Friday, June 7, 2019

Deborah Crombie on the Tastiness of Research

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've always loved learning about things in the novels I read, whether it's about history, a profession, or an unfamiliar part of the world. So I suppose it's only natural that the same curiosity worked its way into my own novels, and I've had a blast researching all sorts of things for my books, from Cambridge poets to scotch whisky to rowing to guitars to--well, it's a long list.

But not many of these things have been useful in my personal life. As much as I loved writing about whisky distilling in Scotland, I don't actually drink much scotch. Nor have I taken up the guitar (thank goodness), or trained my big lugs of dogs to do search and rescue.

However, in A BITTER FEAST (a.k.a Kincaid/James #18) I actually learned some things that may come in handy!


I have for years been interested in food and professional cooking, and especially in the role of women as professional chefs. 

So I interviewed chefs. I signed up for Masterclasses. I watched cooking shows. And I read, not just cookbooks, but lots and lots and lots of books by and about chefs and restaurants.

Here's a fraction of my research stack.


Not that I've read all of every book, but what I learned was fascinating, and I hope it informed my characters. 

We meet chef Viv Holland in the present day in the very first scene in the book. But in this excerpt, we see her in the first of a series of flashbacks that occur more than a decade earlier.



May, 2006

The first thing Viv did every morning when she arrived at O’Reilly’s was clean the vent hoods, which had been left in the sink to soak. Ibby had mocked her, saying, “Women’s work,” but she was used to that and she didn’t care. Any kitchen she worked in was going to be clean.

“You think any Michelin-starred restaurant has greasy vents?” she asked.

She’d been in enough London kitchens. At eighteen, she’d left her home in Evesham, having saved up the money she’d made working at the cafe next to her mum’s antiques shop, and set off for the city she knew mostly from television shows.

For her mum, the good life had meant her shop. For her dad, a former London banker, it was a smallholding, raising chickens and pigs and his own veg. Viv had helped him in the farmhouse kitchen for as long as she could remember, and the older she grew, the more she loved it. When her friends were listening to The Spice Girls, Viv was glued to MasterChef on the telly and daydreaming about what she could make for dinner.

For her sixteenth birthday, her parents took her to the Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. The food had been sublime, beyond anything she had even imagined, as if every component tasted somehow more itself. She’d spent weeks afterwards trying to recreate the things she’d tasted, crying in frustration when she couldn’t duplicate what she’d eaten.

Now, she saw that meal as the moment her future crystallized. She knew then that she was going to cook.

In the five years she’d been in London, she’d worked her way up from restaurant to restaurant, dishwasher to line cook, in some of the best places in west London. A year ago, she’d set her sights on O’Reilly’s in Chelsea. It had the up-and-coming buzz, and Fergus O’Reilly was the chef everyone was talking about as the next Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay. When a job came up on day prep, she’d jumped at it, even though she knew she was good enough to be on the line.

When she sat down for an interview across from O’Reilly in the tiny basement room that served as the restaurant’s office, she’d found herself unexpectedly tongue-tied. She’d seen him in photos, and in cookery and interview segments, but none of that had prepared her for his height, or for how stunningly good-looking the man was in person. With his curly dark blond hair and deep dimples, he was reputed to have women swooning over him, but none of that charm was wasted on her that morning.

“I don’t like women in my kitchen,” he’d said bluntly, with his Belfast accent. He must have seen her start to bridle because he added, “I don’t mean women can’t cook, so don’t go getting all flustered. But women cause problems in the crew and I won’t have any of that emotional shite on my patch, understood?”

“Yes, chef,” Viv had managed to mumble. She was glad she’d worn a t-shirt and kitchen overalls and not a stitch of makeup.

“Good. My day prep cook quit because he said it was too hard. Can you freaking believe that?” He glared at her as if it was her fault. “You’d better tell me now if it’s going to be too much for you.”

“No, chef. I can do it,” she’d said, looking him straight in the eye. She’d started the next day.

It was hard, she found out soon enough, ten hours a day of working her bum off. The job was as much about organization as physical labor, but she liked that, liked the routine and the sense of accomplishment, liked that everything that came off the line at dinner service depended on how good a job she’d done.

Fergus O’Reilly, however, she thought as she dumped twenty pounds of roasted veal bones into a stock pot, was another kettle of fish.

He was mercurial, prone to shouting at the staff over the least little detail, while ignoring things that drove her bonkers, like the dirty vent hoods. But when he cooked, he was absolutely bloody brilliant, making the kind of food she’d dreamed about since that sixteenth birthday dinner. And lately he’d been listening to her suggestions and a couple of her ideas had turned up on the menu.

But she wanted to be back on the hot line—she missed the adrenaline rush of service and the challenge of getting the plates up. When a spot opened up on the line, she was going for it, no matter what it took.

For more about Viv, you'll have to read A BITTER FEASTBut the question is, did all this learning actually make me a better cook?

Maybe, just a bit. I'm certainly a more educated diner, and I have a huge appreciation for the work that goes into turning out a top-notch restaurant meal. And I had a lot of fun.

Reds, has any of your research come in handy in real life? And readers, have you put to use things you've learned reading novels?

Do tell, AND I'll give an advance copy of A BITTER FEAST to one lucky commenter!


A BITTER FEAST, from William Morrow, October 8th, 2019

 

63 comments:

  1. This is fascinating . . . now I want to know more of Viv’s story . . . .

    Putting to use the things I’ve learned reading novels? Often it’s something as simple as gaining a different perspective, seeing something in a different light or considering it in a different way.

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  2. I don't know that I've used anything I've read in my real life - except in trivia competitions or as knowledge in conversations. My family and friends just shake their heads when I admit where I picked up some bit of knowledge.

    Of course, I do want to caution that authors mix in fiction with fact in their novels, so you have to do your own research before you take anything from a novel as fact. I get it; it makes for a great story, and that's why we pick up novels. But there are still some interesting avenues into fact introduced via fiction.

    I was just about to hit publish, but I just remembered one thing I've definitely learned from fiction - from Red Rhys. I hadn't studied enough about the British monarchy, so I had no idea about Edward and Mrs. Simpson. After several books in the Royal Spyness series, I started researching that on my own since I had to know what happened with that in real life. Amazing how that all played out and affected history for the better.

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  3. I enjoyed reading about Viv. I may learn more about professional cooking if my granddaughter chooses the culinary school here in Houston. She'll be baking. I recently tore through Sulari Gentill's Rowland Sinclair series, at least the books I could get a hold of. The series is set in Australia in the 1930's with forays to England and Europe. She used Albert Goring as a real life character in one of her books and he was a good guy! For real! He helped save Jews and dissidents and was anti-Nazi. He still had a good relationship with his brother Hermann and Hermann protected him from reprisals. In the same story I learned that Hugo Boss joined the Nazi party in 1931 and began producing uniforms for the various Nazi groups and the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS. I love learning things like this!

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    1. Will look that one up, Pat! And do keep us posted on your granddaughter's culinary school adventure. Will she only study baking?

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    2. She wants to pursue baking and pastry arts. As opposed to culinary arts or hospitality and restaurant management. Her associates degree would require some business and management courses in addition to the "good" stuff.

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  4. I learn and often use something from everything I read, including the back of cereal boxes. And the range hood cleaning episode in The Bitter Feast reminded me that mine can be detached and go in the dishwasher, not the whole thing but the filter part. Note to self.

    I’ve also learned never to investigate the dark basement in my nightgown, holding a guttering candle. Never ever.

    We all know how that turns out

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    1. Ann, you are too funny. I have to admit that some of the "do not do this" kitchen stuff I learned was from Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Makes you never want to eat in a restaurant again unless you can see the kitchen!

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  5. Thinking hard about what I've learned from my book research that I've used in real life and coming up short (no snickering, now...). My horizons are way wider, deeper, and richer from what I've learned about nineteenth century policing, how to run a bike shop, and restaurant supply-ordering software, but alas, I haven't used any of it. ;^) That said, I would LOVE to read an ARC of this book, Debs. Just saying.

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  6. Well . . . I use a lot of what I've read about roses when I'm out in the garden, but that's from research, not novels. I use a lot of what I've learned in life in my fiction, but you're right that it doesn't always flow back the other way unless, like Mark, I just indulge in trivia for the sake of conversation. (Don't get me started on "Colonel Bogie March.") My sister did a ton of research on space station design, sustainable enclosed environments, and canine cognition for her new novel, but beyond planting a container garden and suspecting her dogs know more than they're letting on, I don't think she's found much practical, day-to-day application for it. Huh.

    I think Joan has the right idea. Reading about all the wonderful things our favorite authors have researched for us deepens our overall knowledge of the world, broadens our perspectives, and makes us more empathetic when it comes to other peoples' points of view. Yes, research has proven it!

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    1. I did learn some useful gardening things, too, while researching this book! Maybe one day I'll put in a "white border!"

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    2. Maybe someday you can go full Gertrude Jekyll on your yard, and restore the croquet lawn while you're at it!

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  7. Debs this is wonderful--right up my alley. I've decided I'm taking this as my vacation book next week:) xoxo

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    1. Or, Lucy, if you haven't read Now May You Weep, that would be a great one for Scotland:-)

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  8. I love learning about all sorts of stuff in novels. Usually it's about topics I would never think to study on my own and then frequently I go on and do more research but I can't think offhand about any of it being useful in my life.
    Wonderful excerpt, Debs, you've got me wanting more!

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  9. Reading fiction just generally broadens our knowledge and understanding of the world. This is now proven, the subject of a long recent study. All grist for the mill, I say.

    I remember the first time I most clearly believed this, after reading the wonderful Herman Wouk Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. I was a terrible history student; it was my worst subject, largely because 1) dates, and 2) very little personal relevance to women. However, Wouk's stories pulled me in, and made me see a part of history I had resisted in a new light.

    Chaim Potok's books did the same thing, as far as helping me understand Orthodox Jews and how their religion was both the same, yet so different, from my own Catholic upbringing. Then there's Michener, who wove both natural science and history into his weighty tomes.

    I don't know how you can avoid using revelations from fiction in real life. Some of these things become part of us, at the cellular level.

    Debs, have you seen the British TV show Delicious? It's a true original, and has the amazing Dawn French as one of the stars. I've learned a lot about how a kitchen works from watching that show, even though I know most of it is over-dramatized. Viv sounds like another fascinating Crombie character! Can't wait to read more about her.

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    1. Karen, I've seen the first series and keep trying to remember to watch the second. Thanks for the nudge!

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  10. There are definitely things I have learned that led me to maybe read a little more on line, or sometimes just accept as fact and find myself referencing in conversations later. Donna Leon's books have taught me a lot about Venice, especially about the problems caused by the presence there of cruise ships. Another novel I read a year or so ago taught me a lot about the early history of Louisiana, and how the French came to settle there. When the research is woven into the fabric of the book like that it is a beautiful thing.

    In an interesting piece of timing here, just last week I finished a book that I enjoyed, but I felt it suffered a little from the author having fallen a bit too much in love with her research. A historical mystic was central to the plot, and there were times when it felt to me like she overdid the exposition about this historical figure. It really sounded to me like the author became so fascinated by her she couldn't bear to leave out ANYTHING she had learned.

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    1. Susan, that is always a worry for those of us who are research addicts!

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  11. What a great snippet, Deb. Can't wait.

    Like Mark, I usually uncover some interesting tidbit of history in fiction and it spurs me to learn more. But that's not my research informing my life.

    I think the closest I may have come is all my research into police procedure and law enforcement giving me a new appreciation for the folks who do the job.

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  12. Loved the excerpt, and like your rowing book, you nailed it. I worked in restaurant kitchens fulltime during my college summers and part-time in the college dining hall during semesters. The Cape Cod seafood restaurant had three cooks plus a fleet of kitchen boys running fresh fish from the ice chest to the line. The all male dishwashers held down the other end of the kitchen, across from my all-female department: appetizers, desserts, grilled sandwiches, and salads. Split shifts six days a week, 10 till noon prep, and 3:30-9:30 prep and dinner service. Weekends were hard: 10-9:30 straight, with lunch and dinner service. I used to go for a swim in a nearby pond during my hour off.

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    1. Thank you, Margaret!! That makes me so happy! Besides talking to chefs and touring kitchens, probably the most helpful things I read were food writer Michael Ruhlman's books on chefs and the restaurant business (you can see them in the stack above.) Wonderful.

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  13. Thank you for making my morning--reading any bit of a new Deborah Crombie is a moment of sheer pleasure! If I win, I'm taking my flashlight and hiding in the closet where no one--cats, kids, or company--can find me!!

    Cooking tips--from reading mysteries with recipes and from reading cookbooks (!). We all learned basic home cooking from my mom, but she encouraged us to explore in the kitchen--and so I've done with a little help from my books!

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  14. I already love Viv.Nothing specific coming to mind right now but I learned a lot reading novels
    People around me are often surprised about the variety of things I know about ( history, religions, societys, nations, trades, professions, etc...) . Then, someone says :". but she reads a lot "
    Yes and I learn all that in " novels ". I can mock novel's detractors, my reading enriches my life and widens my views.

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  15. Oh, my gosh, Viv just comes to life in this little excerpt. Honestly, Debs, you could write a rags-to-riches tale of a woman chef without a hint of murder in it and we'd all gobble it up.

    As for research being helpful - yes, for my mental health. Whenever someone is driving me crazy, I like to go over the various ways I could do away with him or her and no one the wiser. There's nothing like plotting a good murder to calm one down. ;-)

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    1. Julia, you crack me up. I'm sure we've all had those moments...

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    2. I was at band camp the other day, and someone came in with a lunch bag some kid had left behind between classes. At least we assumed it was a lunch in there. Nobody opened it after I pointed out that it could be a bomb. They all just gave me that look and said, "I never realized what a dark imagination you have!" as they sidled away from the lunch bag.

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  16. Another thing that has come from my reading, which is mostly fiction, is that I love traveling to the locale in the book. Last September I followed Duncan and Gemma first to Nantwich, complete with long boats and bookshop and charm, and then an anticipatory visit to Lower Slaughter! Thank you Debs, for being my virtual guide. When I read A Bitter Feast, I recognized much of the village and am pretty sure I ran across Viv!

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    1. So glad you and Melinda got to see Lower Slaughter!

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  17. I can hardly wait to read your new book.
    When I think of what I have learned from books; about New England from Julia, about Key West from Lucy, about London and environs from Deborah, about history from Rhys, and so on.
    I agree that reading has enriched my life in many ways and not just for pleas but also for knowledge.
    I admit that never thought about plotting a murder although after reading THE BUTCHER'S BOY I did imagine escaping and switching cars and license plates in a mall parking lot. If you haven't read it, do so. It's fun to root for the "bad" guy and learn all about hiding in plain sight.

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  18. I have learned so much from reading. Since reading is my favorite form of entertainment I have learned about history, art, science, travel, and fascinating countries. The fiction intertwined with authentic historical events gives me great enjoyment and pleasure. I continue to explore worlds.

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  19. I should add that writing about the food in this book made me want to EAT:-) I dreamed about food!

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  20. Your novel sounds captivating and a real treasure. I read so that I can become absorbed within the pages of each book because every novel is a place that soothes my soul. When I read I am transported to another era, realm, place, time and wish that I was able to be there in person. Reading is my outlet in life where I can leave all my troubles and escape.

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  21. Another Deborah Crombie title I can't wait to get my hands on! Yah!
    I don't thinks it's possible to be a "reader" and not learn. History, geography, sociology, the list of the background elements of a story is endless. I can't imagine making it through the first chapter of a book that was devoid of all these things. It would be like looking at a blank canvas.

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  22. Deborah, I love the excerpt. The title is hard to read with the white color and bright yellow background. Would it be possible to change the letters from white to blue or black so the title is easier to read? I was not sure if it was ok to ask due to the timing of publication.

    Among my favorite things about your novels are the maps! Looking forward to reading your new novel. Is it a stand alone novel or a continuation of the Duncan and Gemma series?

    Diana

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  23. In a way, I learned to live my life from reading. I learned how to protect myself if I lived in a marginal neighborhood. I learned what to do if I was being followed late at night. I learned to avoid dark alleys, when someone said "Psst over here!" Thanks to reading, I am still here.

    A Bitter Feast is such a delicious read, that my cat, Tong Len, took a bite out of it. Truth. Very grateful I didn't have to wait until October.. Thank you Debs.

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  24. This excerpt is wonderful. I can't wait! I've tried recipes from books, picked up organization and general tips and very often been inspired to dig deeper and do my own research on a topic from a book.

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  25. I read cookbooks and recipes (in magazines, newspapers, etc.) like a novel.
    Then it all gets filed in my cluttered brains to emerge in some form at some moment in time.

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  26. I try new foods that I read about in books and I definitely set up my vacations based on places described in books, your series included. I’ve visited Scotland twice and love London.

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  27. Gosh, Deb, I think what I have learned from your novels and those of others is to navigate the interwoven web of relationships one enjoys in life... the value of the psyche, the inner dialogue of self with self, the heightened consciousness one gains from immersing ones thoughts and emotions in those of an engaging and sympathetic character...

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    1. Kathryn, how well said. That's what we all hope for as writers.

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  28. Juliegriffin1@aol.comJune 7, 2019 at 1:05 PM

    I'm reading a book from every country in the world. I've not really learned a particular skill, but I've learned about Dan building and macaws in Belize, bird hunting in Scotland, even the Iditarod in Alaska. I learned about towing from Not A Mark Upon Her. Love learning from books!

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  29. Oh, my! I was really into that excerpt and then it stopped. Bitter Feast is going to be my next read. It's sitting by me, waiting patiently, but I have it scheduled for the end of June. I don't think I can make it that long. Viv is going to be another one of your characters, Debs, that I fall in love with. You have such a talent at creating these amazing characters. And, oh the things I've learned reading this series. I keep saying that they are a great guide to London, and when I finally get there, I plan on using what I've learned from them.

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  30. I don’t know about learning something useful that I can use in my everyday life, but I love learning new things when I read. They probably fall more into the interesting column as opposed to useful! Also, good for the brain!

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  31. I've definitely used recipes and gardening tips. Books that I read influenced my travel choices. I looked for places mentioned in the books (and TV shows). Before I went on trips, I tried to read up on the places besides novels that I had already read. Mom and I used to buy books on our travels that were set in those places.

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  32. I've gotten lots of cooking tips from books I've read that I've definitely used.

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  33. I can’t wait to read A Bitter Feast! Thanks for sharing this snippet.

    I always use info I’ve learned. Might be in conversation or a crossword puzzle. Lots of applications.

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  34. I agree that a second pair of eyes is absolutely essential to avoid rejections. Through WordsRU.com I was able to get top class editing and proofreading, manuscript critique. They also write excellent author profiles and book synopsis, so pretty much the entire package.

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  35. Learning to proofread your work yourself is a a must-have skill. But, it always helps to have a second pair of eyes review your work to make sure you haven't missed embarassing typos, or grammatical and syntactical errors. I'd suggest WordsRU.com for this. It also saves you a lot of time to have your work formatted according to the right style. Saves you a lot of time and allows you to focus on your work.

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  36. This is great advice. If you're looking for professional editing and proofreading, check out WordsRU.com. They are thorough, quick and are ready to answer any questions you might have even after the edit

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  37. The thing that stands out most for me from a novel I read isn't exactly practical but insightful. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the author describes the protagonist doing things that made him happy and secure in the past. He has to realize that the same things don't invoke the same feelings now, and that had a profound effect on me.
    browninggloria(at)hotmail(dot) com

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  38. Um, love your books, but no one can actually wash a vent hood in a sink. They are large, stainless steel fixtures attached to the ceiling and wall over the stove. One could take out the filters from a hood to wash in a sink. Why don’t authors or book editors ask a professional in the field to read a manuscript before publication? It just makes me cringe when characters do something impossible or totally wrong.

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  39. I often find the items in a book I've read will come to fruitation later in my daily life. It is my belief every thing you read will be used somewhere later in your journey. Thanks for your blog and information about research.

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  40. From all the books I've read, I've learned the value of compassion and critical thinking. I do also love researching beyond the book and learning about things I never thought I'd be interested in, from nuclear physics to mycology. I'm so excited for A Bitter Feast. My mom and I love reading your books together and then discussing them at length!

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  41. Do cocktails count? I’ve perfected a few of Phryne Fisher’s favorite gin concoctions as published in Kerry Greenwood’s novels.

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  42. I think reading makes people better writers. I am always looking up things I read in books to see if it's really true, or to get more in-depth info on a subject. I also love when characters go to another country and the book describes the places and cultures.
    kozo8989@hotmail.com

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  43. Such an amazing book, Debs! And sorry to be running in so late… The one thing that your book also made me realize, aside from how fabulous you are, is how no one in my books ever eats. Hmmmmm.

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