On Sunday I attended a potluck with folks who also spend part of their summers at Chautauqua Institution in Western, New York.
Twice a year, over the winter and spring, our local Chautauquans meet to enjoy each other’s company and cooking. As a minister’s wife I’m a veteran of church potlucks. The hands down winner were the dinners at our New Orleans church, where the food was always fabulous and usually featured seafood or Cajun specialties. Our Northern Virginia church was a close second, since people so near to D.C. love to try different ethnic dishes and aren’t afraid to share them. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten came out of a covered dish.
All those potlucks later, I’m never quite sure what to take when a new potluck arises, just as I’m never sure what to take to our monthly winetasting events in my neighborhood. Once I made Virginia style ham biscuits from scratch, cute little biscuits straight from a King Arthur flour recipe, filled with slices of tasty ham and honey mustard. Despite the fact that we live in the South, my transplanted Yankee neighbors didn’t know what to make of my little biscuits. I took far too many home to ever make them again.
That wasn’t the only time.
The Chautauqua potlucks often end up the same way. Last year I made a pumpkin Bundt cake from scratch. I was testing a recipe for the new cookbook from Once Upon a Chef, my favorite online recipe site, and that seemed like the perfect place to launch it. The Bundt cake was delicious and for the most part untouched that night. It seems that everybody had decided to make desserts, and there were enough to feed an army.
This past Sunday, having learned the dessert lesson, I decided I would make a main dish, Paul Prudhomme’s Poorman’s Jambalaya, an entree I’ve prepared for friends with great reviews. While jambalaya’s not difficult, measuring all the herbs and spices and chopping numerous veggies takes time. Once it was done, though, I was glad I’d made the effort. In spite of purposely leaving out three-quarters of the red pepper because some people just can’t take it, the jambalaya was still delicious.
That evening I walked in with my casserole dish, thrilled to share something I’d never seen at our gatherings before, and the hostess said “Oh, more jambalaya. Somebody else made it, too.”
And they had. Mine went to the end of the line, and his perched right at the beginning. Mine went home mostly uneaten.
Leftover jambalaya, just like leftover Bundt cake, is not a tragedy. We’re enjoying it and it freezes well if we get tired of it. But I was immediately reminded of decisions I’ve made as an author.
How does this relate to writing?
I began my career writing romance, and was quickly published by two houses–who later merged. I wrote short, sweet romances for one, and longer, more complicated mainstream stories for the second. Did I ever sit down and figure out which kind of book was going to make the most money and send my career soaring? Nope. I wrote whatever I felt like writing. The process always felt like magic.
When it was time to move on, I decided that writing a family saga would be a thrill. I did one minute’s worth of market research and decided that was enough to devote the next years of my life to Iron Lace and Rising Tides. Were sagas an easy sell? Was this a growing genre with a bright future? Nope. Did I stop writing them afterwards? Nope, again. I wanted to write sagas, and by golly, I did. Whiskey Island and Beautiful Lies, to name two.
Eventually I moved on from sagas, too. I decided to write cozy mysteries about, of all things, a minister’s wife. Had any of the books I’d written about ministers made bestseller lists? Nope. Were cozy mysteries making big sales for their authors? Nope. I had an idea I loved, so I wrote five books in the series.
What’s my real point?
Taste is fickle and so is luck. A friend suggested a series for teenagers about young women in a school for witches. She was told nobody would be interested. This was right before Harry Potter arrived. I could tell a hundred similar stories. Some of the best book ideas I’ve ever heard never found a publisher. Some of the most repetitive, knockoff plots went on to become bestsellers.
Both my Bundt cake and my jambalaya were good ideas at the wrong times. Some of my books were, too.
In the long run, do I care? I’m inclined to think that no, I don’t. I have loved writing, which as gifts go, is one of the most important I’ve ever received. I never tired of coming up with new stories because I almost always wrote exactly what I wanted to. I was lucky in the most important way. And that’s the leftover I can enjoy now and for the rest of my life as I continue to enjoy plotting novels and meeting new characters.