Books

Writing What Hurts : Characters, and why so Few are Memorable

Characters, and Why So Few are Memorable

There is a very old, and very wise, bit of writing wisdom. “Write what you know…” This can be taken too simplistically, and too seriously, but at its core, it’s truth.  The reason most of the characters you will encounter in books, on TV, and in movies do not stick with you is very often they are paper thin. You also must write who you know. Crazy computer hackers always have stacks of monitors, racks of servers, dark rooms with flashing lights and these days at least one screen scrolling symbols like the screen saver that came out after The Matrix. When I see or read all of that, I shake my head.

I’ve worked most of my adult life in computers, computer security, and networks. I have met a lot of hackers and computer gurus. They are more likely to have a single notebook, maybe a server at home with more power… something they can close the lid on and run. Sure, they have gadgets and gimmicks, but what the big banks of monitors and dark rooms tell me is… the creator needed a computer expert, or an evil hacker, and they wrote what they’ve seen others write, rather than trying to dig deeper and find out the truth.

It’s how we ended up with so many Hannibal Lector, high-intellect serial killers, bumbling FBI agents, forensics labs with the time to concentrate a dozen people around the clock on a single case and many other endless clichés. They write well, people “get” what you’re doing and saying… but if you remember those characters it will be for something else they did… not for the characterization, or the dark screen-filled room.

So, how does that relate to writing what you know? You have a perspective. You have your own skills, knowledge, and you have your ability to research. If you write about a plumber, you are going to write about a plumber in the context of your experience with plumbers. You can widen your perspective by reading, actually talking to plumbers about what it is you need to happen, how it would play out in the real world. Even then, it’s wise to limit yourself to writing about your character, and embellishing that character with as much reality as you can without going too far and writing or having your character say something that will push buttons on readers who know more about plumbing than you do. It’s tricky business.

I recently read a pretty good mystery by an award-winning, Internationally bestselling author. It had a lot in it about falcons, and raptors. Repeatedly, he referred to them (and had his character who was purportedly an expert) refer to them as “raptor birds,” instead of simply raptors. I love raptors. I’m not an expert on them, but it was enough of a faux pas to really grate on my nerves, and if it affected me that way – I have to believe that people who know about falconry and birds of prey would be squirming – and they would have to be at least a peripheral market for the book.

It’s even trickier when you start writing about specific characters – say – a theoretical physicist. You are safest writing such a character as a person, and avoiding attempts to cleverly let people into their theoretical thoughts, or going too far in describing things. Most people know about Schrödinger’s Cat, and a few bits and pieces about chaos theory and string theory from The Big Bang Theory and Jurassic Park… but that is the paper-thin character I mentioned above. If you are not capable of thinking like a theoretical physicist, you should write the parts of that character that you can understand, their life, loves, tics and prejudices, but not try to pass yourself off as an expert in their field.

What you know is how you see people, how you see men and women you’ve met and interacted with, the things about certain types of characters that you would expect to encounter in a real-life scenario. Characters who matter to you will matter to your readers… characters who remind them of every other character of a “type” they have ever encountered, will not.

In keeping with the theme of this book I’m writing, don’t forget that you don’t like everyone, and some people you like to obsession, or love, or crave or loathe. If you are afraid to reach that level with the characters, you may write a darn good yarn, but a year after reading the book, no one will remember them.

Do Me a Favor… Read one of My Books. Seriously…

I have thousands of followers and friends on social media platforms.  In my career, I know, I’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books… but what I would like to see … since I’m still here, still writing, and still hoping to bring a little enjoyment to readers, is everyone connected to me… everyone who has laughed at the jokes, or whose books I’ve published, or who runs with me (or talks about running with me) – everyone who has connected to me for whatever reason … read one of my books.  Make an old guy happy.   I posted pretty much this same note on Facebook, and realized as the questions came in that it would be a good idea to have a post with all my available books in it and a short explanation. These are not GOOD short explanations, and in most cases they probably don’t do the books justice, but it’s as start.  You can find all of my books on Amazon at this link:  David Niall Wilson on Amazon… Here is the list:

Non-Fiction: 

American Pies- Baking with Dave the Pie Guy – a semibiographical book that also includes recipes for a number of pies – including “The American Pie”.

Short Story Collections:

  • The Whirling Man and Other Tales of Blood and Madness – short fiction – the theme is – these are the more literary horror stories I have done that I love, and that have gotten mixed reviews for being too… literary.
  • Defining Moments – collection of short stories – nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, contains the first printing of the Stoker winning story “The Gentle Brush of Wings.”
  • An Unkindness of Ravens – collection of stories with Patricia Lee Macomber – all involving Poet.
  • The Call of Distant Shores – collection of my more Lovecraftian stories.
  • Etched Deep & Other Dark Impressions – stories and poetry
  • Intermusings – A collection of collaborations – with Brian Keene, Brian A. Hopkins, Mark Rainey, John Rosenman, Brett Savory, Patricia Lee Macomber, Richard Rowand and more.
  • Spinning Webs and Telling Lies – Weird Western stories written with Brian A. Hopkins, plus one original from each of us.
  • The Fall of the House of Escher & Other Illusions – my very first collection, published long ago. Several stories in this collection became novels.
  • A Taste of Blood and Roses – Mostly vampire / werewolf, and other creature stories collected.
  • The Compleate Pigge – Surreal dark fantasy tales about a boy who may, or may not have been a crazed serial killer, or from a family of them, or just an artist… Johnson Milhone.

HORROR / Dark Fantasy:

  • Darkness Falling – fairly traditional vampire novel about a rock band and a concert on a mountain in Germany.  Eventual tie-in with other novels.
  • Ancient Eyes – Horror – Set in the mountains of California – loose sequel to Deep Blue, but a completely different story.
  • The Preacher’s Marsh – a novella cut from the novel Gideon’s Curse
  • Deep Blue – A guitarist / vocalist is gifted / cursed with the ability to play away the pain of the world through his music. King / Koontz style “big” story …
  • Gideon’s Curse – Supernatural horror novel set in reconstruction North Carolina – deals with racism, religious persecution… and (sort of) zombies.
  • Roll Them Bones – A novella from the Cemetery Dance series – friends return to a small town to deal with what appears to be ghosts from their past.
  • On the Third Day – Religious Horror – a young priest experiences the Stigmata … a Vatican investigator tries to get to the truth behind it… before it is too late.
  • Maelstrom – horror – a group of kids discover a strange ritual in a graveyard. It’s up to them, the local detective, and a rock band to prevent the summoning of ancient evil.
  • This is My Blood – First novel sold – a retelling of the Gospel through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, fallen angel cursed to be a vampire…

SF

  • The Mote in Andrea’s Eye – written to be “clean” so my teenaged daughter could read it – SF thriller about a woman who loses her father to a hurricane as a child, and grows up to try and fight them – includes Operation Storm Fury, and beyond…
  • Remember Bowling Green– The Adventures of Frederick Douglass – Time Traveler – written with Patricia Lee Macomber – Ronald Krump tries to take over Bowling Green, Kentucky, but is pitted against Frederick, a stoner, and several local citizens.
  • The Orffyreus Wheel – Historical SF –  parallel timelines in the 1700s and present involving a perpetual motion device.
  • The Second Veil – Book II of the Tales of the Scattered Earth – a planet where all cities are domed, and only strange lighter-than-air ships and sealed tunnels provide access from city to city.

THRILLER

  • ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky – Surreal Thriller set in Old Mill NC involving drugs and crop-dusting.
  • Sins of the Flash – Psychological Thriller about a crazed photographer turned serial killer.
  • Block 10 – written with Stacy Childs – thriller set in France – MMA fighting, skiing, drugs, and Nazi scientists trying to affect professional athletes.

FANTASY

  • Heart of a Dragon – Book I of the DeChance Chronicles.  Urban fantasy.
  • Vintage Soul – Book II of the DeChance Chronicles (actually the first that was published) A 300 year old vampire is kidnapped, and Donovan DeChance is hired to save her.
  • My Soul to Keep & Others – Book III of the DeChance Chronicles (loosely) contains the title story – Donovan’s origin – and other novellas that tie into the world and area of the DeChance Chronicles timeline.
  • Kali’s Tale – Book IV of the DeChance Chronicles – The young vampire Kali takes off on a blood quest to the Great Dismal Swamp to confront her maker – Donovan is hired to follow along and watch over them. It goes badly.
  • Crockatiel – A novel in the OCLT series about a genetic accident that causes a prehistoric creature to grow in the Great Dismal Swamp…
  • Nevermore – A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe – set in North Carolina at the historic Halfway House – which rested on the border of NC and VA. Dark fantasy.
  • The Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J. Diggs & The Currently Accepted Habits of Nature – Dark Fantasy / SF set in Old Mill NC…
  • The Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J. Diggs & the Crazy Case of Foreman James – Dark Fantasy and NC history – set in Old Mill, NC.
  • The Temple of Camazotz – A novella in the OCLT series set along the Mexican border where beheaded bodies are turning up.
  • The Parting – first novel in the O.C.L.T. series – ancient magic, terrorism, history – and computers.
  • Hallowed Ground – written with Steven Saville – Weird Western filled with mythology, and magic.

CHILDRENS:

  • The Skeleton Inside Me
  • The Kingdom of Clowns

TIE-IN:

  • Chrysalis – Star Trek Voyager #12
  • Brimstone – Stargate Atlantis #15 (with Patricia Lee Macomber)
  • The Grails Covenant Trilogy– White Wolf World of Darkness Vampires
  • Except You Go Through Shadows – Set in the White Wolf World of Wraith – published in “The Essential World of Darkness”
  • Dark Ages Clan Novel LASOMBRA – Dark Ages vampires set in France
  • Dark Ages Clan Novel – Malkavian ( wrote ¼ of it – an odd situation)
  • Relic of the Dawn – set in the White Wolf world of EXALTED – undead armies and owl women.

 

Writing What Hurts – Part the 9th – Submarine School

7.

Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?

In Groton I was on my own again.  I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else.  I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles.  I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station.  Submarines.  Movie Stars…

One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears.  If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program.  That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program.  Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service.  Yay.

At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing.  I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people.  One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women.  You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad.  As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion.  I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.

Not that there was not fun.  There was.  We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time.  We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.

In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall.  While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors.  I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.

When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate.  I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last.  They figured it was a formality at that point).  I had other ideas. I am tall – 6’ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful.  I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days.  Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there.  I agreed.

When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears.  Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain.  They took me out.  They gave me Sudafed and had me wait.  They tried again.  Again, before long, my hand was in the air.  I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out.  I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head.  I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.

I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life).  I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well.  He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician.  He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course).  I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer.  Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton.  I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday.  Life is full of accidental lessons.

Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms.  I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me.  I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full.  To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate.  I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop.  I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.

So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician  class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming.  Yay.  The good news?  Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing.  There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.

Writing What Hurts – Part the 8th

6.

 

So there I was.  I graduated high school with good grades.  I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program.  It was, of course, not true.  I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program.  They got extra points for that.  The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.

I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois.  My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University.  I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it.  To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated.  Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had.  My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him.  The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students.  I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave.  I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.

The Navy offered me a good way out.  There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape.  They paid me.  They trained me.  They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life.  I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids.  It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.

I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone.  They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson.  Born exactly the same day that I was born.  We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible.  He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.

Transience is a constant in the military.  You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux.  You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on.  I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all.  I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself.  I think most people are.  You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way.  It’s the way humans work.  We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule.  Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else.  It goes back to those influences.  All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.

Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well.  You meet your characters for a short period of time.  You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them.  You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.

The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp.  I went in the summer.  A very dry, hot summer.  I ended up dumped into Company 927.  We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire.  He had a good attitude, but he was tough.  They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant).  Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.

A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find.  One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.

My experience there was different than most.  We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up).  We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services.  It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.

Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us.  I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go.  I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them.  Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.

The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself.  I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice.  I could be whoever I could pull off.  Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.

This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing.  First, I met a lot of diverse characters.  I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories.  At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new.  Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives.  For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic.  Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on.  Give them someone, and something, to relate to.

In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons.  I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble.  I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith.  I didn’t write – not then.  I told everyone I was a writer.  I believed I was going to be a writer.  How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.

What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working.  Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow.  For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.

I’m not going to dwell on that time.  There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course.  The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing.  If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital.  Pay attention.  Keep your mind open.  Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world.  If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.

Next stop?  US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…

 

Persimmon Pie

A chance encounter with persimmons on Facebook inspired me to post the entire third chapter of AMERICAN PIES – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy – here on my blog. This chapter tells you WHY I wrote the book, how to make a persimmon pie… and more.  If you like what you read, you can buy the entire book  at the Crossroad Press store in time for Christmas or on AMAZON BY CLICKING HERE.

Chapter Three

Fresh Persimmon Pie

You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes.  There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’.  (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book).  As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.

I grew up in southern Illinois.  My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited.  The highway moved to the side and bypassed them.  They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin.  My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.

I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town.  Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.

In those days, there were still a lot of trains.  Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible.  In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories.  I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared.  I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.

He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees.  My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life.  He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.

He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach.  He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry.  Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.

They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days.  They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play.  About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best.  Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.

One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons.  I got excited.  I probably babbled about them.  I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter.  They were there, and I bought some.  As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth.  It never came.  They were sweet, soft, and consistently good.  Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.

As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons.  They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory).  They also managed to create persimmons without seeds.  I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown.  It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures).  They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.

Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake).  What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie?  This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.

Of course you can.  You can make a pie out of almost anything.  I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them.  Then I did what I usually do.  I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything.  I, of course, did not regularly bake pies.  I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember.  The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”

As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can.  Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie.  It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).

So…Persimmon Pie.

Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear.  I was all business.  I had my recipe.  I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff.  I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry.  Of course, I had to buy persimmons.

The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons.  Stumbling block number one.  How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup?  And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem.  You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned.  It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken.  It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.

I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay.  Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time.  Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups.  It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly.  I bought a whole bag of them.  I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.

I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently.  My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process.  The recipe called for:

2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)

1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.

1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.

2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…

What?  Here we break down again.  Cooking tapioca?  I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough.  What was it doing in a pie, though?  I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet.  I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory.  I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.

Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies.  Fruit is juicy.  (wow, what a revelation).  If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges.  It won’t hold together when you slice it.  It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling.  Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling.  Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job.  The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine.  That’s what I did.  As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance.  This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it.  The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made.  Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked.  This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that.  They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.

1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.

Again…time for another break.  Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels.  What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there.   I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.

First, wash the lemon, or the orange.  You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about.  I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays.  My story?  “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.”  In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things.  The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.

I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on.  Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray).  So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.

If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie.  I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence.  I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.

3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.

I know, I know.  Get on with it, right?  I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too.  Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure.  Lemon juice is a natural preservative.  I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have.  They get brown very quickly.  The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things.  You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works.  I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time.  You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting.  You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.

2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.

I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket.  I do not use the store brand, or any generic.  If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot.  They are (hands down) the best.  I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.

The last ingredient is butter or margarine.  You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal.  This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again.  When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine.  It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget.  I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in.  A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)

Preparation:

Now it’s time to make this pie.  Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above).  These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out.  It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top.  The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices.  Here is where I’ll make another comment.  We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good.  Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy.  If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie.  I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons.  For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit.  Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.

Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them.  Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl.  In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly.  You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other.  I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing.  The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.

Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready.  I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find.  I only use glass or Pyrex plates.  Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts.  Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass.  The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate.  At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.

You can do what you want with this excess.  They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that.  The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it.  Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies.  We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about.  The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.

When this is done you have a couple of choices.  As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie.  The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc.  If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp.  You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it.  The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit.  As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine.  It’s a beautiful thing.

From here on out, it’s pretty easy.  Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine.  Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them.  Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie.  You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.

There are tools for what I’m about to describe.  I don’t own one.  I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it.  Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here.  Hold it with the top down.  Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate.  This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation.  Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch.  The cool technical term for this is crimping  When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.

At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven.  It takes a while to preheat.  This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others.  Baking time, and temperature.  This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky.  I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour.  The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.

Next you need to cut vents in your top crust.  This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important.  The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot.  I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern.  Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs.  The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with.  Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative.  In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.

At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour.  It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment.  While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then.  Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown.  Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.

But let’s get back to that mistake.  Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out?  It does.  It always does, at least a little.  If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven.  This is not going to make people happy.  It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable.  What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something.  That’s what I do, now.  After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them.  You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan.  Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross.  Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t.  Again…this is important.

Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie.  When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool.  I think about an hour is perfect for cooling.  Your finished product should look something like this:

If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:

And there you have it.  I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary).  They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards.  These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome.  Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here.  Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.

A Midnight Dreary – Book V of the DeChance Chronicles Underway

Work is well underway as A Midnight Dreary passes the 30,000 word mark. I’m sort of doing Nanowrimo this year, in that the book will pass 50k before the end of the month, but it will be much longer than that. At 30k I have only just reached the beginning of the three separate threads that will bring all the main characters, Donovan and Edgar Allan Poe from my novel Nevermore, Bullfinch, and a new O.C.L.T. member heading to New Orleans to meet with Copper and Alicia from my novel Darkness falling, and Amethyst, Cletus J. Diggs, and old Nettie headed into the Great Dismal Swamp.

This novel, probably the most complex and ambitious of my career, will draw firmly together the adventures of the O.C.L.T. – Donovan DeChance and his world, Cletus J. Diggs and Old Mill, North Carolina, and the open strands left (read that as surviving characters) from Darkness Falling… At least two versions of Poe stories from a very different perspective, one well known and one obscure – multiple continents… world building.

One thing readers have asked for is a fleshing out of the character Amethyst, Donovan’s love interest, and this novel will not disappoint. There will also be revelations in the odd and discordant career of the Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J. Diggs…

The cover art was purchased from a Russian artist, Konstantin Korobov… the cover design is by David Dodd…

More updates to follow.  There is an excerpt from this book titled MASQUERADE available along with several of my other works, including the entire novel “Heart of a Dragon,” first in this series.

Halloween Post #2 Ten Horror Novels I love

I am not going to say these are my ten favorite horror novels, they probably are not. These are ten horror novels I’ve read and have not been able to forget – ten books I think you will enjoy, and that I consider to be classics… you will find that I have cheated and there are actually twelve books… but I’m pretty sure you’ll forgive me…

In no particular order:

Skin – by Kathe Koja – I bought this at my first big horror convention, and I read it – in one sitting – on the train on the way home. Kathe has a way of drawing you into the world of very tortured characters, making you not only understand, but feel their pain… this is a very literary, very intense novel.

Fever Dream – by George R. R. Martin – One of my favorite vampire novels.  A different setting, a different take on an ancient curse… not to be missed.

(Trilogy) Koko / Mystery / The Throat – by Peter Straub – here is where I cheat. If you read just Koko, you will not be disappointed… but to truly appreciate what Peter did here, you need to read all three.  Imagine sitting through an entire year of history, or math – you finally grasp everything for the final exam, and pass… then come back the next year an learn the same subject – but find that everything you thought you knew was wrong…   And then, in the third year? It happens again.

Boy’s Life – by Robert McCammon – Hands down my favorite coming-of-age horror novel. With a dinosaur.

Lightning – by Dean Koontz – I have read and enjoyed dozens of Dean’s novels, but this one sticks out for me.  The detail was exquisite, and it may well be the most well-crafted time-travel novel of all time.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – by Ray Bradbury – This should come as no surprise to anyone… Bradbury was a master, and this is my favorite of his novels.

The Old Gods Waken – by Manly Wade Wellman – The first “Silver John” novel – I would have chosen The Lost & Lurking, but thought it best to choose the FIRST of these wonderful novels of the North Carolina mountains and their magic.

The Haunting of Hill House – by Shirley Jackson – The template against which haunted house novels have been modeled and judged all of my life. A wonderful story.

The Song of Kali – by Dan Simmons – This novel is very well researched and one of the darkest, most twisted tales I’ve ever encountered.  Very few books give me shivers, but this one managed it.

Christine – by Stephen King – I am a huge fan of Steve’s work. I’ve read very nearly everything he’s ever written, and have loved most of it – all for different reasons.  For some reason, this haunted car stuck with me, and I believe it might be the same reason The Mangler made my list of memorable stories.  It should be ridiculous, given only the plot to work with – a car that rolls backward and gets younger… a creepy old ghost… but it is not.  It is very real, and has some absolutely CREEPY moments… if it’s a King you have ignored – you should not.

A Storyteller’s Birthday Wish

I am a storyteller. For years now I’ve spent more time helping bring other people’s stories out than I have writing my own… and I’m okay with that, because I AM still writing… but tomorrow is my birthday. Instead of just stopping by and saying Happy happy… let’s interact. Below is a link to my Amazon page with almost literally everything I’ve written available… in the first comment will be a list of my books available through Kindle Unlimited for those people who subscribe, so you can find my books that are available for you to read for free. Most of my audiobooks are whispersync ready and can be had for a pittance beyond the eBook price. MANY of them are available in print, some for the first time just this year in trade paperback. What I want for my birthday is simple. Read something of mine. Tell me what you read, what of mine you have liked (or loved) (or even hated). If you have a favorite thing of mine, leave a review on Amazon, or Goodreads… sign up for the free signed copy giveaway on Goodreads for my novel Gideon’s Curse… buy “Remember Bowling Green” so I can donate the money to the ACLU… the thing that would make me feel the best on my birthday would be to entertain some people, and to feel as if I write – and I talk about that – and it’s of more than slight, passing interest to a few of the thousands of folks who follow me between this profile and my author page… Going to put this on my author page as well, and on my blog so it goes to Goodreads, and on Wattpad, where literally tens of thousands of people read my novel Heart of a Dragon for free, and loved it (from the comments) but could not ring themselves to pay the $2.99 or $3.99 to read the rest of the series… writing is a lonely profession… help a fella out.

AMAZON’S DAVID NIALL WILSON PAGE

DAVID NIALL WILSON ON KINDLE UNLIMITED

Great Gifts for the Holiday? American Pies – HC or TPB – An Excerpt!

pieguycoverwebsiteI wrote a book a couple of years back titled American Pies – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy… it’s got a bunch of pie recipes, all tried, photographed, and described in detail – and a bit more… it all started with the question of whether or not you could make a pie from persimmons, something I loved as a child, and discovered because of my grandfather.  The answer is yes… here’s the Fresh Persimmon Pie recipe from my book… which you should buy people for Christmas… just saying. Here’s the Amazon Link:

AMERICAN PIES: Baking with Dave the Pie Guy

Chapter Three

Fresh Persimmon Pie

You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes.  There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’.  (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book).  As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.

I grew up in southern Illinois.  My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited.  The highway moved to the side and bypassed them.  They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin.  My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.

I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town.  Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.

In those days, there were still a lot of trains.  Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible.  In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories.  I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared.  I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.

He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees.  My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life.  He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.

He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach.  He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry.  Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.

They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days.  They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play.  About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best.  Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.

One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons.  I got excited.  I probably babbled about them.  I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter.  They were there, and I bought some.  As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth.  It never came.  They were sweet, soft, and consistently good.  Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.

As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons.  They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory).  They also managed to create persimmons without seeds.  I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown.  It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures).  They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.

Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake).  What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie?  This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.

Of course you can.  You can make a pie out of almost anything.  I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them.  Then I did what I usually do.  I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything.  I, of course, did not regularly bake pies.  I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember.  The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”

As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can.  Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie.  It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).

So…Persimmon Pie.

persimmon

Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear.  I was all business.  I had my recipe.  I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff.  I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry.  Of course, I had to buy persimmons.

The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons.  Stumbling block number one.  How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup?  And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem.  You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned.  It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken.  It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.

I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay.  Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time.  Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups.  It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly.  I bought a whole bag of them.  I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.

I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently.  My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process.  The recipe called for:

2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)

1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.

1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.

2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…

What?  Here we break down again.  Cooking tapioca?  I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough.  What was it doing in a pie, though?  I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet.  I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory.  I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.

Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies.  Fruit is juicy.  (wow, what a revelation).  If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges.  It won’t hold together when you slice it.  It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling.  Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling.  Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job.  The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine.  That’s what I did.  As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance.  This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it.  The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made.  Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked.  This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that.  They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.

1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.

Again…time for another break.  Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels.  What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there.   I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.

First, wash the lemon, or the orange.  You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about.  I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays.  My story?  “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.”  In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things.  The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.

I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on.  Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray).  So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.

If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie.  I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence.  I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.

3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.

I know, I know.  Get on with it, right?  I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too.  Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure.  Lemon juice is a natural preservative.  I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have.  They get brown very quickly.  The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things.  You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works.  I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time.  You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting.  You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.

2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.

I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket.  I do not use the store brand, or any generic.  If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot.  They are (hands down) the best.  I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.

The last ingredient is butter or margarine.  You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal.  This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again.  When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine.  It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget.  I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in.  A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)

Preparation:

Now it’s time to make this pie.  Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above).  These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out.  It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top.  The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices.  Here is where I’ll make another comment.  We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good.  Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy.  If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie.  I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons.  For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit.  Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.

persimmon2

Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them.  Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl.  In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly.  You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other.  I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing.  The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.

persimmon3

Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready.  I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find.  I only use glass or Pyrex plates.  Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts.  Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass.  The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate.  At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.

You can do what you want with this excess.  They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that.  The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it.  Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies.  We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about.  The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.

When this is done you have a couple of choices.  As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie.  The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc.  If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp.  You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it.  The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit.  As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine.  It’s a beautiful thing.

persimmon4

From here on out, it’s pretty easy.  Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine.  Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them.  Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie.  You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.

There are tools for what I’m about to describe.  I don’t own one.  I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it.  Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here.  Hold it with the top down.  Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate.  This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation.  Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch.  The cool technical term for this is crimping  When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.

At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven.  It takes a while to preheat.  This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others.  Baking time, and temperature.  This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky.  I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour.  The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.

Next you need to cut vents in your top crust.  This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important.  The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot.  I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern.  Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs.  The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with.  Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative.  In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.

persimmon5

At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour.  It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment.  While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then.  Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown.  Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.

But let’s get back to that mistake.  Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out?  It does.  It always does, at least a little.  If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven.  This is not going to make people happy.  It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable.  What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something.  That’s what I do, now.  After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them.  You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan.  Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross.  Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t.  Again…this is important.

Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie.  When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool.  I think about an hour is perfect for cooling.  Your finished product should look something like this:

persimmon6

If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:

persimmon7

And there you have it.  I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary).  They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards.  These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome.  Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here.  Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.

 

Rich Chizmar, Cemetery Dance … a Flashback Post

_cd001large1I am in the middle of a HUGE reorganization of all my writing files, backups, folders, books, stories… and more. I’ve rediscovered things I’ve lost, found things I don’t even remember writing… and it’s set in motion a great fixing and cleansing of things… One thing I have found is that I have written a LOT of articles, reviews, blog posts, etc… and some of it bears revisiting.  Some of the comments in this post are dated – because it’s 2016, and the article was written in 2004…

It defines a moment in my career, and those who know my work know how I feel about Defining Moments…

Without Further Ado:

Some time in 1988, I’m not sure what month; I was sitting around with my good buddy John B. Rosenman.  He and I were in a writing frenzy that year, and in years to come.  We submitted to any market that surfaced on the horizon, and, having been at it longer than I had been at the time, John was very successful at landing slots in them.  I was telling him about a story I’d sold to After Hours Magazine, and he told me about the premiere issue of Cemetery Dance.  He showed me the magazine; its cover was a sort of grotesque, striking black and white illustration.  I knew a lot of the folks being published in that first issue – others I did not know.  I didn’t know Rich Chizmar, for one, and made a mental note that I should do so.

What followed was a period in my career where two men saw (literally) hundreds of thousands of words of my earlier fiction and turned it all down.  Between Stephen Mark Rainey at Deathrealm, and Rich Chizmar, I probably produced two novels worth of short stories that were not quite right for their publications.  Still, I continued, because they were encouraging.  Rich, in particular, was an inspiration to me.  I was publishing a magazine called The Tome, and though I was having successes of my own, I watched Rich go quickly from a solid start to the successor to Dave Silva’s Horror Show in literally only a few issues.  Everyone was talking about Cemetery Dance, and this spurred me on both to improve my own magazine, and to write something that would catch Rich’s attention.

Oddly, when I finally did so, it was a story he’d already passed on.  Somehow my tale, “The Mole,” stuck with him, and one day I got a phone call.  “Do you still have that tunnel rat story?” he asked.  That moment changed my career forever – I believe that.  It was a sale I had coveted since the late eighties, and when it finally happened (that was the Fall, 1990 issue) it felt like one of those career-changing epiphanies.  When that same story was reprinted in “The Best of Cemetery Dance,” I was in heaven.  That was another first that Rich gave me – my first appearance in a book signed by myself and by Stephen King (thankfully not my last).  I went on to sell a number of stories to Rich over the years and a novella, and he has always been encouraging to me – very positive and upbeat despite the curve balls life has thrown us both.

I have to say that when I first sat and leafed through issue number one of Cemetery Dance, I should have been more perceptive.  He hit the horror business like a comet and we never saw him coming.  After fifteen years and more than fifty publications, (Remember, this was written back in 2004) and with a future as bright as he wants it to be, Rich is the guy we should all be looking to when we need inspiration – and has always been there for me when I needed his support.  Congratulations on 15 years of amazing accomplishments Rich.  We still need to get together for golf.

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