The tenth (writing) commandment, according to ‘Mslexia’

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The cover of MAR/APR/MAY 2013 issue of Mslexia advertises ‘Fiction’s 10 Commandments’. Such writing rules are always tantalising, but usually turn out to consist of rules that are either sweeping or restrictive ‘make sure every scene and sentence in your novel advances your plot or characterisation in some way [the third commandment]’ or trivial ‘Thou shalt not give characters names that all start with the same initial [the tenth commandment]’.

Rare must be the book where all the characters’ initials are the same. There are, however, many novels where more than one character has the same initial. And this ‘misnaming’ of characters is easily done.

For one thing, writers do not name their characters simultaneously.  A main character’s name begins with a “H”, so the writer avoids other names beginning with a “H”. If we have a “Harry”, then we will not have a “Harold”. We call someone else “Tim” but later on, when another character is invented—Tim is not present at that point in the story—the name “Tom” comes to mind.

On reading through the draft, the error is glaring: “Tom” must go but it is a pity because “Tom” is very much a “Tom”, and it is hard to think of him as a “Bill”. But we owe it to our readers to make the change, so “Tom” becomes “Bill”.

Not all writers exercise this vigilance and many books are published which breach Mslexia’s tenth commandment.

But having characters with the same initials may not be as bad as having a similar syllable in characters’ names. We may well distinguish “John” from “Jerry” but have more difficulty with a “Jon”’ and a “Don”.  A similarity in the first syllable is worst of all. In Gladys Mitchell’s The Saltmarsh Murders we must deal with a ‘Burt’ and a ‘Burns’.

The following examples come from six months’ of reading, and half the examples are from the last two months.

The Worst Witch Strikes Again: Jill Murphy’s four main characters are Ethel, Enid, Maud and Mildred.

Empire Falls:  Mr Russo has no qualms about having Fr. Mark, Miles, and Max as main characters who appear in scenes together.

Minerate: Leila Abouleila’s main character’s (Najwa’s) love interests are called Tamer and Anwar. Not, of course, the same initial but both are five-lettered names and are quite easy to confuse. Najwa has a brother ‘Omar’ and the place ‘Oman’ is also mentioned.

In the first chapter of Emily of the New Moon, L M Montgomery introduces Emily and Ellen. This isn’t too confusing because Ellen does not remain in the book for long. But there is an Aunt Elizabeth. However, the title ‘Aunt’ makes the name distinguishable enough from Emily.

John le Carré confuses us in a particular part of A Murder of Quality: we must distinguish between Felix (D’Arcy), Fielding and a place called North Fields.

Gillian Flynn gives significant roles to Amy and Andie in Gone Girl

In An English Murder by Cyril Hare, we meet Lady Camilla and Mrs Carstairs.

In The Minnow on the Say, Phillipa Pearce gives David a brother called Dick.

In Roy Vickers’ short story ‘The Yellow Jumper’ from The Department of Dead Ends, out of three main characters, two have the initial ‘R’ (‘Ruth’ and ‘Rita’).

In Handles by Jan Mark there is an Elsie (a man) and an Erica.

Yet sometimes the same initials do not confuse me. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen has Elinor fall in love with Edward. Apart from having the same initial, the names seem quite distinct. (Edward tends, anyway, to be known as Mr Ferrars.)

So the rule might be restated: No characters of the same sex should have the same initials. Characters of opposite sex should only have the same initials where the names are otherwise quite distinct.

This tenth commandment is not significant. If you do not apply it, you will annoy your readers. If you do apply it, your readers will not be congratulating you: they won’t notice.

The tenth commandment is in breach of the fourth commandment ‘cut out all inessential words’ in the same article. “Initials” are the first letters of names, so “start” is an inessential word. But it is a trifle which I would not vex myself about.


Outrageous Brownies

September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

My sister used to visit ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ in East Hampton when she lived in New York. She couldn’t bring The Barefoot Contessa to me but, some years ago, she sent me the cookbook, also entitled The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

The recipe ‘Outrageous Brownies’ was flagged for my attention. Later my sister sent the cup measurements and the chocolate chips and baking chocolate. Don’t they have chocolate in England, her husband (outraged?) wanted to know.

We did but semi-sweet chocolate chips were not available and, as far as I know, still are not.  But things are not as bad as they were in 1984 when Debbie Vogeler, an American, experienced London’s shortcomings: I couldn’t get real baking chocolate in any of the stores. But that’s how it is with everything here you know? . . . For instance the way they are in the stores. That man at the grocery was really disagreeable, as if I’d insulted him or something by saying he ought to carry unsweetened baking chocolate, and he was glad he’d never heard of it.  (Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs)

In England and Ireland we do not use the words ‘baking chocolate’. We tend to talk about the cocoa content of chocolate used in baking: it usually contains 70% cocoa.

The recipe for twenty outrageous brownies requires 32 ounces of chocolate for an 18 x 11 x 1 inch tin, not 2 oz as some of Delia Smith’s do for a 10 x 6 x 1 inch tin.

Those 32 ounces of chocolate become seven bars of Montezuma chocolate (54% cocoa) and two of Divine Dark Chocolate (70% cocoa). Outrageous isn’t it? (There may be two ounces left over but you do have to buy the whole bar.)

I made a quarter of the recipe. Selecting the tin size was difficult; I went for a 10 x 10 inch tin which is not a quarter of 18 x 11 but I couldn’t see a 4.5 x 3.5 inch tin working, could you?

Even a quarter of the mixture contains more chocolate than any other brownie recipe I know. These brownies are just for those occasions when you are feeling outrageous or simply outraged.


1 Pound unsalted butter

1 Pound plus 12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate

6 extra-large eggs

3 Tablespoons instant coffee granules

2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract

2 1/4 Cups sugar [I reduce the sugar by half]

1 1/4 Cups all-purpose flour [plain flour, I use wholemeal]

1 Tablespoon baking power

1 Teaspoon salt

3 Cups chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 12 x 18 x 1 inch baking sheet [tin].

Melt the butter and 1 pound of chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate in a medium bowl over simmering water. Allow to cool. Stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the warm chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a medium bowl, sift together 1 cup of flour, the baking powder, and salt. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture. Toss the walnuts and 12 ounces of chocolate chips in a medium bowl with a quarter cup of flour, and then add them to the chocolate batter. (If the chocolate batter is not cool the chips may melt and your brownies will be ruined, Ina warns.) Pour in the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, and then rap the baking sheet against the oven shelf to force the air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough. Bake for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not overbake! Allow to cool thoroughly, refrigerate, and cut into 20 large squares.

See The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten. Do look up the metric equivalent of cup measurements. One cup of sugar weighs much heavier than one of flour.

In some brownie recipes, there is a disproportionate amount of sugar: for example, 12 ounces of sugar to four ounces of butter and chocolate. The sugar in such a quantity will form a crust which contrasts to the soft centre of the brownie. But the brownies are too sweet. Texture is an important element in any kind of cooking or baking but taste, I think, should never be sacrificed to texture.

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