Starting From Scratch

This morning as I scooped homemade yogurt into a plastic container to enjoy for the rest of the week, I thought about all the things I do the long way, starting from scratch.

Granted, making homemade yogurt in the Instant Pot is as easy as slipping on flip flops. I do it, at least partially, because I can make it with A2 milk, which I find a thousand times easier to digest than regular milk.  Basically I pour what passes for a half gallon these days–you do know they shrunk the cartons, right?–into my IP, whisk in 2 Tablespoons of Chobani Greek yogurt, cover it with my glass top, hit the yogurt setting and usually, to make it seem harder, I poke the + button to add an hour to the 8 hours that comprise the basic yogurt setting.

Done. And 9 hours later, I set the whole insert in my fridge until morning, when I scoop the beautifully set yogurt into a plastic container. And yes, it’s fabulous. It takes less than 5 minutes, even counting the time to pop my Instant Pot out of a cupboard and set it on the counter.

By the way, I was sure I had a photo of my milky masterpiece, but let’s face it, unless I put that creamy mound of yogurt in a beautiful bowl and adorn it with glistening berries, yogurt isn’t very photogenic. Bread, on the other hand? Oh yeah.

So yes, I also make my own bread. I adore these cute little clay pans and always use them, and often use a variation of this recipe. I’ve used any number of cooked cereals, flours and additions like flax and chia seeds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and dried fruit to vary it so it’s never the same. Sadly my cute little pans are no longer available. But I have two sets and I treat them the way I would treat the Hope diamond, minus the armed guards.

I make homemade soup, bake homemade desserts, muffins and doughnuts. I don’t find cooking relaxing, exactly, but the rewards of seeing and then eating something I labored over is worth everything to me. Starting from scratch just makes food taste better.

I thought about the idea of starting from scratch as I scooped yogurt this morning.

If you read last week’s blog, you know I’ve been laboring over my latest proposal. One reason I’ve had so many “head-scratching” moments with this one is that I have written a whole lot of books. Of course that means I have a better idea what I’m doing now. While this isn’t always good, it’s convenient. I don’t waste as much time on ideas that don’t work, which is practical, although the ecstatic joy of discovery and creativity has been tamped to a more manageable level.

Another problem, though? As I said, I’ve written a lot of books. In the last few years I’ve found myself coming up with something and immediately discarding it. “Nope, did five quilt books already.” “Nope too many books about ministers.” “Nope amnesia will be hard to pull off more than once.” (The entire plot of Lady of the Night, a romance which I just reissued, revolves around amnesia.)

See the problem? Or maybe it’s not a problem really. After all, I’ve learned that some readers are happiest if they are reading slightly different versions of the same book. They may want a known quantity, a plot line, characters, level of sensuality, etc. that they can count on. A novelist who sets steamy romances on western ranches might find that a book set on a Polynesian island is a huge disappointment to readers. She can change the ranch setting from Montana to Texas, but placing a nearly identical story on an Australian cattle station might prove to be a bust.

Don’t shake your head. It happens. Ask any publisher.

Every novelist wants to believe that we’re starting from scratch every time we sit down to plot. But the truth? Like anybody else our experiences and our own special traits make us not only the people we are, but the writers. We can research any subject and try to plot a novel around it, but unless we have some kind of connection, we may fail. And so we fall back on what we know. The people we’ve met. The places we’ve lived. The hobbies we’ve pursued. The professions we’ve tried or that people close to us have tried. Our failures. Our successes. The traits we most admire and those we detest. The body types we understand or admire. The illnesses we’ve experienced as onlookers or directly. The list goes on.

In the same way that our tastes and talents dictate the kind of bread we bake, our tastes and talents determine what kind of books we write, too.

These days finding stories I want to tell and finding original ways to tell them is harder. Harder, of course, just means it’s a different kind of challenge. No longer is my career a blank slate and anything is new. Now I’m faced with deciding whether my readers want more of the same, or something very different.

My new book, A Family of Strangers, which comes out in June, is different from what I’ve written lately. We are only in the point of view of one character, who describes what is happening as it happens. The original idea came from a true story, although it’s now completely different. But that’s where I jumped off. I added some personal experience, some targeted research, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I invented a town in Florida, which is always fun. I made a personal if fictitious pet out of Bismarck, the dog in the story. I yearned to adopt my main character’s nieces.

Did I start from scratch? No. I dug deeper inside me for something new, something a little different, something that I would enjoy writing.

Starting from scratch is a joy. A close second is starting with something familiar, pulled from deeper inside us than we’ve gone before. I’m looking forward to doing it all over again.


  1. DIANE Willard on April 10, 2019 at 9:42 am

    What brand of instant pot do you have?

    • Emilie Richards on April 10, 2019 at 10:55 am

      I have both a 6 qt. and an 8 qt. made by Instant Pot. I keep the larger one in NY and got it on sale, hence the larger size. Both are great. I recommend.

  2. Nancy Lepri on April 10, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    I have to say, I’ve never heard of an Instant Pot! Have I been living under a rock? This is something I’ll have to check into. Since my husband retired, he’s doing all the cooking and baking and loves coming up with new ideas and recipes. He makes wonderful crusty bread, which loves to widen my waistline(!) but there’s nothing better than things made from scratch.

    I’m so looking forward to reading your new novel as I find such enjoyment from all your books, but I have to add . . . Where do you find the time to write and cook/bake??? Keep up the great work on both aspects!

    • Emilie Richards on April 10, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      It’s a fabulous invention. Remember the old pressure cookers and all the scary stories? None with this one. You can pressure cook, slow cook, make rice, make yogurt. Once you buy one–they are always on sale somewhere–check out my IP Pinterest board for ideas.

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