Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Winter Walk on Skis

The bright side of winter: no leaves means more sunshine in the woods!

In Maine winter lasts well through March. Walking is challenging in deep snow or on icy sidewalks. My advice to newcomers is to find a winter sport. You need to embrace winter, not hide from it.

If you can't walk out the back door, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

My children grew up skiing behind me as soon as they could walk. My daughter is captain of her school's Nordic Ski Team and my son has joined the Nordic Club at college. Now I struggle to keep up with them!

It's the best way "to walk" the dog.

We're lucky to live right off a wooded trail that circles Bowdoin College's playing fields. I'm often the first one out after a big storm. This year I got stiffer boots with more ankle support and wider backcountry skis to make it easier to cut the track. I apply Musher's Secret to protect Scout's paws. Snowball paw is no fun.

Young Scout is still learning the hazards of wandering off trail. 

I'm training Scout to run behind me without stepping on my ski tails. My command for getting out of a skier's way is "beep beep." We don't usually encounter that many on our morning outings. The trail winds past two ponds, good for iceskating too. If there's enough snow cover, I can go 6 miles roundtrip through the town commons, only taking off my skis twice to cross roads.

On work days, I usually turn around at the first pond. We pause to listen to water flowing through the dam. I enjoy the peace and quiet of winter, the times of frozen solitude. As I ski, I plan out the chapter I'll write later that day. I don't drink coffee. The exercise wakes me up and gets my mind going.

At the end of the day, I warm up by the fire with a good book, Scout crashed out at my feet.

More Winter Walks at A Tidewater Gardener.
Do join us by posting a winter walk from your house.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing Backstitch

Simpsons Point, Brunswick at sunset

February has been a month of shoveling, skiing and writing. We've had three major storms and the piles are now higher than my head. January was frigid with very little snow. My work-in-progress was equally frozen for a month of revision, but now I'm writing new chapters. I've been writing at home or in a hotel room while visiting colleges with my 16-year-old daughter. The word count fluctuates daily.

I feel like I'm writing in backstitch, moving two words forward and one word back. One day I'll draft a new scene, and then the next day I'll rewrite it. Sometimes I go back to previous scenes to weave in backstory and foreshadowing or to mend plot holes. Other days I shuffle scenes.

Before I start writing a novel, I know the beginning, the ending and a few major plot points, but I don't outline the first draft. I enjoy the spontaneity of discovery as I write. If I can't surprise myself, how will I surprise the reader?

My non-linear writing style works well with Scrivener since you compose in scenes that are easy to shuffle around as virtual index cards on a cork board. I keep track of characters on other index cards. Scenes get organized into chapter folders. There are some features I can't figure out, like how to check where a scene is in the total word count. I expect the novel writing software to be the most useful for revising future drafts. Now to ski before an ice storm ruins the snow.

Olympic Watch: the gold medal ice dance of Meryl Davis and Charlie White 2/17/14

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Tour of Winslow Homer's Studio in Maine

The Portland Museum of Art recently acquired Winslow Homer's studio in Maine and restored the house to its near original state. It was first a carriage house on Homer's family estate before he renovated to be his live-in-studio. I had imagined this late 19th century painter residing on the remote coast, but even back then, Prouts Neck was a summer resort for city people.

Homer spent the winter in his New York City studio, but a natural recluse, he preferred the isolation of Maine. His studio home was fenced without a gate, and there were no windows facing the road since he didn't want the public peering in or visiting him. Winslow Homer makes me look like an extrovert.

This is his studio from the inside. The few windows faced away from the street. We wondered why he didn't install opaque glass on the roadside walls as it was quite dark inside. My daughter and I went on a museum tour of his studio in December before it was shut for the winter. It will reopen in April, but you can only visit on a museum tour.

The main living area was rustically cozy but not exactly inviting. Over the fireplace is a sign that he hung on his outer fence, warning intruders of snakes and mice! On the walls are photos and objects that he collected on his journeys. There were odd notes of his carved into the wood panels.

His original bedroom has now been converted into a tiny kitchen.

The new bathroom is much more luxurious than it would have been during his tenure.

Upstairs is his original attic studio, which later became his bedroom when he added that nearly windowless studio downstairs. The attic was quite dark too.

Our tour guide believed that a boat builder might have done the original work on the carriage house conversion. Doesn't the ceiling remind you of being inside a tall ship?

My favorite architectural element was the covered porch overlooking the ocean. It would be easier to paint stormy seas under this protection.

I was amused to see that Winslow Homer edited out neighboring houses and suburban development. I often remove houses and roads or shift trees in my paintings too.

Even on a foggy winter day, the porch view was superb. I recognized the rocky coast that I'd seen in his paintings. On a nice day, you can walk along the cliff path. It was closed during our visit due to freezing rain. My 16-year-old daughter and I highly recommend the tour. Our guide was entertaining and well informed. The bus leaves from the museum in Portland. You should reserve tickets in advance.

From this studio visit, I've gained a new perspective of an artist who inspires both my art and my writing. A character in my work in process is named after Winslow Homer and there is an art studio modeled after his. Homer's coastal landscapes inspired my photo essay of islands in snow and my watercolors too.

Weather Watch: Another big storm is coming tomorrow with 8-12 inches of snow predicted! I'm hoping for snow only and no rain/sleet. It's hard to imagine on this sunny day. Happy Winter!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

Three brothers are on Bread & Butter's menu, but the protagonist of Michelle Wildgen's latest novel isn't a person; it's a fledgling restaurant. After years of drifting between graduate degrees and menial jobs, Harry has moved back home to open a restaurant/tapas bar. A working class town outside Philadelphia, Linden has recently attracted yuppies in search of affordable Craftsman homes and neighborhood dining.

Ahead of the curve, Harry's older brothers opened Winesap a decade ago to serve mainstream gourmet food. Taciturn Leo has years of experience in the industry and handsome Britt offers excellent taste and PR finesse. Harry is an innovative chef, but he can't do this on his own. Restless and energetic, he has a track record of jumping ship for new endeavors. His brothers eye him warily. Harry could be a culinary genius or a ticking time bomb. Romance adds further complications.

Wildgen's previous two novels gave a shout out to eating local, but Bread & Butter puts the restaurant business on center stage. We learn about the tension between back room kitchen staff and front room servers and the precarious orchestration of the cooking line. In this world, limp vegetables are tragic and a broken dishwasher is high drama. The plot is driven by "quotidian details," but it moves at a good pace.

The biggest problem with this book is it makes you hungry:
"...a flawless napoleon of crackling pastry layered with coconut and kaffir lime custard. He'd sprinkled it with a vivid emerald powder that sent Leo's mouth alight when he tasted it, a fragrant tartness that intensified the creamy custard and the buttered shards of crust. It turned out to be sugared lime leaf powder." 
"He remembered Harry calling the toro sea heroin, and looked up into the chef's lupine eyes with a faint chill of apprehension. Certainly he was about to taste something he might not taste again. That was the problem with such a place: once you'd had toro like this, fish like this, you developed a taste beyond your means."
The characters are equally well described:
"It was never easy talking to Shelly. She always seemed to be responding to something happening just beyond or over your shoulder, or something you said in your last conversation but didn't remember."
My husband flipping a crepe.
Wildgen doesn't just know food, she knows people and their inner struggles. Britt dominates the limited point-of-view third person narration with Leo and Harry offering alternate perspectives, but the book holds its focus. At times I wanted to shout at Britt or to help Harry. I never really bonded with Leo. Although Wildgen does a fine job writing from the male perspective, my favorite character was Thea, an executive chef/single mom. Camille was intriguing too. It was nice to see competent women in the dominant roles usually played by men. Not all of the characters were lovable, but they felt real. I was sorry to say goodbye to them on the last page.

If you enjoy good food, Gordon Ramsay's TV shows or ever dreamed of opening a restaurant yourself, you will love Bread & Butter. I read it slowly, savoring the pages. The book has been called food porn. Would someone please open a restaurant like Stray in my town?

Bread and Butter will be released on February 11, 2014. If you want to understand why Michelle Wildgen is one of my favorite authors, check out her other two books as well:

You're Not You
But Not For Long (includes my author interview)

Reviewer's Disclosure: Doubleday, Michelle Wildgen's publisher, asked me to review this book and sent me a free galley. I was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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@Barrie Summy

Weather Watch: We finally got a snow day: 6-12 inches are expected today! This is good news in Maine. I love the fresh white peacefulness and being able to ski out the back door again.