Archive for March, 2024


Memory Lane

This week I’ve been distracted by a jaunt down memory lane. One of my good friends from my college days died recently, and on the Facebook group for my college friends we’ve been sharing memories and photos of him, and that set off a big sharing of memories and photos, in general, as all of us have been digging out and scanning pictures from that time.

It’s funny, I thought I had really vivid memories of my college days, but some of these pictures are bringing up things I’d totally forgotten about. There are people I don’t recognize until someone mentions their names, and then memories flood back, or there are names that don’t ring a bell at all until I see them connected to a photo and then suddenly remember the people well. That’s meant I’ve been having a constant flood of nostalgia, and I’ve spent way too much time checking to see if anything new has been posted or digging through boxes of my own photos.

This friend was pretty much responsible for me having the college experience I had. I lived in a high-rise dorm on the honors floor, so basically it was geek central. It was a co-ed floor, with the girls on one wing and the boys on another. I moved in early because I had to do orientation, and I met someone else who’d also arrived early, and we hit it off, so I’d been hanging out with her and with some other people we’d met. I’d met some of the people on the floor when we had meetings, but I wasn’t really part of that group.

Then on Halloween, a Friday, I rushed home from class because I had to deliver something for my Pumpkin Pal (like a Secret Santa, but for Halloween), and in my rush I just threw my backpack on my bed and didn’t lock my door when I ran to deliver my gift. I got back to my room to find that my wallet was missing from my backpack. I went down to the dorm office to find the police there because there had already been multiple theft reports. This guy had apparently been working his way through the dorm. My friends came by while I was waiting to talk to the police, heading out to go do something, and instead of waiting with me until I made my report, they left. I was pretty devastated. I hadn’t lost much, since it was just the wallet I carried to class, so it only contained a few dollars, my student ID, and my driver’s license, but it still felt like a violation, and then to have my friends ditch me when I really needed support was even worse.

But a guy named Eric who lived on my floor saw me talking to the police and stopped to make sure I was okay. He then invited me to join the group that met in his room every afternoon to watch Star Trek before heading down to the cafeteria for dinner. That may have been the most comforting thing possible, since that had been my family’s routine when I was in high school. My parents worked at the school, so we got home together in the afternoon, and then we’d watch the Star Trek rerun before dinner.

That day, I got a whole new group of friends that I stuck with the rest of my time through school, and I’m still in touch with a lot of them now online. And it all happened because someone I barely knew reached out to me when I needed a friend. It turned out that most of the people in the group had been brought into it by Eric. He was essentially the one who made the group what it was.

One thing I find interesting about seeing those old photos is that the boys I thought were cute actually were. When I look at my crushes in my yearbooks from junior high and high school, I wonder what I was thinking, but most of the guys I had crushes on from college are still cute to me (their past selves are cute to current me. I don’t know what most of them look like now). There’s one that I didn’t remember at all until people started posting pictures, and now I think he was cute, but I don’t remember if I crushed on him then. There were a couple of pictures of him in my collection, but I don’t know if I was taking pictures of him because I liked him or because he was doing interesting things. Nothing happened with any of these guys because I was very much not cute then, and I was pretty awkward, even for the nerd floor.

A group of somewhat nerdy freshmen in a dorm study lounge in the mid-80s. Of note is a girl with frizzy hair wearing a green sweater and a red skirt with a young Black man in front of her, attempting to strike a suave pose.
Some of my friends during my freshman year in college. I’m the one on the left wearing a green sweater and red skirt (it was around Christmas). My friend Eric, who recently passed away, is the one directly in front of me.

Actually, looking at those pictures makes me want to go back in time and stage an intervention with my past self. For one thing, I’d tell myself to grow my hair out. I didn’t learn until later that my hair shouldn’t be worn short because it won’t have room to curl, so it just makes a frizzy cloud. Some of my fashion choices were questionable. Yes, it was the 80s, but the things I thought were great were weird even for the 80s. And I’d tell myself to be more open to possibilities. I was very set on a plan and didn’t want to deviate from it, even when other opportunities came up. I chose a major and stuck with it, but it turned out to be a bad fit for my personality, and I didn’t actually enjoy it. Meanwhile, other things had come up, but I didn’t take advantage of those opportunities because they didn’t fit with my major. I don’t know what other direction I should have gone, but I should have let myself be more open to exploring. There was no guidance counseling at my high school, so I didn’t know what was out there, and going to a large university, I should have let myself explore enough to find a better fit. I’d probably have ended up doing the same thing I’m doing now, since that was the real plan all along, but I might have been happier along the way.

That sounds like the plot of a paranormal women’s fiction book — the middle-aged woman having a mid-life crisis getting the chance to either relive her college days or travel in time and visit her college-age self. Most of the things like that, like Peggy Sue Got Married, seem to involve parents who choose not to change their lives because they still want to have the kids they had, but what if you haven’t had kids and wouldn’t miss the kids that would have been if you change your life? There’s the TV series Being Erica, in which the heroine goes back in time and relives certain key times in her life. She doesn’t actually change the past, but the changed perspective on the past changes the way she faces the present. But she’s in her early 30s, so it’s more chick lit than women’s fiction.

I may have to add this to my idea file. Like I need more things to write. In the meantime, I have a funeral to go to this weekend, and the bright side of that is that I’ll be seeing some old friends there.


The Great Muppet Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I watched The Muppets Treasure Island, and that got me started thinking again about my Muppet Repertory Company theory.

It is possible that I spend far too much time thinking about Muppets, but my brain is a funny place, and I love the Muppets.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I started rewatching the original Muppet Show and then the older Muppet movies, and the continuity bothered me. The origin story we see in the first Muppet Movie couldn’t have been true within that world because we know Kermit was on Sesame Street with Big Bird long before he was on The Muppet Show, and they were TV stars before they got the movie. And then with The Great Muppet Caper, we got yet another origin story of how they all met. And then yet another one in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

And that was when it occurred to me that none of these films were meant to be actual biopics within the Muppet universe. Instead, what we seemed to have was a repertory company made up of the Muppets, and in their first few movies they were playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was like when they make a movie centered around a musical group or pop singer and it’s sort of supposed to be about them, but it’s not really. They’re playing themselves, though they’re really more characters with the same names who look like them, in a fictional story. That’s how Kermit could have met Piggy for the first time multiple times in different ways in different places. They started branching out and playing other characters with their version of A Christmas Carol.

The backstage parts of the original Muppet Show are the “documentary” part. That’s their real selves. The rest, aside from some fourth-wall breaking in the movies, is not meant to be real. One area where this matters is with the relationship between Kermit and Piggy. On the original Muppet Show, she has a huge crush on him, which he finds annoying. He’s somewhat afraid of her (since she physically threatens him when she doesn’t get her way), but he doesn’t show any sign of actually being interested in her, aside maybe from the occasional jealous moment when she drops her interest in him to focus on the guest star. It’s like he’s somewhat flattered by the attention but doesn’t actually return her affections.

But then in the movies they’re always thrown into a romance, possibly either because Piggy had it put into her contract or because the executives knew that might be a selling point. Either way, Kermit was stuck with it, and like a trouper he managed to play along even though he’s usually annoyed with her. There is a moment in The Great Muppet Caper when he breaks character during a romantic scene to go into director mode and critique her performance, like he’s miffed with her about what she’s doing on the set, and then he goes back into character, playing the romantic scene.

Somewhere along the way, though, it seems like the people writing the Muppets stuff have forgotten that this was the joke, that Kermit kept being thrown into romantic scenes with Piggy in spite of him not being interested, and they were treating them like they’d become a real couple. One of the more recent iterations of a Muppet show, the one that had them running Piggy’s late-night talk show and treating it like it was The Office, had them being exes who’d broken up but still had to work together.

Even as a kid, I didn’t like the idea of them being together. Now that I know more about relationships, it’s even worse. It’s not a healthy relationship when one member of the couple always gets her way by karate chopping the other member of the couple if he dares go against her every whim. I was kind of glad that he apparently got away from her, but I hated that they ever put them together in “real life” in the first place.

I’m not sure the current Muppet stuff even fits with the idea of the repertory company. They seem to be treating some of the movie events as canon, even though they all contradict each other. I haven’t watched the more recent movies since they came out, so that may be one of my summer projects, and then finish rewatching the original series and then rewatch the subsequent series.

And that is probably way more thought than this topic deserves. I just had to get it off my chest after groaning when Treasure Island had Kermit and Piggy playing a couple yet again. I’d thought we might avoid it for once, since there wasn’t a romance that I recalled in the book. But, no.

In Another Life

I had another one of those “this is a thing I like!” experiences with something I was watching last week, so I’ve got a new plot element to add to my list. I’m not sure if I’d call it a trope because it’s pretty specific. I’m calling it “in another life.”

This is a situation in which two characters have known each other and maybe even were in love, but then meet again in different circumstances and one or both doesn’t remember, or else they’re different people, so things have changed. It really only works in a science fiction or fantasy story because you need something that doesn’t generally exist in reality to create the situation — things like time travel, alternate universes, memory spells, clones, etc. The only thing that might make it work in a non-SF story is amnesia, and real-world amnesia doesn’t really work that way.

Some examples:
Farscape had one of the best TV romance stories ever, possibly because they made use of this trope to extend the “will they/won’t they” phase while also still having a relationship. Spoilers ahead. The main relationship started as enemies, then they became reluctant allies, then allies, then friends, and then they spent a long time in what I call “affection” (another reason I think this relationship worked — it was a slow burn, and most of the “Moonlighting syndrome” relationships go from animosity straight to bed without passing through a transitional phase). While they were hanging out and having long talks while snuggled against each other but weren’t yet lovers, some science fictiony thing happened that made a duplicate of him. One version went off to have other adventures while one stayed on the ship, where the relationship continued to progress, and they eventually became lovers. Then he died heroically and tragically, and then the other version returned and it was weird for them because he wasn’t the same person she’d fallen in love with. He was the same up to the point of the duplication, but he hadn’t had the experience of becoming her lover and had gone off and had a lot of other experiences. He was someone she could fall in love with, but it was painful for her to see this person who was just like the man she lost, so it reset their relationship. Eventually, they did end up together.

The series Haven had something like this. We learned later in the series that she kept getting a new personality and memories and getting sent back to this town. Thanks to time travel, he kept getting sent back and meeting her past identities, and they always fell in love. So by the time they met, she’d already fallen in love with him a couple of times in her past, but that was still in his future. She didn’t remember it, but she was drawn to him.

The one that made me realize that I like this sort of thing was a show I won’t name to avoid spoilers (it’s pretty recent). A character found herself in a different timeline where history had gone differently and she was the only one aware of the change. She and a person from that timeline ended up going back in time and had to set things right, stopping another time traveler from trying to change history. They developed feelings during the mission, but they realized that if they were successful, he wouldn’t exist. There would be a version of him, but he would be different because he would be from a different world. After the mission was complete and she was back in her time, which had returned to the timeline she knew, she encountered the version of that person, and of course he didn’t know her and he wasn’t the person she’d fallen for (but maybe he could be …)

I’m less a fan of reincarnation stories, and there usually neither of them is aware of what’s going on, so it’s all on the audience to feel the angst of their past selves, but something like Dead Again also gives some of the same vibe.

I’m trying to figure out why this is a story line that has me going “ooh!” I think part of it is figuring out what aspect of a person makes that person who they are. There’s bound to be some element of their personality that would be the same, no matter what, but then people are also shaped by their experiences. This kind of story with alternate timelines or artificial personalities or memory wipes or duplicates, etc., is like having a control group to study which changes will have which effects and which things remain constant.

But as a fan of slow-burn romances, I think it’s also that it’s fun to have a bit of a reset button. You can have a relationship come to fruition and then send it back to square one to start all over again. It’s a fun way of avoiding that problem in a series of having a relationship work out and then not knowing what to do with it. You can also have a dramatic, tragic death and still have your lovers get together eventually in some form. You get to have both angst and a happy ending, having your cake and eating it, too.

And I think there’s that element of “meant to be” if people keep falling in love with each other in multiple timelines or versions of themselves. You know you’ve got a truly epic romance when these same people fall for each other every time, no matter what’s changed about them.

I haven’t tried using this yet in my work, though I come close in the Rydding Village books. Now I need to see if I can come up with a plot that goes all-out with this.


Remaking Sleeping Beauty

Because my brain is a funny place, I found myself lying awake during the night last weekend, planning a live-action Disney remake of Sleeping Beauty.

Mind you, I currently have no connection to Disney. I’m not a screenwriter. I would have zero chance of doing anything with this. But my brain wouldn’t let go of this as a problem that needs to be solved. I’ve found that one of the best ways to get something out of my brain is to write it out, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

First, I would make it more like the Disney live-action Cinderella than like their other live-action remakes, in that it’s not a direct remake of the animated version, but rather a new telling of the same story, but with some references to the original. Cinderella had a lot of the same pieces as the animated version, but they were executed in different ways. The animals were just pets, not talking animal sidekicks. Some of the same characters were there, but they were different than in the animated version, etc. Also, I think it would be more of a straightforward fantasy film, not a musical. The Sleeping Beauty score was lovely, since it was essentially the Tchaikovsky ballet score (though with the music used in different contexts), but the songs they made from it weren’t all that memorable. I don’t think you’d lose anything from not having the characters singing (and I’m a big musical theater fan).

The next tricky thing would be to make Aurora an actual character rather than merely an object. In the animated version, she’s basically something to be obtained, used, or guarded. She doesn’t really exist as a person. Someone calculated that she had something like 28 lines in the whole film, for which she’s the title character. But it’s a major part of the plot that she’s unconscious for a big chunk of it. How do you give a character whose main role is to sleep more to do?

I think step one for me would be to give her a goal other than finding her dream lover. Let her have learned to do something as a peasant girl who lives in the woods that’s on the way to becoming a viable career that she couldn’t continue to do as a princess. It would have to be something that doesn’t involve a lot of human interaction, since she’s in hiding, so that rules out becoming some kind of herbalist/healer, where she’d have to see patients. She could be a seamstress or baker (which might explain why the fairies didn’t know how to sew or bake without magic in spite of living without magic for 16 years, if we’re still going to have their last-minute use of magic be how they’re found), weave baskets, or do some other kind of craft they were able to sell to supplement whatever nest egg the king gave them to live on while in hiding. Just something for her to have some ambition and feel like she’s losing something other than a man when she finds out she’s a princess.

Prince Phillip from Disney's Sleeping BeautyStep two would be to develop her relationship with Phillip. It needs to be more than one meeting on that last day so that they aren’t both going “but I don’t want to marry the prince/princess because I’m in love with someone else I just met today.” Maybe they’ve been meeting up secretly over years, ever since he was old enough to go riding on his own. In the animated version, he’s four when she’s born, so when he’s 14 she’d be 10, and that means they’d have to start as friends. He’s a lonely kid who’s tired of being trained to be a prince and who doesn’t have any real friends, and she doesn’t know anyone other than her guardians. He runs into her while he’s riding in the woods and they talk. He teaches her swordfighting using sticks, maybe brings bows and arrows and teaches her archery. She’s kind of like a little sister. But then over the years as they get older, it gradually starts developing into something more. This could be shown in montage until not long before her 16th birthday, when something happens to make them see each other in a new light, and they realize they’ve fallen in love.

Though I might tinker with the ages. I know 16 is part of the fairy tale, but if she’s not sleeping for a hundred years and knew the guy who kisses her (and if we’re going to the Grimm version, if she’s not awakened by one of the twin babies she’s given birth to sucking the sliver from the spindle out of her finger), we’re already changing the fairy tale. Sixteen seems so young. Maybe make her 18 and decrease the age gap, so if he’s hanging out with her at 16, then she’s 14 and that seems less creepy.

The next issue is figuring out what to do with her during the main action, since her main role in the story is “sleeping.” The ballet offers one possible solution. The first act is the stuff leading to her falling under a curse, then act two is the prince showing up, finding her, and waking her, with act three being the wedding celebration. During act two, when she’s unconscious until the very end, the prince dreams about the maiden in the tower and there’s this big dream pas de deux. So maybe Phillip could have a dream about unconscious Aurora in which she gives him a pep talk or lets him know what happened.

Another possibility is to change the order in which things happen. In the animated version, the big, climactic scene is Phillip fighting the Malificent dragon, and then him kissing and waking Aurora is sort of an afterthought in the aftermath. Maybe he could manage to wake her first, everything seems okay, and then they have to face Malificent together.

But then we need to look at the fairies’ role. I’ve seen an analysis of the animated movie that the fairies are the actual heroes, and it’s the rare story that centers older women. I like that idea, and structurally, the fairies are the protagonists. They’re the ones with the goal and the plan. They’re the ones who make it possible for Phillip to defeat Malificent. Would it take away from their role if it’s Aurora snapping Phillip out of things when he’s captured by Malificent by meeting with him in a dream and if she’s fighting by his side? I think they’d still need the magical help from the fairies, and Aurora and the fairies can work out their issues about her independence when she insists on facing Malificent.

I probably would find another reason for the fairies to use magic in a way that provides a clue that Malificent tracks. As I mentioned above, it makes no sense that the fairies don’t know how to sew clothes or bake a cake without magic when they’ve been living for 16 years without magic.

I do want to keep the three fairies. I think I want them played by Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I want to keep this separate from the Malificent movies, so no Angelina Jolie in that role here. I had a wacky thought of Gwendoline Christie. She’s physically very different from the animated version, but she would be very intimidating and she has an amazing voice. I have no idea who would play Aurora and Phillip since it would be people who are late teens/early 20s now and I’m not up on young actors. I want to keep Phillip’s snarky sense of humor. He’s my favorite Disney prince.

My obsession with this may mean they’re actually in the process of working on the project. A long time ago, when I was obsessed with the animated Sleeping Beauty after a recent re-release, I started amusing myself by figuring out how Disney might do Beauty and the Beast, and it turned out that was when Disney was in the process of creating their animated version, so maybe I have some kind of psychic direct link to them and I pick up on what they’re doing. I’ve already written my Sleeping Beauty book, so it’s not as though I can capitalize on whatever Disney might be cooking up by writing a book now and having it ready to go by the time they release it. They haven’t announced anything, that I know of.

Really, I just want to see Phillip in live action, and they’d better get him right.


Homebody Woes

I learned this week that today’s cars with their fancy touchscreens and electronic everything aren’t compatible with the homebody lifestyle. I didn’t go anywhere last week because I was focused on writing and didn’t need anything from the grocery store, so it had been nearly two weeks since I’d last driven when I went to head to the grocery store on Wednesday. And that meant my battery was dead.

After roadside assistance jumped it, I drove around for a while to recharge. It’s bluebonnet season, so I looked at flowers, then went out to the lake and drove around it, then followed the advice of the roadside assistance guy and when a wrong turn took me right to an auto parts store, I stopped and asked them to check the battery. The battery registered as good, as did the other electrical system stuff, but the guy at the store was a Subaru fanatic/expert, and he noticed that the battery was the factory original. Batteries have a short life span around here because of the summer heat, and with the mileage on the car when I bought it, the former owner probably had driving habits about like mine. For peace of mind, I just bought a new battery. I figured it was good to have someone who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about my kind of car while I was there.

But now I know that I need to get out more. I’ll confess to being a bit of (a lot of, to be honest) a homebody. It’s a major effort for me to leave the house, and the longer it’s been since I went out, the harder it is for me to force myself. If I don’t have a reason to go somewhere, I don’t go, especially if I have to drive.

I live in a pretty walkable neighborhood, so I like to walk for as many errands as I can. I would be happy living without a car, though that would be pretty inconvenient around here. Another reason I like my neighborhood is that everything I need is right nearby. I don’t have to get on freeways. Most of my driving is the two miles to the grocery store and back.

I don’t know if I’ve got full-blown agoraphobia, but I did have a great aunt who apparently got weird and never left the house at all, so I guess it runs in the family. Pre-pandemic, I made sure I had several activities to force me out of the house a couple of times a week so that it got easier to go out. Most of those activities ended with the pandemic.

I guess this is kind of like how having a dog forces you to go out on a walk every day. My car is going to force me to leave the house at least once a week and drive for more than five minutes at a stretch, and I probably will need to get on a freeway a couple of times a month. I’ll have to come up with a list of driving outings I can do. There are parks where I can go walking, and I can make more of an effort to meet up with friends. The afternoon spent driving this week was probably good for me, though it would have been more fun without the stress of worrying about the battery.

Oh, and with the unexpected bill, this would be a good time to tell someone about my books!

TV, My Books

Time-Traveling Historians

My latest TV obsession is the series of historical farming documentaries from the BBC. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was watching one set in the 1600s (Tales from the Green Valley). I’d already watched the Tudor Monastery Farm series. Then the YouTube algorithm started serving me more. Last week, I watched the Wartime Farm series about World War II. I’m currently watching Victorian Farm.

The basic format of these is that a group of historians and archaeologists spend a year living as though they’re farmers in a particular era, using technology of the time, to see how it all works and whether they could have survived. They go from planting a crop to harvesting the crop and everything in between, eating the food, wearing the clothes, and living the life, in general. They’ll bring in subject matter experts to learn about a particular task or craft of the time. The cast sometimes varies, but there are some regulars who pop up, and that means my brain starts creating narratives about all this.

It started when I watched the Wartime Farm series right after the one set in the 1620s. The historians were talking about how their experience couldn’t replicate exactly what people of the time experienced, since they knew when and how it would end, and that was uncertain for the people of the time. They were going through all this with high expectations, trying to increase food production since most of their imports had been cut off, and they didn’t know when or if they might be invaded. Although the scholars were spending one year, they kept adjusting conditions based on different years of the war to show how things changed, like the availability of some things. They were talking about having to go back to some of the older ways that had been more or less lost because they were having to make do, and since I’d just watched some of these same people living in the 1620s, I thought they had an unfair advantage over actual 1940s farmers because they’d done things like make medicinal preparations out of foraged herbs, had made their own cheese, had thatched a roof, had worked a field using horses instead of a tractor.

And that’s when it struck me: They’re time travelers! These people are bringing knowledge from the past and from the future. I would say it’s a fun story idea, but Connie Willis has already written the books about the time-traveling historians. I guess this is the next best thing to getting a movie or TV series made from those books. One thing I’m enjoying is that while there is a bit of a story line — will they have a successful harvest? — there’s not a lot of drama. There are no villains or antagonists. It’s just people trying to learn things and make things work. That makes for engaging but relaxing viewing.

I’m also getting really curious about the behind-the-scenes stuff, wondering whether they really are living like this or just when the cameras are on. They tend to do a couple of months in a single episode, so it’s just a day or two that gets shown. Are they wearing these clothes and living in these places all the time with the cameras only on them for a day or two every month, on camera all the time but it gets edited down, or just showing up when they’re doing something the camera will record? They did mention for the 1600s one that they wouldn’t actually be living in the farmhouse for health and safety reasons but would be living nearby, which implies they’re living on-site, even if they are living in trailers or something like that. They also mentioned during the Victorian one that they’re not actually sleeping in the cottage but rather elsewhere on the estate. I’ve read the books by one of the historians, and she mentioned trying the Tudor-era hygiene protocol when they were doing that series and that even the camera crew that wasn’t around all the time didn’t notice any body odor, which also implies that they’re living this way all the time. Do these people have families? Do they get weekend visits?

We had a small farm when I was a teenager, but we mostly just raised a few cows, so I didn’t get the full farm experience, and I don’t romanticize it at all, but these are still fun to watch. I started watching these as research for the Rydding Village books, when I was looking up info on how people were cooking and baking, and this was what the search results brought up. Then I connected them to some books I’d read for research when I realized it was the same historian. The shows are great for being able to visualize what she discussed in the books.

Just staying alive before all the modern conveniences was a lot of work, which was why I came up with the house spirit to help the local healer. I’m not sure how a single woman who needed to keep house would have any time left in the day to earn a living. Laundry would take about as long for a single as for a family, and most people wouldn’t have owned enough clothes to go longer between loads of laundry. That may be why so many people made extra money by taking in laundry. It would free a lot of time to hire someone else to do the wash, and adding a few items to the load of a single person or small family wouldn’t require a lot of extra effort, so it would be monetizing something they had to do anyway. A healer-type person who had to maintain a garden for herbs, prepare medicines, and see patients wouldn’t have much time to also cook, keep the house reasonably clean, and do laundry. And so we have Gladys in my books.


The Potato Problem

I’m getting close to being halfway through with book 2 in the Rydding Village series, and I’m having to make some decisions about how to handle the worldbuilding. There’s a balance between realism and fantasy in any secondary-world fantasy — that is, fantasy that’s not set on our earth. I’ve come to think of this as the Potato Problem.

There’s something about a potato that makes it seem like it should fit in an old-fashioned world. Potatoes roasted in an open fire are so simple and basic and the kind of thing you might eat while on a fantasy quest. Except potatoes didn’t become common in Europe until the late 1500s because they’re originally from South America. Your medieval peasant wouldn’t have been roasting potatoes in the fire or having potatoes in a hearty stew, even if Medieval Times (a sort of dinner theater in which you eat a Ye Olde Meal while watching jousting) serves roasted potatoes.

But can your characters in a fantasy world based on medieval Europe eat potatoes? That’s a tricky question. The really pedantic people who know history (like me) are likely to get thrown out of the story by a mention of potatoes. But your world could be one in which potatoes grow in the continent where your characters live, since it’s not our earth. Or people from the continent where your characters live could have traveled to the place where the potatoes are earlier than they did in our world. The big question is whether this detail will add to your world or detract from it. There’s something cozy and homey about a potato that just seems to fit, but you also don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s an issue that has come up even for Tolkien, who was a medievalist who probably should have known about this, but the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings books eat potatoes. I actually think the hobbits don’t seem all that medieval. Their costuming in the films seems sort of 18th century, when potatoes would have been in England, and that costuming fits the descriptions in the books, which refer to things like waistcoats and buttons. In behavior, the hobbits strike me as Edwardian gentlemen. It’s only the other societies in that world that seem medieval. The hobbits did have to explain “taters” to the others, so maybe they hadn’t spread that far.

I’m going with a roughly 17th-18th century level of technology in my world (aside from gunpowder, which I don’t think they have), so potatoes would be a possibility, even for Europe in our world. I haven’t decided yet whether I’m going to use them. This actually came up when I was thinking about how I would make a particular pastry mentioned in the book, and the dough that would be most suitable for it contains potato flour (or potato flakes). I’d probably not mention the ingredient in the book, but if I provided a recipe it would have potatoes, and would that be a problem?

There are similar issues relating to tomatoes, which come from the same place and came to Europe at about the same time. You might find tomatoes in Italian food starting around the 1600s. Tobacco and corn also came from the Americas.

Then there’s the issue of language. Can you use words based on proper nouns from our world in your fantasy world? Can you put your feet up on an ottoman (named for the empire) or eat a sandwich (named for the earl) when those people and places don’t exist in your world? Or do we assume that the whole book is being translated to modern English, and those words are the nearest approximation in our language to what they’re saying in the language of that world?

And this is probably getting way too nerdy. Most readers only notice if the world seems real and believable to them. Only a few weirdoes are going, “Ha! Potatoes!”


The Little Mermaid Comes to Life

Last weekend I finally got around to watching the live-action The Little Mermaid remake. I hadn’t been particularly opposed to it. I just wasn’t really in the mood for that sort of thing, and it was nearly two and a half hours long, so it seemed daunting when I was in the mood for something light. I mostly didn’t see how it was necessary. I have to say that I found it delightful, but it reinforced the issues I have with the live-action remakes loaded with CGI.

The human cast was great. Any scene involving actors with human faces was lovely. The actress playing Ariel was wonderful, and she brought tears to my eyes several times because she conveyed that sense of longing so well. It was nice that Eric got more of a personality, a song, and even a backstory. I’ve seen some quibbles about the changes they made to fix some perceived plot holes in the original, but I thought they worked. But this is all story stuff that could have happened without changing the medium to live action, other than maybe you get more realism and emotion from human actors than from cartoons.

But the non-human parts didn’t come across so well. The animation to create all the sea creatures was gorgeous and created absolutely real-looking sea creatures. The problem came when these real-looking creatures started talking, dancing, and singing. It was weird. It seems you can either have cartoony creatures who have somewhat human facial features that convey human emotion or you can have realistic creatures who don’t convey human emotions because they don’t have human faces. I think it might have worked better if they’d just let the characters with human faces have the speaking parts and let the sea creatures be sea creatures.

That would have required a rewrite, but then I wouldn’t mind if they’d done more like Cinderella and just made a new version of the same story using some elements from the animated version. I wouldn’t necessarily want to get rid of “Under the Sea” or “Kiss the Girl,” but maybe let Ariel have merpeople friends to talk to who could sing. I don’t know. It’s just weird seeing a realistic-looking crab singing.

I’ve found most of the Disney animated sequels (the direct to video ones they did in the 90s) to be blah, but this movie is just about begging for a sequel, with the characters setting off on an adventure and with a mystery to Eric’s backstory.

And I still want a good live-action version of Sleeping Beauty. Maybe not a musical because the songs weren’t pivotal in that one, and go full-on fantasy movie, given that we get a battle between a prince and a dragon. I’m not sure how to give Aurora a bigger role (I believe I read somewhere that she had 27 lines in the whole movie), considering that her being in a coma is a big part of the story. Maybe beef up what she does earlier in the movie, or else borrow from the ballet, in which the prince dreams of her while she’s asleep. In the ballet, they go with the 100 years asleep thing that they skipped with this one, so the prince had never met her, and he goes to try to wake her because of a dream he had about her (in the ballet, it’s an excuse to get in a big romantic pas de deux before the finale), but Philip could dream about her while Malificent has him locked up.

Oh, and I need Emma Thompson to play one of the fairies. Thanks. Maybe we could get Judi Dench while we’re at it.



It’s possible that I might be a tea-powered life form. I’ve seen a meme about coffee saying something to the effect of turning magic beans into stories, but with me it’s magic leaves.

This realization came courtesy of a book I read recently, The Busy Brain Cure. A neurologist found that there seems to be a link between lack of focus, anxiety, and insomnia, and she calls this “busy brain.” It’s the result of chronic or recurring stress. Since lack of focus, anxiety, and insomnia are pretty much my life, I found it interesting. The book offers an eight-week protocol for addressing it, and since there wasn’t anything in it that looked potentially harmful, I thought it might be worth giving it a shot.

The first couple of things were common insomnia recommendations. There was setting a consistent bedtime and wake time. I generally do this anyway, other than weekends, when I let myself sleep a little later (and then I usually wake at the same time, but then let myself go back to sleep). It’s not a major lifestyle change to set an alarm on weekends, especially since I use a light-up alarm, so I don’t have sound that startles me awake, just a light that comes on gradually so I feel like I’m waking up naturally.

The next thing was a digital detox, with no screens or devices thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime. Again, that’s something I usually do anyway, unless the book I’m currently reading is an e-book (she includes e-readers and tablets as screen and devices). I seldom watch TV that late, and while I’m tempted by e-mail and social media while I’m at my computer, once I leave my office I don’t think about checking it, and I ignore my phone most of the time. So, no major lifestyle change other than trying to start my weekend movies early enough for them to be over an hour before bedtime.

Then we got to the diet week. It’s not a huge shift, since the focus is mostly on adding healthy fats and low-glycemic index foods rather than on cutting anything out, and that’s mostly the way I eat, anyway.

But the real issue there was with caffeine. She recommends not having caffeine first thing in the morning because that’s when cortisol levels are naturally higher. You get more benefit from the caffeine by waiting to have caffeine a few hours after you wake up. The best time to have caffeine is between about 9:30 and 11 a.m., and none after 1 p.m. Also, no caffeine within an hour of having sugar or things made with white flour. There was something sciencey that I didn’t take notes on about the interaction of sugar and caffeine that does something about inflammation.

This is a major lifestyle change, as I drink tea with breakfast, which is a double whammy, as it’s first thing in the morning and usually involves sugar and flour (I usually eat whole wheat toast, but with cinnamon sugar or some kind of jam or fruit butter). Then there’s some kind of baked good with tea in the afternoon. But I thought I’d give it a shot. I know that a lot of what I like about tea is the warm liquid, so I made herbal tea with breakfast. I did find that it didn’t make a huge difference in alertness, but the taste of herbal tea (I tried a couple of different kinds) didn’t go well with my breakfast food. It was later in the day when I had a hard time focusing, and I found that my sleep was actually worse when I was limiting tea to late morning.

I am not addicted to tea. We are just in a very committed relationship.

By the third day, I dug some decaf teabags out of the cabinet because I just couldn’t seem to write without actual tea. I got a lot more focused after drinking it, and I slept better that night. I made decaf tea for breakfast yesterday and I was doing much better. Then I pretty much gave up on trying to limit tea in any way and went back to my usual routine, having tea in the afternoon with some bread I’d baked. Last night, I had the best sleep I’ve had all week and I topped my word count goal in writing yesterday.

I don’t think I’m the kind of person the doctor was targeting with this. I make a whole pot (about 4 cups) using two teaspoons of tea leaves, which is supposed to make two cups, and brewed only a short time, so my tea isn’t very strong. I don’t think two cups of tea make all that much difference, caffeine-wise. The people she was talking about in the book were the sort who have multiple cups of coffee, energy drinks, or colas throughout the day, the kind of people who use caffeine to get going during the day but then are so wired that they need alcohol to unwind at night.

It didn’t even seem to be the caffeine. It was the tea, which had the same effect on me even when it was decaf (though the decaf doesn’t taste as good). Food definitely tastes better with tea — especially baked goods. I figure the author of the book isn’t going to reach through the Internet to scold me for breaking the rules, and I already returned the book to the library, so she can’t reach through the book to get me. If something that’s supposed to make you focus and sleep better makes you focus and sleep worse, then it’s not a good idea. Maybe I should have given it more than a few days, but tea is one of my few indulgences and seems to be essential to my work, so I’m keeping it.