The Deb Ball welcomes Kelly O’Connor McNees!

Author photo of Kelly O'Connor McNees

Returning guest Kelly O’Connor McNees is the author of two novels, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and In Need of a Good Wife. She has worked as a teacher and editor, and lives with her husband and daughter in Chicago.

A little about IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE:

For Clara Bixby, brokering mail-order marriages is a golden opportunity—a chance to start again. If she can help New York women find husbands in a far-off Nebraska town, she can build a new life away from her own loss and grief. Her ambitions are shared by a quiet Bavarian immigrant named Elsa, who hopes to escape servitude and make the most of her remaining years. And by Rowena, a once-wealthy widow who jumps at the chance to marry a humble stranger and repay a heartbreaking debt.

But the journey west is a struggle and the new life that waits for them in Nebraska is far from what they expected. These travelers soon learn that they must leave their pasts behind in order to lay claim to the women they want to become.

Sounds absolutely delicious, no? Kelly is back at the Ball to talk about another delicious fall treat…

Of all the fall food staples—the roast, the casserole, the towering apple pie—my favorite thing to cook when the leaves are falling is a delicious but humble pot of soup. When I stopped to wonder why this is, I realized that making soup and writing novels have a lot in common.

Every good soup starts with some fat—let’s say butter—a generous two tablespoons or so, melted slowly over low heat. The butter is your novel’s concept. It’s the gem of an idea that came to you when you were halfway through the crosswalk this morning and almost caused you to be hit by a car. The butter is your what-if. It’s your starting place.

But you can’t eat butter for dinner (don’t think I haven’t tried). So you peel and chop up a small onion, a couple carrots, a few celery stalks, and throw them in with some salt, keeping the heat low. These are your tried and true story techniques. When you apply those techniques to your concept, something starts to happen. Your kitchen smells good. Your pan is sizzling.

But you’re keeping the heat low. You’re not in a rush. Better to write 500 words a day on low than crank the burner up to high and burn all your aromatic vegetables in one afternoon. Go easy on your soup pot.

Now comes the most important part: the broth. Sure, you could simply open some canned characters and pour them in—flat, simplistic, and full of BPA as they may taste. Or you could take the time to make your broth from scratch. You could fork over the fifteen dollars for a nice free-range chicken, cover it with cold water, and cook it at a low simmer with some herbs and vegetables for five hours or so, strain it, let it cool, and skim off the fat. You did that yesterday, of course, because you plan ahead. You also took the meat off the bone after about an hour, so you can chop it up and add it to the soup at the end. Five hours gives you a lot of time to think about who your characters are, to figure out what they want, to give them complex problems and unusual facial features.

If you want the soup to be filling, so you’re not prowling around the kitchen at ten p.m. eating all the kettle corn in the house, for example, you need some tension. In soup, tension looks like a noodle. It starts out rigid, then softens over time. It gets between all the other ingredients. It keeps you eating (and reading).

Then, finally, if you really want to be a show-off, you need a flourish. I don’t even want to know about chicken noodle soup that isn’t served with a heaping handful of fresh parsley on top, and maybe a few curls of lemon zest (sounds weird, but try it). A novel needs to be yours. Leave your fingerprints on the page.

Of course, the best thing about making soup, by far, is that you really don’t have to follow a recipe. Soup cries out for improvisation, unlikely pairings, a nonlinear narrative. Butternut squash and black bean, sour cream and beet, chipotle and chick pea. Don’t worry. If it’s terrible (I’m looking at you, corn chowder) you can just delete it and start again.

Find Kelly online:

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Find IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at your local bookstore!

Thanks for being here, Kelly! We wish you soup pots full of success with IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE!

13 Replies to “The Deb Ball welcomes Kelly O’Connor McNees!”

  1. I’m going to let these ideas simmer all day! Love the noodles as tension, getting between all the other ingredients. I’m picturing a variety of noodles in my bowl — giant egg noodles and those itty bitty stars.

    I’ve read IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE, and when I was finished, I drifted off to sleep dreaming of long-ago Nebraska. It’s an excellent read, and Kelly knows how I feel about her first book. LOVE!

  2. This is so, SO true! I love the soup analogy – as much as I love letting my characters simmer until a story starts to emerge, and then writing an outline and letting that simmer a while before diving in to write.

    Your post has me re-excited about my new novel – which has been simmering long enough that it’s time to go write! (And also … I need to make soup today … )

  3. I am such a simmer-er too! I didn’t know that’s what I was doing but now that I read this, I think I’m just really particular about my stock.

    And that squash and bean soup sounds amazing!

  4. I just finished In Need of a Good Wife this week – I had ordered it from our local store, so when it came in I picked it up and actually stayed up way too late finishing it that night, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened. I also just loaned it last night to a friend who was eager to read it after I told her about it!
    Kelly’s first book was really interesting. I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I did because I was never a Louisa May Alcott fan, but I ended up reading that all in one go, too, as it was too good to put down! I love historical novels. They take one to a time and place that is different and unfamiliar, so when they are well-written one often ends up eager to read more about the era, or the historical characters involved. Your book did that to me.
    In “Good Wife”, Kelly, I particularly loved the way you handled Elsa and her employer and visitor. (trying to avoid spoilers!) Not at all what I would have predicted at the beginning!
    Are you at work on a third book, or are you taking a break with the little one?

  5. Kelly, I too just finished reading your wonderful novel this weekend. And like Sally, it kept me up a lot longer than usual! But it was so worth it, Kelly. Each of your main characters came alive for me; you do have a way with words, missy! I feel a kinship with the women who came to the these plains, filled with hope for a better life, a better future. So it was with me personally. I’m pleased to hear you’re working on your next book. I can’t wait to read it. Best of luck as you continue writing, making soup, and especially as you enjoy that sweet little baby girl.

  6. KELLY O’CONNOR MCNEES! Congratulations on cooking up such a perfect batch of soup with In Need of a Good Wife.

    But that comment about corn chowder? Girl, we have to talk.

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