Archive for September, 2022


Building Nuanced Worlds

I finished the plot/structure draft of the next mystery book this week, and I think I’m going to do another pass for emotion and description and generally making the words better, but while it’s resting a bit so I can look at it with fresh eyes, I’ve been doing some development work on a fantasy series, and I’ve realized that good worldbuilding is hard.

I’ve been known to mock the science fiction trope of the forest planet, the desert planet, the ocean planet, the ice planet, or else the “Ancient Greece” planet, the “Old West” planet, the “Nazi” planet, etc., but fantasy is prone to similar lazy tropes, only it’s kingdoms instead of whole worlds. You get the desert kingdom, the mountain kingdom, the seafaring kingdom, etc. That’s perhaps a bit more realistic than having an entire planet having a single climate and bioeme, but it’s still a pretty broad brush. Or else you get earth cultures pasted onto the fantasy kingdoms, so you’ve got Not!Scotland, Not!Norway, Not!Ireland, etc.

Even if you get a little more granular than that, it’s still tempting to have the Uptight Religious City, the Party City, the Serious Business city, the Warlike City, etc.

And that’s because it’s a lot of work to drill down and create multiple cities in multiple kingdoms that are distinct from each other and that have their own culture but that also have nuance. The less important a place is to the story, the stronger the temptation is to just go “they’re businesslike and somewhat British-like” and leave it at that.

But failing on building a three-dimensional, coherent world can actually make writing harder. This book I’m developing is the one I worked on briefly last year. I’d come up with the core of the idea more than thirty years earlier, wrote it and had nothing come of it, then pulled it out last year and replotted it. I thought it would be easy to write since I knew the plot and the characters, but the problem I ran into was that I realized I didn’t know the world. The characters were moving through a featureless void. I knew the history of the place, but I didn’t know what it was like on the ground, to live there or travel through there, and that made it difficult (and kind of boring) to write. So now I’m working to create a world for them to exist in. I seem to have made it difficult for myself by having the situation be a cluster of smaller kingdoms that’s unified, so I need to develop each kingdom, at least in broad terms, and then I need to figure out what the actual places the characters will visit are like. It’s a “road trip” story, so I have to fully create more than one place. I have to keep reminding myself that I need specific details.

This is fun work to do, but at the same time I get impatient about wanting to write, especially when I come up with a detail that gives me ideas for the story.

TV, movies

A Golden Age

I’ve been thinking lately about what my 11-year-old self would think about the times I’m living in now. That was the age when I fell full-on into geekiness and there wasn’t enough of the geeky stuff I wanted to satisfy me.

I’d been obsessed with Star Wars since I first saw it when I was 9, and in the fall of my sixth-grade year we were still a year away from The Empire Strikes Back (I was living on a military base overseas, so we wouldn’t get it until November of the following year after it was released in May in the US). Around that time, I discovered fantasy as a genre. I’d read books with magic and had even read The Hobbit, but that fall I found the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books, and The Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure which of them I found first, but I do know I read them all during that fall (though I stretched out the Narnia books and didn’t finish reading the series for the first time until early the following year).

The problem at that time was that there wasn’t enough of these things. There was one Star Wars movie, and there was no home video, so the only way to see it over and over again was to go to the movie theater, if it was playing anywhere. Which it wasn’t, especially not on military bases in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of related media. There were mostly just iterations of the original movie — the novelization, the comic book version, the audio drama version, the “storybook” version that had photos from the movie to illustrate the novelization. The way I “saw” the movie repeatedly was to read the novelization while listening to the soundtrack album. The only new stuff that wasn’t just the same story as the movie was one non-canon sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which originally was meant to be the sequel if the movie did well enough for a sequel, but then when it was a smash that got scrapped and Lucas planned a whole saga with a bigger mythology. I guess the Han Solo books came out around that time, but I didn’t find them until about a year later. And there was the infamous Holiday Special, which was terrible but which we were excited for because it was something new in the Star Wars universe.

For Lord of the Rings, an animated version of the first half of the saga came out around that time (I’m not sure when it was actually released, but it came to one of the base theaters nearby that fall, right around the time I read the books). I was so excited about that, then was rather disappointed. And even if I’d loved it, there was no home video, so no way to watch it if it wasn’t at the theater.

It would have blown my mind then to imagine there being eleven Star Wars movies, plus multiple TV series. And it’s all streaming, so you can watch it whenever you want to. You could watch Star Wars content every waking hour for weeks before repeating anything. I was watching Andor last week and it struck me that I was watching a Star Wars TV show, and there would be a new episode a week later. In the days when it was three years between Star Wars movies, that would have been an unimaginable luxury.

And then on Friday night, I watched the latest episode of Rings of Power, which also amazed 11-year-old me. Not only do we have full movies of the whole Lord of the Rings saga, but now there’s a TV series with new stuff in that world, so we get to visit that world again without knowing exactly what will happen because we’ve read the books repeatedly.

I’m really enjoying both of these series, and not just because it’s so exciting to have new content in worlds I love. I think I’d enjoy them even if I hadn’t already been a fan. Andor is actually pretty peripheral to the main Star Wars story, though without that character and his actions, the events of the first movie wouldn’t have happened. But in a way, that’s what I like about it. It fleshes out that universe and shows why the Empire was terrible (beyond just the “willing to blow up whole planets to make a point” thing) while telling a new story I haven’t seen or read before. And Rings of Power is just gorgeous. It’s an immersive wallow in that world, getting to see different aspects of it than were in the main saga.

Twice a week right now, I get to indulge my inner 11-year-old and live out some of the biggest dreams I imagined when I was that age. And if I want to watch something related to these universes between episodes, there’s plenty to choose from.

My Books

Book Hunger

The new book is out in the world, and I’m busy revising the next one. I’ve realized while working on these that I talk a lot about food in these books. Probably not enough for them to qualify as “culinary” cozy mysteries, but still, there’s a lot of food, considering the heroine herself doesn’t actually cook. She just appreciates good food when it’s given to her.

I started cooking a lot of Mexican food when I wrote the first couple of books, after all those scenes in the Mexican restaurant. I got a good recipe for cheese enchiladas and for chili con queso.

Then in Broken Bridge, it was hamburgers. So much talk of hamburgers cooked out on a grill. Hamburgers are a big comfort food for me. If I’m not feeling well, kind of tired and run-down, a burger is my go-to cure, possibly because I don’t eat a lot of red meat, so when my body needs iron, I crave burgers. Oddly, though, I don’t think I ate a lot of burgers while I was writing this book. The act of writing those scenes satisfied the burger craving. Instead of the writing making me hungry, I imagined the food so much that I felt like I’d eaten it. I’ve done that before, when I spent a day writing a dinner scene, then felt dizzy at the end of the day and realized I’d forgotten to eat because writing the scene made me feel like I’d eaten dinner.

The next book takes place in December, so I talk a lot about hot cocoa and cookies. There are fewer food scenes, in general. I’m not craving cocoa, since I wrote it during the summer and it’s still hot as I’m revising it. I think there are more breakfast scenes in this book than I usually write.

Maybe I should have written a culinary series, like with Margarita as the amateur sleuth who follows up on things she hears at her restaurant. But I’ve worked in a restaurant and when I was in high school I had a summer job working in the kitchen at a summer camp, so I’m not sure I want to relive those days. I’ve also worked as a reporter, but that wasn’t quite as miserable. It just wasn’t a great fit for my personality.

I hope I don’t make anyone too hungry from reading these books. All my favorite local Mexican restaurants have closed recently, so I’m glad I learned to cook some of those dishes for myself in case I make myself hungry while I’m writing.


The Case of the Mysterious Beep

I had a lot of stuff I needed to do to get ready to release a new book this week, but last week I got sidetracked by a mystery I had to solve. Let’s call it The Case of the Mysterious Beep. If you follow me on Twitter you may have been able to follow the case in real time, and I’ve also mentioned it on Facebook, but here’s the full story.

Sometime last week, I heard an electronic beep in my office. My first thought was that a smoke detector was telling me its battery was running low, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from the smoke detector, which is closer to the foot of the stairs. Plus, it’s the kind with a built-in ten-year battery and is less than a year old, so unless something had gone wrong, it shouldn’t be beeping at me. The next time I heard the beep, I thought it sounded like it was coming from my Internet router. I looked it up online, and there was a mention that it might beep if the backup battery was running low, but then I looked up the manual for this router, and it gives you the info about a low battery in a different way. The battery indicator on the router should have been red, and there was no light at all. I got into the control panel for the router, and it said there was no battery installed and the audio alerts were disabled. One possibility was that there was an intermittent power issue, and it was beeping when coming back online. The surge protector it was plugged into was pretty old, so I figured I’d get a new one. I shut the office door when I went downstairs at the end of the workday so the sound wouldn’t bother me.

But then I still heard the beep downstairs that evening. It sounded like it might be coming from the thermostat, which has a battery backup to hold the programming in case of power outage. I found the manual, and it said there’s a low battery indicator on the screen, not a beep.

I heard the beep in the office again the next day, and it seemed to be coming from a different direction. I changed the battery in the little clock on my desk. Still, there was another beep about an hour later. I wondered if maybe there was something in the box with my old desk toys/trade show swag. I remembered that when I worked at the advertising/PR firm, we cleaned out a supply closet and found some cards the firm had done for a former client that had a sound chip that played the sound of a ringing phone when you opened them. Instead of throwing those out, we saved some and used them for office pranks — wait until someone leaves the office for a meeting, then open a card and slide it into a folder in the filing cabinet so they had a ringing phone sound until they found it or the card died (it only lasted a few hours of constant play). I did a lot of work for telecom companies, so I have all kinds of little gadgets relating to phones, and maybe one of them was giving out dying wails. But I heard the beep while going through that stuff and it came from a different place.

It was weird how it sometimes sounded like it was coming from the office, and sometimes I didn’t hear it downstairs, but sometimes it seemed to be coming from downstairs. Friday evening, I remembered that there’s another smoke detector, one I’d bought but not installed (I realized I wouldn’t be able to easily reach the detector to change batteries, since it was over the stairs, so I got the ten-year kind). I hadn’t thought it came with a battery, but I decided to check, and it did come with a battery installed. It was on the loft outside the office, so that explained why I heard it in the office and downstairs. I ripped the battery out, and problem solved.

Except not. I heard the beep again the next morning. Now I was getting frantic. It was one beep every hour or so, so it wasn’t that annoying, but I was concerned about what might be going wrong with the thing that was beeping. Usually that kind of intermittent beep is a sign that there’s a problem. I started noticing that the beep happened exactly every hour, and just a couple of minutes after the top of the hour, like it was chiming the hour on a clock that was a minute off. I started checking everything that had a clock in it. I changed or removed batteries in clocks, the digital camera, the weather radio. I unplugged just about everything that made a sound. As I neared the top of each hour, I’d go stand next to a suspect to see if I heard the beep coming from it. I’d bought a new surge protector and I put the router on it, then waited for the beep and not only didn’t hear anything coming from it, I didn’t hear the beep at all.

And then I was downstairs for the next hour and heard the beep. I was starting to contemplate moving and leaving everything behind to escape it. It was like that Edgar Allan Poe poem about The Bells, only it was The Beep. I’d ruled out two smoke detectors, the thermostat, the router, everything in the kitchen, and the phone.

The answer came to me at about five the next morning when I was lying awake, fretting about this. It really did seem like a digital watch that chimed the hour, but I don’t have a digital watch. And then I remembered that I do — the stopwatch I use to time writing sessions. It has a clock mode. That would explain everything. It’s on my desk on work days, but it gets moved around and is sometimes under notebooks or papers, so the sound would move around my office. I generally bring it downstairs with me in the evenings if I’m doing research or brainstorming. That was why the sound followed me around the house. I was literally carrying it with me, but since it was just one beep per hour, I was never next to or holding the watch when it went off. When I was checking the router and didn’t hear the beep, the watch was downstairs and had fallen between sofa cushions.

As it approached the next hour, I got the watch and held it — and it beeped at the top of the hour! I must have hit the wrong button while carrying it and activated the hourly chime. I pushed buttons until I figured out how to turn it off, and I was free of the beep. And greatly relieved that I didn’t have to move to escape it.

I don’t want to think about the number of hours I spent tracking that down. I got almost nothing accomplished on Saturday from tinkering with things and then running to stand next to something every hour. I still get a bit twitchy when I hear a beeping sound. The sound my electronic toaster oven makes when food is done is similar to The Beep (for a while, I thought it might have been the culprit), and I flinch when it tells me my toast is ready. Squeaking truck brakes on the road outside sometimes make me think The Beep is back.

At least now all my devices have new batteries and have been reset.

My Books

Pre-Order the Next Mystery

Case of the Broken Bridge book coverI got my act together, so I will hit my targeted release date. Case of the Broken Bridge will be released next Thursday in e-book. I’m aiming at getting the paperback around that time, but you never can tell how long it will take for those to go live and be shipped. You can pre-order at Amazon, Kobo, and Apple, so far. I’ll try to keep up with the links as stores go live. Check the book’s page on my site for all the information and purchase links.

This book was a very long time in the making. I first outlined it last year. I think it was going to be #4, happening during the summer and before the back-to-school timeframe of Vanishing Visitor. And then I realized there was no way I could get three books written before Halloween, and I really wanted to do the Haunted Hotel book then. So, I put this story aside to use it later.

Early this year, I got out those notes to write the book. It actually fit even better in the timeline this way, since it involves a bridge that got washed out during a storm, and there’s a bad storm in Haunted Hotel. There was just one problem: I seem to have knocked over a water glass and spilled something on my notes, and the ink washed out on the page where I wrote my ideas for how to resolve the story. So, I had all the setup but I couldn’t remember how to resolve it and had to figure that out all over again.

Then as I was writing the book, on the scene in which the victim is found, I heard several loud pops coming from the street by my house, and soon I was watching a crime scene team on the street my office window overlooks for what turned out to be a murder investigation. It was a shooting, someone in one car shooting at the person in the next car, and from what I can tell, the actual shooting happened right in front of my office window (my office is on the second floor, and it overlooks a major road that’s on the other side of a tall brick wall from my house). I didn’t see anything because I was writing, but I heard the gunshots. Not long after that, I was watching the evening news, and they mentioned a shooting at a coffee shop in a nearby town — and I knew the victim. She was the daughter of some friends from church. I’ve known her since she was born. In fact, I had her baby photo on my refrigerator until I got a new one a couple of years ago and cleared off the baby photos of kids who were in college.

At that point, I just couldn’t make myself write murder mysteries. Murder wasn’t something for fun and entertainment. I put that book aside and worked on something else. But then this summer I found myself thinking about it, and I wanted to get closure, so I finished it. And then the timeline worked out so that I needed to do a Christmas book.

This book is a locked-room mystery, but with a paranormal twist. I ended up having a lot of fun writing it, and I think that the emotions I associated with it because of everything that happened around it ended up making it a really strong book, probably the best in this series so far. I’m proud of this one.

I’ve drafted the Christmas book, and I’m about to start revising it. I hope to get it out just before Thanksgiving.

I’m not sure at this point when or if I’ll do more mysteries beyond that. I’ve found that I still don’t really want to read mysteries. I have a few vague possible plot ideas, but nothing firm. We’ll see what pops into my head, but for now I need to take a break from these characters. You’d think I’d learn my lesson about doing two books in the same series in a row. I can’t read two books in a series in a row. And we’ll see how the series sells. It’s been profitable, but based on the time spent writing and the amount it’s earned, I’d have made more money working those hours at a grocery store. There are some promo things I’d like to try, but if things don’t perk up on this series, I may have to call it quits at 7 books and try something else. That’s more books than a regular publisher would have given it before pulling the plug. I tried the move to mystery because it seemed like there was a big crossover audience from the Enchanted, Inc. books to cozy paranormal mysteries, but it seems not. Or else they haven’t found out about it. It’s a pretty crowded field. I don’t know if it’s a visibility/discoverability issue or a problem with the books themselves, but I need things to tick up a bit before I invest a lot more time in these. Or maybe I’m just tired after a few months of crunching and I’ll be eager to return to this series after I work on something else. I’ve actually planned my writing schedule for the next two quarters, so maybe that will help me stay sane.


Fortunate Fools

A few weekends ago, I rewatched the Bill and Ted films. I have the first one on DVD, after seeing it multiple times in the theater. I saw it during the initial release, and then it played at the dollar theater across the street from my university campus, so my friends and I went multiple times. I saw the second one when it came out, but I don’t know if I’d seen it all the way through since then. There were parts I remembered clearly, but I didn’t remember the big picture story. I got the DVD of the third one when it came out. I noticed that they were all on Amazon Prime, so since I could see the second one, I decided it was time for a rewatch. (Warning: there are two versions of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey on Amazon, and the one that comes up first in recommendations is a rent/buy, but it’s also in Prime Video if you scroll further.)

Something that struck me upon this viewing is that the first two movies, in particular, are a modern telling of a “fortunate fool” story. This is a fairy tale archetype in which a good-hearted simpleton manages to bumble through life unaware of threats against him and always manages to come out ahead. He may stumble into trouble because he’s a bit of an idiot, but he also gets out of trouble easily due to a combination of good luck and good karma. He collects friends and allies easily and shows kindness. He’s the kind of guy who’ll see a hungry person and give him his own food, and then later realize that he’s hungry and has no food. But he wins in the long run, usually getting the princess.

Which is basically Bill and Ted. They stumble their way through history, collecting their historical figures and managing to win them over. They seldom lose their good natures and don’t really hold a lot of malice, even when people wrong them. They benefit from a lot of good luck and good timing, getting out of trouble in the nick of time. And they end up with princesses.

I have to wonder how intentional this was. Were the writers conscious of this trope and deliberately using it, or did they maybe absorb it subconsciously from fairy tales? I know that the Bill and Ted characters started as a bit the writers did as stand-up comedy and they wrapped a plot around these characters, but I don’t know if there was more to it than just these airhead guys.

Oddly enough, the description of this trope at TV Tropes fits Bill and Ted perfectly, but they aren’t mentioned among the examples.

The third film goes in a different direction. It’s more about dealing with destiny and facing mortality in the Bill and Ted side of the plot. The daughters are doing the running around in time part of the story, but the daughters are geniuses, with extensive in-depth knowledge of music theory and an ability to have conversations about quantum physics.

I love these movies so much (I need to get a DVD copy of the second film). They’re very much happy place viewing, and they never fail to make me grin. There’s something infectious about their zest for life and tight friendship. It’s even more fun when you know that the two actors became friends while filming and are still close all these years later.

End of an Era

As an American who’s something of an Anglophile, I’m struck by the loss of Queen Elizabeth. It shouldn’t have been a shock, given that she was 96 and lost her husband last year (in fact, I was kind of expecting her to die sooner because people in that age range who’ve lost a long-time spouse tend to go pretty quickly afterward), but at the same time, she somehow seemed eternal so it’s a bit shocking that she’s suddenly gone. I’m not really a royalist, just the Masterpiece Theatre breed of Anglophile who likes visiting castles, but I’m oddly fascinated by the idea of royalty because I don’t really understand it, and when I don’t understand something, I study it to try to make sense of it.

I think my first awareness of Queen Elizabeth was from her Silver Jubilee when I was a little kid. I have a metal box I kept my “treasures” in, and I pasted pictures I cut out of magazines on it. There’s a picture from the Silver Jubilee on it. But my first real impression of her came from reading Anne Frank’s diary. She talked about wishing that the pretty Princess Elizabeth could be queen and seemed to think that would make things better. I put that together with the picture pasted on my box, and it turned her into a real person for me. Even now, I remember the way Anne Frank talked about her when I hear about her.

I had a friend in junior high who was really into the royals, and I think that was why I bothered getting up early to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding. Then it became something of a habit, so I’ve watched all the major royal weddings since then. I also watched Prince Philip’s funeral, just for historical purposes. I had a degree of separation from him, since I’ve met the woman whose wedding his sisters were going to when they were killed in a plane crash (she was married to a German grand duke in the area near where we lived, and my class got to visit her house on a field trip. She showed us around and served us sparkling cider and cookies on the terrace). So now I’ll be watching this funeral and coronation, since it is history.

It’ll be weird for England to have a king again after so long with a queen. I have some British money from my last trip. I didn’t exchange it back because I was hoping to travel again soon (alas, life had other plans), and now I suppose it’s a collector’s item. I wonder how long it’ll be considered valid before they phase out the Elizabeth money and transition to Charles money.

My condolences to those who are mourning, and I’m aware that there are a lot of people in the Commonwealth and former empire who have very mixed feelings. I think most of my feelings are about the end of an era. She was a constant in the world. The leadership of most nations has changed over and over again, and Queen Elizabeth was always there. Now even that’s changed.

As a fantasy writer, I wrestle with the idea of royalty. It’s sort of baked into the standard old-school fantasy and fairy tales, but the idea that this person is the best one to rule you because their parent was the ruler still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As I’ve said, look at the Habsburgs, especially in Spain at the height of the inbreeding effects, and can you really think that these people are superior? That was a lot of the spark behind my Rebels books, coming up with a real reason why this class of people is considered superior—they have magic, and they make a lot of effort to keep it within their class so they’ll stay special. In some of the books I’m developing, I’ve tried to come up with other ways of choosing rulers or I’m looking at the weaknesses in that kind of system.


Impatient Projects

This is my catch up and get my life together week in between book drafts, and wouldn’t you know, that’s when an entirely different book pops up in my head and starts giving me details. That makes it really hard to focus on doing stuff like writing cover copy, thinking about metadata, and planning promo campaigns.

I have to tell that project to be patient because it’s next month’s work. I’m jotting down the thoughts that occur to me so I don’t forget them, and I hope I have this same kind of eager enthusiasm when I start writing it that I have now and that my current eager enthusiasm isn’t just because writing this book sounds a lot more fun than proofreading or messing with metadata. Sometimes when I get like this, I designate some trigger for switching gears to play with the thing that’s demanding attention. Like, when it’s raining I can work on the other thing, but otherwise I have to focus on the main work. Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks of frequent rain, there’s little chance for the next week, so that won’t work. Maybe I’ll think of a composer, and when the classical station plays that composer, during that piece I can play with something different.

That other project really isn’t ready to be written. I have a lot of development work to do, which I guess is what my brain is working on. I’m not getting bits of plot. It’s more details about the world. Like figuring whether there would be a bridge to cross this river at this point, or maybe a ferry, and what kind of ferry. I must have crossed that river a dozen times in my head as I was falling asleep last night, changing the details each time. This is not an important scene in the book, but the details do help create the world, and the details might end up influencing other things.

I’m doing some of that brainstorming work in the evenings. But for now, back to the other work that’s essential and sometimes fun but that tends to trigger story ideas for other things I want to write.

Holiday Weekend

I finished the first draft of Lucky Lexie 8, which is a Christmas book, yesterday, and since it’s the Labor Day holiday weekend, I’m taking a long weekend. Every finished draft deserves a day off. It’s going to be rainy off and on this weekend, so I’m planning on a lot of tea and reading. See you next week!