Lost Places

After I identified that “history travel memoir” subgenre, I keep finding more books that fit in it somewhat, and I’m not even looking for them. I’ve been doing some book research that requires looking into some particular places, and that’s set me off onto some rabbit trails, where I read something in one book that intrigues me, so I look for books on that topic, and so forth. So these books here aren’t necessarily things I was reading for research. They may have been on topics I ran across while researching something else. But they’re all fascinating reading.

Shadowlands, by Matthew Green, is about lost British villages. The author travels to these locations and tries to learn about the villages and why they were lost/abandoned. There’s an Iron Age village that was uncovered, a few villages that fell into the sea or were swamped, and even some more modern losses, like areas taken over for military training during WWII or a Welsh village that was destroyed when a river was dammed for a reservoir. I found this to be fascinating reading, but it left me a bit melancholy.

On a similar note (I found it by looking for similar titles in the library’s online catalog) was Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. This one looks at four major cities that were lost or abandoned along the way, for various reasons. It gets into why and how cities were built and why/how they get abandoned, whether it’s disaster (like Pompeii), social change, or something else. This book is a good resource for worldbuilding because it makes you think about what makes up a city and makes a city work — or not.

Born on a Mountaintop by Bob Thompson was an odd little digression for me. In something else I was reading there was some stuff on the Texas Revolution, which made me realize how little I knew about Texas history, since I was living overseas for the grade in which they teach Texas history in Texas schools. So I looked up other books on the topic and found this one, though it ended up being not quite what I was looking for. It was still fun reading. It’s a biography of Davy Crockett that gets into both the history and the myth. The author travels to locations that were pivotal in Crockett’s life, from his birth to the Alamo, trying to separate the truth from the legends. He also gets into the legends and how they were created and sustained, and then revived by the Disney TV series that created a phenomenon in the 50s. I didn’t know a lot of this information, and it will definitely give me a different perspective the next time I visit San Antonio and the Alamo.

I seem to have unintentionally followed a trend when I pulled Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz off a library shelf because this one also involves a trip to San Antonio. Before he was one of the designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted worked as a correspondent for the newspaper that became the New York Times. He was an abolitionist, but not really a radical one, and he had the idea to travel in the south in the years right before the Civil War and talk to people to get a sense of what southerners were really like so maybe they could find common ground and work out their differences (it seems the NYT has been doing the “let’s visit a diner in a red state and talk to voters” thing for more than a century). The author of this book retraced Olmsted’s steps in 2016, doing a similar experiment. The book covers what Olmsted saw and experienced in a place, and then what the author saw and did along the way. He tried to replicate travel the way Olmsted might have, though he drove a car instead of riding on horseback or taking a stagecoach. He started on a train, hitched a ride on a coal barge going down the Ohio River, managed to find a river cruise on the Mississippi that wasn’t too different from what Olmsted experienced, and even took a short excursion by mule in the Texas Hill Country. I found it fascinating reading, since so many of the places he traveled were familiar to me, but I was seeing them through different eyes. It was also kind of depressing because a lot of the attitudes he found weren’t that different from what Olmsted heard. The racism is still pretty virulent, and there’s the sadly familiar issue you find in the south of people who are kind and welcoming but who can also spew some awful hate and paranoia. Unfortunately, I know enough people like the ones he talks to that I know he’s not making it up or exaggerating, and that makes the book a bit depressing, since people haven’t changed that much. It turns out that Olmsted started as a moderate abolitionist, but after traveling in the south he ended up secretly helping support some radical anti-Confederates among the German settlers in the Texas Hill Country. He went from “maybe we can find common ground” to “burn it all down” after seeing slavery in person and meeting southerners.

I’ve turned to reading some fantasy novels after all that non-fiction. I think I had a bit too much of the real world.

movies, fantasy

The Huntsman Rides Again

I did check The Huntsman: Winter’s War out of the library, and I was surprised to find that it was much, much better than the first movie. It’s still high-budget Fantasy Cheese, but it was much better structured than the first movie.

As an aside, I figure I should define “Fantasy Cheese.” The quick and easy definition is “the sort of thing the Sci Fi Channel used to show on Saturday nights,” but then I had to think further to figure out what that meant. I think for me it boils down to underdeveloped fantasy that’s mostly a string of tropes. So, generic quasi-medieval European world with no development beyond that of what the society is like, the standard character and plot points without much to make them unique. In books, I’ve heard this referred to as “extruded fantasy product.” It was the sort of thing that got published a lot in the 70s and early 80s when people wanted more stuff like The Lord of the Rings, and so we got works that were essentially based on LOTR without any further development. I think it can be fun for movies since a lot of the nuance and development never makes it to the screen anyway, and there’s something satisfying about a favorite trope done well. A lot of these movies are low-budget, so there’s a bit of a camp factor to them. They’re kind of cheesy and predictable. These are fantasy movies not to be taken too seriously but that can be fun to watch.

But back to The Huntsman. The main thing for me was that the heroes had actual goals, both on the story level and the personal level. We knew what they wanted and why, and those things had emotional resonance. There was interpersonal conflict with emotional stakes. And the heroes got to be proactive rather than just reactive.

The way I define “proactive” is that the heroes are trying to do something other than just escape from or counter the villain. If all they do is respond to what the villain is doing, that’s reactive. If they have their own plan that they’d be carrying out regardless of what the villain is doing, that’s proactive. They’ll still have to deal with and react to the villain, but the villain is getting in the way of them doing something. In the first movie, Snow White was purely reactive up until the end. She was just trying to get away from the queen, so if the queen stopped chasing her, there would be no story. You have a proactive story if the heroes would still be doing something if the villain left them alone.

This movie is both a prequel and a sequel. There’s an extended prologue (maybe about 20-30 minutes of the movie) that gives some of the backstory of the queen from the first movie and her sister and how the sister becomes the Snow Queen (that’s the fairy tale this movie focuses on). Then it gets into the backstory of the Huntsman from the first movie and how he and his future wife were taken by the Snow Queen and trained to be part of her army of warriors, then goes on to show what happened to his wife and how he got to where he was in the first movie. And then it skips ahead to after the first movie, when the magic mirror has gone missing and Snow White’s husband asks for the Huntsman’s help to find it and get it to a safe place where the Snow Queen won’t be able to get to it. So he sets out on a quest, running into someone from his past along the way, and he learns that things in his past weren’t what they seemed.

There’s some humor and some decent action sequences that had an emotional core, so I didn’t zone out during them. Emily Blunt makes a wonderful villain, with a kind of fragile vulnerability beneath her icy exterior. I found myself actually caring what happened.

This one actually might work best if you don’t try to connect it to the first film because there are some continuity gaps, and this movie makes some of the pivotal stuff in the first movie an even bigger “huh?” There’s a bit of a Once Upon a Time (the TV series) thing, with the Huntsman from the Snow White story turning out to also be one of the kids from the Snow Queen story, and the Snow Queen and the Evil Queen from Snow White are sisters (in that series, it seemed like all the fairy tale characters were either related to each other or were mashups, with the same person playing key roles in multiple fairy tales).

In general, this is a good popcorn fantasy film with some good performances, gorgeous costumes, and a decent story. I don’t know that I’d buy the DVD unless I find it on the bargain shelf at the used bookstore, but it’s a fun watch. I think it’s currently available to watch with ads on Freevee (what used to be IMDB-TV).


The Dreaded Triangle

I’ve been analyzing what was wrong with the movie Snow White and the Huntsman, since I’ve lost a lot of sleep mulling it over and figuring out how to fix a bad story is a good creative exercise. Previously, I dealt with the major issues, which are mostly about how the writers forgot to actually create characters for the protagonists. We never really knew what they wanted in life or what they aimed to accomplish in the story. And that made for a mess when it came to the weirdly halfhearted romantic triangle in the movie.

Generally, a love triangle represents a choice the person at the center of the triangle has to make. There are two major approaches. In one version, one guy is good and the other is bad, but it’s hard to tell which is which, often because the bad one hides behind a fair face, charm, and other things we associate with goodness, and the good one may not have the superficial qualities we associate with goodness. One famous example of this is Pride and Prejudice, and it’s also common in Gothic romances. Figuring out which one is good and which is bad is a test for the heroine, and she has to learn whatever cosmic lesson the story is teaching her to be able to make that choice, such as getting over her prejudice or learning discernment.

In the other kind of triangle, both suitors are good, but they represent different paths the heroine could take, and one of those paths might be better for her. Choosing a guy means choosing the direction of her future and the kind of life she’s going to have. A famous example of this one would be The Philadelphia Story, in which Katharine Hepburn’s character faces the enviable dilemma of choosing between characters played by Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. They’re both good guys who care about her. Jimmy Stewart’s character sees her as a goddess and puts her on a pedestal, while Cary Grant’s character sees her as a flawed human being and loves her anyway. She realizes that’s what she needs, that she’ll never grow if she’s being admired as a goddess. She needs to get knocked down off the pedestal and challenged.

I’m honestly not sure which of these the writers of Snow White and the Huntsman were trying to take. There are going to be spoilers here because this is where they deviated a lot from the fairy tale, so if you haven’t seen it, want to, and want to be surprised, come back after you’ve seen it.

In one corner of the triangle, we have William, the duke’s son, Snow White’s childhood best friend. He’s sort of in the role of Prince Charming from the fairy tale. He had to be literally carried away to keep him from trying to get back to the castle to save her when the evil queen took over when they were children and he’s been actively fighting against the queen ever since then. He’s taking a great risk by infiltrating the enemy to try to help her. In the other corner, we have the Huntsman, a drunk who’s still hung up on his dead wife, who was working for the queen to try to catch Snow White until he learned the queen lied to him and who only agreed to help Snow White after that because he was promised a reward. He abandons her at one point and only comes back when he realizes the people he ditched her with are under attack.

I don’t think either guy is bad. Both help her, neither betrays her, and they end up being able to work together well. There’s no jealous sparring between the guys and neither one turns out to be a louse. It may be that they represent two different paths. William wants to place Snow White on her rightful throne, so he represents the path of royalty. I’m not sure what the Huntsman is supposed to represent. This is where the characters having no real goals becomes a problem. We don’t know what the Huntsman wants out of life (other than his wife back), so we don’t know what Snow’s life with him would be like, and we don’t know what Snow really wants, so we don’t know if she’s opposed to William’s goal or torn about duty vs. freedom, or anything like that. As queen, she can’t really be with someone like the Huntsman, so being with him would probably mean going away to someplace safe where the evil queen can’t reach her and giving up on being royalty. But it’s hard to see that as a positive outcome, especially since she sees the harm the queen is doing to the people of Snow White’s kingdom. She’s selfish and irresponsible if she chooses that path. So then we’re down to a Roman Holiday thing, but with a triangle twist, where she might want to choose that guy but out of duty she can’t choose the path he represents, so she’s making a sacrifice to choose duty and give up love. That seems to be what they’re aiming for, since it’s the Huntsman who saves her from the curse of the poisoned apple with a kiss (after William’s tearful kiss after she collapses from the poison does nothing), and then the scene of her coronation in which the Huntsman is lurking near the back is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Roman Holiday, in which the reporter shows up at the princess’s public appearance, back in their royalty and commoner roles but with a sly acknowledgment to each other of what has passed between them.

Except, they don’t really bother to develop that in any way. We haven’t seen any kind of development of their relationship or any struggle between desire and duty. The plot more or less follows the fantasy road trip outline I came up with last year — there’s the bargain they strike that leads to them traveling together. There’s bickering (though it’s sort of half-hearted, almost like they’re just ticking it off a list and then they forget about it after a scene). They come under attack and barely escape. Then there’s a “whew, we made it” scene after they run into the dwarfs in which there’s dancing. Except she’s not dancing with him. She’s goofing around and dancing with one of the dwarfs. This should have been where the Huntsman cut in and ended up dancing with her, with them having a big moment of sexual tension or awareness of each other. It’s in the next scene when the childhood friend finds them and helps them fend off the rest of the search party, so that would have fit perfectly — just as she’s had a moment with the Huntsman, William shows up and she’s reunited with her old friend. Cue Huntsman looking lonely and Snow White feeling torn. Except it doesn’t happen that way. The Huntsman is amused by watching her dance, but shows no sign that he wants to be the one dancing with her. He doesn’t seem to be all that interested in her other than as someone to be kind of in awe of and even encourages William to tell her how he feels about her after William talks to the Huntsman about how he’s always felt about Snow. The Queen uses Snow’s relationship with William to trick her into taking the poison apple, and Snow seems pretty keen on him then.

But then after the poison apple, the Huntsman makes a big, heartfelt speech to what he thinks is Snow White’s dead body, laid out in state, talking about things between them that they never really showed. We didn’t see the things he describes in his speech before the kiss, and then there’s the fact that just a few days earlier, he was so hung up on his dead wife that he was willing to take the job to bring Snow White to the queen because he thought the queen could bring his wife back to life. Instead of it being a pivotal emotional moment the whole movie was building toward, it was a big “huh?”

I think him showing up at the coronation and the ambiguity they left it with, with no definite relationship with either guy, was meant to set up the sequel, but they removed Snow White from the sequel, which is just about the Huntsman, and apparently the sequel reveals that she married William, which makes what happened in this movie even more baffling. I’m curious enough to see what happens in the sequel, even though apparently it’s worse than the first one, that I’ve checked the DVD out of the library for weekend viewing. It has Emily Blunt in it, so it can’t be all bad. She’s always fun to watch. I’ll be making popcorn and settling in Saturday night. There may even be alcohol.


Why Didn’t it Work?

Last weekend, I was still in the mood for fantasy but not quite up for starting an entire fantasy saga, and as I noticed the previous weekend, there are precious few standalone fantasy films. So, I ended up watching Snow White and the Huntsman, which is new to Prime. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before. I remember the wisecrack I made at the time about how they got all those noted British actors to play the dwarfs by finding the pub where the renowned theater actors hang out, drugging them, loading them into a van, and driving them to the set, where they woke up already made up as dwarfs. But, oddly, there was only one scene in the whole movie that seemed at all familiar to me, and my memories of scenes I thought I remembered turned out to be inaccurate. As I recall, I watched it on HBO when I was sick, so it’s possible I was dozing off and on and didn’t see much of the movie. This viewing felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

And it’s not a great movie. It’s basically Fantasy Cheese with a bigger budget. They had good special effects, a mostly top-notch cast, and enough money to hire enough extras for crowd scenes (though a lot of them might have been computer generated). But the script may have been worse than most of the Fantasy Cheese movies. I had to fight to stay awake and wasn’t at all engaged, which may be why I didn’t remember much from the first time I watched it. I actually lost sleep that night from lying awake and trying to figure out why it didn’t work. It was an interesting exercise in story craft, so I thought I’d share my analysis. I’m going to try to keep it vague enough to not be spoilery, especially where this version deviates from the basic fairy tale this is loosely based on, but if you haven’t seen it and think you might want to, I suggest watching it before you read this.

I think the main problem for me was that I didn’t find the protagonists very engaging. I didn’t care enough about them to get emotionally involved in the story, which meant it was mostly spectacle and I mentally checked out. The villain was reasonably well-developed. We learn early in the movie what she wants out of life — what might be called her character goal or desire — and why. Then there’s the time when things change and she comes up with her story goal, the specific thing she needs to accomplish in order to set things right. We also get a pretty good sense of what her underlying drive is. These are the core things you need for a character who’s going to be driving the action, so they got that much right. Unfortunately, she mostly drops out of the movie around the time her story goal is established. She does a few pivotal things late in the movie, but for most of the middle of the film, she just stands around looking menacing and occasionally yelling at people.

The protagonists don’t get that much development. Snow White is just a void. We get a little bit about her as a kid in the prologue, but as an adult, we know nothing about her. She wants to escape the queen and we understand why, but she doesn’t really have any hints of goals or motivations beyond that until almost the end of the movie. They keep telling us how special and inspiring she is and how she’s some kind of chosen one the people will rally around and finally defeat the evil queen, but we don’t really see her do anything inspiring. Mostly, she just stands open-mouthed and with her chest heaving while various people and creatures stare in awe at her because she’s just that special. All the people around her want to restore her to her rightful throne, but we never learn how she feels about that until almost the end of the movie, and we don’t know if this is a difficult decision for her. Is it something she wants all along? Does she change her mind? Is she doing it because she really wants it or out of duty? I think the character development in the script stopped at “played by that chick from Twilight, so all the teen girls will love her.” I understand that Kristen Stewart got a lot of hate for this role, and she’s not good. She just has that one facial expression with her mouth hanging open and almost no inflection to her speech, but the script gives her absolutely nothing to work with. She’d have had to create a character from scratch and write an entire script for what’s going on inside the character to have had anything to play. She has very little dialogue and almost no action other than running away from people chasing her.

The Huntsman isn’t any better. He gets a sad backstory about having lost his wife, but we don’t know what he wants. He initially works for the queen to track down Snow White because she promises she can use her magic to bring his wife back, but he later agrees to help Snow White because she promises him a big reward if he can get her to the duke who’s still holding out against the queen. He doesn’t really have a story goal and we don’t know if he has a character goal. The character development went no further than “played by Thor, so maybe people will remember that and apply it to this character.”

Because the title protagonists don’t have a goal beyond surviving, they’re in reactive mode. They don’t do much other than react to what the queen and her minions do. They get chased around a lot, but there’s no narrative drive for them. The turning points come about because of things the queen does or things they stumble across rather than because of choices they make. I think that’s what makes me lose interest.

There is one good guy they actually did some development on, the duke’s son, Snow White’s childhood friend. When we see him as an adult, he’s fighting a guerrilla insurrection against the queen (character goal!), and then when he learns that Snow White is still alive after all those years as the queen’s prisoner, he sets out to find and help her so he can restore her to her rightful place on the throne (story goal!). And he’s proactive about it — he has a plan. He joins the queen’s hunting party that’s looking for Snow White so he can protect her before they get to her (and he can hamper them a bit). The scene in which he shoots his way onto the hunting party in a very Robin Hood way was the one scene I recalled from the first time I saw the movie. A movie about this guy infiltrating the hunting party as a way to find Snow White while also trying to sabotage them so they don’t find her might have been a lot more interesting than what we got.

And, oddly, this guy was apparently the “Mr. Wrong” in a weirdly undeveloped romantic triangle, but that’s a pretty complicated topic I’ll save for the next post.

That means we have no narrative drive from the protagonists whose names are in the title, and no real emotional or relationship development between them, while the one they give narrative drive and emotional development to is peripheral. And that’s why I couldn’t make myself stay engaged with the movie. The lesson learned here is that your protagonists need to be trying to get or achieve something, and we need to have a sense of what relationship they have to each other. Those are the things that keep an audience engaged in a story.

Another problem related to the lack of narrative drive is the role of what seem to be coincidences in furthering the plot. There’s something later that hints that maybe it wasn’t just coincidence, but it’s never made explicit what’s going on, and while I don’t have to be spoon-fed, I do like to have my guesses verified, and I’d like to know if the characters have made the connections and figured things out. Snow White is able to escape from the tower where the queen has kept her imprisoned for about ten years because some friendly birds get her attention and get her to notice a big nail sticking out of the rock wall near her window. She’s able to pull the nail out, and it comes in handy when a moment later the queen’s brother comes to get her to bring her to the queen. She’s able to fight him and lock him in her cell so she can run. Then when she’s made it out of the castle, she happens to find a horse waiting for her on the beach. Since we later see that fairies were riding those birds, I think we’re meant to assume that the fairies set up her escape, including having the horse waiting for her. But they never make it clear, so it just seems like everything lined up conveniently.

I think if I were going to do a rewrite to fix it, I’d start by doing more to establish Snow White. She’s been kept a prisoner for about a decade, but we don’t know what she’s been doing all that time or how it’s affected her. She’s going to be doing a lot of physical stuff in the rest of the movie, so I think I’d set it up by showing her regular daily routine, with her walking and running laps around her cell, doing some shadow fencing, and maybe some other physical training stuff to show that she’s preparing to escape. Maybe she’s already got the nail and has been waiting for the chance to use it, but they slide things through a slot in the door instead of opening it. Or the friendly birds, her only companions in her imprisonment, have been spying on the queen, hear what her plans for Snow are, and bring her the nail. I’m still not sure what a nail was doing sticking out of the wall of a stone tower and why she hadn’t noticed it before. Finally, she gets her chance to use the nail when the queen’s brother comes to get her. The friendly birds lead her to the horse, so it’s more obvious that this has been set up.

Then we need to know where she stands on what she wants to do next. It’s treated as a big turning point when she wakes up from the apple curse and announces that she knows how to defeat the queen and she’s going to lead the army into battle, but up to that point, she hasn’t really had a position. It might be somewhat understandable if she feared that the queen was too powerful for her to defeat and she was too traumatized by her long imprisonment to face the queen again, so all she wanted was to get to a place of safety and hide, but that wouldn’t really be a heroine you’d root for, especially after she’s seen what the queen is doing to her people. During her initial escape, the people in the nearest village made no move to help her and even cleared a path for the queen’s men to come after her, so Snow White may have taken that to mean she didn’t have support among the people and no one would rally behind her, but everyone else she encountered after that was in awe of her, which kind of kills the “she didn’t think anyone would fight for her” theory. Maybe take a middle ground in which she thinks there’s some magical McGuffin she needs to defeat the queen, not realizing until later that the reason the queen needs her is also the reason she alone can defeat the queen. At any rate, we need to know what she wants to do, whether it’s just survive, fight back, or buy time. We’d also need a bit more evidence of how inspiring she is and why. Snow White is known for her kindness, so use that here. Let her help some of the magical creatures she encounters along the way and have that pay off. There’s a scene in which she keeps the Huntsman from killing a troll and the troll seems in awe of her, so why isn’t the troll fighting in her army against the queen later?

Likewise, we need to see something of what’s going on with the Huntsman. What does he think about Snow White? Does he want to defeat the queen and restore Snow to her rightful throne? Does he just want to get away somewhere the queen won’t find him? Is he in love with Snow but worried that a guy like him doesn’t stand a chance with a princess? We don’t know (and I’ll deal with this more when talking about the love triangle). The guy who doesn’t want to get involved and is just in it for the reward — until he has a change of heart at the end and joins in the big battle — is a cliche at this point, so maybe he realizes from the start that now that he’s betrayed the queen he doesn’t stand a chance of having a life unless she’s defeated, so he’s all for that plan for selfish reasons, until he later comes to be a true believer.

These are all minor tweaks that wouldn’t require any additional budget and that could easily have come in the time they had available by shaving some of the slow spots, but I think would have made the movie more engaging.

Next up, I deal with the issue of romantic triangles and how this movie does it wrong.


Fall (Sort of)

Now that it’s October, it really is fall, or it should be. We are getting cooler mornings. I have to put on a sweater to have breakfast on the patio, and it’s cool enough at night that I can sleep under a comforter (so I’m sleeping a lot better, but it’s still not cool enough for the weighted blanket). But the afternoons are still what would be considered “summer” in more civilized parts of the world, and that makes it hard to get into the fall vibe. I haven’t really done any baking yet, for instance. It’s been too warm to make a loaf of the harvest bread I live on during cooler weather because it would heat up the house too much to have the oven on at 450 degrees for an hour. There’s no hint of fall color in the leaves, unless you count the leaves that dried up and died because of the drought.

Around this time of year, I usually try to get into the season and watch some spooky stuff, though I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of Halloween. I like fall, and I like some of the inherent eeriness that comes with it, like the rustle of dry leaves, mists rising in the morning, the plaintive sound of geese flying overhead. I just don’t care all that much about Halloween itself. I love the day-after candy sale, but I can take or leave the rest, especially adult Halloween parties. I’d rather be at home, curled up with a good book and a warm beverage, maybe a candle or two.

Though it’s still too warm for candles here, since I need the ceiling fan and ceiling fans and candles don’t play well together.

It’s supposed to be a bit cooler starting next week, so I’ve been making a list of fall foods I want to make. I need to make soup, some harvest bread, pumpkin muffins, a big batch of spaghetti sauce (and then I freeze it for quick meals later), cinnamon scones, snickerdoodles, and apple butter, to start with.

Snickerdoodles became an October tradition for me when I was a kid and checked a book out of the library that was a cookbook for kids, with a cookie recipe for each month. October was snickerdoodles, and the illustration was a Halloweeny scene with a witch on her broom, silhouetted against a full moon, but the moon was a snickerdoodle. I remember being a bit disappointed that the snickerdoodles I baked didn’t quite look like the moon in the picture, but I still think about those cookies when I think of fall, and they’re the perfect thing to have with a cup of tea when I come inside after a long walk in the crisp fall air, or to bring with me as a snack when I’m taking a walk. We aren’t yet to the crisp fall air yet, though. That may be a November thing around here.

This is also the time of year when I tend to start new projects. It was at about this time when I started writing the first Enchanted, Inc. book and the first Rebels book. And now I’m developing a new project, so it’s happening again. I seem to focus on creating new things at the time of year when nature is fading and dying.

movies, fantasy

Where’s the Fantasy?

Since I’ve been watching the Rings of Power series, I was in the mood for a fantasy movie last weekend, and I didn’t have time to watch any of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films since most of those run about three hours. I found a fantasy film on Amazon called Dawn of the Dragonslayer that worked pretty well and was less than two hours.

I’d put this in a similar category to the kind of fantasy movie they used to show on Saturday nights on the Sci Fi Channel (back when it was the Sci Fi Channel instead of SyFy) that I called Fantasy Cheese, only it was much better executed. It was filmed on location in Ireland and they had a good director of photography, so it looked utterly gorgeous, and there was a good score to go with all the lovely imagery. They had an actual castle to use as a location, so the setting looked real. The acting was mostly strong (it seems to have been a cast of mostly Irish actors who do a lot of theater work). The script was so-so. It may just be that I’ve spent too much time studying story structure, so it’s hard to surprise me, but I felt like it was very by-the-numbers and a bit too predictable. On the other hand, it was the kind of predictable that’s satisfying — a key factor in good Fantasy Cheese. You know what’s going to happen, but it’s what you want to happen.

The story was about a farmboy whose father was killed by a dragon. It was his father’s wish that he leave the farm and go to be a bondsman to a nobleman who owed the father something, with a sealed message the farmboy was to bring the nobleman. The idea is that the nobleman will train the farmboy to be a knight, and he’ll be able to move up in the world. Except the nobleman is down on his luck and out of favor with the king, so although the sealed message definitely gets a reaction, he only takes on the farmboy as a farmhand, not to train him to be a knight. But the nobleman has a beautiful, scholarly daughter (of course), and she has a rare book on how a knight should be trained and an even rarer book on how to be a paladin who can battle dragons and survive, so she trains him in secret — when comes in handy when the dragon returns.

The low budget mostly showed in the lack of cast and in the bad special effects, and I think those things affected the story. It’s a really small cast, and there are no extras, which made it feel like a really empty world. The farmboy walks across the land from his farm to the nobleman’s castle without encountering a single person that we see until he reaches the castle, and there are several other long journeys (some requiring camping overnight en route) in which the characters never see another person or even a sign of civilization, and this is not a plot point. We never learn that the dragon has wiped out most of the people, or anything like that. Aside from a few farmhands, there are no servants at the castle. Maybe that’s because the lord is down on his luck, but a wealthy elderly noblewoman who’s a relative comes to visit, and she has no servants with her, not even a lady’s maid. A wealthy and powerful young nobleman with eyes for the daughter comes to visit, and he doesn’t have any servants with him. I guess since there are no people, they were able to safely travel without guards. I think the script could have used this to add a bit of worldbuilding, but since the lack of people wasn’t acknowledged, it just made the world feel empty and artificial.

And the CGI dragon itself wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t integrated well into the “real” footage, so it looked like one of those bad Photoshop jobs where they just stick something into a picture and it’s obviously pasted in. That didn’t bother me quite as much as the heroine having Jennifer Anniston hair with face-framing layers and a heavy-handed modern makeup job. If you’d told me there was a deleted scene saying she was a time traveler who’d fallen through a portal from 2010, I’d have believed it.

But aside from those quibbles, it was an entertaining and lovely to look at fantasy movie with a running time of under two hours, which is rare.

Really, fantasy movies seem to be oddly rare now. The 80s were a heyday of fantasy films, with things like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Legend, Labarynth, The Princess Bride, and Willow, along with more sword-and-sorcery type stuff like the Conan movies, Krull, and The Beastmaster. And while some of them were based on books, there were several that were original stories.

But in spite of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, Hollywood didn’t seem to capitalize on it with more fantasy stuff. There were the Hobbit films, which were the same universe and filmmaker, and the Narnia movies, but otherwise I can’t think of many fantasy films other than a few of the fairytale-based movies and the Disney live-action remakes. They seem to have headed for TV instead, with A Game of Thrones and the spinoff, Wheel of Time, and Rings of Power. There are a few other things that kind of fall into the fantasy category, like the Pirates movies and some of the Marvel movies, but there’s not a lot of what I call “traditional” fantasy, with a quasi-medieval setting, castles, wizards, etc. And all the more recent fantasy I can think of is based on books or some other pre-existing property. Not that I have any problem with turning fantasy books into movies or TV series, but it does make you wonder where the original stories are. Are studios so risk-averse that they only fund things based on something that’s already got a fanbase, or are writers not coming up with their own fantasy stories? I scrolled through the entire fantasy category on Amazon last night, and there’s very little of what I would consider “fantasy.” Most of it is more horror or science fiction.

I need more horses, castles, knights, wizards, dragons, etc.

That filmmaker who did Dawn of the Dragonslayer (who also did another good Fantasy Cheese film I watched last year, The Crown and the Dragon, which I think is set in the same universe as this film) should maybe try writing a script that actually uses the practical limitations she’s dealing with and that doesn’t require a dragon. Write about a witch or wizard in a lonely place, doing magic that requires minor CGI to show, and no CGI creatures, and let the director of photography have fun with the scenery.


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.