Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Cooking the (Scrap)Books

Do you make scrapbooks? I make half-scrapbooks. That is to say--I save stuff, and put it in a box, thinking SOMEDAY I'll make a scrapbook. Maybe. Kind of. Well, probably not, truth be told, but I have a big box of stuff.

And it's fascinating to think what could be learned by pawing through that box, right? Not only what's in there, but why. Why we save the stuff that we do--why we think it has import.  Why it changed our life. Why it matters.

My cookbooks are kind  of like scrapbooks, too. You can take my favorite ones, prop the spine on a table, and they'll open to a favorite recipe. And most likely, the page is water-spotted (or worse), or crinkled, and probably has some reminders I've written in: needs more salt. Needs less salt. Too much thyme! Or the like.

But I did not have the brilliant idea to put all that togther in to a book-book. Not a scrapbook, but a mystery about scrapbooks. That was the genius idea of cookbook author Mollie Cox Bryan, and why I invited her over to visit today.

She's new to the mystery world--her first novel SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS is now a nominee for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel! But she started out--writing cookbooks. 

HANK: You’re a cookbook author! How does that compare to writing fiction? Was it strange to make stuff up? Or is writing cookbooks fiction? (!)

MOLLIE COX BRYAN:  I've always been a storyteller and my cookbooks are narrative, especially the first cookbook, which was about the life of the incredible Mrs. Rowe (Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley, Ten Speed Press, 2006). As much as I could, I used creative nonfiction techniques in telling that story. It reads like a novel. That said, there are a lot of differences, of course. I was able to be creative in the storytelling in the cookbook, but not with the facts. I spent a lot of time researching, interviewing, going over recipes, checking and re-checking the facts and sources. I also do that for some of my mystery writing. But the story comes from within me. I found that to be an incredibly freeing experience. One of the reasons I love the mystery genre so much is that blending of research and facts with story and character building.

HANK: Scrapbooking is kind of like cookbooks—I mean, if we looked into a person’s cookbook, we’d find the pages they love the most, the ones here they’ve made annotations, the pages that are splatted with gravy or sauce. Right? So you’re really exploring people’s minds and what they care about…

MOLLIE: Absolutely. As part of my cookbook research, for example, I dove into Mrs. Rowe's handwritten notebooks and recipe files, clippings, and so on. It was fascinating to see the notes she made along the side of the recipes or and the bottom. If she had been a scrapbooker, it would have made my life a little easier at the time. But she told her story with her food. It was my job to organize it.

And my love of scrapbooking really helped me when it came to writing the cookbook, which is not what I had in mind at all when I started writing about Mrs. Rowe. I wrote a 250-page biography that we couldn't sell. Ten Speed Press came back and asked if I could make it into a cookbook and I said certainly--you always say yes, right? Well, let's just say I had quite the learning curve. At one point my editor said, "Think of this book as a scrapbook. Pick out the best stories for the narrative. But also use the photos, recipe head notes, and sidebars as part of the story." That was my "light-bulb" moment.

In SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS, my characters make scrapbooks for children belonging to a woman who has mysteriously died. They piece together more than photos and pretty paper. They piece together a life full of depth, complexity, and secrets.

In my third book, due to be out next year, DEATH OF AN IRISH DIVA, one of my characters discovers an old scrapbook that relates to an event happening around her. The past leaves footprints everywhere, and scrapbooking can be a bridge between the past and the present.

Scrapbooking has a puzzle-like quality to it that makes it perfect for mysteries.

HANK: Pushing the analogy—writing a mystery means you have to use a recipe, in a way. Know what I mean? ANd how did you learn how to do it?

Mollie's newest book! Available now!

MOLLIE: Yes, I know what you mean. When I first started writing SCRAPBOOK Of SECRETS, I had no idea where I was going with it. I had characters. I had a story that I'd been thinking about for a long time. I wasn't sure I was getting anywhere with it. I talked with my agent about it and she said it sounded like a mystery novel to her. Something clicked. It gave me the structure I needed. I knew that along with my characters, I needed certain "recipe ingredients," like clues, red herrings, and a resolution to the mystery. I've always read mysteries, though mostly I'm a non-fiction reader. I went back and re-read some mysteries I liked and analyzed them. I also read books and articles about writing mysteries, sort of teaching myself along the way. Also, I feel like this is important to say--I really do feel like I'm still learning. I soak up all advice I can find then use what works best for me.
Besides all of this, scrapbooking is visual storytelling. What a great companion to novel writing.

HANK: Sigh. Mollie, can you come over to my house? I have this very interesting box of stuff... How about you, Girlfriends?Do you scrapbook? Did any of your family? Leave your comment here, and you will be entered to win a copy of SCRAPPED!


Mollie Cox Bryan is a food writer and cookbook author with a penchant for murder. Her stories have many forms: cookbooks, articles, essays, poetry and fiction. Mollie grew up near Pittsburgh, Pa., and attended Point Park University, where she received a B.A. in Journalism and Communications. Her first real job out of college was as a paste-up artist at a small newspaper, where she was allowed to write “on her own time” and she did.

Mollie moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where she held a number of writing jobs, and has written about a diverse array of subjects, such as construction, mathematics education, and life insurance. While working in the editorial field, Mollie began taking poetry classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. Soon, she was leading local poetry workshops and was selected to participate in the prestigious Jenny McKean Moore Poetry Workshop. Mollie still writes poetry— not as frequently— and believes that her study of poetry informs all of her writing.

The first in her series, Scrapbook of Secrets, was published by Kensington in February 2012 and is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel; the next one Scrapped, was just published in January 2013.

 Plans for the series include three more novels and two novellas. She is also the author of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley, Ten Speed Press, 2006) and Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies, (Ten Speed, 2009) which was named "A Cookbook to Watch" by the New York Times. She lives in Waynesboro, Va. with her husband and two daughters.


  1. I am not sure if I truly know anyone who scrapbooks. When my children were young I made a scrapbook for each and they turned out to be a biography of their years from birth through high school. I've never done a scrapbook for myself. I prefer your method of a large box.

  2. Great interview, Hank! Love the idea of scrapbooking. But when it comes time to sit down and actually DO it, well, you know what happens....

  3. Michelle, many mothers do the same thing. They make scrapbooks for their kids, but not themselves. I'm as guilty as the next. But I've started trying to scrapbook about myself because I think it will be a nice thing for my kids to have someday. I try to journal in those scrapbooks, too. I have plenty of scrapbooks my grandmother made, but in many cases, I have no idea what was going on while the photos were taken. And wouldn't it be nice to know...

  4. Oh, Yes, when my mother died, I got a whole pile of photographs, and some of them have people I recognize, but others--no idea. And now, there's no one who DOES know.. It's a little sad, and a little mysterious.

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  7. Sorry, didn't need to be anonymous and not figuring out the right setting... I love the comparison made here! As a Creative Memories Consultant, I believe that scrapbooks can 'Preserve the past. Enrich the present. Inspire the future.' Pics and journaling the stories in an album that will stand the test of time; pretty paper optional! :)

  8. Hank, maybe someday you can make scrapbooks from those photos and solve some of those mysteries.
    Jodi, thanks so much for commenting and for your kind words. "Preserve the past. Enrich the present. Inspire the future." LOVE that.

  9. I wish someone, anyone, would come over to my house and do something with all the boxes of paper, recipes, DYI tips, etc. I've accumulated. Any volunteers?

  10. Ah, Tiger! Maybe that's a whole new career for someone--but would it be possible to put together another person's scrapbook?

  11. Yes! You can hire someone to do that for you. I'm sure you could do an internet search and find a lot of them. The tricky part would be finding someone locally, unless you live in or near a big city.

  12. I do a lot of digital scrapbooking, which is differant and fun. And I have a lot of photos on my iPhone and so on. But. I worry about a technical problem with all of it that will erase the photos. It happens. So, for the special ones, I use traditional scrapbooking. It can be expensive--you are right--but it doesn't have to be. I give a list of frugal scrapbooking tips in my book.

  13. Mollie, thank you so much for being here today!c YOu are so inspirational..and I'm looking at my box of stuff with different eyes! We'll announce the winnner here tomorrow!

  14. Thanks so much for having me here, Hank. I'm thrilled. It's been so much fun!

  15. And the winner is: Jodi Eisner!

    Contact me at h ryan at whdh dot com and we will get you Mollie's book!

    Love to all

    1. Thank you! Sorry I hadn't seen this sooner! Mollie contacted me today thru my FB site so I'm taken care of. P.S. I can't take credit for the quote I made above... It's a Creative Memories mission statement that I use as a consultant. :) Anyone wanting help, feel free to stop by... I can show you how you can do your own books and I have done books for others, too. :D Thanks again, Hank and Mollie!