Archive for July, 2022

writing life

Writing Happiness

I’ve come to the realization that writing is good for my mental and emotional health. Maybe not the publishing part, but I need the creation part of things to stay healthy and happy. I feel like I keep having this realization at least once a year, and I’ve probably even written about it before, but I’ve got enough data points now to be sure of it.

A few weeks ago, I was in a real down phase. I suspected it had to do with the summer and being so hot and not being able to go outdoors, along with financial worries and feeling like I was out of control of my life. At that time, I was revising the book I was working on, and I’d been doing that for weeks. Then I went back to work on the mystery book, and after writing every weekday for a couple of weeks, I’ve found that my mood has lifted considerably. It’s still summer, still too hot to go outside, and my financial situation hasn’t changed, but I feel a lot better.

Last year, I was kind of blaming the mysteries for the down mood I was having at the time, but I think it was just that I was writing them back-to-back and spending a lot of time on revision and editing. I ended up feeling burned out last year, and I thought it was because I’d done so much writing, but maybe the problem was that I hadn’t done enough writing. I was writing a lot, but that meant I had a lot of material that needed to be edited, so I was spending weeks not writing. To recover from the burnout, I took a break from writing-related work, which may have been the wrong thing to do.

Now that I’m almost done with this draft, I think I’m going to try keeping up with some kind of drafting alongside the editing, revision, and proofreading phase. Even just half an hour to an hour a day of writing something may help. I may play with short stories or some entirely different kind of book while I’m doing the non-writing work on another project, and maybe that will keep me from getting burned out from not creating. As a bonus, it means I’ll have more stuff written, which is always good. I can still allow myself to take breaks and vacations from work, and I try to take weekends off unless I have a deadline, but fitting a little creation in with the other work may help me avoid burnout.

I think part of it is that writing is fun for me. Part of it may be that it gives me a stronger sense of control. I can’t control the world around me, but when I’m writing I’m controlling my fictional world, and I feel less out of control from everything else. Part of it may be that it keeps me too busy to dwell on things that aren’t going well. I get lost in my imaginary world, and I’m hanging out with fictional people I love. I don’t get that same lost experience from revision. Editing and revision tap into the critical side of my brain, which tends to leave me critical about everything. Creating turns that off.

I’ll be going into revision mode soon, so I’ll put this to the test and see if it works and how much writing a day I need to do to stay happy.

My Books

The Harry Potter Question

Enchanted, Inc. book cover, showing cartoon fairy and frog prince in business attireA question that’s come up a lot over the years since the first Enchanted, Inc. book was released, in both reader mail and professional reviews, is whether it started as Harry Potter fan fiction. Did I ever write a story about the Harry Potter gang all grown up and working at a magical corporation and then change the names and situations so it was “original” fiction?

The short answer is a definitive NO.

I never wrote fan fiction for the Harry Potter series. I didn’t even do a lot of mental fan fiction, where I think of stories in my head without ever writing them out, aside maybe from some speculation about what would happen in the next book while we were between books, and even there it wasn’t full plot lines.

I’m not even entirely sure why people might think that because I don’t believe Enchanted, Inc. maps all that well to Harry Potter. The best I can come up with is Owen being an orphaned wizard with dark hair. But aside from that, he’s not much like Harry. Harry wasn’t actually all that powerful or skilled as a wizard. He tended to prevail because he wasn’t corrupted—he wasn’t out for his own gain or power—and because he had allies. Owen’s probably more like Hermione. Katie would be our Ron, the one who lives out in the country with older brothers and who feels ordinary and overlooked. And from there, the comparisons break down. If I’d filed the serial numbers off a Harry Potter story to make it “original” so it could be published, I would have had to have done so with a chainsaw.

However, the Enchanted, Inc. books were somewhat inspired by Harry Potter in the sense that I wanted something like that but about and for adults, with magic in a contemporary setting and a dash of whimsy (I first came up with the idea before I read the fourth Harry Potter book, when it started getting a lot darker). At that time, fantasy was more likely to involve a medieval-like setting. You didn’t see a lot of fantasy stories set in the modern day, with cars and telephones, etc. At first, I just wanted to read that kind of thing, and when I didn’t find much (and what I did find was rather dark), I realized I’d have to write it. But that’s the extent of the Harry Potter influence.

When I created the characters, I was mostly playing with romantic comedy tropes because I was writing it as a chick lit/rom-com with magic in it. We’ve got our spunky girl-next-door underdog of a heroine, and I was originally going with a potential triangle involving the guy who seems great but turns out to be Mr. Wrong and the guy who seems like trouble at first but who turns out to be Mr. Right. I knew I wanted there to be a guy who uses a handsome illusion because the magically immune heroine would see the real thing, and we’d get the contrast between the way she sees things and the way other people see them — like the real-world situation where there’s someone everyone seems to swoon over while you just don’t get it. My initial idea was that the guy with the handsome illusion would be the shy, awkward one, and the one who was handsome would be smooth and confident. But then I realized that was pretty cliched and ordinary. I switched personalities between the two guys and they suddenly came to life and became the characters we know. That also killed the triangle because as soon as I figured out the characters, Owen was the obvious guy.

I also tried to take some of the standard rom-com events and situations and add magical or fantasy elements to them.

So, if it’s a fan fiction of anything, I would say that Enchanted, Inc. was more my spin on romantic comedies, taking a lot of elements and tropes and making them magical, than any kind of play on Harry Potter. It’s not any one particular rom-com, though. When I was plotting the book, I watched Bridget Jones’s Diary, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Working Girl, and a few others like that.

I’m still surprised that publishing never really capitalized on the number of adult readers of the Harry Potter books (or HP readers who became adults as the series was being published) and published more of that sort of thing for adults. There are the Harry Dresden books, and maybe the Rivers of London series, but there hasn’t really been anything that captured a similar tone. I think it’s because the publishers only saw the HP phenomenon as a children’s book thing, in spite of the adult readers. Publishers are very narrow in their view of the market. In fact, the first Enchanted, Inc. book came out not long before Half-Blood Prince, and my publisher shot down my suggestion to play upon the idea of Harry Potter for grown-ups because the Harry Potter books were children’s books and we wouldn’t want to compare mine to that. I ended up doing an end-run around them and had a copy sent to the local reporter who’d been writing about the Harry Potter series and got one of the best media placements we had with that book, in a story about what to read while you’re waiting for your kid to finish reading the new Harry Potter book so you can get to it.

And I still want to read something like that, but about adult life that I didn’t have to write.

writing, video project

Scene and Sequel

One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.

The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.

When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.

At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.

In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.

So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.

I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.

But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.

So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.

We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.

Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.

In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.

A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.

Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.

Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):

publishing business

Serious Business

I’ve been trying to up my game on the business side of the writing business, so I’ve been doing a lot of online workshops. There’s currently an online conference I’m “attending,” so I’m in the middle of an overwhelmed phase as I try to sort through all the information and figure out what I can make myself do and what might make a difference. I’m in awe of the people who’ve written and published something like 100 books in the past ten or so years. There are people who started writing after I started independently publishing who already have more books out than I do, and they’re making millions at it.

I don’t know how they do it. I just about burned out from trying to write more than three books a year, and I haven’t even tried to do all the advertising and promotion they talk about. My brain starts frying when they talk about figuring out ad spend and audiences, and all that — and I used to work at an advertising agency (I worked on the public relations side, but we often had a full-service account team, so I heard what the ad people were up to in client meetings). They spend thousands of dollars in promotion. I think some of them spend more in promotion than I earn in total.

But I do need to sell more books, so I’m trying to do little things that might make a difference, like tweaking Amazon listings for search engine optimization (just typing that makes me twitch). I’ve tried putting some stuff up on Pinterest. I have the video project (new one should be coming Friday, if I get it edited). I’m thinking about splurging and applying to do a Book Bub promo deal. I’m updating the backmatter in the e-books to list all my books and make it easier for readers to find more of my books.

I’m adding new ideas to that list of things to do, but the trick is figuring out if any of it makes any difference. My book sales are all over the place. There are good days and bad days, and on the good days it’s seldom any one book selling a lot of copies. It’s one copy each of just about everything. That makes it hard to tell what promo activity is actually working, or if any of it has anything to do with any promo activity. And that makes it hard for me to motivate myself to do all this stuff. If I saw a clear spike in sales after I did something, it would spur me to do more, but I think a lot of this stuff is slow-build, long-term in nature. It’s cumulative rather than immediate.

I’m really impressed with these authors who write so many books and also manage to do so much promotion. When do they sleep? I would snap completely. I feel like a total slacker, so I’m trying to be better about sticking to a good working schedule and limiting breaks during the workday.

This is why it would be terrible for me to go back to a day job. A regular full day’s work would be draining, especially if I was still trying to write on the side. But I have to sell more books if I want to avoid that fate, so I’m trying to put in the work.

writing life, Books

Little Habits

For another entry in the “life hacks” and productivity category, I recently read a book that may prove to be life-changing, Small Move, Big Change, by Caroline L. Arnold. The premise of the book is that we generally fail at big goals like New Year’s resolutions because they’re too big and vague. You’ll have more success with what the author calls “microresolutions,” which are small but meaningful behavior changes. For instance, a broad resolution to get and keep the house tidy is bound to fail because there’s no sense of when or how to start, exactly what to do, or how to measure it. But you might succeed in resolving to make the bed every morning. That will make the bedroom automatically look a lot neater, and that might motivate you to do other things to tidy the bedroom. After a while, when it becomes a habit you don’t have to think about anymore, you could start a new microresolution, like putting away the laundry right after you do it instead of letting it pile up in a chair. Over time, all those new little habits will add up to accomplishing that big-picture goal.

It’s hardly earthshattering stuff. I wrote a radio feature years ago with a psychiatrist’s tips for sticking to resolutions that included making the goal small enough to achieve and measurable, but the way it’s phrased in this book clicked with me, and the author offers a lot of tips for making it work.

One suggestion she has is to create a mental message that goes with the habit, something you think to yourself to motivate you to do it. For the bed making resolution, you might remind yourself how much you’re going to like coming home to a neatly made bed or how nice it will be at bedtime. It also helps to have a cue to trigger the behavior you’d like to turn into a habit. Tying it to another habit you already have makes it easier to create a new habit. You might make the bed when you get dressed. You can remember “dress yourself, dress the bed.” The resolution may take some fine-tuning to figure out exactly the action to take, the cue, or the message you tell yourself, as well as spotting any obstacles that make the behavior harder. It may turn out that your reluctance to make the bed every day is because you’ve got an elaborate “bedscape” involving layers of coverlets and a complicated arrangement of throw pillows. Switching that out for a comforter and pillow shams so that making the bed is quicker and easier might make you more likely to make the bed.

She also gets into how to find the behavior that will have the most impact. The example she gave from her own life was her desire to get to work on time more consistently. She had to analyze her morning routine to figure out where the trouble spots were, and she figured out that one of her biggest problems was at the train station. She often had to dig in her bag for her fare card, then she didn’t know how much money was on it, so she’d have to check, and then she often had to add money to it for the morning ride, but the credit card readers on the ticket machines were generally not working, so she’d have to scrounge for cash to add just enough for one trip. Meanwhile, she’d miss a train and have to wait for the next one, which made her late. After some trial and error to figure out what would make this go better, she ended up keeping a separate fare card just for the morning commute, which she kept in a special coin purse so she could find it easily. Every Friday before she left the station on the way home, she’d add enough money to it to cover the next week’s morning rides, and she carried enough cash in the coin purse to pay for that. Once she started being able to go right to the turnstiles every morning, she stopped being late to work.

The second half of the book is a lot of specific examples covering some of the bigger resolution categories, like diet, exercise, communication, and organization.

By the time I’d finished reading the first few chapters, I’d enthusiastically made a long list of microresolutions, but then I got to the part where it says to do no more than two at a time because that’s all the willpower your brain really has. Focus on those two, and when they become habit, you can add two more. It takes three to eight (or more) weeks to really develop a habit, depending on how frequently you do a behavior and how big a change it is for you.

I narrowed my resolutions down to an easy one and an important one. The easy one involves the “nest” that tends to develop on my sofa. That’s where I sit to read the newspaper, work crossword puzzles, do knitting or embroidery, brainstorm or outline books, read, etc. I end up with piles of books, papers, notebooks, newspapers, and craft supplies on the sofa, which makes the whole living room look messy. I resolved to totally clear off and reset the sofa before I go to bed every night. There will be nothing left on the sofa — books on the coffee table or end table, newspapers in the recycling stack, craft projects put away — and I’ll straighten the pillows and the throw I keep on the sofa. To encourage myself to do it, I tell myself that it will be so nice to come into the living room in the morning and see it looking neat. The first day was the most difficult, when I had a lot more stuff to put away, but it’s been pretty easy since then, and after three weeks I think it’s become enough of a habit that I’ve taken on a new resolution, to clean up all the dishes from dinner right after dinner — load the dishwasher and wash anything from cooking that has to be hand-washed. I tend to let things pile up in the sink to the point that I can’t fit everything in the dishwasher once I finally get around to loading it. It’s only been a few days, but it’s going well so far. Again, day one was more difficult, but since then there’s less to do and I love coming into the kitchen in the morning and not seeing dirty dishes.

The important one involves work productivity and avoiding distractions, mostly social media and e-mail. I had a bad habit from back in my day job days of checking e-mail as soon as I got on the computer, since e-mail was a big part of my work, and I kept doing that once I started freelancing, then social media got attached to e-mail since that’s also communication related to my work. I might end up reading e-mail and social media and then realize it was lunchtime. A few years ago, I started writing before I go online, since e-mail first thing in the morning is less important to my work now. I formalized that as a resolution to not go online until 10:30. That’s worked pretty well, and I may need to add to that and not answer the phone during my peak working time because that also kills my productivity for the day. I’m still fine tuning what to do about the afternoon, trying to find the right schedule to follow or the right approach. A lot of it is a procrastination tactic, or else the way I take “breaks” when I get stuck, so I need to think of a way to deal with this. I do need to check e-mail after lunch, since that’s when the people I usually deal with for business tend to get back to me about things, so I need to find a way to do that without getting sucked into the rest of it. I think my next tactic will be a designated time for online stuff other than e-mail, and maybe a list of things that must be done before I check social media or any other online stuff that’s likely to eat up a lot of time.

Just a few weeks after I started reading this book I already have a visible difference in my house and a good boost in my writing productivity, so it seems to be working. The question will be whether or not it will stick once the initial enthusiasm wears off. The book is a quick and easy read and even pretty entertaining, so look for it at your library if you’re looking for ways to make changes that work.

Heat Wave News Updates

I’ve got a few little news updates:

I must have enough distance from my February of murders nearby to be able to write mystery again because my brain decided to dredge up the book I was working on while watching the crime scene outside my house and nag me to get back to it, so I have. I’m hoping to get it done and published sometime this fall. I need to get justice for that fictional victim.

As far as I know, they haven’t solved the murder that took place just outside my house, but not long after that incident in which a young man was shot while driving, another young man was found shot in his car on that same street about five blocks away. They didn’t say anything about any possible connection, but of course my brain is spinning. I may use the idea of the “death street,” but maybe make it even more mysterious and it’s not gunshot wounds, just people being found dead in their cars on that one stretch of road. I don’t know what the cause of death would be yet. This is just the germ of an idea that struck me this morning.

I was hoping to get another writing video posted this week, but we’re having a bad heat wave, and they’ve asked us to conserve power. It gets really hot where I have my video setup in my office, which is upstairs, essentially in the attic, and the fans I use to stay comfortable would be too noisy for video, plus all the lights I need for video during the time of day when I also get good natural light use power and make it even hotter in there. So I may wait until they give the all-clear on the power emergency. I really don’t want the power grid to crash again — I think it would be even worse in 104-degree weather than in freezing weather because at least when it was cold I could bundle up — so I’m trying to do my part. It’s supposed to only be 100 this weekend, so maybe I can pull some stuff together then. I’ve got the videos planned and scripts written. The trick is filming without dying of heat exhaustion.

I’m still working on a new fantasy project, but finding just the right tone for it has been something of a struggle. I may have to get a couple of books written before I can be sure how it’s going to go and then revise accordingly, so that probably won’t be ready to launch until next year. That may be what sparked my brain to return to the mystery book so I can get something published this year.

Meanwhile, I’ve had some readers asking about the Enchanted, Inc. short stories in print form. Those are so short that even if you combined the two, it would just be a pamphlet. But the Japanese publisher is doing a volume of those short pieces plus the one I’m using as a free giveaway if you subscribe to my newsletter and one I wrote for them so they’d have enough to make a book. So now I have an additional novelette. If I write one or two more short pieces, I might have enough to have a collection of stories that I could publish as a paperback book. Is there some aspect of the Enchanted, Inc. universe you’d like to see a story about? I have a list of things I could write about, but I’m curious what readers would like to see — behind the scenes stories, prequels, adventures of secondary characters? The new one I wrote for Japan is about Owen and Rod in college.

I’m actually getting a fair amount of writing done while I’m huddled next to a fan and seeing a forecast of 99 as looking like a cold snap. There’s not much else to do when it’s this hot.


So Much Star Wars

I’ve been gradually working my way through the Star Wars Clone Wars animated series, and am deep enough into it that I’m starting to see characters and situations that have been referenced in some of the live-action works, so the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

However, I still have a bit of a problem with the animation. There’s something really weird about the way the people look. I mostly listen to this show while doing something else, almost treating it as a radio drama, rather than watching it because the look of it bothers me so much, and I finally figured out what it reminds me of. The people all look like action figures, with their hair and clothes molded out of plastic. It’s like the action figure version of what they do in the Lego animated pieces. Or it’s computer-generated animation that looks like someone made a stop-motion animated movie using their Star Wars action figures.

And that got me started pondering … is this series the Toy Story of Star Wars? Is this what the Star Wars action figures get up to when we’re not looking? Or is it the drama that’s playing out when the kid who owns the action figures is playing with them (like the action sequence at the beginning of one of the Toy Story movies that turned out to be the kid playing with his toys, and this was the scenario he was imagining). Maybe this is some kid filling in all the plot holes of the prequels by playing out stories with his action figures.

It’s a pity that the animation is so weak in this series because the stories are actually pretty good and flesh out the characters rather well. There are occasional moments when it seems like the writers remember that this was originally supposed to be aimed at kids and they throw in a more kid-friendly episode, but most of it is pretty heavy and complex. I kind of wish we could have seen some of these storylines in live action, in at least an hour-long episode, though I think the special effects might have been complicated. Some of these things could only be done in animation. I’m getting used to most of the voice casting that’s different from the movies, and I’m no longer hearing the guy from Timeless when Anakin talks (that was disconcerting at first until this role became more familiar).

It still blows my mind that there’s so much Star Wars content now that at any time I want to watch something Star Wars, I can just turn on the TV and watch it — and I still have a few seasons of this series plus the Bad Batch that I haven’t even seen yet. I remember when I was a kid and the only thing that existed was the first movie. They didn’t do action figures until nearly a year later, so we couldn’t even make up new stories with those. We had to rely on pretending our bicycles were X-Wings or TIE fighters when we rode around the neighborhood. I actually liked the infamous holiday special because it may have been bad and confusing, but it was new Star Wars content while we waited three years for the sequel. Now it would take ages to get through every Star Wars movie or show, even if you watched something every night. Nine-year-old me would have been overwhelmed.


More Cozy Fantasy

I don’t remember if I discussed The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, when I read it the first time, but I just reread it, and it’s the perfect book for if you’re stressed or discouraged, so I’m going to talk about it again.

When the elven emperor and his older sons are killed in an airship crash, the youngest son, product of a hated political marriage with a goblin princess, becomes emperor. This young man has grown up in exile and was never expected to take the throne. He has no preparation, so all he can do is just do what he feels is right as he finds his way.

It’s such an encouraging book because it’s about someone who’s been abused and neglected but who tries to be a decent person, and he prevails through kindness and decency. He’s surrounded by enemies and intrigue, and he’s a complete outsider, but because he’s been kind and fair to people, he finds that he has allies at every turn, and he’s able to make a real difference now that he has power.

I’m still fuzzy on what, exactly, constitutes “cozy fantasy,” but this must be on the list. There is some tension and violence, but only in a few isolated incidents. Otherwise, it’s about forming alliances and friendships, trying to rebuild some family relationships, and generally trying to improve the situation for everyone. You come out of the book feeling good.

I just started reading the follow-up book, The Witness for the Dead. It’s not a direct sequel, but is another book set in this universe, about a secondary character from this book. It’s a bit different and seems to be basically a mystery novel set in a fantasy world, but we still have the situation of a decent person trying to do the right thing, which is exactly what I need right now.


History Travel Memoirs

I’ve found myself reading an odd little subgenre of nonfiction book lately. I guess you could call it the travel history memoir. These books are about someone traveling along a route or through a region, with some sort of theme to the trip, and mixed in with the travelogue is info on the history of the places the writer visits and the writer’s experiences and personal feelings about it all. It’s not enough of a travel book that you could use it as a guide (though you might get ideas for places to visit). There’s a lot of history, but there’s more of a personal spin on it than in most history books.

The most famous example that I’ve read lately was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, which is about the Appalachian Trail, with the story of the writer’s attempt to hike the entire trail mixed in with the history of the trail and various points along the way and the writer’s feelings and experiences.

I also recently read one called The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, by Stephen O’Shea, in which the writer traveled through the Alps from France to Slovenia, hitting Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany along the way. He compared the cultures of various places in the Alps, visited some of the major scenic and tourist spots, discussed the people he met along the way, and shared the history of the places and routes.

A similar book was Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, by Simon Winder, which explored the Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire by visiting key locations in its history. This one had a bit less of the “memoir” angle, as I recall. It was more history/geography/travel, though with an annoying lack of photos. I kept having to Google places he mentioned so I could have a good mental image of what he was talking about.

I also read a book about Scandinavia called The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth. It was a history of modern Scandinavia, looking at how those countries tend to come out on top in happiness rankings and exploring what it’s really like there. The author lived in Denmark and visited Finland, Sweden, and Norway to explore the people, the culture, and how recent history (generally the 20th century) got them to where they are now.

I owned a copy of A Walk in the Woods, but I found the other ones in the history section of the library.

It seems there are lots of possibilities for books along these lines — travel the Oregon Trail, the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition or the Donner Party route. Re-create Marco Polo’s journeys. Or you could combine it with something that was popular a few years ago, the post-divorce memoir, and it could be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup by taking a bucket list trip with some kind of theme to it and then writing about not only your experiences, but the history of the places you’re visiting and how this trip helps you find yourself again. I’m not in a relationship, but now I almost want to get into one so I can end it and then react to it by landing at Normandy and following the route of the Allied forces across Europe in 1944-45, looking at sights the soldiers might have seen and how it’s changed since then while I use it all as a metaphor for dealing with my post-breakup anger.