“On Writing Culinary Mysteries” Women Writers, Women’s Books

In a culinary mystery, a body will be discovered, an amateur sleuth will be forced to get involved, whoever isn’t murdered will eat and drink, and recipes will be provided in the back of the book. A category in the “cozy mystery” genre, culinary mysteries are often written as part of a series so readers can return again and again to the warm bakery, the delightful candy store, or whichever charming place the author has chosen to set the tale. Readers also relish getting to know the amateur sleuth who without fail, after a scary confrontation with the villain, will solve the crime.

I love reading and writing culinary mysteries! In a departure from the typical small village or tourist town, I decided to set my series in the city of Chicago, where I live. As I began writing my first novel, I wasn’t sure if a customer would order a savory pie, a bowl of soup, or a slice of gluten-free cake, so I created recipe placeholders. I cannot remember why, but many of those placeholders involved combinations of spinach and mushrooms.

In draft after draft, my characters would enter the imaginary Whipped and Sipped Café and order dishes like mushroom scones, spinach tarts, or mushroom and spinach soup. I knew I’d have to swap the placeholders with less mushroom-spinachy recipes, but first I had to focus on the writing.

I needed more than focus. I needed a teacher/editor like Chicago-based S.L. Wisenberg to help me turn my way-too-blabby story into a novel. Over the course of two years, I met Sandi every week or two in a variety of neighborhood coffee shops that were never as delightful as the one I imagined for my novel, but perfect for whipping a messy manuscript into shape.

We’d eat and chat a bit about our lives before clearing the table, and I’d place the manuscript in front of her. Sandi would sift through her pencil bag and choose a few to sharpen. Then, she’d start reading, her hand hovering above the pages like a guillotine ready to chop off words. Sometimes she’d inhale sharply, and I’d gird myself. I hadn’t formally studied the art of writing, but I’d created doggerel, song lyrics, and several unmanageable manuscripts filled with detours and irrelevant side-stories. Sandi taught me how to write a novel.

She taught me general rules, like that it’s important to know what someone is wearing only if it tells the reader something, and specifics, like where to put quotation marks. I learned to write “said” something instead of “yelled, whispered, announced, murmured”, or “shouted.” Readers, Sandi said, would stop noticing unless I drew attention to all the synonyms.

It was rare for a paragraph to go unmarked. Sometimes I held my breath, hoping for one of her full-throated chuckles and relieved when she’d mark a passage with a happy face. For over two years, I wrote and rewrote the manuscript, crisping up dialogues, homing in on details, and clarifying relationships. I could tell the manuscript was getting better, but it felt like there would never be an end to revising and rewriting.

The author of three books and numerous published essays, Sandi has degrees in writing from Northwestern and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s also editor of Another Chicago Magazine, an online journal. S.L. Wisenberg knows a thing or two about the world of writing. When the book was ready, she guided me through queries and a publishing contract, a whole other story. We continued to meet, nosh and schmooze, and one day she asked about all the mushroom and spinach recipes. I realized it was time to focus on the culinary aspects of the book.

I’ve always loved cooking and baking. Although I took a few classes at a local pastry school and learned how to pluck a chicken and make gefilte fish from my grandmother, I’m mostly self-taught. I enjoyed reading cookbooks, but what I always loved best was experimenting in the kitchen and inventing my own recipes. Of course, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Here’s a tip: don’t add salmon to a bread dough. It is not going to turn out well. Your adult children might forget the countless cookies, cakes and pies you baked while they were growing up but will remember the trauma of the “salmon bread” fiasco.

To make sure that every recipe in the book was correct, I sent the entire list to friends and family all over the country. Their responses over the next few months helped me fine-tune amounts and clarify times. That’s also another story, but once it was done and I’d submitted the entire manuscript to my publisher, I started writing the second book in the “Whipped and Sipped series.” Once again, I needed to concentrate on the writing, so I began to mark the places where I wanted to add recipes.

My new system for placeholders was to borrow an ingredient from that week’s grocery list. Zucchini? Oranges? Sweet potatoes? Sunflower seeds? When I was ready to focus on it after many more meetings with Sandi and many more drafts of the novel, some of those placeholders turned into real recipes. That, in a nutshell, is why in Smothered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (DX Varos 2021), there are recipes for Zucchini-Orange Muffins, Sweet Potato Black Bean Soup, and Sunflower Chocolate-Chip Cookies.

I’ve started writing the third Whipped and Sipped mystery and this time I’m thinking of creating the placeholders alphabetically: apple crisp, beet borsht, carrot-zucchini bread. I’m just not sure what recipe starts with an X.