Friday, June 27, 2014

Life ... as we know it.

from Jacqueline

Sorry dear followers, today there will be no stories. There will be no witty repartee (well, almost witty).  No opinions and no responses to world events.  Today this is my life:

I am on a deadline that's approaching way too fast, coming at me like a freight train, and so I am hitting the keys as if my life depends upon it.

All Jim's wonderful lessons and arrow-sharp advice (which every writer should read - and Patty's too!) have been mercilessly cast aside as I race on towards Gatsby's green light, borne back into the past and wondering why I chose a specific period in history that even highly revered academic experts struggle with as a backdrop for a story.  Tell me that, oh guiding light in the universe - where were you when I was thinking up this tale????

In addition to the above, my dog has a swollen eye and bump on her head. Yes, here we go again - off to the vet. No pics here - she doesn't like her bad side photographed.  I said to my husband, "Let's not speculate," when it was first discovered, yesterday evening.  "You're right," he said - and anyway, I don't think cancers grow like that bump."  "I thought I said no speculating," I snapped.  "Anyway," I added, "you do realize a foxtail can slither right up into the nose or through the ear and get in behind the eye."  "You were the one who said ...." his voice wobbled.  "We're not veterinarians," I astutely observed.  "So, let's leave it to the experts ...."

Finally (is this finally?), I begin a month-long book tour on Monday, so the prepping and packing has begun. First stop, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ on Monday, then Murder By The Book in Houston TX on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.  There'll be brief travel hiatus (writing!!!), over the July 4th holiday (my first as a Yank!), then on to Washington DC on Sunday - and that's for starters.  For more info, interested parties can go to:

So, now back to work.

Have a great weekend!!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Some Technical Issues

James O. Born

I thought we could take a break from the seemingly endless list of rules and techniques about forming your story to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of putting it on the page.  I've seen plenty of posts in the past requesting writers to send in photos of their workstations and asking about any rituals they go through while they write.  Raising a family and holding a job kept me from any rituals I might've been inclined to use.  Basically, if I had a few minutes, I would work on a book.  Now-a-days, with my kids out of the house, much of that work actually takes place on my porch overlooking the water.  It makes for a better atmosphere and puts me in a decent mood.

What I really want to talk about today is how you physically enter your prose into a computer.  I'm not even going to consider that you're using a typewriter.

About four years ago I had shoulder surgery and was having a difficult time comfortably typing on a keyboard.  As a result, I purchased a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking software; A voice recognition program that is widely accepted as an industry standard.  And while I dictate virtually everything I write, from blogs to police reports, as well as novels, I'm not sure it saves me a great deal of time.  There is much more editing involved and my guess is it's all about the same time-wise.

What it does save is carpal tunnel syndrome.  I used to type endlessly on computer keyboards, portable computers, anything I could find that would transfer my thoughts to a page.  Now, I spend more time thinking about what I'm going to write, making notes about it then setting up specific times to sit down at a computer, not an iPad or an Android tablet, and dictate using Dragon Naturally Speaking.  Overall it is a fairly good program.  Its claims of accuracy are wildly exaggerated.  It also is temperamental as to how quickly it will transfer your speech to text.  I still can't figure out what slows it down.  I used to think it was if the computer was doing other jobs, but I have exited out of all possible programs and sometimes Dragon is fast and sometimes it is not.

From this point on in the blog I will not touch the keyboard, even in editing mode.  What ever you see in this blog was produced by Dragon naturally speaking software.  I am set up comfortably on my couch on a cloudy Sunday afternoon with the computer focusing only on Dragon and one copy of Word for Windows.  The computer is not crunching numbers or doing anything else in the background.  Dragon is reasonably responsive today and making this paragraph look respectable.  This is not a bad selling point for Dragon but it doesn't always work this well.  I wish that it did.

You can by Dragon at drastically reduced prices online and at Tiger direct stores.  Usually they sell and out of date version but I have seen very little difference in the four years of constant updates.  I will say there customer service and technical assistance is not very good and they want to charge you for any extended technical help.  I find this distasteful.  I dislike it so much I would use a foul word at this point but I know it wouldn't come through on Dragon and I've already given you my word that I would not edit the text.

So think about how you would like to input your novel.  There is something to be said about sitting in front of the keyboard and picking out your words as you think about it carefully.  On the other hand, sometimes you hear your dialogue better when you have to say it out loud and then spend extra time looking at it while you edit over and over again.

I have no idea what will go into next week but I intend to keep this blog updated every Thursday until every one of you is published or I get tired of doing it.

This week's quote is:

“Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad – including your own bad.” ― Doris Lessing

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jake Lassiter, Meet Solomon & Lord

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

I get similar emails all the time.  Yesterday, two came just moments apart.  Bob, from Ocala, Florida, wrote: "I've  been reading the Jake Lassiter series of legal thrillers since the 1990's.  When's the next one coming out?"

Elle, from I don't know where, wrote: "I love Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord.  I've been waiting for a new novel about them for years!"

Usually, I write back and say: "Don't bother me!"  No, that's no true.  I LOVE to hear from readers.   I sit in a darkened room all day long with no companionship other than a 14-year-old deaf dog named Nikki the Fart Machine.  So, keep those emails coming.

This is for Bob and Elle and all the others. I'm working on a new book in which Jake Lassiter defends Steve Solomon for murder...while falling hard for Victoria Lord.  The backdrop is a real criminal trial in Miami that produced lots of headlines and caught my attention.  I'll be writing more about that later on the blog. 

So, there you have it.  In television, we'd call it a "crossover."  Characters from one show appearing in another show on the same network.

This crossover could start an entire new series.  Or not.

Estimated date of publication.  Late this year. Yes, I have a title, but it would be bad luck to announce it so early.  (Among other things, Jim Born might steal it.).  But I can tell you this.  It's two words.  Three letters each. 

Jake was last seen in “State vs. Lassiter.”   Solomon and Lord were last bickering and  bantering in “Habeas Porpoise.”

As the time draws near, I'll post more about the new book.  For now, here's the moment where Victoria Lord tells Steve Solomon she can't represent him.

    “I need you, Vic.” Steve said.

    “I already retained Jake Lassiter.”

    “Lassiter!  I want a lawyer, not a linebacker.”

    “He’s won some tough cases.”

    “He’s a slab of meat.  If you won’t represent me, I want Roy Black.”

    “You can’t afford Roy.”

    “Tell him it’s me.”

    “Already did.”

    “And he didn’t offer a courtesy discount?”

     "He doubled his fee."

Paul Levine

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Novel Synopsis

Patty here...

While sorting through some paperwork, I came across this early draft of the synopsis of my first novel written around 2003. I had never written one before and while I had researched the process, I didn't exactly know what I was doing. At the time, I didn't have an agent or a book contract. A friend of mine who knew Kate Miciak, a well-regarded editor at Bantam, asked her if she would read and critique the synopsis. To my surprise, she said yes. I'm not holding this up as the best synopsis ever written but Kate's edits were instructive to me and I hope they will be to you, as well.

In Kate’s cover note, she said: “…it is, alas, the nature of the publishing universe these days that few agents will consider a one-shot project. Does this book stand alone? Or is it intended to be the first of a series? I would suggest that you draft something that addresses that concern. And your cover letter should probably let the agent know the audience for which this mystery is intended: Sue Grafton’s? Janet Evanovich’s?—your call, but it helps immensely to position the project immediately. Again, it is a sorry fact of the industry that books sell if they can be quickly compared to something else that is selling.”

Based on her comments, I added a note that the book was the first in a series. I have used italics to indicate Kate’s suggested additions and lined through Kate’s suggested deletions.


FALSE PROFITS is a fast-paced mystery novel featuring Tucker Sinclair, a business woman on the fast track to partner at the prestigious downtown L.A. management consulting firm of Aames & Associates, who is wrongly accused of fraud. When people who should care distance themselves from the situation, Tucker vows to find out why. As she searches for answers, she must expose a scam and find a murderer. In the end, she makes the most painful discovery of all—that only a friend can betray you.

In the world of buttoned down business types, thirty-one-year-old Tucker does her own thing, and she gets away with it. Her unorthodox approach to business problems has put her on the fast track to partner in the prestigious downtown Los Angles management consulting firm of Aames & Associates. 

The hardcover cover from Mysterious Press
Things look rosy in Tucker’s life, and adding to her buoyant mood is her appointment as team leader for a major project in Amsterdam, as well as her hopes that the firm will soon be awarded a lucrative consulting contract from a wealthy philanthropist by the name of Nelson Covington. So when she is summoned to the office of her boss, Gordon Aames, she thinks, What could go wrong?

Just about everything, it seems. Gordon Aames, a fifty-six-year-old man with a savvy business sense and a nervous stomach, has been is shaken by a letter he has just received regarding a business plan Tucker recently completed. This letter accuses her Tucker of defrauding investors by inflating a company’s profit projections, and threatens a lawsuit against her, her client, and the firm. When Tucker checks the plan included with the letter, she is alarmed to find that someone has altered her report.

The one piece of evidence that proves Tucker’s innocence is missing has vanished, and so has her client, Dr. Milton Polk. Then Polk turns up dead, and in quick succession her Tucker’s secretary becomes a victim of downsizing; her nemesis, Bart Marish, seizes her position replaces her in Amsterdam; and Tucker discovers that someone is using her name in an insurance billing scam. To top it off, terrified by fearing the pending federal investigation, the partners unanimously vote to suspend her from Aames & Associates.

Suddenly, Tucker is on her own. She must locate the missing evidence in one week (Kate: Why one week? Who set this clock?) or find herself out of a job and into a jail cell. But instead of answers, she uncovers more questions like—

The paperback from Warner Books
Why is the grieving widow not grieving? (Kate advised me to italicize the questions but just so I don't confuse anyone, I'll just use another font.) Mona Polk is an attractive woman in her forties with the blonde curly hair of a Nordic Betty Boop. She is also the attractive beneficiary of Polk’s half-million dollar life insurance policy. Did Mona and her constant companion, the studmuffin Armando, do Polk in for the insurance money, or is Armando just a friend helping her Mona work through her grief?

Why isn’t wealthy philanthropist Nelson Covington surprised when Tucker tells him that Dr. Polk is dead? Is Covington a do-gooder, as many believe? Or is he a snake who killed to cover up more than his plastic surgery scars?

Why is Kenny Chalmers, the husband of Polk’s office manager, Francine, so antagonistic toward the dead man doctor? Is it because his wife goes goo-goo-eyed at the mention of Polk’s name? Or is it because Kenny, a notorious tightwad, finds out learns that Francine has loaned Polk a sizable amount of cash that he can’t repay? Kenny is definitely a guy with a bad temper, a fierce grudge against the doctor Polk…and a very serious alibi problem.

As Tucker unravels the dark secrets of Milton Polk’s past and the circumstances of his death, she stumbles across something that not only leads her to the truth, but also to a rendezvous with a killer. (Kate notes: “This needs to be set up better. We need to have a sense that, in addition to poking into the alibis & motives of the suspects, some questions have been raised about the dead man himself?)

FALSE PROFITS features a cast of quirky vivid characters including: Pookie Kravitz, Tucker’s mother, an working actor who is into aromatherapy and exploring her shamanic powers; Venus Corday, Tucker’s friend and co-worker, who makes up for her bad taste in men with exquisite taste in chocolate. Joe Deegan, an LAPD detective with spiky brown hair and killer blue-gray eyes, who thinks Tucker is a riot, but not the good kind; and Eugene Barstok, Tucker’s twenty-something secretary who has anxiety issues and a talent for knitting snoods.

Accompanied by her sidekicks, Tucker takes sweeps the reader on an adventure filled with suspense, intrigue, and laughter. Along the way, she confronts her own goals and motivations and must answer the age-old question: Is the thing she wants most worth the price she must pay to get it? (Kate’s note: “Good”)

Was this helpful? Interesting?


Friday, June 20, 2014

The Beginning of My Story

from Jacqueline

Read in a property magazine, while in England.  June 9, 2014:

A truly rare find!  Set in one of the most sought after country and equestrian locations in the South East.  This glorious property offers a chance to buy into a piece of Kent’s heritage, set in a secluded location half a mile along a private lane ….

My heart leaped as I read the property agent’s description of the farmhouse and accompanying stables and paddocks and other rural accoutrements of the good life.  Soon someone rich enough to pony up the asking price of 1,350,000 pounds (no sign for British pounds on my American MacBook), will be calling that farmhouse home – or perhaps second home – having marveled at the centuries old beamed ceilings, the inglenook fireplaces and the fact that the house is smack bang next to what is now a national park filled with glorious trails through countless miles of woodland.  Doubtless the new owner will think about residents in days gone by, imaging men in breeches smoking clay pipes, and women brushing an earthen floor, or perhaps turning the roast suckling pig over hot embers.  I wonder if they will consider their home’s more recent history, for once it was a working farm of considerable acreage, with equally old tied cottages for farmworkers dotted across the landscape.  The farm’s address is also the one on my birth certificate.

When my parents married in 1949, as a young couple in London they stood as much chance of getting a home of their own as flying to the moon.  The neighborhoods where they grew up had been bombed and accommodation was hard to find, so they lived with my father’s parents.  Not an easy option, for a young couple.  Every evening they pounded the pavement looking for a place to live, clutching the newspaper marked up with possible flats and rooms to rent – accommodation taken by the time they arrived on the doorstep.  The crunch came when an elderly man who had rooms in a house on a neighboring street had been taken into hospital.  It was predicted he would soon breathe his last.  Time was of the essence, so my mother – dressed in her best suit – went along to the landlord and, apologizing for seeming a little, well, heartless, asked if she could rent the rooms if the poor man left this mortal coil. The landlord laughed.  “Sorry love,” he said. “You’re number 30 on the waiting list!”  She came home and wept.

Around the same time, my parents saw an advertisement for an old gypsy caravan.  So they bought it, having borrowed the money from my aunt.  They had it towed some 80 miles away, to a farm where my father’s family had traveled every year for the hop-picking season, and they asked for work.  To their families, they might as well have crossed an ocean.

My mother was a town girl, a young woman who liked her New Look outfits, and her high heels, and wasn’t one to get mud on her hem.  Dad was a true Cockney lad whose heart, if not his feet, had always been in the country – so they had to fudge it when they arrived on the farm looking for work.  They were given jobs on the land, and eventually my dad was made foreman in charge of the livestock, and my mother became responsible for the farm books – but that was “eventually,” some time on, after the farmer had discovered they weren’t afraid of hard work and that my mother was a qualified bookkeeper.

Their caravan home was 8ft by 5ft, and comprised a bed at one end, a pot-belly stove and a small table.  My father had restored the caravan and my mother embroidered curtains, tablecloths and a counterpane to make their home a little cozy, and she collected china plates to adorn the walls.  And of course, being farmworkers, they were eligible for a bigger food ration – not to be sniffed at, in those days.  The only fly in the ointment was that they were Londoners, outsiders.

My parents did well for a while, then their first winter came, and the work dried up.  One day there was a knock at the door - a Romany woman, matriarch of a small family of gypsies who’d set their caravans on the same farm, had come to speak to my mother.  She said that they knew my parents hadn’t much money, so she would show mum how to make a few bob in the slow months – mainly hawking paper flowers the gypsy taught her to make and then sell door to door.  They were chalk and cheese, the family and my parents, but the hand of friendship had been extended, and it was taken with more than a measure of relief.  My parents traveled with the gypsies to other farms over the coming months, and soon the scars that proximity to war had wrought upon their young hearts began to fade – and in truth, that was the bonus of leaving London for the country. 

They always came back to that same farm, and it was later, when my mother was expecting yours truly, that the farmer offered my parents a 13th century cottage which was “tied” to the land and the job – by that time my father had become the livestock manager, and my mother was the book-keeper for several farms under the same ownership.  She had also become the go-to person for the gypsies when letters needed to be written or read out, and she taught many of the children to read and write.

That farm is now the luxurious country estate depicted in the advertisement on the table next to me as I write.  But when I look at the photos, I realize something’s missing – the sheer color and life of the place when I was a child, with men and women working the fields, livestock being moved along the tracks and “Mackie” – the farmer – running the show.

I was four when Dad went back to his original job, so we moved away from the farm.  Dad eventually set up his own business, and my mother (after working for that dentist I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) made her way up through senior management in the British Civil Service.  But we returned often, walking along the railway tracks that ran alongside the land – they’re gone now – or taking the footpath through the farm – a path now blocked to locals. 

I wonder if, sometimes, our former selves can become ghosts of a sort, so the element of our soul that cannot bear to leave a home lingers on, because the place was beloved and had such bearing on who we’ve become. If so, then the people who buy that farmhouse next to the forest – well, they will have to contend with the spirit of my family lingering there, for over the many years it’s been held tightly in our hearts.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Kill Him Already.

We are still talking about characters. It seems like weeks and weeks because it has been. But it doesn't matter because the characters mean everything. If you're serious about writing a novel, it starts and ends with characters and what they do. Really, what you as a writer, make them do.
One of the things that bothers me as a writer is killing off characters I like. They don't necessarily have to be good guys, just characters that are interesting. I mentioned in the last post how I couldn't bring myself to kill Cole Hodges, the villain from Walking Money and later used him and Escape Clause, slowly bringing him along to not quite a good guy, but at least someone you didn't want to see dead. Once you kill a character, you lose part of yourself. But by not killing any characters, you run the risk of being stale and uninspired.

I can recall as a kid not watching the early episodes of Miami Vice. Obviously I had not yet started my own police career, but I just viewed it as another silly police show on TV. Then one night I was casually watching as the first Lieutenant, played by a character actor named Gregory Sierra, best known for his role on Barney Miller, was shot and killed by a sniper. That shocked me. At the time no one seemed to kill off regular characters on TV shows. It immediately grabbed my attention. It also opened the door for a new Lieutenant o enter the show. The actor who played the new Lieutenant, Edward James Olmos, changed the entire landscape of TV police shows and turned Miami Vice into a major hit.

In every novel I face the problem of which characters to kill. Since I am not writing Victorian romances, but modern crime thrillers, someone is going to have to buy the farm, kick the bucket, take a dirt nap, you get the idea. But it's tough for me to kill people I've heard talking in my head and seen carrying out their daily lives on the pages in front of me. But it's got to be done. And it's best if it shocks people. Get the reader worked up. Raise the stakes.

This is all predicated on the principle of making the reader care about your characters. If no one cares what happens to your characters, why will they read your novel?

I'll never forget reading the Elmore Leonard novel, Bandits, and really liking what I thought was one of the main characters. Then the man casually wanders into a men's room and is shot dead in front of a urinal. Holy cow! (My apologies to Dutch Leonard who hated the use of exclamation marks.) But the move got my attention and I realized how much I cared about the people I was reading about. He was the master of characterization. Often that came out through the dialogue in his books, but the characters all had a number of layers as well as a number of motivations. Many of them evolved through the course of the book. You would find yourself rooting for a thug who understood the errors of his ways. That is the essence of great writing.

Someone's going to have to die. Choose who it is and make the most of it. Let the reader relish the untimely end of a really nasty villain. Let them anguish over the death of a sidekick who's got a really good sense of humor. Let them squirm as the girlfriend of your hero is run down by a four-wheel-drive pickup truck driven by a drug crazed lumberjack. Shock the reader, make the reader care and do what has to be done. 

Don't be a wimp. Kill someone already.

This week's quote:

“Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”―Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Judges and Their Daughters...

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

When I'm elected President of the United States, I will only appoint female judges...and male judges with daughters.

I came to this conclusion yesterday after reading results of a study that is both startling and not surprising.  Yes, I think something can be both. 
"It turns out that judges with daughters are more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights than ones with only sons. The effect, a new study found, is most pronounced among male judges appointed by Republican presidents, like Chief Justice Rehnquist."  --Excerpt from The New York Times story, "Another Factor Said to Sway Judges to Rule for Women's Rights: a Daughter"
(Chief Justice Rehnquist and daughter Janet in 2005).
I know what Jim Born is saying: "Big Whoop."  That's because Jim is very old-fashioned and generally speaks like a character from "The Music Man."  What I'm saying is that, while the results are startling, they're hardly surprising.  We're all the products of our life experiences.  And as the study found, those experiences can outweigh both the law and personal, political ideology.

"The new study considered about 2,500 votes by 224 federal appeals court judges. 'Having at least one daughter,' it concluded, 'corresponds to a 7 percent increase in the proportion of cases in which a judge will vote in a feminist direction.'”
The results were even more striking if the daughter is an only child.  "Having one daughter as opposed to one son is linked to an even higher 16 percent increase in the proportion of gender-related cases decided in a feminist direction."

Professor Maya Sen, who conducted the study, summed it up (and corroborated my beliefs spent in 17 years of practicing law and 25 years writing about it):

"Justices and judges aren't machines.  They are human, just like you and me.  And just like you and me, they have personal experiences that affect how they view the world."

I wouldn't mind some more judges who can see the world from a feminist viewpoint.

"State vs. Lassiter" on Sale

Oh, those crazy kids at Amazon have put "State vs. Lassiter" and three other of my e-books in this month's "Big Deal."  You can snag these little beauties for 99 cents!  What a deal for another 10 days.  The others are:
"Flesh & Bones"

Meanwhile, "State vs. Lassiter" was recently nominated for a 2014 Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America.  Winners to be announced in November at the Bouchercon Convention in Long Beach.

Paul Levine

Monday, June 16, 2014

Kill the little darlings

Patty here

Spring is long gone but this past week I decided to get rid of some things I didn’t use: a lime green purse that seemed like a good idea at the time, a pair of sandals in good condition that I haven’t worn for years, and two beautiful cat beds for which I paid a fortune but which were summarily rejected by my two kitties.

When I first got Scooter and Riley, I promised myself I would only buy them products made in the U.S. That was more difficult than I imagined. Pet stores carried no food bowls that weren’t made in China. A few handcrafted bowls were advertised online but they were incredibly expensive. I finally went to a department store and bought people dishes—made in Italy, but at least it’s part of NATO.

I scoured the Internet for beds and finally found a pair made in Northern California without toxic foam. They were expensive, but Scooter and Riley were worth the price. Experienced cat owners will have already guessed that my girls refused to go near those beds. I tried disguising them with soft cotton pillowcases, placing them in desirable places throughout the house. No luck. They preferred to sleep here:

I’ve been holding onto those beautiful beds for three years. It was time to let go. Last week I donated them to a rescue organization, hoping they would go to a Chihuahua with impeccable taste.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Sometimes we hold onto our beautiful words way too long, hoping we can shoehorn them into a space they were never meant to fill. It’s particularly painful when you’ve worked hard to craft those words.

The following quote has been attributed to various writers from Chekov to Welty. I prefer the Stephen King version:

“…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” 

Editing is the most pleasurable part of writing for me, but sometimes I, too, suffer from loving my words too much. I wrote a passage about Los Angeles in the novel I just finished. Members of my writing group told me it sent chills down their collective spines. I loved that paragraph so much I used it to open the book. It remained there long after I knew it read like a sharp poke to the ribs. Finally, reluctantly, I killed the little darling. Okay, maybe maimed is a better word. I actually cut it in half and found another place in the novel where it fit perfectly.

And here’s the thing about shedding things that don’t work; once they’re gone the world feels like a better place. I’m off to make some cuts to one of my chapters. Without regret. No sniffing, just snipping.

Happy Monday! 

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Friday, June 13, 2014

A Foodie In London

from Jacqueline

When I arrived in London last Thursday, I banished my jet-lag and met up with fellow mystery writer – and all-round gem of a person – Deborah Crombie.  And it was her birthday!  Deb spends a lot of time in London doing research for her series featuring Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. We went along to The Mitre, a “gastro pub” on Holland Park Avenue.  Their fish and chips was to die for, served with fresh minty mushy peas, and washed down with the bottle of Prosecco that her lovely daughter had arranged to have waiting for us!

 After dinner – during which we talked about how great London’s food scene is – we walked along the avenue, with Deb trying to remember which of the grand houses was the home of Dame Phyllis of Holland Park – that would be PD James to mystery fans.

But our conversation about London’s food lingered, and that’s what I’m writing about this week.

Despite a poor post-WW2 culinary reputation that remains in some quarters, Britain has become the foodie capital of the world. Frankly, London knocks Paris into a cocked hat – and, to be fair, so do certain other cities in the United Kingdom.   And it seems that, in every way, right now …. 

Samuel Johnson famously said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."  There have been times when I would have completely contradicted his opinion (the early 90’s spring to mind), but now is not one of them. And in case you think I don’t take account of the dark side that exists in any city, this post is only about the food, and the good stuff.

There was good reason for Britain to have garnered that age-old reputation for bad food.  At a time when tourism boomed following WW2 – when Americans were starting to flood across Europe in the 50’s and 60’s with back pockets full of bulging wallets, and Europeans were still reeling from being bombed to smithereens – the British, for the most part, were suffering from the effects of rationing that continued until 1954.  Books had been published throughout the war with advice to the housewife on how to make limited supplies last longer – Woolton Pie, for example, named for the Minister of Food.

Ingredients were often boiled to the point of disintegrating in an effort to get any dish to go around more people, who had lost a taste for food because anything would do. I remember, when I was 16, asking my mother what she did at my age to “diet.”  She rolled up laughing. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.  “It was all I could do to get enough to eat!”  So, that was that.  You didn’t want to mention the word “diet” in our house.

No one threw out leftovers.  The remains of the Sunday “joint” (beef, lamb or pork) were sliced and baked in gravy on Monday, and if there was more left over, the meat was put through a grinder, and vegetables added for a pie on Tuesday. My dad’s favorite was “bubble and squeak” – leftover soggy veggies (particularly cabbage) fried up and served, perhaps, with sausage.  Offal was big – it was cheap.  Stuffed lambs hearts, liver and bacon with gravy- UGH!  We only had pudding (dessert) on Sundays, and it was invariably apple pie or tinned peaches with custard.

 Then along came a few TV chefs who did their best to bring British food up to scratch.  There was Elizabeth David, Britain’s answer to Julia Child (with an equally fascinating background); the throaty Fanny Cradock and her husband Johnnie; Australian Graham Kerr, and of course Robert “first take your marble slab, then your parsley from the Dordogne …” Carrier – an American who decided to settle in Britain.

That's Fanny & Johnnie

But the fact remained, if you wanted good British food, you had to go to a pub, and you had to know which one.  There were Italian and Greek restaurants and – on every street corner – the Indian eat-in or take-away.  I still remember when Tangs Chinese restaurant opened in a local village – you would have thought Martians had invaded.  By the way, one of the very best Indian restaurants I have ever been to was in Glasgow – now another foodie powerhouse.

One of the early boulders on the path to rehabilitation of Britain’s gastronomic reputation was an ingrained belief that restaurants could not be trusted because you didn’t know what went into their food. With a fish and chip shop, or a pie and mash shop (a London favorite) there was an element of trust.  The idea that food had to be cooked by mother in the kitchen took a while to banish – and was probably helped along by mother getting a bit fed up with it.

 When I worked in London in the 80’s, we knew where to go for good food.  There were great ethnic restaurants all over the place.  But what has put London on the map in recent years is the re-imagining of traditional dishes, bringing them bang up to date with contemporary tastes, and not only on the tongue, but in presentation and with fresh organic ingredients. 

The day after my dinner with Deb, I had a meeting with my UK publisher, then met my pal Corinne.  We had a great afternoon, with lunch at Muriel’s Kitchen, a small eatery next to South Kensington tube – the quiche with feta, broccoli and butternut squash was amazing! For dessert we skipped across the road to Scoop for gelato – the tiny shop was packed. And that’s another thing – weather or no weather; London has become an alfresco dining city, which adds to the up-tempo vibe.

 That evening we had dinner at The Summerhouse alongside the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice. Fresh baked cod with organic green beans and lovely little new potatoes – the perfect dish to eat while watching the narrowboats ply their way back and forth along the waterway.

 Finally, the following morning before going down to Sussex to stay with my mother (and get back to work on my next book!), Corinne and I had breakfast at The Wolesley on Piccadilly.

 Originally built in 1921 to house the Wolesley motor showroom, the building later became a branch of Barclays Bank, before being remodeled into a restaurant in 2003.  The architecture is grand without being intimidating, and the staff incredibly welcoming – and let me tell you, the French toast with blueberry compote is not to be missed (I had the gluten-free version!).

This week my mother and I will have lunch in a few favorite places – I could go on about them, but it might make you drool, especially the cafĂ© at Pashley Manor Gardens.  Their ploughman’s lunch with all local ingredients and their home made chutney is the best, ever. The quintessential British treat!
Here's the cafe at Pashley Manor.

And now it's back to work ....

Have a lovely weekend.  While you're reading this, I'll be en route to the USA, on my way home.