Sunday, March 7, 2021

Around the Kitchen Table: Are We Plotters or Pantsers When We Cook? + #Giveaway


LESLIE KARST: Mystery authors are often asked the question, Are you a plotter or a pantser--i.e., do you plot out your story lines before beginning to write, or do you fly by the seat of your pants and simply see how it goes? Well, I'm a dedicated plotter, who loves to know pretty much all the major story lines of my Sally Solari mysteries before I begin to write. 

But when it comes to cooking, I'm the exact opposite: I rarely follow recipes (though I do love to read cookbooks for ideas!), instead preferring to taste, add this and that, taste again, and so forth. This habit likely stems from my having gone to culinary arts school, where I learned about food chemistry and how different ingredients react with each other, so I can get away with it. But it raises a question for my fellow MLKers:

When it comes to cooking, are you a plotter (recipe follower) or a pantser? 


MADDIE DAY: I love this question, Leslie! My writing process is primarily a write-into-the-headlights kind of thing, although having a (very) rough synopsis to follow can help when I'm a little bit stuck. And that's also how I cook - when it comes to savory dishes. I might look up a recipe for a vegetable curry or a chicken stir fry, but it's only for a sense of proportions or to snag an idea for a new ingredient. I especially like to pants-cook in the summer when I can go to my garden or a farm stand, see what's ripe, and then improvise dinner.

This approach, of course, presents a problem for documenting recipes here on the blog or for one of my foodie cozies. I'll start cooking and then say, "Wait - I have to measure that oil and that soy sauce!"

For sweet baking? I always follow a recipe for cakes, muffins, cookies (like these Mocha-Kahlua Valentine's Cookies) from last year), and pie crust. I might have the amounts in my head, but I still follow them.

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LESLIE BUDEWITZ: When I write a novel, I'm a dedicated planner, a term I much prefer to plotter, which sounds too much like plodder! I need to know my sleuth, killer, victim, and suspects, the major events, and the emotional conflicts that drive my character. The story always changes as I write, but to me, that roadmap is critical. When I write short stories, though, I usually know the general scenario and ending, and either write toward the ending or backwards from it. That's the difference between writing 75,000 words and 5,000!

When I cook, I often work from a recipe the first time I make something, to learn how to make a specific sauce, for example, or create the flavor profile the author is after. And I have enough experience to change things up, especially when it comes to the herbery and spicery. Changes sometimes happen because we don't have an ingredient, or I've got a strong feeling that the technique described isn't going to work. (Of course, I know which sources I consider most reliable.) Weeknight dinners, like stir-fries, tacos, or pasta sauces, are totally free-form. 

In baking, though, you're after a chemical reaction, so changes have to be made with great care. Sometimes you quickly realize you can make an improvement, as I did by changing the spice mix in my Chai Spice Coffee Cake and adding a glaze the original didn't call for. 

Years ago, when he watched me cook, my father said he saw me checking the map -- the recipe -- and I love the image. A recipe and an outline are both maps, critical for helping make sure I end up in Seattle instead of Salt Lake City, but not necessary for deciding where to have lunch on the way!    

VICKI DELANY: I'm mostly a plotter both ways. I plot my novels, roughly, and I follow recipes carefully.  Once I get to know a favourite dish, I will improvise with the recipe but at first, I follow to the letter. I also bake a lot, and there isn't much room for improvisation in baking, is there? But it can be done as Leslie pointed out. 

LUCY BURDETTE: I'm a pantser as I write, which is sometimes agonizing. But I don't know what's in the story until I've written my way into it, and then more ideas start to flow. I do often start with some general ideas like, oh the body will be found here, or Nathan's father will probably show up this time. though I do love to rewrite!

With cooking, I love to read recipes and then tweak. But I'm usually not disciplined enough to follow things exactly or make them over and over to test the various possibilities.


MIA P. MANANSALA: I plot my books--as a newer, slow writer who now has deadlines, I need that outline and synopsis to guide me. But when it comes to cooking, I follow my dad's approach: Measuring? What's that? It makes me so sad that I only have a single recipe of my father's, but he wasn't one for exact amounts. It seems he's passed that down to me. Like Maddie said, it makes posting recipes here really difficult! There are so many I want to share, but it'd just say things like, "Add enough of X ingredient. A splash of this other ingredient. Taste it. Does it need more X? How much garlic should you add? What does your heart tell you?" I do look at recipes the first time I make things just to give me a general idea, and then I make it my own.
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DENISE SWANSON: I started my writing career as a plotter, by turned to a hybrid or mini-panster. I still figure out the victim, suspects, murderer, and motive before I start a new book, but from there on, it's whatever pops into my head as I work on the manuscript.

My cooking style is the same. I follow most recipes for baked goods to the letter. However, other recipes I usually just take as a suggestion. I often add or subtract ingredients to reflect what I have on hand. I also substitute ingredients to make the dish healthier. It usually works out pretty well, but like my writing, sometimes I do have to toss everything in the trash and start again.
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PEG COCHRAN: I'm definitely a plotter when it comes to writing.  I noodle everything until I have a good idea of what I want to write (the noodling usually is in the form of pages of nearly stream of consciousness sentences and phrases as I feel my way through the story.) Then I write (type actually) scenes on index cards and arrange them to my satisfaction. These are pinned to a bulletin board. I don't always follow them exactly but they help to keep me from getting stuck.
When I'm cooking, I usually start with a recipe and then add or subtract--use chicken thighs instead of pork chops for example.  I have almost every dried herb/spice under the sun but I often don't have fresh herbs so unless the chopped parsley is integral to the dish, I will leave it out.  I also generally cut down on the butter or oil used in the recipe. I'll also leave out anything my husband doesn't like!  Baking, I always follow a recipe and only make small substitutions like orange zest instead of lemon zest, or no raisins because I don't have any. 

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MAYA CORRIGAN: What Peg said about plotting. I have a similar board, but my scene index cards are color-coded. For some books the colors relate to plot threads. For the book I'm currently writing, shown in the image, each color represents a suspect or witness my sleuth interacts with. The color coding lets me see when I need to bring back a key character who hasn't been around for a while. This is a small segment of my scene board.

I also have a table in a Word document in which I fill in the details about each scene as I go along. Though it looks as if I've plotted out everything and I think I know whodunit from the start, twice I've changed whodunit a third of the way into the book, and one time I decided on a different culprit as I was writing the final scene revealing the killer. That happened in S'more Murders, the book I'm giving away today. Needless to say, I had some rewriting to do. 

My approach to cooking is also similar to Peg's. Find a recipe and start making changes to suit my tastes and the contents of the fridge or pantry at the moment. Whether writing a book or making a dish, I have something in mind when I start, but it doesn't always turn out the way I thought it would.
TINA KASHIAN: When it comes to writing cozies, I'm a plotter. I always know where to start a book and I know my characters well, but when I reach the sagging middle (I'm not talking about my waist), I always refer to my outline. For cooking, I start with a recipe and then improvise by adding a "pinch of this" or a "handful of that." I prefer cooking over baking because I can add a touch of my favorite ingredients. But I do love to eat!


MARY JANE MAFFINI: Thanks, Leslie, for this great question. In my mysteries, I am the pantsiest writer ever. I like to let my characters do the work and see where they take me. They often drop me off in a place that involves a lot of extra work. I vow to change, however, on book nineteen, it may be too late. But in the kitchen, it's a whole different story. On the one hand, I love to dive in with whatever ingredients are in the fridge and see what comes out for dinner. Over the years, we have had some grave disappointments and even a few scares but also some successes that turned out to be keepers. Recently. when our favorite restaurant was too busy for our Valentine's take-out order (sniff) we decided to try to duplicate the dish: Seafood Linguine. We had shrimp and no other seafood, but we had a substitute pasta (spaghettini), lemons, parsley, green onions and more. The little mister said that in his opinion our results were better than the restaurant version. Who knew?

Now, can we duplicate this pantsy effort? I hope so because it will be my next post on Mystery Lovers Kitchen, March 25th. I promise a clear 'plot' to make it. 

However, when it comes to baking, I’ve learned that it’s tricky to stray from the recipe. Baking is generally all about sticking to the plan. Even though happy accidents sometimes advance the world, it’s a good idea to let the 'chemistry' work its magic. A sad little story to illustrate: a few years ago, for a Halloween recipe, I wanted to make bat-shaped chocolate cookies. I tried a recipe that was all over the internet with a major cooking magazine cited as the source. I modified the flavorings and got to work. I did wonder why the recipe would require a tablespoon of baking soda, when a teaspoon or so was the standard. After fifty years of baking, it seemed wrong, but, hey, these were experts, and so I trusted that the one tablespoon of baking soda would contribute something new and tasty. The bat cookies looked fantastic! Victoria (official poison tester) tried a cookie and after one bite hurled it into the sink. Insulted, I tasted too. The entire double batch went into the garbage. Even the dogs turned up their noses. Unsalvageable. No amount of pantsing could fix those batty cookies. Despite setbacks, under normal circumstances a determined pantzer can have a lot of fun trying out different fillings, topics and flavor additions. In our kitchen we have camouflaged fallen cakes, prettied up misshapen cookies and tossed a slug of booze into sad looking puddings. All in all, I think pantsing can work. In the Book Collector series (written with my daughter as Victoria Abbott), it was pantsing all the way but we think we covered that up. I’m giving away of a copy of The Marsh Madness, book 4. In it Victoria and I pantsed each other to the point of madness. I continue to recover from the time she returned her chapter for me to continue, but had included an exploding still for me to deal with. Surprise! The exploding still stayed and added a certain zing. Make sure you let us know how you are in the kitchen - we are really quite a nosy bunch.

CLEO COYLE: Good topic, Leslie! Of course, there is no right or wrong answer. The creative outcome is the only thing that matters, whether on the page or on the plate. As for my husband and I, we have the same sort of “pantser” approach in writing our mysteries as in our cooking, and even in how we live our lives. Making a living in the arts is way too unpredictable to plan anything with certainty, so we learned over the years to tolerate risk and enjoy living by the seat of our pants. 
      Likewise, we never outline a book from start to finish. After we agree on a concept and general direction (with a very loose outline), we will throw our characters into the thick of things and let them tell us the story from there. By the midpoint, we are brainstorming again, researching new twists, turns, and locations. We rarely know the ending until we are more than half-way through. We like it that way. Our thinking is, if we can surprise ourselves, we are more likely to surprise and entertain our readers.

We approach cooking the same way. We know the principles of what makes a good dish, and we push and pull ingredients and techniques until we get the recipe where we like it. Case in point, my "pantser" approach on finding the best Maple-Glazed Oatmeal Muffin to be served in our 16th Coffeehouse Mystery, Dead Cold Brew. I played with ratios all day (particularly the amount of oatmeal vs. flour) and experimented with spices until I found the "perfect" oatmeal muffin, IMO, of course. And I am happy to share it. Click here for the recipe or on the photo below and eat with plenty of joy!

Click for Cleo's recipe
with a free, downloadable PDF.


To be entered in this week's drawing,
leave a comment about your cooking habits:
Are you a plotter or a pantser in the kitchen?

Comments Open through
Thursday, March 11.



S'MORE MURDERS by Maya Corrigan

SHOT IN THE DARK by Cleo Coyle


THE MARSH MADNESS by Victoria Abbott

Comments Open through
Thursday, March 11.



  1. Definitely a pantser.

    jtcgc at yahoo dot com

  2. In the kitchen, I would say I'm a mixture of both plotter or a pantser leaning a bit more towards pantser the older and more experienced I get.

    If I see a new recipe, I try to follow it to the letter - the first time - unless I see specific things I need to change for our family. If it's ends up being a keeper that needs so help, I will experiment with changes I think will make it better. When I have a tried and true keeper, it's written down that way and added to my own personal cookbook.

    Years of trying recipes and successes and failures is a great teacher of the culinary skills. I remember when I was young a recipe on the cover of a major magazine. I thought something didn't seem right, but surely a cover pictured recipe had to of been proofed a zillion times. Made the cake, which for my standards at the time was an expensive cake, only to have one major fail. Needless to say I was quite upset. The next month's issue came out with a note of correction - buried on the back pages. I now know if something sounds off (like way too much flour) that it's best just to pass or make it by amounts that I now know are more reasonable. Of course now I'm at a stage in life that I can afford to have a flop and go on to the next. When younger and counting pennies, that isn't a luxury you can afford.

    That all being said, I do experiment with dishes until I can get a dish that I know will taste good for our family. Sometimes that may mean combining several recipes for just the right flavors, textures and ingredients on hand. Sometimes it's a matter of tasting something at a restaurant and working to perfect it at home. Like the cavitini pasta dish that Pizza Hut use to have on their menu. It's a cross between pasta and pizza made some typical pizza ingredients like mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, bell peppers and onions along with the pasta dish ingredients of many different forms of pasta and a sauce. It took many trails and errors before I came up with right mixture of sauce, which is the main outstanding thing in this dish, which was a mixture of both pizza sauce and spaghetti sauce. It's kind of a lets clean up the kitchen dish that added all together is yummy. It's now a recipe we have often and also in my cookbook.

    Thank you so much for this fabulous opportunity! <3 Shared and hoping to be the extremely fortunate one selected.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Trying to recreate restaurant recipes at home is a favorite hobby of mine, too, Kay! In fact, one of my first attempts at "serious" cooking back when I was about 20 was when I made a mushroom soup that I'd tasted at a favorite restaurant. It came out great, and I was hooked!

    2. Recreating restaurant meals is a fave for us, too. In fact, a riff on one created the focal recipe in Crime Rib, and I've tucked a few other re-creations into my books.

    3. I also do this as well. I ordered a fabulous moussaka at a local Greek restaurant and I went home and tried to recreate it.

  3. It depends on the day on whether I’m a plotter or a pantser in the kitchen.
    Kitten143 (at) Verizon (dot) net

  4. It was so fun to read this post. Thank you everyone for sharing. when it comes to cooking, I am so a "plotter" I NEED a recipe to make my meal. I may change somethings along the way to make it to our taste.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. I get it Lori--recipes can be very reassuring!

  5. Depends on the day and recipe. Sometimes while cooking something familiar I’m a pantser. I like to play around with ingredients and see what happens.

  6. I've never fit well into molds and this is no different. When I was younger, I was more of a pantser, which my parents would call being a rebel! Having been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at 2.5 following food rules was paramount to living well. It also forced a plotter lifestyle, decision after decision. My natural pantser was forced to be a plotter. When I adopted a low carb lifestyle the keto movement was not even a thing. Converting recipes was definitely a pantsy process!

    1. Pantsy process--I like it, MaryBeth! And yes, I can imagine that's quite the task to convert recipes like that!

    2. MaryBeth - You're so right, and those issues are not uncommon these days: special diets, allergies, food restrictions. At some point, the "pantsy process" (yep, great term) of recipe conversion is a big help to folks who are either eating these diets or providing meals for them.

  7. I follow recipes but I like to experiment and change them to suit my taste. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. I find experimenting in the kitchen a lot of fun. Even my kids participate with this.

  8. Definitely a plotter. I always follow a recipe exactly the first time I make it. After that I may make a small change here and there, but I'm not that good at coming up with my own recipes.

  9. I am a recipe follower for sure, but the times I've tried to mix it up a bit and add something or put a little more of something in... Oh man what a disaster. All we have to do is mention the french onion soup I attempted in the Crock-Pot... All I did was add some extra black pepper, but I forgot I added a bit when I started it and then while cooking it and then hubby decided he was going to add just a dash cuz he knows I love pepper. Let's just say the pepper overpowered the entire soup and I tried to add more broth and onion to fix it.. it didn't fix it. It was a lost cause. Hubby ate his bowl while drinking so much water because it was so hot and smiled the entire time. I took one bite and spit it out. He will never say he doesn't like something even if its vile. - I no longer cook in the crockpot.. we don't like each other. LoL

    1. Your husband sounds like a love, Lily-Ann! I love black pepper, but when there's too much of it, there's not really much you can do to fix it, alas.

    2. Lily-Ann - Some time ago, we did a group post on our cooking disasters. It was hilarious. (We should do that again!) We all have them, of course. Thanks for sharing yours, a good cautionary tale when more than one cook is in the kitchen (or at least when a "helper" decides to add pepper to the Crock-Pot)!

  10. When I knew nothing about cooking I followed recipes to the letter. Now I innovate and create something new and unique. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

    1. Yes, cooking is like so many other things: you must master the basics before you can go off on your own!

  11. When it comes to cooking I do both.

  12. I am a plotter. I need to follow the recipe. I'm not very adventurous in the kitchen. egoehner(at)roadrunner(dot)com

  13. Love the question and answers. I’m pretty much a Denise Swanson. Mostly plotter, semi conscientious pantsed!

  14. I love this blog entry! I am definitely a plotter when it comes to recipes and cooking. I am not a confident cook, so I feel really nervous if I don’t follow the recipe exactly. cking78503(at)aol(dot)com

  15. I pretty much follow the recipe when I’m baking but for other cooking I take a recipe as a suggestion. I’ll switch up ingredients based on what I have on hand and our taste
    sgiden at verizon(.)net

    1. Yes, I like that, Sandy: taking the recipe as a suggestion! And like you, my meals tend to end up being based on whatever I might have on hand.

  16. Great fun to read. Baking I’m a plotter. The rest of my cooking I’m a panster and change things up. Or make notes for the next time I make that dish.

  17. I'm a plotter when it comes to cooking and baking. I like to follow a recipe for sure. I might add an ingredient or spice for our tastes. Enjoyed reading what every one else does! Thanks for the chance! What an amazing giveaway!

  18. Unless I'm baking, I'm a total pantser in the kitchen! I learned it from my grandma. I remember asking for some of her recipes (she had a HUGE cookbook collection that was well worn) and we struggled to get her recipes on paper. She would use a recipe the first time and mark the recipe up so much with her changes that it was a completely different recipe when she was done. The only changes I usually make with baking is taking out or substituting for things that we are allergic to.

  19. I am a pantser. I pick up a piece of meat and say "what can you do for dinner?" I have created some pretty good meals (and a few real stinkers too)

  20. I am a plotter. I have no imagination for anything.
    lkish77123 at gmail dot com