Years ago, I was surprised when an English professor firmly stated that women’s novels all had recipes in them. Because, shockingly, the very novel I was reading at the time, a romantic suspense tale, had a recipe in it. I was even more surprised because this professor was very boring and I had made the mistake of believing that he had no useful insights to share. He was boring chiefly because of his lecture delivery. Every sentence he said ended with him slowing down the pace of his words and dropping his speaking volume. After lunch, a class with him sent me straight to sleep. On the other hand, I discovered from a yearbook that 15 years before he had been the hot young prof that all the kids liked, and was voted most popular. And he still was kind of quirky in an interesting way. He showed up late for class one day saying he had been watching a soap opera. So I should have known better. But I was an arrogant kid, or is that an oxymoron?
I took a writing course with him and was deflated when he pointed out that something I included just for effect in a story could not have that effect because it was not true. I frankly had stolen the idea from a comic book I had read. To my surprise, when I sent my story to a friend who also read comic books, he too said my idea did not work because it was not true. But we had both read the very comic in which this idea had been used! What was going on? Two radically different sources were telling me what my own intellect told me when I first read that comic book story: This is not true, and since it is not true, the story does not work. But I let myself be persuaded while reading the comic book story. My English prof and my friend were not willing to be persuaded by mine.
The recipe for a good story has to be the truth. Even when what is being created is a work of fiction, we expect most elements to be true and believable in the circumstances of the story. We expect to be convinced. If we aren’t convinced because the story has an obvious flaw, then we tend to drop out of the make believe experience. If the story has more than one obvious flaw, this drop out is almost certain.
That happened to me last year while watching the Superman movie. Superman has super powers, among which is super hearing. So he can do things that ordinary people cannot do; that’s the whole point about him being Superman. In theory, he could find Lois Lane anywhere in the world just by listening for the sound of her voice. But not in this movie. She had to use a FAX—already outdated technology—to let Superman know where she was, sort of. And why? Because she couldn’t call or text message him because she wasn’t carrying her cell phone. Don’t get me started on the likelihood that a reporter would not be carrying her cell phone.
I once met a writer who insisted on putting modern bathrooms in her historical novels. I remonstrated with her, but she claimed that really rich people could have had bathrooms even back in 18th century France. She did not want to hear the truth, that regardless of wealth, bathrooms as we know them were not in existence then. The problem with her stubborn determination to include an anachronistic situation in her story was that it kept jarring me right out of the make believe. Not only were there bathrooms in her chateaux, but the characters used them. The blatant historical error was front and center. About two more steps of disdain for the truth, and she might have shown Marie Antoinette tooling around Paris in a Chevy.
When reading a romance, or viewing any work of fiction, the first question we ask is, do we believe this story could happen? If the writer does not set up the situation and the characters in a reasonably logical manner, the reader might not even get past the first page. Failing to maintain it, making characters act below their abilities or inconsistently, destroys suspension of disbelief, and readers bail halfway through. Lots of people talk derogatorily about romances being formula writing, but they aren’t thinking about what a formula is. It’s a recipe. And a recipe is a carefully concocted, balanced group of ingredients that act upon each other in a predictable manner if the directions are followed fairly exactly. If you forget the baking powder, your cake won’t rise. If a writer forgets to put in a dramatic plot arc, nothing happens. And if the various ingredients are not correctly sized in relationship with each other, or one is stale and can’t perform its usual function, then the result is a congealed mess, not a cake. Or a story.
So my professor was correct in saying that women’s novels had recipes, and not just coincidentally. I was the one who had to learn that in writing any kind of story, there is a recipe involved. Deviating from truth, from the necessary recipe of a story, is a recipe for disaster.
And here is a food recipe that has been handed down in my family. Disregard the ingredients balance and the directions at your peril:
Emma’s Spice Cake
1 cup of butter (yes, real butter)
2 cups of brown sugar
3 eggs or 2 eggs plus 2 yolks (cholesterol? What’s that?)
1 cup of sour milk (milk can be soured by putting a teaspoon of white vinegar in it)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cloves and/or nutmeg, or ginger to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 2/3 cups of flour
At least 8 ounces of raisins
Cream the butter and sugar and add the eggs to it.
Mix all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
Pour the dry into the wet and mix, alternately pouring in the milk.
Once mixed, add the raisins.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Makes two 8 inch square layers or 24 cupcakes (much less baking time if cupcakes).
This is a heavy cake that deserves a rich frosting such as a cream cheese, but doesn’t need it. Plain, it’s delicious hot or cold in milk. Yes, of course you can make all manner of lower calorie and lower spice substitutions, but as in story writing, reduce the impact too much, and the result has no tang.