I’m sitting here now and actually trying to write a short story. I haven’t tried to do any serious creative writing since NaNoWriMo back in november, and I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to get started. I had the idea for "Mother Tsan-Chan" a couple of nights ago, and spent a couple of hours sketching out the basic idea and trying to identify the obvious cliches that this story could fall into and figuring out ways around them.
Well, I identified the cliches, but not how to avoid them. So I decided I’d just sit down and write the darn thing, and trust that the characters themselves would fill me in on their motives and plans, and the story, as it almost always does, would just take care of itself.
Unfortunately, it isn’t happening. I’ve tried two separate openings now, and neither one of them has "sung" to me. This is the problem that I always have: I come up with fantastic settings and plot complications (ask anyone who has ever played in a role-playing game that I’ve run) but I have a hard time digging the stories out of them. Stephen King writes, in his excellent book On Writing, that stories are like fossils: you don’t invent them so much as you dig them up. And I believe that this is true. To extend the metaphor, these huge and fantastical settings that I create are like the badlands of Montana; I just need to figure out where to start digging.
So instead of working on "Mother Tsan-Chan" or "Incident at Mount Joyce" (the scenario I’ve promised to have done by a week from tomorrow so we can finally start play-testing Outer Darkness), I’ll kill a little time by telling you about the restaurant that Jennifer and I went to earlier this evening for dinner.
If you’re a regular reader of my wife’s journal, you know that she and I are both doing the Weight Watchers thing (I have an ulterior motive: at thirty pounds loss, we get our webserver). The Weight Watchers program involves counting "points", and the number of points in a food item is dependent on the number of calories, fat grams, fiber grams, etc., etc., that are in it. An apple is one point. A Baby Ruth bar, to my infinite remorse, is five points. Sushi is three points for four pieces of tekka maki, or four points for three pieces of California maki.
This points thing is so much easier to figure out than figuring out the calories in a single banana or piece of steak.
The number of points you get to eat in a day depends on how much you weigh. At my weight, I get to eat between 25 and 29 points per day. Plus, you can "bank" points, by eating less than your maximum in a single day, or by exercising.
And what this all really boils down to is that for the past week or so, I’ve really been craving a steak: a big hunk of dead cow, nicely broiled, medium rare, juicy and tender. And some fried prawns. Steak and shrimp. Turf and surf. Oh, yeah, can you dig it.
We have this coupon book which has coupons and entries for just about every restaurant in the valley (except for the ones that we really like, of course), so today, while I was whining to Jennifer via IM about the tremendous need I had for a steak and the horrific consequences that were likely to befall the cats if I didn’t get one soon, she suggested getting out the coupon book and finding a restaurant that might serve steak that we could eat relatively cheaply at.
So I did. I dug around and found something in Vacaville called the Creekside Cafe, featuring traditional home cooking. There was nothing in the restaurant’s entry in the coupon book which would indicate exactly what kind of traditional cooking would be served: traditional American cooking, traditional Cajun, traditional European, traditional Antarctic… But since I’m willing to go places, sight unseen and without knowing anything about the place beforehand (I’ve seen some really awful movies using this same daringness), I suggested to Jennifer that we try it. She agreed.
So we got there, and the first thing I noticed was that it’s in a strip mall, near a Raley’s supermarket, unobtrusively settled near two smaller eateries with the healthy-sounding names of Joe’s Giant Cheeseburgers and The Donut House. This didn’t bode well to me, but Jennifer, brave soldier, wasn’t quite ready to turn around and go back to Fresh Choice, so we went inside.
For a small strip-mall eatery, Creekside Cafe was packed. There were people — mostly large people, I observed — at every single table in the small restaurant. We stood waiting behind another couple for about ten minutes, which isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. I peeked at the specials which were written on a chalkboard on the wall, and noticed that they were serving steak and shrimp (oh blessed day!) and fish and chips, and a variety of other Weight Watchers approved selections.
I also noticed that the clientele in this restaurant seemed to have the highest cell phone to person ratio of any other restaurant I’ve been to since I mistakenly ate in the financial district of Portland once last year. The difference is that while most of the people up in Portland who were dragging cell phones to the restaurants were wearing expensive suits and carrying leather suitcases and sported expensive haircuts, the people with the cellphones here wore jeans and football T-shirts, and sported long hair. There was a cell phone at every table in this restaurant, and just about all of them were being used. I imagined parents talking to children or babysitters, or people getting sporting scores, talking to mechanics at the shop, and so on. Perhaps they were network engineers walking technicians through rebuilding a client-server connection. I don’t know.
The long and the short of it is that here traditional home cooking meant good food, and lots of it. My steak and shrimp dinner come complete with homemade chicken noodle soup, a salad, the entree itself, homemade bread, and a dessert. While the salad was an obligatory sort of affair — a few desultory shreds of iceberg lettuce with a few shavings of carrot and its own volume in thousand island dressing — and the baked potato was depressingly dry and overcooked, the rest of the meal was wonderfully well done. The steak was perfectly cooked and very tender; the cocktail sauce for the shrimp was nice and spicy; and the homemade bread was warm and hearty.
I counted twenty points for the meal, just enough to consume all of the points I had left over for the day, plus the extra points I got because I had worked out earlier.
The waitress seemed disappointed that we didn’t want the dessert that came with the meal. We finally agreed that she could put our chocolate cake in a box so that we could take it home with us. She did, and we settled up our bill and left.
We worried over the cake for the length of time that it took us to drive to Mervyn’s, where we were going to buy new jeans for each of us. We each took a bite; it was wonderful cake. But we’re both trying to be good, so we knew that there was only one thing that we could do with the cake. We got to Mervyn’s, and the cake went straight into the garbage can.
Do you see why this is a tragedy? Chances are that if you don’t, I can’t possibly explain to you the sheer pain of having such wonderful food before you and not being able to finish it all.
I wonder if that was a thousand words that I just wrote there. This was my procrastination. I had planned on writing a thousand words of "Mother Tsan-Chan" tonight, but I got distracted. I suppose that, too, is tragic.
Or, perhaps, my sense of tragedy is simply oversensitive.