Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Chapter Blunders!

Why do some books draw you in, while others are merely okay, or even flat? Although this can be the result of many situations, a big one is what occurs in the first chapter. A novels initial set-up can really make or break whether it draws the reader in and makes them want to engage. I love to read and have read literally hundreds of books. I've found that many novels, while they may have good middles and great endings, their first chapters lack pizazz or that wow setup that keeps the readers wanting more. 

Here are a few common first chapter mistakes:


1 – Boring Conversations – If within the first ten pages, the characters are having a long and dull conversation about everyday matters, some character we haven’t met (and don’t yet care about), or just a long conversation, I’m usually bored. Give me action and let me care about the characters, then they can converse all they want. To be sure, I’ve read novels with character conversations starting the book and have enjoyed the beginning, but they’ve always been done in such a way, where the conversation isn’t lengthy and other things besides talking are taking place.
2 – Lackluster First Lines – A first line isn’t everything, but the more intriguing the better. Don’t be weird or write something just to grab attention, but do be interesting. And if not the first line, then at least the first paragraph.
3 – Backstory – This problem is one that isn’t found alot in published novels, at least those written recently, but it's very common in unpublished manuscripts. Readers don’t need to be told everything right away. There should be mystery or a reason to read forward. Backstory is best dropped in as crumbs. Tiny bits here and there. You can have a larger amount of backstory in the middle, but if there’s a lot in the first twenty pages, chances are your reader will skim, or worse yet, put the book down altogether.
4 – Confusion – On the flipside, there can be too little information, or too many characters. We don’t want to meet the whole cast by page twenty. Pick four or five characters and work on introducing those in chapter one. We want to get to know the main characters right away. Just like in a movie where we want to meet the people we’re spending two or more hours with in the first few scenes.
I generally do keep reading if I like the premise of a book, even if it has one or two of these above elements. I’ll give it fifty pages and then reassess. But the truth is, most other readers won't. With the amount of books available, not to mention other media, the sooner you hook ‘em the better.

Do you have any secrets to writing first chapters? If so, I'd love to hear them!
Happy Writing,

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Delectable Downton Desserts!

Over Christmas we tried our hand at some royalty inspired desserts. We decided to do this since our invitation to Sandringham was apparently misplaced this year. These delectable treats would be great to make for your weekly Downton party, or for any special occasion, especially if the Queen is coming as one of these is rumored to be a favorite of Her Majesty.

Mrs. Patmore’s Infamous Raspberry Meringue Pudding


16 fluid ounces of milk
1 vanilla pod, split or 2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 1/2 ounces caster sugar (super fine sugar or sugar substitute)
4 egg yolks (freeze the whites if you aren’t making your own meringues)
5 ounces fresh breadcrumbs
zests from 2 lemons
7 ounces raspberry jam
4 ounces caster sugar (super fine sugar or sugar substitute)
1 tbsp. icing sugar
1 pint fresh raspberries
2 tbsp. caster sugar for garnish (not salt!)
meringue cookies, or make your own


  1. Preheat the oven to 310F/160C/Gas 2.
  2. For the pudding base, pour the milk into a pan and add the split vanilla pod. Bring slowly to the boil over a medium heat.
  3. Separate the eggs, and reserve the whites to make the meringues.
  4. Place the sugar into a large bowl with the egg yolks and whisk until the mixture is light and creamy.
  5. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the hot milk, whisking all the time, then add the breadcrumbs and lemon zest.
  6. Half-fill a roasting tin with boiling water to make a bain-marie (water bath). Pour the pudding mixture into individual ramekins, or one large oven-proof baking dish and place them into the bain-marie. Mrs. Patmore made one large one.
  7. Place the bain-marie in the centre of the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes for the individual molds, 30 – 40 minutes for the larger version, or until the pudding or puddings are almost set, but still slightly wobbly in the centre.
  8. Place the jam into a small pan over a low heat and gently melt. Spread the jam over the top of the pudding when it has finished baking and cooled.
  9. To serve, gently remove the pudding from the molds, and transfer to a serving platter(s), garnish with raspberries and meringues, and sprinkle with some extra caster sugar…not salt

         The Queen's Chocolate Perfection Pie

This is one of the Queen's favorite sweet dishes. We made this for our Christmas dinner and it was so delectable. Very fattening, however, but great for that special occasion (Downton viewing night) or once a year treat!

For the pastry

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup vanilla sugar
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter (cut into small pieces)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 Tbs heavy cream
For the filling

  • 2 eggs
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp white wine vinegar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 6 ounces quality semi-sweet chocolate (1 ½ bars)
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup heavy cream (you can try Greek yoghurt to make a lighter version)
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 2 ounces white chocolate – Grated (1/2 bar)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and then prepare the pastry case/shell. In a large bowl add the flour and sugar and rub in the butter to resemble fine crumbs. Add the egg yolk and cream and form the paste into a ball.
  2. Roll out the pastry and line a 9-inch flan ring, then part bake the flan.
  3. Prepare the filling. Place a mixing bowl over a pan of boiling wate and add 2 eggs, ½ tsp cinnamon, ½ cup sugar, ½ tsp vinegar and the salt.
  4. Whisk until the mixture starts to foam and then remove the bowl from the top of the pan to a cool surface.  Continue whisking until the mixture reaches the ribbon stage.
  5. Pour onto the base of the flan and return to the oven until the filling has risen and is firm to the touch — about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack to allow the filling to sink back into the shell. This is the first layer of the flan.
  6. Melt the 6 ounces of dark chocolate and add the water and egg yolks. Whisk until combined. Spoon half of the chocolate mix over the top of the sunken filling and return the flan to the oven for a further 5 minutes.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow the flan to cool completely. This is the second layer of the flan.
  8. Beat the cream (or yoghurt) and cinnamon until stiff and carefully spread half of the mix into the flan. This is the third layer.
  9. Fold the remaining cream and cinnamon mix into the remaining chocolate mix and spread into the flan. This is the fourth layer.
  10. Sprinkle on the grated white chocolate; you can also use grated dark chocolate to create the effect shown.  Refrigerate until set — about 1 hour