fingers.
6 oz flour
2 oz semolina
4 oz softened butter
3 oz vanilla sugar (2 for cooking, 1 for dusting)
drop of almost essence
Mix the ingredients together in a bowl until a rough dough is made. Then, with your fingers, roll out small sausage-shaped pieces and pinch them into crescents. Place them on oiled grease-proof paper and put onto a baking tray.
My mother and grandmother always keep a jar of vanilla sugar in the larder for making cakes and desserts. All you do is put one or two vanilla pods into a sealed container of caster sugar and leave it there. Every six months or whenever the pod begins to lose its potency, replace it with a fresh one.
Bake in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
I feel slightly odd, like I’m actually living in two parallel worlds; or, at the very least, jet-lagged and trying to zoom between two time zones. Only rather than London/ Los Angeles, the zones are 2010 and 1941. I disappear to write and vanish into wartime Tyneford, then return to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a chat with Mr S and to make a phone call or two, and I feel very discombobulated. Time-lagged.
When I approach the end of a draft the story takes over and I start to think incessantly about it. I don’t sleep very well and, when I do, I dream of Dorset long ago. Out walking with Mr S, he complains that I’m quiet, but it’s not quiet in my mind, or at leas they’re not quiet, since they are chattering very loudly in my head. Before you start to panic, and think you need to send Mr S or Jocasta or Agent Stan concerned e-mails, let me assure you that this is a hazard of the job. Many writers talk about hearing snatches of conversation between their characters, and that part of getting into a story is learning to listen to them.
When that first draft is finished and set aside for a few weeks to rest and simmer, it will become peaceful again. My noisy characters will be held inside the manuscript, waiting to be read so that they can talk again. For now, I might go out to the summerhouse and hide, but somehow I expect they’ll be waiting for me there, impatient to get on with the story.
counting sheep to fall asleep... (and it's snowy)
It’s so good to be back in Dorset. Within a week I start to pine for green fields. The snow has almost gone here, just a smattering of white across the high ground. I think I timed it very well, carefully avoiding the evil slush.
Emails are flying back and forth as Sceptre (and my mum) try to organise the launch of Mr R and begin to arrange events for the book group tour. (If you want me to visit your book group, click on the link at the top of the page and leave a message – or email me at: mrrosenblum AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk). I’ll be very well behaved and will even bring my own biscuits.
Yet, while all this is going on, I’m hurtling towards the end of Fred. She even has a title. I can’t sleep for Elise and Mr Rivers wandering through my dreams. All I want to do at the moment is write. I have notebooks and files and scraps of paper, all filled with scribbles for the last few chapters and these are slowly making their way into the story. If only they could all stroll off into a sunset as lovely as this one…
Durdle Door sunset
I’m not enjoying not writing. I am pining for Fred. Mr S is revising a screenplay where a writer’s fictional characters start to plague her in real life – they’re bored living in the novel when she’s not writing – and I’m haunted by visions of Mr Rivers and Kit and Elise stalking me. In fact they are stalking me. I might not be writing, but I can think of nothing but Fred.
Reading is good – I am munching my way through the towering stack of books on my desk and scribbling voracious notes as the route to the end becomes clear. I can feel Elise et al, hovering beside my elbow, or sitting on my shoulder, eager to return to Tyneford. While I am desperate to write, I also know that I’m not ready to carry on. I needed to take breaks in between drafts of ‘Mr R’ in order to put myself in the way of serendipity. I discovered the small blue pamphlet which Jack turns into his list on a research trip in the British Library somewhere between drafts three and four. There was an eureka moment with a coronation chicken sandwich (it’ll make sense when you read Mr R, I promise) and another when my mum found a picture of my grandmother’s famous golf swing.
So for now, I must try to ignore Fred calling me and the grumblings of Alice and Poppy, and turn back to James Lees-Milne and the The Countryman’s Diary 1939. But, if you see a girl tramping across the Dorset fields with a string of odd looking characters traipsing after her, feel free to wave.
…might smell as sweet but wouldn’t sound nearly as lovely if it were called Cuthbert. In my opinion names matter. I just went out for a spot of lunch with my girlfriends B and P. We were at school together, and I think sharing egg sandwiches and walker salt n’ shake for ten years, creates a certain bond. Over a lunch of dim sum (not salt n’ shake crisps for us anymore, we’re grown ups now), I started blathering on about character names. How they matter to me. How I can’t see the character properly until I find the right name. I was talking away and they exchanged that look… ‘here she goes again…’ ‘Do I sound incredibly pretentious right now?’ I asked. ‘Have another prawn/leek/puffball/ thingy,’ said B.
It’s true. I’m not one of those writers who can talk elegantly about writing without sounding a bit foolish. But never mind, you can’t see me right now. And it’s true, I do spend many good hours fretting about names. I wrote several drafts of ‘Mr Rosenblum’, with my hero called Sam, rather than Jack. No wonder it wasn’t right. The novel clicked for me when I discovered Jack’s real name.
But, it’s not just characters, it’s places too. The right name for a village, a house, or even the piece of music. As writers we try to find the perfect verb or the precise shade of blue, so why would a name matter any less?
Some days it’s just hard. I’ve done all possible procrastinating – I’ve surfed the internet, tidied my bookshelves, talked to the weeds in the flowerbeds as well as read lovely stuff in the British Library. But today I had actually had to start making changes. I know my editors are right but the actual process of picking apart the manuscript is still difficult. My desk is covered in notes, drafts and half a dozen documents are open on the laptop. Small changes I can make directly onto the new draft, new scenes I make in a separate document and then ease into the text. Then, lots of shaping, reading and re-reading to make sure the rhythm still flows. Thank god for word processors. Does anyone remember doing this on a typewriter?
My hero Jack Rosenblum is a German-Jewish refugee. He tries very hard to be British but at moments of extreme duress he lapses into his native German in order to curse more effectively. So I’ve been researching vintage German and Yiddish curses. (The novel is set in 1952). Du bist ein Misthoffen! (You are a dungheap).
Also saw that wild garlic has taken root in my herbaceous border. I know it’s a weed but I rather like it, so it can stay.
Back to work!
So, I’ve started the edit. My two wonderful editors had great notes. However, they did bring up one contentious point – the size of molehills. Molehills and, more specifically, their removal are very important to the novel. And the question was raised – actually how big is a molehill? For all you city-dwellers, here is crucial information about molehills…
Me on a molehill
Fresh molehills are small heaps of earth several inches high and a foot or so across. However, an established mole field is another story. In time, without being smoothed, molehills grow into miniature mole-mountains. They can be two feet tall and several feet across. Over many years, these grassy mounds can cover an entire field. Preventing a little molehill from sprouting into a mole-mountain and spoiling a field is hard work. Moles fixate my parents. They’ve tried every kind of anti-mole device – from widgets buried underground that are supposed to give moles headaches to traps. My father’s morning ritual, is to check the mole traps…
I’ve posted a photo of a molehill, with me on top for scale. This is one of the SMALLER molehills in the field this morning. The largest ones are nearly twice its size. All I can say to the cynics is that Dorset moles must be more vicious than other moles. They drink more cider.