Real Recipes from a Fictional PI by Heather Haven

When you treat your characters as living, breathing entities, things can happen. This includes those near and dear thinking you’re peculiar. For instance, when writing the third book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Death Runs in the Family, the two cats from the series, Baba and Tugger, were catnapped and in the back of the villain’s station wagon speeding from Palo Alto to Las Vegas. For reasons I can’t remember, I had to stop writing the story at that point. For three whole days I was uncomfortable about it. I kept telling myself, it’s just a story, right? They’re not real cats trapped in carriers in the back of a station wagon without food or water for days on end, right? Wrong.

On the third night, even though I knew all the above intellectually, I woke up at two am and leapt out of bed, determined to write the fur balls into safety and a bowl of kibble. At nine am I staggered back to bed. But now I could sleep. The cats were fed, cuddled, and loved by Lee Alvarez, the protagonist of the series. On another note, even though my husband is not a writer, he knows me. That night he rolled over and went back to sleep, totally understanding my getting up and needing to save my fictional cats then and there. At least, that’s what he said. And still says. He shoulda been a diplomat.

Any writer will tell you giving fictional characters the same traits as living people is a good idea. Keeps things real, don-cha-know. But like anything else, it can depend on how far you go with it. I tread a fine line. Let’s get back to my protagonist, Lee Alvarez. I’m an eater. So she’s an eater. Of course, she’s a svelte size eight, because this is fiction. I’m a svelte Omar the Tentmaker. But I take great joy in her being a foodie. Which runs in the family. Her uncle, Tio, another character in the series, is a retired chef. His recipes just add to the fun. Sometimes I feel the need for Lee to share one of these recipes. Like now:

Lee here. Even though my idea of cooking dinner is to stop at the nearest deli for a roast beef sandwich, as the central character of the humorous Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, I do get to eat a lot of epicurean meals. That’s because my Tio was an executive chef at a well-known restaurant here in the Bay Area. During his career, his recipes were often written up in gourmet food magazines. They’d throw in a few pics of him, too, because Tio is one classy-looking guy. I have articles and pictures in a scrapbook I started in my early teens. That was before my PI days. I don’t have time to make scrapbooks anymore – I don’t have time to do squat anymore – except I do seem to find time to sit down at the dinner table and scarf down one of his culinary masterpieces!

Tío may be retired but his skills aren’t. He still likes to create great meals, but now just for family and friends. While doing so, he tends to make a dish again and again until it reaches his idea of perfection. Meanwhile, lucky me gets to gobble up every version, as he strives for the ultimate. When Tio was working on his Flan de Naranja, I gained six of the happiest pounds of my life. Fortunately, I spend a lot of time chasing bad guys over rooftops, so I can lose the weight as fast as I gain it.

No lie, his flan has gone down in song and legend. If I could sing, I’d demonstrate. Tio even picks the oranges himself right off our backyard tree. I thought it would be nice to share his recipe with you. If any of you make it, though, I sure hope you will invite me over for a helping. It’s a real winner!

Tio’s Flan de Naranja

Serves 4-6:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Ingredients:

5 egg yolks

1 cup white sugar

3 cups heavy cream

1 cup half-and-half cream

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

1 orange peel

1/2 fluid ounce orange liqueur

2 ounces candied orange peel, grated

Preparation:

In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks. Beat in sugar until smooth. Set aside.  In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine cream, half-and-half, the vanilla bean and its scrapings, and the peel of one orange. Heat until bubbles form at edges of liquid, reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes. Remove orange peel. Beat hot cream into egg mixture, a little at a time, until all is incorporated. Stir in orange liqueur. Pour into 4 to 6 individual custard cups.

Line a roasting pan with a damp kitchen towel. Place cups on towel, inside roasting pan, and place roasting pan on oven rack. Fill roasting pan with boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the cups.

Bake in preheated oven 45 to 60 minutes, until set. Let cool completely.  Sprinkle candied orange peel on top of each cup before serving. Olé!

Taking The Reader For A Ride by Heather Haven

Like most writers, I am against it. But there are a few out there who give the rest of us a bad name. Their plan is to get as much money as they can out of a reader, even if they have to bamboozle them to do it. One out and out scam that, hopefully, has bitten the dust, was the few thousand word story being hawked as a novel. Amazon caught on to this pretty quickly and now the author has to state up-front what the word count is. The author can still charge whatever they think the traffic will bear, but at least the savvy reader knows how long the book is going to be.

The latest that seems to be going around, at least in the light romance circles, is the not-quite-the-end-of-the-story scenario. This is often discovered by the reader at the last chapter of the book. Giving the reader an unfinished story so they have to buy the next book and the next and the next to find out how things end may be de rigueur in some circles. But if the reader is led to believe they are reading a book with a beginning, middle, and an end and that’s not the case, it’s just plain tacky business.

If I ever write a story that is so long it needs to be in three, four, or more books, I feel it is incumbent upon me to tell the reader. And probably several times. I’m not against long stories. Hawaii, by James Michener, has a word count of 234,250 words. Of course, he managed to get it all in one book. I spent one summer reading it and have the biceps to prove it. The book weighed in at over a pound. Sure, it’s 937 pages and I needed a wheelbarrow to get the hard copy home, but I knew what I was getting into from the start.

I have a friend who is an avid reader. Avid. For years she has been reading my manuscripts in their working stages. She is tremendously helpful in catching errors or finding parts of the storyline that don’t quite make sense. During the pandemic, she found herself reading six or more hours a day. She has yet to buck the habit. She goes through thirty, forty books a month. A perfect person to enroll in the $10 a month Amazon all-you-can-read-until-your-eyes-fall-out program better known as Kindle Unlimited. So she did.

She found herself reading a book that was — with no announcement this was the case — a cliffhanger. She got the first book for free, but the 2nd was going to cost her an additional $4.99 to find out the conclusion of the story. She bought the second book but the story still didn’t end. She would have to pay another $4.99. My friend stopped reading the ‘series’ whose style seem to be similar to the Perils of Pauline, a 1914 American melodrama film serial, shown in bi-weekly installments. If a writer wants to do that, fine. But you have to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that the book is not a stand-alone, but an ongoing story. My friend doesn’t know what happened to the hero and heroine and no longer cares. She is no longer invested. Because she feels like the author’s patsy.

The most recent thing that happened to her was a series announced as being ‘free’ actually costing her thirty-one dollars and change. She found that out when she checked her monthly Amazon bill. I told her the books could be returned, especially as she was unclear on the concept. This might even be true if she had finished reading them. My friend had no idea as to how to return Kindle ebooks but is making it her business to find out. That’s often what people who feel snookered do.

Yes, she reads a whole lot of books, and misunderstandings are bound to happen. I can’t speak for other authors, but I feel one of my jobs is to keep my readers happy. Even on the rare occasion when a reader misreads the date of one of my ebooks being free and sends me an email with ‘what-the-hey’, I will usually gift them the book then and there. It costs me a little bit of money, but I do get royalties, it does increase my numbers, and the goodwill from doing this is immeasurable.

Whether a book is offered for free or not is another story for another time. That decision is up to each writer. Some believe in it, some don’t. But whatever I write and offer up to the reader, I try to make crystal clear. The reader is above all, the main purpose of my work. This is a marriage, of sorts. And I don’t want anybody divorcing me because they feel I’ve taken advantage of them.

On another note, I am proud to say almost every writer I hang out with (present company included) feels pretty much the same way. We write. We don’t bamboozle.

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Ants in the Tequila by Heather Haven

I lead a very small life. I get up in the morning, have coffee, stumble around, and try to wake up. I kiss my husband and pet the cat, or maybe the reverse. I can’t always remember. Most days, I sit down and write. Unfortunately, sometimes I have an appointment, errand, or chore that has been relegated to the morning, which is never my idea, but you can’t always control the world. I would rather sit down and write in the morning. Hence, mornings are predictably boring, followed by afternoons and evenings of…well…nothing much.

It’s possible my saving grace as a writer is my vivid and unpredictable imagination. I never know where my mind is going to go, taking me and my five senses along. If I witness something or hear a conversation between people or even animals, I am likely to concoct an entire scenario around that. No, I am not a dog, cat, or horse whisperer. It’s not just the words I pay attention to, anyway, but the emotions behind them. Plainly put, the world and its inhabitants are grist for my mill even though I have no mill and I’m not completely sure what a grist is. But I do love the phrase. And the sentiment.

Regarding the ants in the tequila, it was not about calling Orkin or Terminix. Our condo is ground level, in the midst of many gardens. I am surrounded by all sorts of living creatures that do not bother to knock and wait to be asked in. I am used to uninvited guests. However, I have never encountered ants in any of our booze before, let alone the tequila. Yet there they were, floating around, dead drunk, not a suicide note to be found. My writer’s mind clicked in. Where to go with this?

My instinct said this incident might be an article, blog, or flash fiction. It wasn’t novel material. For where was the story? And characterizations? Would I make one of the floaters my protagonist? Would I name him Harry? Or, as the ratio of female to male ants in a typical colony is three to one, Henrietta, Frieda, or Penelope? A lonely guy/gal, having left the nest, out on the town, only to find a pool of tequila too irresistible to ignore? No, no. No novel here.

In the meantime, we threw the bottle of nearly full tequila out, ants and all. Never mind that alcohol is a natural antiseptic, purifying anything it touches. I read that’s how the early Romans made such headway in Europe. The legions traveled on their stomachs, with a canteen of watered down wine by their sides to drink, as opposed to the local water. No local water, no dysentery. An inebriated, but hale and hearty group of marauders. That’s the Romans.

But back to my tequila and those marauding ants. My margarita days were at an end. I didn’t care if all the bacteria had been killed by the alcohol. Do not talk logic to me now, oh mighty Caesar. The sight of those small beasties drifting face down in the Don Julio, happy though they may have been at the end, did me in. I moved on to rum. Then I pondered on how to write about this incident.

Which is how the tale came to be right here, right now. All is grist for the mill, donchaknow, even though I’m still not completely sure what a grist is.

How Some Characters Come Alive by Heather Haven

Sometimes a character will pop into my head just waiting to serve me. But I have to be honest. In reality, they have been stored in my mind, coming from an incident I may have seen while crossing a street, waiting in the supermarket line, or sitting in a restaurant. Speaking of restaurants, I remember years ago sitting in a large Chinese restaurant with my mother. As with most large, single rooms filled with people, the din was almost ear-splitting. But for one brief moment – you know how that goes – everyone stopped talking except for one lone couple. In the silence of that large room, we heard a woman’s voice ring out loud and clear. “It’s not the eggroll, Harry. It’s the past six years.” A titter ran through the room, then outright laughter. The hub-bub picked up again, but it was a moment I never forgot. The unexpected. The funny. The one or two words that spark an entire scenario.

That’s why it’s good to get out. You never know what you’ll see or hear. The out-of-the-blue inspiration for my imagination, the thing that gives me liftoff, could be anyone. It could be YOU. Never trust a writer.

As I writer, I tend to eavesdrop on life. I spy with my little eye. That sort of thing. But I don’t want any real details. I’m not a reporter. I am a fiction writer. I don’t want to know the couple I find so fascinating at the nearby table are not calling it quits after 15 years of marriage but are discussing a movie they saw. Or that the old duffer sitting at a table for one studying the menu again and again wasn’t thrown out of his house by his louse of a son but is merely waiting for someone, forgot to bring his reading glasses, and can’t see a word.

As I listen to them or see them oh, so briefly, I am creating a whole new world. I am adding to and subtracting from their traits, their virtues, their flaws. They have no idea they will be a major or minor part of my current story. Or my future story. They will become whoever and whatever I want them to be. It doesn’t matter who they really are, now they are mine. Bent to my will. I am their new creator. Oh, the power of it.

It’s good to be queen.

I’m Not Going to Name Names…But by Heather Haven

My ongoing deal with a major American subscription streaming service and production company fell through recently. No names but X marks the spot. Anyway, the second book of the Alvarez Series, A Wedding To Die For, had reached the development stage with them. That meant they paid a scriptwriter or writers (not me) to create a screenplay of my book. It also meant they gave me, the creator of the original story, a little more money. Thank you!

Now the X company is in trouble and all new projects are either on hold or cancelled. I don’t know which category my book falls into, but it’s possible it is a zombie i.e., dead but still walking around, maybe even drooling. A similar thing happened to me four years ago. A Wedding to Die For was with another American subscription blah blah, where mark marks the spot, and it fell through because…because.

I will be my own therapist for the moment. How do I feel about this? Disappointed but a little proud. Only 1 out of 1000 projects ever make it to the completion stage. The odds were never in my favor. And the same scenario has happened to some of my pals, writers I know and respect. I am a member of a club. Maybe a wannabe club, but I think it’s better to be a wannabe than a never was.

People often ask me how I found these production houses willing to speculate on making my book(s) into a tv series or movie. Sad to say, I didn’t have a thing to do with it. I don’t have an agent to push my work onto an unsuspecting production house. But producers are always cruising the internet in search of potential projects. If it strikes their fancy, you just might get an email or a phone call. Being the whole deal of reaching the final stage is akin to trapping lightning in a bottle, they are often willing to take a chance on even lesser known writers, such as me.

My lesson in all of this was and is to keep my best work out there, clean, neat, and professional. None of this “oh, heck, it’s good enough” stuff. And not because I am trying to get it done in another medium. Another no-names-named item: I learned the sister of a very famous comedian read one of my books, really liked it, and told him about it. On a personal note, I’ve loved and respected the brother’s work, which includes his own production house, for decades. The fact he was told about my book made me giddy. Mini-crush, donchaknow.

Did he read it? I have no idea. But he could have. And still might. My point is, you never, never know who is going to land on one of your books, maybe only to read the blurb. But that might be enough to rev up some interest. If they do nothing but buy the book, you’re already ahead of the game.

So that’s my story. But make no mistake, I’m still a little disappointed it all fell through. And the name’s Heather.