DELICIOUS is the world's hardest book to write. [And if you don't think so, you can come write it for me. :-)] Fortunately, many, many months after I first set out to write a book of Victorian food porn, I've finally stumbled onto the story at the core of it.
I know perfectly fabulous authors who say that they don't know how a book begins until after they have written "The End." I don't work like that. I can't work backwards or write chapter 26 when I haven't written chapters 1-25. So for me, the beginning of the book is always crucial. It tells me how the rest of the book should read.
This is the first beginning for DELICIOUS.
It was a truth almost universally acknowledged that Madame Durant’s cooking killed Bertie Somerset. The proponents of this conjecture intended it to be a moral lesson—Mr. Somerset, having paid for his gluttony with an early demise, would dine for the remainder of eternity where steaks were perpetually charred and soufflés everlastingly flat.
But the fortunate few who had actually been invited to Bertie Somerset’s fabled twenty-course spreads pondered that same theory with awed envy. Lucky chap, to have feasted upon Madame Durant’s delectable food for more than a decade, and then to have departed this earth with his face buried in a bowl of the silkiest, densest mousse au chocolat known to man. Lucky chap indeed.
While England’s dozen or so gastronomes reminisced fondly over tarte au citron and escargot en croute, the rest of Society, master and servant alike, regurgitated old rumors concerning the special relationship between Mr. Somerset and Mme. Durant—namely, whether she slept with him and how often, though more intrepid souls went so far as to speculate on depravities involving pastry cream and rolling pins.
Long time readers might remember that I blogged about the demise of this opening back in November. I really adored it, but I decided to go with a more utilitarian opening, to help me grope my way in the dark. So for a month or so, the novel began thusly:
The kitchen door burst open and slammed into the wall, rattling rows of copper pans, startling one of them off its hook. The pan hit the floor hard, bounced and wobbled, its metallic bangs and scrapes echoing in the steam and smolder of the kitchen. Verity looked up sharply. No one made noises while she worked.
“Madame,” Dickie, the second footman, gasped from the doorway, sweat dampening his hair despite the November chill. “Mr. Somerset—Mr. Somerset, he be not right!”
Something about Dickie’s wild expression suggested that Bertie was far worse than “not right”. Verity motioned Effie Briggs, her lead apprentice, to take over her spot before the stove. She wiped her hands on a clean towel and went to the door.
“What’s the matter?” she said, walking in long strides to keep up with the second footman as he scrambled in the direction of the house.
“He be oot cold.”
“Has someone sent for Dr. Mead?”
“Mick from the stables jus’ rode out.”
She’d forgotten her shawl. The cold in the unheated passage between kitchen and manor made her shiver. They pushed open what seemed an endless series of doors—doors to the mud room, the warming kitchen, another passage, the butler’s pantry.
Her heart thumped as they entered the dining room. But it was empty, save for an ominously overturned chair. On the floor by the chair was a puddle of water and, a little away, a miraculously unbroken crystal goblet. A half-finished bowl of onion soup still sat at the head of the table, waiting for the lunch to resume.
As I said, utilitarian. And I can't do dialect to save my life.
Somewhere in the first week or two of December, I was doing some work with the A&E Pride & Prejudice DVD playing in the background. As the mini-series ended, and the happy newlywed couples got into their carriages, I suddenly realized that my hero and heroine had met before. (This is the one big trick I have up my sleeve. Whenever I can't think what to do, I make my h/h old lovers.) The "Aha" moment led to this beginning:
A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, Stuart Somerset had once read. He’d always supposed it to be a rallying cry for the crush of young ladies swamping London every spring, each seeking to marry and marry up. It wasn’t until he came into some successes of his own that he began to understand that Miss Austen had, in fact, penned an astute observation of the male psyche.
A man blessed by Fortune wanted a wife because he could brandish no greater, more visible symbol of that good fortune. His prowess and competence was measured by the fineness of her eyes, the music of her speech, and the elegance of her figure gliding across a ballroom floor. Her desirability augmented his stature; her virtue, his respectability.
These two elegant paragraphs opened the book in the version that went to my editor. A 16-page, single-spaced revision letter came back, promptly much soul searching. I wrote yet another new beginning.
Verity Durant was famous in Paris and infamous in London.
Her Gallic celebrity was the result of her culinary prowess, reputed to rivaled that of the great Auguste Escoffier. French gastronomes who had feasted upon her twenty-course spreads carried home with them reverent tales of her remarkable discipline, her impeccable technique, and most of all, her divine food--so potent that old men dined with the gusto and hunger of adolescent boys, and so alluring that even new lovers forsook each other, at least for the duration of the meal, for the pleasures she proffered.
The English public, largely uninterested in food but extraordinarily titillated by sexual improprieties, knew her mainly for her torrid affair with Bertie Somerset, her patron and employer. After all, it was repeatedly whispered that she ruled her kitchen with an iron fist, that she received an exorbitant salary per annum, that she threw pies in old Bertie’s face without fear of dismissal, and that in person—not that many had seen her in person—she was the most underrated beauty since Cinderella.
Now here, for pedagogical purposes, allow me to present the first three paragraphs of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS.
Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society’s stamp of approval.
Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Frau Von Teese’s special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.
No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life’s vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.
Yep. With DELICIOUS, I was very much trying to recapture the mood that I had set in those three paragraphs for PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS. And in doing so, I forgot two very important things. One, DELICIOUS is a very different story, not same but different, but different different. Two, in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a few paragraphs down, I had this:
Therefore, when Lady Tremaine filed for divorce on grounds of Lord Tremaine’s adultery and desertion, chins collided with dinner plates throughout London’s most pedigreed dining rooms. Ten days later, as news circulated of Lord Tremaine’s arrival on English soil for the first time in a decade, the same falling jaws dented many an expensive carpet from the heart of Persia.
And that, was no empty atmospheric mumble-jumble. It set up the conflict and immediately pushes the story close to the brink--passion, Anger, SEX! Thud. None of my DELICIOUS openings had this crucial storytelling component, despite all the wordsmithing that went into them.
Finally, after much more soul searching--okay, I can't lie any more, I never soul search. I was just sitting on the bus to school, thinking about the test I had to take, and suddenly I knew how I should begin DELICIOUS. It goes a little something like this.
In retrospect people say that it was a Cinderella story.
Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the story seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.
There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand—a man who would very likely one day, fifteen years hence, occupy 10 Downing Street and pass such radical reforms as to provide pensions for the elderly and health insurance to the working class.
There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. For others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that new lovers forsook each other, as long as a crumb remained on the table.
There was a ball, not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evil Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.
A Cinderella story, indeed.
Or was it?
It all began—or resumed, depending on how one looked at it—the day Bertie Somerset died.
Is this opening truly superior to all the others? I haven't the slightest idea. But it drives me. It tells me exactly what my characters would do, exactly how each scene should read, and exactly how much flab I should cut out from what I've written so as to achieve the desired emotional intensity.
And so I think I'll stick with it.
P.S. PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is now available for pre-order at Amazon.