Thursday, September 17, 2020

How I’ve Spent My Time in Solitary by James W. Ziskin

 In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?

This question sounds familiar. Four weeks ago, we were asked how we managed to stay sane and motivated in these strange times. For me, sane and positive go hand in hand. When I’m feeling positive, I’m also confident that I’ll keep my sanity. But the gauntlet has been thrown, so here goes.

I’ve been relatively happy since March, when we began self-isolation. Here’s what I’ve been doing to stay positive and, in turn, focused.

On the personal side, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife and cat, each working at our own jobs, me at my desk, my wife at hers, and Bobbie—the cat—supervising. Our work days run eight to ten hours. I write, edit, and draw—maps for my next book. But I also take care of things around the house. Laundry, shopping, cooking.

Cat at work
Map in progress for new book



Risotto alla Milanese

Over the past six months, I’ve expanded my culinary repertoire, but I won’t be appearing on Master Chef anytime soon. For one thing, I can’t seem to get the hang of following recipes. I improvise, especially with measurements. I’m also a terribly slow prep cook. When the recipe says fifteen minutes prep, it invariably takes me forty-five. And don’t ask about my knife skills. I’m more likely to cut myself than that piece of chicken.

As for the shopping, I’ve been ordering online for home delivery. We have an area near the door that’s far from the rest of the house, so we’ve created a quarantine space there. Items not requiring refrigeration are left there for three days in boxes with exit labels. We’re going with a three-day quarantine for food and mail.

For the things that need refrigeration, I wash them with soap and water in the kitchen sink as soon as they arrive. Yup, I wash them. Tomatoes, zucchini, milk cartons, etc. are easy. Cabbage isn’t too bad. But parsley? Broccoli? It’s like washing hair that you intend to eat. But I do it. Then I spread it out to dry for a few hours before putting it into the fridge.


Did you really think I was abstaining? It’s shameful to admit, but alcohol has definitely taken some of the sting out of isolation. Hic.


I wish I could say I was exercising more, but I can’t. And that’s not the sports I was referring to. With the NBA playoffs and the start of the NFL season, I have a pleasant diversion to amuse me several times a week. Can’t say the same for baseball. The game is getting slower and slower, and I’m not interested. Maybe when the World Series rolls around. And, sorry, Canadian friends, I’ve never been a hockey man. 


I don’t watch a lot of television. Apart from Shetland, which I enjoyed recently, I haven’t binged anything on TV. But I have been listening a lot to French and Italian radio on Radio Garden. Look it up. Hundreds of stations from around the world are streaming there for free. I tend to go for the older stuff. Songs I remember from my years in France and Italy in the seventies and eighties.

On the professional side, (here’s the focused part) I took advantage of the isolation to increase my writing productivity. I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Twenty-five-Year Engagement,” that will appear in the anthology, In League with Sherlock Holmes, coming December 1, from Pegasus, edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King. See? My name is last, after a lot of very talented writers.

I also wrote a new book, Monsoon Chase, a throwback thriller set in 1975 India. That’s been satisfying, if very difficult. I’m not used to the challenges of completing a novel in just over two months. The speed caused many problems in the manuscript, so I’ve also been revising like mad. The revisions have now reached the point where I’ve decided to make a major change in the story. As I’ve noted in past posts, when you change something in your book—even something small—so many connections can be broken. So imagine how difficult that is when you’re changing lots of larger plot points. It’s a lot of hunting and pecking to find the shattered connections and fix them. But I think the result will be better than the original. I should be finished with this revision (number eight) by the weekend.

So that’s it. For me, accomplishments, big and small, are what have been keeping me feeling positive. And sane during this crazy time. How Jim fills his days... This must be the most boring post ever on 7 Criminal Minds. I apologize. See you in two weeks after more of the same!


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Some risotto, a cat supervising and taking the sting out of isolation. It sounds like you've got it worked out, Jim.

Paul D. Marks said...

It sounds like you're doing the best you can with all that's going on, Jim. And the risotto sounds good to me, too.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Dietrich and Paul. The key to the risotto is committing to 22 minutes of stirring. You can’t leave it to cook on its own. Oh, and lots of Parmigiano cheese.

Hope you’re keeping well and productive.


Keenan Powell said...

The coveted bottom billing. Clever of you to be born with a name that starts with a "Z"!

Susan C Shea said...

I have scoured my local 2 grocery stores for arborio rice for months because I love making a risotto, actually enjoy the attention it requires - a kind of zen buddhist approach to cooking. Allison has urged me to go online unless I want to drive to her Bernal Heights specialty store. But the difference between my making a risotto and you making one is that you managed to write a whole book in addition whereas I manage to use cooking and cat company and some volunteer work as an excuse not to make much progress on my WIP. So my hat's off to you. Bon appetit!

James W. Ziskin said...

Keenan, the Z isn’t always a plus. My books are always on the bottom shelf in stores. Never at eye level.


James W. Ziskin said...

Susan, here’s to one day soon when we can all get together for a risotto!


Finta said...

Wow Jim. You’re taking many more precautions with the groceries than we do. Had delivery for many weeks but now Julie’s going shopping as needed. Stay safe and keep writing books for me. Xox

Finta said...

PS. Finta is Ann Mason. Long story

James W. Ziskin said...

Dear Ann, I figured out that Fina was you a LOOOONG time ago. I write mysteries, remember?

Thank you for the good wishes. You and Julie stay safe, too. I’ll keep writing books.