No guarantees this will work for you, but if you’re stumped for a story idea, or plain ‘stuck’, you have nothing to lose.

And if you’re here by mistake, thought this was a foodie blog and it has never occurred to you to write a story, then this moment is a gift from fate. Stay and play – you have nothing to lose either.

Why a slow burner? Good stories need time to ferment, with regular tastings to check flavour and seasoning, and our minds continue to work on ideas without us knowing, they need space to mull things over. And anyway, it’s better than staring at an empty page waiting for the fast story delivery man who has lost your address…again.

So lighten up, don a sexy pinny and let’s begin.

First, we make our stock:

Look at the theme ideas below. Think about each one: what it means to you; how true it is, and what questions it raises. Can you think of examples? You can change the words, go off at a tangent or think of something weird, we are playing with ingredients here, ‘wrong’ does not exist.

1. Sweet revenge sickens when it costs you more than your victim.

2. Your best friend becomes your enemy when you both want the last cream puff.

3. A pig in a poke may have a gold ring in his nose.

4. No one has power over us until we submit to them.

5. Love and hate eat at the same table.

Carefully peel and chop finely to release their full essence, there’s no rush. When you’re ready, pick whichever theme set you thinking the most, and jot down how it might play out in your own life: what if it happened to you?…to someone you know?

Leave to simmer for a few days.

Now for the dumplings:

With the stock that you have, what flavours will your dumplings need – sweet, tart, meaty, spicy, sour? Think of the sort of people who could enact your chosen theme: for a flash fiction you will need only three at most. Give them names, and knead thoroughly until you release their full flavours, textures, and colourings. What do they do? Where have they come from? What do they want out of life? What do they fear? What is their role in the theme? What is their connection with each other?

Marinade the dumplings in the stock for one week. Sample occasionally, adding any little seasonings that come to mind: a teaspoonful of honey, a dash of sauce, a pinch of bitter rue.


Stir well until all ingredients are well mixed and the stock has soaked thoroughly into the dumplings. How do the characters interact? What do they do to each other? Say to each other? Write as much of the story as comes into your head – start anywhere.

Set aside to cool. Return at intervals to reheat, stir, and add elements until your story is more or less complete, and you have a sequence of events.

Leave to ferment for at least a further week, checking and tweaking from time to time to ensure the aroma is enticing for your opening paragraph, and the last mouthful will be satisfying at the end.


Sample your concoction once more: you should be able to taste the stock in every spoonful. Are the dumplings substantial, firm and flavoursome? There is plenty of time for a few adjustments if necessary.

When you are entirely happy, present your delicious story neatly, without dribbles, stray hairs, or bits falling off the plate.

Pour yourself a large glass of wine, tuck in, and enjoy!


Oh, one more thing I should mention – about writing technique – never drag out a metaphor to absurdity J

And there are heaps more tips on writing, editing, publishing and selling your work in Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author many of them relevant to fiction as well.

Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity the only global social history of storytelling from prehistory to the digital age.


How to Cook a Story on a Slow Burner
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10 thoughts on “How to Cook a Story on a Slow Burner

  • May 10, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    I once dragged a metaphor to an absurd ditty – and I’ve never tried to write a song since…

    • May 10, 2013 at 11:15 pm

      Love it! Writing can be such hard work it should be fun, and you made me laugh. Thanks for your other comment,too. Another writer friend “never throws anything away”, even cuts when editing – just as well it can all be stored digitally. And perhaps you should have another go at a song?

  • May 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    On a more serious note, as the post deserves a more serious comment, I really do agree that ideas often need time to develop. You should never discard them because they are ‘not working’. If they stay with you and you stick with them, they quite often find a way out in a form that can work.

  • June 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I’m a rubbish cook (ask my kids!) but used to use the wine-making metaphor. Gather all your ingredients (elderberry, sugar, water) warm it and slosh it together, add yeast (which gives it fire in its belly) and then leave it to gloop for a long time. Come back to it eventually and decant into pretty bottles with fancy labels. (Or decant straight into a glass and drink – but that bit doesn’t work with the writing metaphor!)

    • June 6, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      Haha…yes, and the yeast gives you a fire in the head, too. I definitely advocate wine after the writing rather than before …

  • June 17, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Some juicy ideas. Thank for the food for thought! 🙂

    • June 17, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      Hi Adriene, thanks for both your messages – glad you found it appetising 🙂

  • June 18, 2013 at 5:29 am

    Love the metaphor! It reminded me of a drawing I was doing the other day. It didn’t look right and I had a flash of “throw it out and start over”, but instead I erased, smudged, shaded (seasoning? – smile) and before I knew it, there it was. Thanks for reminding me of how the same applies to my writing.

    • June 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Hello Diane, I’m so glad you left a comment and delighted that the recipe had useful flavours for you. I hadn’t thought of any relevance to drawing or painting, but creativity is inherent in all of us and can be applied to everything so it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

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