Camellias yesterday and today


March 4, 2020  •  No Comments

This is camellia season–a fleeting glimpse of perfection before rain yellows the pristine blooms. I took some photos around the neighborhood and then by chance saw some old illustrations that echoed those beauties. I put them together here:


Why care about a story’s setting?


March 2, 2020  •  No Comments

Why care about a story’s setting?

A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”

This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.

Setting is way more than a blob of description.

It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set:  the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.

One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense.  In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.

Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)

Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them.  It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.

Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.

Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.

Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city.  Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.

 

 


Documentaries on lifestyle and stuff


March 1, 2020  •  No Comments

I have a long list of “I really should watch that someday” documentaries, especially ones about lifestyle and stuff.

Forks Over Knives

Last week I finally watched Fork Over Knives (2011, Virgil Films), which talks about the virtues of a whole-foods, plant-based diet. It’s a few years old but some of the scientific studies cited were new to me. The film spells out why chronic diseases can be reversed through lifestyle. Given my family’s incidence of cancer, this caught my attention. For example, casein, an animal protein, “switched on” cancerous growths in test animals when it formed more than 5% of their diet. When it dropped back down to 5%, the disease retreated.

I know that no study is perfect (for instance, I have strong feelings about animal testing) but it infuriates me that there isn’t more focus on this kind of evidence. There is an epidemic of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Something like one in three adults develop diabetes in North America. Diet will at the very least alleviate the symptoms in most victims. Why don’t we see the same action on this file as on, say, a virus that kills a mere few thousand world-wide? Because the virus doesn’t have a corporation to lobby on its behalf? I resist conspiracy theories, but one has to wonder.

Will I become vegan? I’ll definitely explore the diet and see how I respond. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for decades but never seriously considered dropping all animal-based foods. I know many people who have and their health is amazing. What’s important, I think, is to have a handful of reliable recipes in advance. That’s how I cut out meat without feeling deprived. I was already able to turn to familiar dishes. Click here for more on Forks Over Knives and its community.

Two other great documentaries I’ve watched recently while doing my ironing are:

Playing With Fire, which is all about the “Financial Independence, Retire Early” movement. This is inspirational and so common-sense, especially if one has a rebellious streak. It definitely made me rethink my savings plan!

What’s With Wheat  I saw this one on Amazon Prime. The approach here isn’t “wheat is bad” so much as “what the heck have we done to this crop?” With the recent rise of gluten intolerance, it’s a good question. Some friends who have eaten bread while visiting Europe don’t notice the same side effects, which lends credence to the idea that it’s hybridization and agricultural practice, not so much wheat itself, that’s the problem. Interesting stuff.

As you might have guessed, I’m fascinated by food, lifestyles, and other health stuff. Especially food, because it’s the cornerstone of health, pleasure, and social interaction.

 

 


Weekend Coffee was well earned


February 23, 2020  •  No Comments

Weekend CoffeeWeekend coffee was well earned this time. These were catch-up days after doing a hard sprint of editing. Lots of email, answering questions from graphic artists, paying bills, cooking, and scheduling the release of a new series. Plus, lightly plotting the next project, which is a bit like flirting with pen and paper. The characters and I are doing a dance, but it’s not too serious yet.

At this moment, my desk looks almost sane.  I know it won’t last, but I’ll enjoy the clean surface for today.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the level of administrative detail involved in being a writer. I spent an entire afternoon filling out copyright info on four books, which isn’t hard but does take time. I’m caught up filing applications for now, but too many of those jobs on a long list can give me brain freeze. I’ve been picking them off one by one in a bid for sanity, but I have a long way to go before my halo is sparkling.

Actual writing is more fun. Feedback from my alpha readers is arriving in my inbox, and that means more work before the book goes to a developmental editor. That’s tomorrow’s problem–tonight I’m making a birthday dinner. And eating a doughnut with my weekend coffee treat, because one has to grab the small pleasures as well as the big goals. That’s toffee-pecan icing, BTW. Check out Empire Donuts.


From the Writer’s TBR Pile: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron


January 16, 2020  •  2 Comments

Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence came out in 2012 and I bought it shortly thereafter. I read it/listened to the audiobook over Christmas 2019.

Yes, there is a gap between 2012 and 2019.

Hands up all you people who buy writing books without actually reading them! I’m a card-carrying member of your tribe! Maybe putting the books under my pillow at night will migrate the info to my brain? While I’m waiting for that to work, the bookshelf gathers vintage dust bunnies.

Ahem. This year, I will work through that overflowing shelf the non-magical way. I will read/watch one item approximately every week or so and discard the duds. To establish some accountability, I’ll review the ones worth hearing about.

Cron’s book was a great place to start.

I’ve been to enough writing workshops and conferences that I’ve heard a lot of advice before, but this was well worth my time. As the title suggests, Cron brings in principles of neuroscience to support the writing advice she offers, such as the brain’s tendency to filter out unnecessary information, its need to find causal connections, and its preference for specific image over abstract concept. These sections are presented in easily understood terms.

Beyond the brain science, the book contains good, no-nonsense craft instruction. It is not genre-specific, but refers to examples from literary fiction to potboilers. It also covers a gamut of topics in concise, carefully illustrated examples that ensure the reader can follow the lesson. At the end of each chapter is a summary of key concepts useful for editing.

Subjects include (among others): hooks, focus, emotion, character goals, conflict, payoffs, pacing, and backstory. The sections on reveals and backstory should be required reading. These pages alone could salvage many, many wall-bangers.

In my opinion, this book fills the need of the intermediate novelist—those who’ve got dialogue, setting, and plotting essentials under their belt already. This assumes comfort with those beginner basics and builds on that foundation to keep the reader constantly engaged.

I sincerely recommend this book.

While the audio version was competently narrated, I’m glad to have the hard copy for reference, particularly the checklists. Check out www.wiredforstory.com—Cron offers coaching, workshops, and resources. She also has a second book, Story Genius.

 


2019 – what was that about?


December 31, 2019  •  2 Comments

Some authors are posting dazzling lists of publications, and I heartily salute their accomplishments. I thought I would have a bumper crop of books, too, when this year started. Somehow, though, things changed along the way and the year didn’t end the way I thought. 2019 was a dumpster fire for a lot of people and, while I count myself lucky, I didn’t entirely escape the smoke. 2020 will be better.

What did I actually get in front of readers this year?
  • In January, did a re-release of an older book that rounded out my 2018 goals.
  • Released two books in box sets, hit the USA Today bestseller list for both, and then put them in the vault for later.
  • Published an essay in an academic work.
  • Wrote a short story that’s now a lead magnet.
  • Got my extended print distribution onto Ingram Spark.
  • By the end of this week, I’ll have finished a draft of a new, full length, first-in series.

I also investigated a lot of marketing courses, played with various ad platforms, and listened to many podcasts. That’s all hard to quantify as achievement, but it will serve me well in future.

Where did that get me?

I think it’s safe to say all authors want enthusiastic fans and financial freedom. It’s not an impossible dream, but it’s not an easy road. It requires groundwork such as intelligent branding, scheduling, and development of infrastructure like engaged newsletter lists, reader funnels, and social media. There are a thousand choices to consider, and dozens of platforms to learn. It’s all behind-the-scenes stuff readers don’t consciously notice and most authors despise unless they have an aptitude for business. However, it’s like gas for a car. It stinks, but you don’t go anywhere without it.

2019 was my trip to the gas station. I’m not done putting everything together, but I’m well on the way. Part of the process has been discovering what mix of marketing makes sense to me, given my time, money, and introvert tendencies. I’ll probably blog more. I’ll review craft resources. I’m also very interested in sharing some of the ingredients that go into world building, especially with the fantasy stuff. I think it’s going to be fun.

And 2020? I haven’t scheduled it all yet, but I’ll have a nice list of the year’s releases by next New Year’s Eve. I’ve put in the work to be ready.


Holiday Indulgence


December 30, 2019  •  No Comments

Holidays are all about indulgence, and much of that involves food. In the spirit of pre-New Year’s resolution abandon, here is a recipe for Eggnog Ice Cream.

Cold, light and creamy, this is ideal after a rich meal. I use a fancy ice cream maker I got with Airmile points (Ariete Espressione Gran Gelato), but I think any churn-type maker would do the trick. This recipe makes a generous batch, so depending on your equipment it might require splitting into two churning sessions. I set the machine for about 40 minutes.

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of eggnog
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 10-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tsp of vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp of nutmeg

I don’t put rum in this because that acts like an antifreeze, which cancels the whole frozen dessert factor.

All you need to do is mix thoroughly (no cooking) and pour into the churn until it’s about two-thirds full. Leaving room allows for a fluffier result. Once the ice cream is done (I look for a solid but not frozen-to-a-brick consistency) transfer to a container and put it in the freezer.  Pro-tip:  if you’re aiming for a dainty presentation, try using a very small scoop to dish it out. I actually use a melon baller so I can arrange it just so.


JingleVamp: Special Order Hero


December 26, 2019  •  No Comments

In answer to the age-old question, authors DO have their sources for characters.  I get mine through mail order.

I’ve owned the Dark Hero, Vampire Edition 3.2, for a few years now. He came in a box, all minty fresh with that new hero gleam in his eye. Of course there were limitations.  Dark wash only. Do not leave in direct sunlight. I had to get a separate unit, the Djinn Slave 4.0, for household use. However, I have to say I have been a fully satisfied customer.

Of course, all equipment subjected to heavy use eventually needs replacement—and believe me, the 3.2 saw a lot of action since he came out of the carton.  He’s held up well, but his cape is getting a bit threadbare and the poor dear gets stuck in the brood cycle more often than is good for him. I’ve had to call the manufacturer’s help desk to unlock the “furrowed brow” setting three times now. So, when I was browsing through the catalogue to see if their new line of minotaur was available yet, my attention was caught by a coupon offer for the JingleVamp Special Edition.

I confess, the notion of a vampire with a “ho, ho, ho” plug-in was vaguely disturbing. I wasn’t sure about the reindeer antlers, either, but I figured what the heck. It would make a change from the usual sort of holiday decoration. So, I placed an order.

The thing I didn’t realize was that, unlike the full-priced Dark Heroes, JingleVamp came unassembled and that the instructions were in the non-language universal to children’s toys and cheap furniture. Soon my living room floor was covered in an explosion of sardonic laughs, sultry glances, and sparkly white fangs as I unpacked and sorted and tried to make sense of the diagrams. Fortunately, there was more information enclosed in a separate envelope:

Hello, and welcome to your new JingleVamp!  Here are a few pointers to make sure you fully enjoy your new purchase:

  1. Note JingleVamp must be rebooted when changing “naughty” and “nice” settings.
  2. When recharging, do not plug JingleVamp into the same circuit as your Christmas tree. Spontaneous carolling may result, overriding your Dark Hero’s patented Sinister Velvet® laugh cycle.
  3. Exercise caution when using JingleVamp near pine boughs, holly sprigs, pine trees, or other pointy wooden objects.
  4. JingleVamp may consume eggnog while set to “party animal.” Caution: Glassware recommended. Paper cartons will leak if bitten.
  5. Do not engage JingleVamp in reindeer games without permission of local wildlife authorities.
  6. Your JingleVamp will not pull a sleigh, no matter how nicely you ask.
  7. Note that Dark Hero units cannot be set to “shopping” mode prior to noon, December 24. “Wrap” mode defaults to intermittent setting. “Write cards” mode is automatically disabled. Contact manufacturer for override instructions.
  8. Shopping list plug-in sold separately. Unit is supplied with only “black negligee” and “toaster” options.
  9. If you wish to disassemble unit, use stake provided.

Thank you for purchasing the JingleVamp Special Edition! We hope you enjoy your new Dark Hero’s version of Christmas Cheer.

 Merry Fangmas to All!


Corsair’s Cove tries the click bait so you don’t have to!

Sharon Ashwood
December 1, 2019  •  No Comments

This is cross-posted from the Corsair’s Cove blog:

Our companion short stories are like chats with a friend, in a cafe or at a kitchen table, with a delicious beverage. Naturally, news of a popular new winter treat caught our attention!

A recipe for a chocolate and red wine combo has been making the rounds of Facebook.  The original came from Shape Magazine’s article How to Make Red Wine Hot Chocolate. Although doubtful, I like the magazine and was curious enough to give the recipe a spin. Twice.

Try number one followed the recipe using a good cabernet sauvignon on the plummy side, figuring that would be a good compliment to the chocolate. I used semi-sweet dark chocolate wafers that were supposed to be better quality than regular chocolate chips. The wafers melted but then the wax and other un-chocolately elements clumped when the wine was added to leave floaty residue in the drink. Maybe heating the wine first would have helped the texture, but that wasn’t the only drawback. The flavour was sweet and sour, but not in the best way. Sort of like heartburn with cake. Adding cinnamon helped. Adding marshmallows did not.

Try number two was better. I used a good instant unsweetened spiced dark chocolate that dissolved and stayed that way. This gave a much better mouth feel and, since I could limit the sugar, the wine didn’t crash the party like an awkward uncle. I’m still not a fan of the flavour combo, but this version had more potential. If I was very cold from, say, shoveling the walks after a foot of snow, I might even appreciate it.

I didn’t persevere to a third attempt. Super high quality grated European drinking chocolate might be worth a try to give a heavier body to the drink, but it might also be a waste of expensive ingredients. Rum, brandy or liqueur are classic adds to hot chocolate for a reason. In my humble opinion, grab the Bailey’s for winter night tipples and leave the reds for the dinner course.

 


Georgian Cosmetics: Beautiful Corruption

Emma Jane Holloway
October 25, 2019  •  No Comments

I’m fascinated by cosmetics from past ages and cultures. Since the Georgian Age is one of my particular interests, I’m naturally intrigued by their makeup. The sensibility is so distinct, it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. It’s not that I want to replicate the look. To me, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Goth and Barbie.

Rather, the attraction lies in the conflict between beauty and corruption. In the eighteenth century, painting one’s face was an artifice that only the wealthy could indulge in. The major exception was the demimonde, who catered to the appetites of the monied class. Needless to say, most of their careers burned bright and brief, until drink, pox and hard living had their way.

The white and pink face was meant to capture the unspoiled looks of youth. Sadly, the cosmetics of the day were poisonous. The more a person painted, the more their natural good looks would be damaged. Some of the ingredients in common use were lead, mercury, and arsenic. Eventually, that stuff could kill you.

Here’s a thankfully toxin-free version of “the look” from a respected source: