Posted by Sheila Connolly
I just submitted the draft of One Bad Apple, the first book in my orchard series, to my editor. With Thanksgiving looming, this seems the right time to talk about apples (oh, no, not another food post!).
This series came about in a rather convoluted way. My agent had seen and rejected the original manuscript, but in its first incarnation it had a ghost rather than an orchard. We started kicking around ideas for a series, and she said we needed a hook. I loved parts of the book–the characters, the setting (an old colonial house in Western Massachusetts, which is quite real–it was built by an ancestor of mine), and the location, so I started casting around for a theme that was appropriate to all the other elements, and came up with the orchard. Everyone loves apples, right? (The agent and editor did.)
I have a long but erratic history with apple trees. I have never owned or managed an orchard. But when I was young, my parents moved into a house that included the remnants of an old orchard in front of it. And I do mean old–the apple trees were far taller than the house. The year we moved in there was a huge crop, so large that we had to fill wheelbarrows with the fallen apples and truck them to the back of the lot and dump them, just to get rid of them. We lived in that house for three years, but the crop never achieved that bounty again.
The first house my husband and I bought was in the Bay Area in California, and I was surprised to find that there was an apple tree between our house and the neighbor's. It was a singularly forgettable tree, and the apples tasted like nothing in particular. It was badly sited and didn't bear much. The lemon tree in the back yard was much more interesting.
When I found myself writing about an orchard, of course I had to do some hands-on research, and the gods blessed me this year with a truly amazing apple crop. The contract for the series materialized in early spring, and I hit the road to scout orchards for every stage after that, from bare tree to harvest. I identified orchards near where I live, and also near the site of my mythical Massachusetts town Granford. I talked to growers and managers. I sampled heirloom and modern varieties, as well as cider, apple wine, and apple brandy. And I kept returning, again and again, because I was learning that different varieties ripen at different times, and I didn't want to miss one of them. The apple season begins in August and runs through November, and I lost count of how many trips I took. I was both amused and saddened when one of my favorite local orchards, whose e-mail list I joined, announced a couple of weeks ago that they were having an end-of-season sale: all apples forty percent off!
I found, to my own amusement, that I had envisioned picture-book apple trees, with nice shiny red apples neatly distributed throughout the branches. I quickly found out how wrong I was, at least for this year. Apples were packed on branches, more closely than I thought possible. Some younger trees were so loaded with fruit that the branches actually broke under the weight.
I also learned that there is a lot of what seems like waste in an orchard: many apples simply fall when they're ripe, and once they hit the ground, it's unlikely that they'll be sold as eating or cooking apples (although the guy with the wine-making operation said they did use the fallen ones for apple vodka–and, yes, I've got a bottle of that too).
But mainly I'm posting this to show a lot of my pretty apple pictures, in commemoration of this year's bumper crop. And I also wanted to give thanks for the book series that sent me out into the orchards in this extraordinary year. Happy Thanksgiving to all (and if you need any apples recipes, I have a shelf full of cookbooks).