Archive for Books


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.

Books, movies

New Perspectives on an Old Favorite

I recently revisited an old favorite book and finally saw the movie based on it, and it’s been an interesting experience that’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, so I’m going to do this post in layers.

The book The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird feels like it was written just for me because it parallels my life in a lot of ways (in fact, the inscription in the autographed copy I have mentions the parallel lives, since it turns out I have a lot in common with the author, including having the same editor for a while, which is how I got the autographed book and why she knew about the parallel lives). It takes place in Austin in the 80s, which is when I lived in Austin while I was in college. During one summer, I stayed in Austin to work at a small newspaper, and the heroine works for a small newspaper. She lives in the neighborhood I lived on the edge of for that summer, so I walked around a lot of the places mentioned in the book. When the heroine goes to the library or post office, it’s the library and post office I went to. And during the course of the book, the heroine goes to a romance writers’ conference and starts writing a category romance novel. It was after I lived in Austin, but I’ve been to a lot of romance writers’ conferences and used to write category romance novels.

I was thinking about this book recently because it takes place during a bad heat wave, and we’ve been having a bad heat wave this summer, so I was planning to reread it. And then I saw that the movie based on it was on Amazon Prime. I’d started to watch it when it was on TV years ago but noped out at the beginning when I saw that it was set in Charleston, S.C., not Austin. Since the Austin setting was a big reason I loved the book, that turned me off of the movie. But I thought I’d give it a try again. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it may have to win some kind of award for being the worst adaptation of a book in which the screenplay was written by the author of the original novel. I’m sure a lot of the changes were dictated by Hollywood—like they probably got some filming incentives to shoot where they did, which meant the location change. Other changes were required by the change in medium. You couldn’t film the book as it’s written because of the structure. While the movie is your basic false identity rom-com, the book is actually more about the contrast between real-life love and romantic fantasy.

But the changes mean that you can’t really talk about the movie without spoiling the book because the movie flips the perspective and centers on the book’s big twist.

So, first the book. I’ve referred to it as “proto chick-lit” because it was published in the late 80s, long before Bridget Jones came along, but it has a lot of the same elements — it’s got the first-person narrator heroine who’s a bit of a mess and trying to navigate her life, friendships, career, and relationships, and not necessarily doing a great job at any of them. There’s a romantic plot, but the focus is on her personal growth and figuring things out.

The story’s about a photographer for a small newspaper who gets assigned to cover a romance writers’ conference, where she goes in with some preconceived notions but gets taken under the wings of a couple of pro writers, who teach her a thing or two and encourage her to try writing her own book. She insists that real women wouldn’t actually be interested in romance heroes. Women don’t want dark, dangerous men. They want nice guys. But then she recoils at a setup with the nerdy brother of one of the writers, and just as she’s struggling to write the romantic parts of her romance novel, she meets a mysterious biker she can’t resist, so she may have to eat her words.

I don’t know how much my fondness for this book comes from the parallel lives thing, since I’ve never gone for the dangerous rogue type. Then again, I also would have rejected the nerdy guy (those scenes made me cringe because just about every guy I’ve been set up with has been a lot like that, personality-wise). What I’d prefer is somewhere in the middle. So, I don’t really relate to that part of the plot. I guess I just enjoy reliving the summer I spent in Austin and the time when I was first getting into serious writing and going to conferences.

The book is now available as a pretty inexpensive e-book and it’s on Kindle Unlimited, so if it sounds interesting, check it out. The rest of this post will address the movie, which means it will have spoilers for the book.

So, the movie …

They changed the setting and the heroine’s name. She’s a writer, not a photographer, and they skip the part where she’s trying to write a romance novel. She just interviews the writer. But the focus of the movie is more on the guy. Here’s where the book spoilers start.

The movie is about a guy who falls hard for the woman his romance writer sister sets him up with, but when she rejects him, his sister sets out to turn him into a romance hero the woman won’t be able to resist, in spite of her protestations about real women not being interested in men like the heroes in romance novels.

That’s the twist in the book, that the mysterious biker is the nerdy guy. The biker doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book, and we don’t find out who he is until near the end. It really does feel like a twist. I remember being surprised the first time I read it. I was pretty sure she was being set up, but I didn’t guess that it was the same guy rather than something like an actor hired to prove a point. But I can see how you couldn’t pull that off in a movie. In the book, it’s all from the heroine’s perspective, then she finds out who the guy is and he gives her his journals to explain himself, so then there’s a section where we see what’s been happening from his perspective. You couldn’t do that in a movie.

And I don’t think you’d be able to make his identity be a surprise in a movie. In the book, you can believe it because of how it’s set up. The guy has just finished cancer treatment, so his hair hasn’t come back yet, he’s been on steroids, so his face is still puffy, and his body is still skinny. There’s a three-month gap, during which time his hair grows back, his face goes back to normal, he starts exercising and builds muscles, and he gets colored contact lenses. But in the movie, as good of a makeup job as they do on him, he’s still recognizably Steve Guttenberg at the beginning, so you know who he is when he shows up as a stud. I think it might actually work in real life that you wouldn’t recognize someone you’d barely met if you ran into him again after he went through a lot of changes, but it won’t work with a known actor. Maybe with an unknown and no opening credits it might have worked, but trying to hide that twist would be hard in a movie. In real life, you encounter a lot of random people who aren’t necessarily connected, but when you’re watching a movie, you know that everyone you see is probably important, so you look at them differently.

Focusing on the guy’s story means the movie loses a lot of the things I love about the book, but I noticed in some of the Amazon reviews of the book that there are people who like the movie more because they like the straightforward rom-com. They don’t like that the heroine is such a mess or that the ending is a bit ambiguous. I still think the movie should have been better than it was, and there were things from the book that could still have made it to the screen. The casting, aside from the heroine (who’s too pretty for the way the book character was described), is pretty good. It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s short, so if you want an 80s rom-com that’s a bit different, check it out.

And now I’m going to spoil the book even more.

There’s something that’s always bugged me about the book and the way it works out that I finally have the right vocabulary for: It basically reinforces the “nice guy” myth, the whole “women don’t really like nice guys, they just go for jerks who treat them badly” thing that you tend to hear from the incel crowd. That’s something guys who proclaim themselves as “nice” like to say, and I’ve found that the self-proclaimed “nice” guys are seldom as nice as they think they are. A lot of the time, they don’t actually make a move on the woman and then act like they’ve been rejected for being nice when she doesn’t go for them. Or the niceness is purely transactional, so he’s supposed to be rewarded for being nice and he pouts if he isn’t. Or he has his own definition of “nice” which is on his terms, not what she wants. Or he seems to think that just being “nice” should be enough, without him working on anything else.

For the most part, the guy in this book isn’t entirely like that — up until the end. She understandably feels betrayed by his deception, even after she reads his journal. She’s understanding about the cancer thing, and he doesn’t start out planning the deception. That was something his sister came up with, and he only panicked when this woman met him, so he went with it rather than admitting who he was. What she can’t get over is the fact that the role he was playing in the deception was created based on what she was writing in her book, which his sister was critiquing for her. It was designed purely to fulfill her fantasies. And yet he’s the one acting hurt because she fell for this character when she wouldn’t give him the time of day. I keep wanting the heroine to point out to him that he was just in love with an imaginary person. His journal talks about falling in love with her at first sight, but the person he thinks he’s in love with has nothing to do with who she really is. The real woman is basically an avatar for his fantasy woman. At least when she fell for a fictional guy, it was a deliberate deception designed to fool her. He made up a fantasy woman on his own, without her doing anything to encourage it. It seems pretty clear from the contrast between what we saw from her side of the story and the way he sees her in his journal, but no one in the book ever addresses it, and it’s not even mentioned in the reading group guide in the back of one of the copies I have, aside from a question about whether you believe in love at first sight the way he does.

Not to mention, the guy is stalking her the whole time. He follows her home from work and drives by her house all the time. He even looks in the windows sometimes. He’s supposed to be a nice guy who couldn’t get any attention until he changed, but he’s rather creepy. He claims to be following her because he’s worried about her coming home from work in a shady part of town late at night, but if she doesn’t know he’s there and never asked for this help, him following her like that isn’t cool.

I may be a bit overly sensitive about this because I’ve found that the “nice guys” tend to do that avatar thing, where they act like they’re really into me, but it becomes clear that the person they like has very little to do with me. I’m like the actress who plays the character they’re in love with. For me to buy the possibility of a happy ending, I’d need for this to be addressed. The ending of the book is ambiguous, so I guess in my head they’ll have this conversation before anything else happens. It’s always left me with an unsettled feeling, but in recent years the “nice guy” has been discussed a lot on the Internet, which has made me realize what unsettled me so much. I still like the book, but now I know why it bothers me. I don’t know if you could publish this book or make this movie today. Would we see it differently?

writing life, Books

Little Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


More Cozy Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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


History Travel Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Romantic vs. Romance

I mentioned in doing my overview of my writing career a couple of weeks ago that romance was the wrong path for me to go down as a writer because although I liked love stories, I didn’t actually like romance novels. I’ve mentioned this difference in the past, but it was long enough ago that I should probably address it again. I’m going to refer to the Romance genre using the capital R to distinguish it from the idea of romance/relationships/love stories.

Like most genres, there are certain expectations for Romance. For instance, in a mystery, the sleuth is expected to solve the case. There are two key elements that define a book as a Romance:

1) The love story is the main plot. Most of the conflict and character development comes through the relationship. One quick way to tell whether a book is some other genre with a romantic subplot or a Romance is to see what happens if you remove the romance/relationship/love story. Do you still have a story at all? For instance, there is a romantic relationship between Marian and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they even end up together, but you could easily change their relationship from a romance to a friendship, reluctant partnership or family relationship without changing anything else about the story, so it’s not a Romance.

2) The romantic couple must end up together. This is key, and I think it’s very misunderstood by Romance detractors. A Romance is about an emotional journey. It’s not about the suspense of whether the couple will end up together. Having that assurance that they will both be alive at the end and happy together is what gives readers a safe space to drop their emotional guard and go on that journey. It’s basically the emotional literary version of a roller coaster. Most people wouldn’t enjoy a roller coaster that was actually dangerous, where there was a chance you really could plunge to your death. A roller coaster is fun (for those who are into that sort of thing) because it’s thrilling enough to allow you to feel like there’s a chance you’re taking a risk even though you know you’re perfectly safe. A Romance novel allows you to feel like your heart could be broken while being secure in the knowledge that it will all work out in the end and your heart won’t actually be broken. Without that assurance, your guard would be up and you might not let yourself feel all the feels. I think this is one reason I struggled so much with Romance and don’t enjoy it that much as a reader. I’m not in it for the feels. I tend to read for curiosity about what will happen, and I keep forgetting to write emotion into my stories, which means I don’t do well with plots that are about emotion. I’m also not a fan of roller coasters.

A lot of things that are commonly thought to be romantic are not Romance because they don’t meet this requirement — things like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, most of those “romance” books written by men that have sad or tragic endings, like The Bridges of Madison County.

Back when I first started attempting to write Romances, it was expected that the couple would be engaged at the end of the book. They had to make some kind of commitment for it to be considered a Happily Ever After (HEA). It’s a bit looser now, so the ending can be just that they’re together in a relationship — though often a book with that kind of ending where it’s way too early for an engagement will have an epilogue showing them in the future at their wedding or with their children, so you know they stuck it out. Or there are the series that follow a group of people, like a friend group, family, or small town, so that the couple from one book will be secondary characters in the next book and you’ll see them planning their wedding in the background while the main characters are having their own relationship.

Readers get very testy when this rule is broken, which is why authors of other kinds of books that get mislabeled as Romance get upset when their books are mislabeled. It’s not that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of Romance but that they don’t want to deal with angry readers who are expecting something they’re not going to get. My Enchanted, Inc. series kept getting labeled and promoted as Paranormal Romance, and it wasn’t ever meant to be. It was fantasy with a romantic thread. I would get angry e-mails about any book that didn’t specifically end with them making a full commitment, and that promise was never even implied by me.

Those two rules are pretty firm, but there are other expectations that come with Romance. A lot of them were actual guidelines for Harlequin category Romance that people tried to apply to other books, but some are unwritten rules/expectations that might get broken in rare circumstances, depending on the book but that are more likely going to be there. One is that the couple needs to meet fairly early in the story—otherwise it’s hard for the main story conflict to be about their relationship. I remember my romance writer friends getting outraged about the movie Sleepless in Seattle being called a Romance, since the couple doesn’t meet until the very end. Another thing editors look for is the couple having an instant, strong attraction that is contrasted with whatever conflict is keeping them apart. That was a note I frequently got from my editors. I tend to write the slow burn, where the attraction grows as they get to know each other, but my editors wanted the thunderbolt—they were in instant lust, but then they had something getting in the way that made it difficult for them to act on the lust. And they want a lot of conflict between the couple. I don’t know how many workshops I went to where someone said, “If he’s a firefighter, make her an arsonist,” to show just how opposed they should be. That never clicked for me. If I’m a firefighter, an arsonist is going to be a turnoff, no matter how hot (no pun intended) he is.

This was where I started to figure out that maybe Romance wasn’t where I belonged. I like the stories where the characters fall in love along the way while doing something else and am not interested in them being at odds with each other while still being attracted. If I’m at odds with someone or don’t like them, I’m not going to be attracted to them. I only start being attracted to someone once I start liking them, and I tend to write that way.

I think movies have a lot to do with the confusion among the general public about the difference between romantic and Romance. It’s not just that romantic dramas in which the couple doesn’t end up together get mislabeled as Romance, but most romantic comedies are iffy as to whether you could get them published as Romance novels. One of those unwritten expectations is that once the couple meets, there’s no one else. They don’t date other people. You don’t get real triangles in a Romance. But triangles are big in rom-coms. Romance writers often sniff in disdain about the rom-coms where the hero or heroine were actually involved with other people during the movie (another reason they insisted Sleepless in Seattle wasn’t a romance—the heroine was engaged to someone else during most of the movie).

When the “chick lit” genre came along, it was more like the romantic comedy films, though really, I think it was just the way the British write romance. That genre is generally considered dead now, but if you read British contemporary romances, they’re pretty much chick lit. In the US, we’d call these books “women’s fiction” because they’re more about the woman’s journey, with the love story as a subplot. They broke a lot of the Romance rules, especially that part about the heroine not being involved with anyone other than the hero. I remember the old-school Romance writers being rather outraged about chick lit for that reason.

I wrote an essay for a book about Pride and Prejudice about how P&P was more chick lit than romance. The romance is fairly central to the plot and the couple ends up together, but I think the main plot is more about Lizzie finding her place in the world and figuring things out. She’s presented with other potential options and rejects them. She spends more time dealing with her wacky family than she spends with Darcy. He does get his character growth from the relationship, which is a Romance thing, and I’m not sure you could remove the relationship without changing the story too much, so it’s a fine line and I think you could fall on either side of it. There have been retellings of this plot that were very much Romance, and there have been versions that weren’t, like Bridget Jones’s Diary.

So, this is why I don’t consider myself to write Romance, even though readers often see my work as very romantic, and why I prefer to get my romantic content outside the genre. There’s a difference between Romance and romantic, and my work is romantic without being Romance.


Cozy Fantasy

I’ve mentioned wishing for the fantasy equivalent of the cozy mystery, but I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. A “cozy mystery” is a defined subgenre with certain expectations. Usually, the gore and violence are offstage and not vividly described. Most often, it’s written in first-person and is entirely within the perspective of the (usually amateur) sleuth, so we don’t see the crime being committed and readers get to solve the case along with the sleuth. There’s some conflict and tension, since there has been a crime, usually a murder, and quite often there’s some jeopardy for the sleuth near the resolution, but the overall tone is light, not delving into the darker aspects of human nature. Even if the story doesn’t actually take place in a small town, it usually involves a somewhat closed community that functions like a small town, like a neighborhood in a big city, so that there are community members who serve as regular characters, and most of these characters are fairly likable. We might want to live in this community, in spite of the frequent murders. These are comforting, satisfying reads that leave you with the sense that justice has been done and all is right in the world.

So, what would the fantasy equivalent be? The short, quippy answer would be “the opposite of grimdark.” In other words, little violence, and whatever violence not vividly described. The subject matter wouldn’t be dark, so we aren’t worrying about the evil overlord raising a demon zombie army that will drag the world into the pits of hell. The main characters wouldn’t get tortured, either physically or psychologically. These aren’t “main character gets put through hell” stories. Probably likable characters, and it’s a magical world we’d want to visit. And, like the cozy mystery, it should leave you with a sense that all is well.

I’ve seen more discussion about the idea of cozy fantasy lately, and I recently read a book that’s coming up a lot in this discussion, Legends and Lattes, by Travis Baldree. The tag line for it is “a novel of high fantasy and low stakes.” It’s about an orc mercenary who’s retiring from being a sword for hire and using her savings to open a coffee shop. There is some conflict and danger from the local crime boss running a protection scheme and from a former colleague who’s sure she’s running some angle and wants whatever she’s got, but for the most part, the story’s about her gathering a team of people that become the community around the shop. I would call the stakes personal rather than low because to this character, making this coffee shop succeed is everything. If she fails or loses it, she loses everything. It’s just not a problem for the world as a whole. The people in her community would miss it if she lost it, though they might not actually be harmed.

It was definitely a read that gave me a “cozy” vibe. I don’t even like coffee and I found myself wanting to hang out in this shop. And now I want someone to open a fantasy-themed coffee/tea shop, something that feels like a tavern from a fantasy story, but with the focus on caffeine and baked goods instead of alcohol.

I’ve been trying to think of other examples that might fit. I’d probably put the Narnia books in this category. It’s a world I’d like to visit. There’s conflict, but I don’t think it’s overly dark or violent. You end up feeling like there’s been justice done and everything working out. Some of that comes from them being written for kids, but they still give me cozy vibes.

I think it might be difficult to sell a cozy fantasy to a major publisher these days. All the examples I can think of offhand were independently published or from a small press. The big publishers want lots of intensity and conflict. Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and do it to them. The stakes must be high.

I don’t know if the book I’m working on now would count as cozy. There are cozy elements and I think a bit of a cozy vibe, but the stakes are more than personal. If things don’t work out, it could have worldwide implications. Not demons dragging the world into the pits of hell implications, but an evil power getting a bigger foothold. Still, it’s about needing to pull together and remember who we are so we can stand up against the evil power. And the evil is just greedy and power-hungry, not Ultimate Evil Sauron-type stuff. The earlier Enchanted, Inc. books are probably cozy fantasy, since I was unwittingly essentially writing cozy mysteries, but with magical skullduggery instead of murders. I think they got published because they were classified as chick lit at the time, which wasn’t focused on high-stakes conflict the way fantasy tends to be. I’m not sure a fantasy publisher would have been interested.

There’s a forum on Reddit about cozy fantasy that I’ll have to dig into and see what people are talking about. I can always use more book recommendations. Maybe I’ll even actually join Reddit and participate in the discussion.


Recent Reading: Intimate Fantasy

I recently read a series that really hit the sweet spot for intimate rather than epic fantasy, with a focus on the characters, and we really got to see the characters grow, even though there were only three books. It was the Blackthorn and Grim series by Juliet Marillier.

The series is set in Ireland soon after the coming of Christianity, but before it really takes over, though it’s a fictional version of Ireland where magic exists and the fey play a role. The setup for the series is that Blackthorn, a former village wise woman (a healer, mostly, but with a bit of magic) has been imprisoned by a corrupt lord. She’s looking forward to her day in court to be able to publicly accuse him of his wrongs, but on the eve of her hearing, she’s warned that the lord has no intention of letting her speak, so she’s going to suffer an “accident” on the way. A fey lord appears to her and makes her a bargain: he’ll get her free, but she has to agree to go to a different kingdom, take up residence in the cottage she finds in a certain place, and resume her duties as wise woman. For seven years, she can’t seek revenge against the lord, and she must help anyone who asks her for aid. She wrestles with the decision because she wants nothing more than to get revenge, but ultimately decides that she can’t get revenge if she’s dead, so she takes the deal. Another prisoner, Grim, escapes with her. They find the cottage, set up shop, and soon the local prince needs some help because there’s something very strange going on with his betrothed.

This series is structured a lot like a mystery series, with a “case” in each book of someone who needs help, but the characters and their relationships grow from book to book, with the threat of that evil lord always lurking in the background. There’s also a hint of romance, with some of the cases involving relationships. I would have thought this series could go on indefinitely, with seven years worth of having to help anyone who asks, but the whole thing is wrapped up in the third book, and quite satisfactorily. I like the way it’s resolved, but since I enjoyed these books, I wish there had been more of them before the ending.

One thing I enjoyed about this series is the way it was told. There are multiple viewpoints, with Blackthorn and Grim in first-person narration and most of the “guest” characters in third-person. Their voices are so distinct that you’d have known whose chapter it was without the headers. Blackthorn has an edge to her voice. She’s lost trust in people and starts out very bitter. She doesn’t really want to help people and would prefer just to be left alone. Grim is a gentle giant, a man of few words, and his narration reflects that, with short sentences and simple words.

I will caution that there’s mention of rape, especially in the first book. It takes place “offstage,” but it is referred to, and the effects are dealt with, with the focus on the victim. That might make this difficult to read for some. I’d tried to read another book by this author and had to stop reading midway through because it was too much — it was a retelling of the fairytale with the brothers turned to birds and the sister having to remain silent while she makes shirts of nettles, which has always bothered me, but dealing rather realistically with what happens to a girl who can’t speak, so it got really intense. These books aren’t nearly that bad, but she doesn’t shy away from painful subjects. I think it’s handled well in this case, but I’m not seeing it from the perspective of someone who’s dealt with it personally, so I don’t know how it might affect them, and thus the warning.

The first book is Dreamer’s Pool. I ended up devouring the whole series but might have paced myself better if I’d known there were only three books. They were good for reading on a rainy night with Celtic music playing. I’m going to try another of her series next.

Books, movies

As You Wish

The last time I went to the library, I brought with me the sheet from my memo cube on which I write down the books I want to get at the library. These are generally things I’ve seen mentioned online and looked up in the library’s catalog system. For fiction, I’ll write down the author’s name and title, but for nonfiction I’ll often just write down the call number. I had one of those on this trip and had forgotten what book I’d looked up. I assumed it was a book relating to that project I’ve been developing. Then I got to the library, found the book, and was surprised to see that it was As You Wish, the memoir about the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (who played Westley/The Man in Black/The Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie).

That’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I can just about quote the entire film, and yet I still enjoy it every time I see it. This book adds another layer of enjoyment to the movie with stories about how the project came about, how various cast members joined the project, and bits about things that happened during production, with some follow-up about what happened when the movie was released and times the cast members have reunited.

It’s a delight to learn that this really was a project of the heart. The story was something William Goldman came up with initially to amuse his daughters and that he wrote for love. Rob Reiner wanted to make the film because he loved the book so much and wanted to do it justice. Many of the cast members (including Elwes) were also fans of the book. Meanwhile, the cast and crew all came to love each other. The way Elwes talks about Andre the Giant makes me feel a real loss that I didn’t get to know him. Reiner was like the dad of the project, a genuinely caring boss who looked out for his people. “Westley” and “Buttercup” had crushes on each other in real life, which helped create their chemistry (it sounds like neither acted on it, or possibly even admitted it until later, and they just became really good friends).

It’s also interesting to learn how little movie trickery there was. That infamous sword fight was not done using stunt men. It was all the actors, who spent months training for it. Every bit of down time during the production was spent on training and practice. The only time a stunt man was involved was for the acrobatic flips. The rest was all them, and it really is good fencing, from the footwork to the way they use their blades.

I got weirdly emotional while reading this, to the point I actually cried when they came to the end of filming and people were saying their goodbyes, feeling a bit sad that this wonderful experience was ending. Then I laughed at myself, since this ending came more than 30 years ago, and if it hadn’t ended, I wouldn’t be reading this book because there would have been no movie.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the movie was initially considered a disappointment upon its release. It didn’t do very well at theaters and only took off later on home video. I’m one of the few who actually saw it in the theater in that initial release. I don’t remember having heard of it, but I went with friends (or, more accurately, I was included in a group of friends who went to see it because I was the one with a car) and the friends picked the movie. I loved it instantly. I remember describing it as a spoof that was also the gold standard of the kind of thing it was spoofing. Everyone I knew had seen it and incorporated lines into normal conversation. But I guess I was living in a bubble at that time rather than in the mainstream of popular culture, since I was in college and living on the honors floor (the nerd floor) of the dorm.

In a way, there are parallels to Enchanted, Inc., in that it was mis-categorized and barely promoted, but it’s endured and people are still discovering it. It hasn’t yet become a pop culture phenomenon that’s widely quoted, but maybe someday …

After reading this book, I had to watch the movie again, and I found that it made me love the movie even more. As familiar as it is, I noticed new things from watching it so intently to look for things mentioned in the book. Often, learning how things were done ruins the magic, but in this case, it seems to have enhanced the magic. I’ve never been all that affected by the relationship between Westley and Buttercup. This isn’t the movie I turn to when I’m in the mood for romance. But I got it this time, possibly from knowing the actors fancied each other. I could see how that colored their dynamic. It helps that the last time I’d seen this movie, it was at church when the pastor was doing a series of sermons tied to movies. We had a movie night at the church, then Sunday the sermon used that movie as an example. For this one, it was about steadfast love, that Westley was so devoted to Buttercup he even resisted letting death separate them, while she had absolute faith he would come for her. The romance genre is mostly about the couple overcoming their internal conflicts to develop a relationship, and since that part is glossed over in the opening here, I hadn’t thought of it as too romantic. But there is a different kind of romance involved with a couple that’s already together who manage to hold on to their love in spite of external conflicts. Their love is a quiet assurance. It’s the rock amid all the other drama.

If you love the movie, I recommend reading this book. And then you’ll want to watch the movie again.


Walking in the Woods

The book I read from my “to be read” shelf last week was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. It has a clearance sticker from Half-Price Books on it, so I must have picked it up at a clearance sale at some point because the topic appealed to me, but then I never got around to reading it. This is a non-fiction book about an American writer who’d been living in England for a long time, then moved back to the US. While getting adjusted to being back in his home country, he became fascinated by the idea of the Appalachian Trail and decided he wanted to try hiking the whole thing. He invited a number of people to go with him, and the only person who responded was an old acquaintance he actually found kind of annoying.

Still, they got geared up, flew to Georgia, and began hiking at the beginning of the trail. The book follows their adventures as they spent their days hiking and camped along the trail, covering their hardships and some of the interesting people they met along the way. Interspersed with this story is information about the trail itself, how it came to be, its history, and how it’s maintained. The story parts of the book are often laugh-out-loud funny. These guys were in way over their heads and got into a few scrapes, and there was a lot of sometimes silly conflict between them.

The book appealed to me because I love hiking, and there’s a part of me that would like to do something like that, just set off across the country. However, I’m not sure I could deal with walking all day, then sleeping on the ground, and going days without any kind of shower or real bathroom. There were a few places along the trail where they were able to get to a motel or stay at a lodge, but otherwise it was primitive back country camping, and I’m too much of a delicate flower for that.

I know someone who tried through-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. She and her pre-teen sons and their dog hiked, and her husband followed along in an RV with their cat (he was able to work remotely). Most of the time, she and the kids would camp on the trail, but when the trail got close enough to meet up with a road, her husband would pick them up in the RV, so they could get a shower and sleep in a bed. When she was able to get a signal, she’d post an update. It was fascinating to read, but I’m not sure I could do it. I don’t remember how far they made it before they decided to stop and come back home, but it wasn’t the whole way even after months of hiking.

Still, reading this book made me really want to go hiking. I love walking and hiking — I’m not sure what the difference is, though I consider hiking to be off paved trails. One reason I live in my neighborhood is its network of walking trails. There’s also a park on the edge of the neighborhood where there are trails through the woods. My happy place is walking through a forest. I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like to. I started last year with a First Day hike at a state park and had grand ambitions of finding a hiking group, but then the pandemic hit. My last few real vacations were to go hiking. We’re getting to the time of year when you can do long walks and hikes around here, and that’s a lot of what I have planned for my fall break. It was nice getting to do that vicariously while reading this book, and I will appreciate being able to walk for an hour or two, then come home and take a hot shower and sleep in my own bed.

There are some stretches of the Appalachian Trail that are more accessible for day hikes in Virginia, so maybe I’ll keep walking at least a little of the trail on my Bucket List, even if I have no desire to do the whole thing. That was the part in the book that sounded closest to what I think I could do.

Now I kind of want to see the movie based on this book. I can see how much of the story would make a good film, and I’m curious how they deal with the structure. They did a good chunk of the trail before stopping for a break. The author visited some other pieces of the trail on his own, then his friend joined him again to tackle the rest. I’m guessing they cut out the middle part and keep the two guys together. In the movie, the actors are in their 70s while the real people were in their 40s when they did this, so they seem to have turned it into an old guy Bucket List sort of thing. I may wait a little while before watching it because a movie is almost always disappointing soon after you’ve read the book.