A Few Essential Ingredients
for My Writing Stew
After eating another bowl of my chicken
vegetable stew, I lean back in my Bentwood rocker, with bulging belly. I’ve
been making this same basic stew for years. I only cook stews that I know I’ll
love to eat.
It’s the same with my writing. I can only write books that I know I’ll want to
read. I’ve been writing for sixty plus years—since at least third grade, when I
remember writing my first short story. After
eleven middle-grade realistic fiction, historical fiction, or biography novels,
and numerous magazine stories later (not to mention hundreds of newspaper
feature stories, weddings, engagements and yes, obituaries), I realize that
some of the same basic ingredients in my chicken vegetable stew are also present
in my literary stew.
First I must have the right pan in which to prepare my stew—the steel bottomed
brown Dutch oven style one. For my characters I also must have the right pan—aka
setting—in which to place and prepare
them. What happens to them is dependent on where their experiences mainly occur,
like Gumbo Grove, SC; Raleigh, NC; Harlem, NY; Nutbrush, MO. Raisin Stackhouse,
Big Boy, Big Head, and Celeste wouldn’t be who they are in my books if I placed
them in some other town and state, and neither would my stew.
The spices, vegetables, and bits of chicken bubbling in my liquid are what make
my stew juicy. It’s not just tomato-flavored
water. Renowned storyteller Jackie
Torrence, the “Story Lady,” called this leftover liquid in the pan “pot liquor”
in her landmark book of tales The
Importance of Pot Liquor. Pot
liquor was a “southern staple” during the days of enslavement, Torrence wrote.
Enslaved people, having mostly only scraps of fatback, ham hocks, and collard
greens, mustard greens, turnip greens and beans for their meals, cherished the leftover
liquid for its nutritional value, and saved it to initiate the next meal. Pot
liquor helped to keep people alive in the face of from “can’t see” in the
morning to “can’t see” at night after unbelievably debilitating toil.
Meaningful juices, too, must flow through my characters’ veins to make them
come alive during their experiences and to hold the story together. One might
call these literary juices themes.
Ms. Torrence, by the way, was one of the world’s most respected and
accomplished storytellers. She captivated audiences merely by the sound of her
voice, choice of words, and facial expressions. Storytelling aspirants should
study her performances. Oral storytelling (orature) is not gyrating around the stage, dressed in costumes, shouting and
Got to have cornbread with stew, for sopping up the last of the juice, crumbling
into the stew, satiating my needy taste buds either way. In writing, that
cornbread might be my regional
vernacular—phrases I use in narration or in dialogue reflective of where my
characters live (that anybody living there might reasonably use), and at least
one relative who advises my main character.
Regional vernacular isn’t jargon that
imitates phonetically in print how I think my characters are “supposed” to talk
according to stereotypes of race and ethnicity. “But they said
it that way!” some writers wail. Having heard it said in real life doesn’t make
it right or appropriate to write down for publication.
in my books are the comfort kin—a
grandmother like Mary Elouise’s grandmother, Celeste’s father, or Zambia’s Aunt
Limo. They were folks who loved their young relatives unconditionally and will
let them curl up beside them when times were tough.
I begin cooking my chicken with the meat still on the bone, and let them simmer
until the meat falls off the bones. Then, of course, I remain the bones. To me cooking
with the bones on help to give my stew body.
The marrow gleaned from the inside and the calcium from the outside enrich the
stew and me. In my books body could
also mean substance, and character. My little Black Girl warriors must have
spirit, determination, intelligence, common sense, humanity—i.e. character—to enrich
their lives, too. Though Mary Elouise in Thank
You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and Zambia in A Blessing in Disguise might not be smart or show common sense at
the beginning of the story, they will have learned something about consequences
and common sense—enriched—by the end.
I like a variety of vegetables in my stew—red and green peppers, green peas, red
homegrown tomatoes (or tomato soup), brown, black, red and green beans, white
and red onions and garlic, orange carrots, yellow corn. They each serve nutritious,
tasty purposes. I don’t just throw them in.
I don’t “throw in” characters of color into my books, either. Each character
has a purpose (and so does the ethnicity). I believe in conducting sufficient
research to make it so. My stew is not a meal I cook just to be doing something
and my books are not “art for arts’ sake.” I don’t believe in “casual
diversity” and I don’t believe in being a “culture vulture” who the late beloved
storyteller Mary Carter Smith warned us about. Writers who write about cultures
foreign to them have the right to do—even the right to write about them poorly,
but they don’t have the right to squawk when their terrible efforts are
Like cayenne pepper, paprika, onions and garlic, turmeric, Kitchen Bouquet, basil,
bay leaf and other flavorings in my stew, humor,
metaphors, similes, and description in my writing spice things up. When
used selectively humor can have a place in even in the most dreadful
situations. Humorist Eddie Murphy spiced up his early stand-up comedy routines
by stringing together hot words to describe objects and people. I borrowed his
technique in my Front Porch Stories at
the One-Room School chapter “Possum in the School.”
Here’s my description of Smokey, a Chihuahua who the teacher thinks is a
was a pointy-nosed, swaybacked, fat-bellied, bald-headed, bug-eyed,
white-haired Chihuahua with a long, skinny tail. Smokey had scratched so much
over the years that he didn’t have much hair on his little head, those little
legs, or that stringy tail. And those few little patches of hair on the rest of
him? They stayed gray and speckled with black dirt from where he rolled in the
mud to relieve the itching he had everywhere else.”
When Smokey waddles out of the storeroom of her one-room school the teacher
shrieks, “Get your bad-luck, snaggle-toothed, grave-robbing, garbage-eating,
rat-nosed self out of my school this minute!”
A “Spicy” Tate Tip:
When I conducted creative writing residencies for elementary school students I used
Front Porch Stories’ possum chapter
to inspire them to write stories about something in their classrooms that they had to try to remove. Of course, the
students alleged that they didn’t know how to write about anything. I told them
to first identify a couple of specific animals, places and/or objects in their own
classrooms. Then they created lists of spicy (succinct) modifiers of those
subjects, according to taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and/or personal
This warm-up writing propelled them into producing great passages and
eventually some fine original stories. It was harder for their teachers to
visualize their classrooms like this until they were prodded into releasing inhibitions.
Another “Spicy” Tate Tip: Read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her spectacular 2011 National Book Award winner.
In this epic chronicle about an impoverished Mississippi family facing and
struggling through Hurricane Katrina in the bayous as told in the present tense
through pregnant teen daughter Esch’s eyes, Ward’s metaphors and similes are
riveting, like these similes: “Even though we are in the shade, the heat is
worse in the shed, like the inside of a
hot fist.” (99) Esch looks out into the storm through the open roof of a
shack on the hill where she and her brothers and father had swam after raging
waters had destroyed their own: “The sky was so close (with the low-hanging
clouds) I felt like I could reach up and
bury my arm in it.” (238)
Ward actually lived through Hurricane Katrina and so knew whereof she wrote.
That doesn’t mean that one must experience everything that one writes about,
but in many cases it certainly helps. It’s good to sample the stew; experience from
having cooked stews in the past tells me exactly what to add.
Metaphor and simile addicts should analyze Ward’s book to study her techniques
of craft. But remember, just because Ward did it doesn’t mean everybody can
write like that—or should.
There’s more to my stews and
certainly more to my writing, but I’m full right now. Enjoy!
Happy eating! Happy reading!
By Eleanora E. Tate