09 December 2017

The Year That Wasn't

This is the first year in which I realize I am getting old. There have been other years in which I felt old. Or I could imagine getting old in an esoteric, quasi-philosophical sense. But this year - finally- I know it's happening. And I'm not much impressed with this development.

You see, I'm used to living my life in five-year plans much like the Communist parties of Russia and China used to do. You have a goal and five years to achieve it. Mine went a bit differently, however. I had a goal and muddled around for five years until I needed to come up with a new goal. So each period of five years has seemed to be a life in and of itself, with no ties to the future or to my own mortality. I have always assumed - based on this pattern - that I would simply start again, start a new plan. And that seemed to work - until this year.

I am in year eight of the current plan. There is no end in sight. I have passed the post, left the farm, and have no more fodder for renewing myself. The best I can do is write a story in which I can play for a time as a fictional character. It helps ward off the morbid thoughts that come at night, when the house is silent and the shadows deep. Then I worry about vampires, which have not been a concern until recently.

No, this year started all right, as most years do, full of joy and positivity, resolutions and such. Then things started to happen. Some good, most bad. This was not a model year, which is one reason I feel the turn has occurred for me. No more five-year plans.

It was easy enough to launch an epic fantasy novel involving dragons. That was in March, when dragons hatch. It was also delightful to teach a course on Romantic Literature. Both helped remind me of my youth, my origins in fantasy, both reading and writing. I remembered that I was a Romantic at heart. Yes, I knew it intellectually, but in my spirit I needed reminding. Returning to the works of poetry and prose which matched and fired up my spirit gave me new life. I soared! I wrote silly poetry again. I wanted to fall in love once more, one last time.

Then summer came and all manner of obstacles to moving forward were thrown up at me. But I got to China, taught the class on business writing, still filled with that Romantic spirit. Life was good. Especially including a former student of mine turned dear friend (code name: Maria). I returned home still filled with that delight, still soaring. I had high hopes. I could make a new five-year plan - despite my true age. Then it all came crashing down.

Throughout the year, I've posted blogs about all sorts of things. Many times when I've been about to post a blog full of silly trivial topics, something awful has happened in the world. The usual suspects: man-made violence or natural disasters. With so much reality in our consciousness it seemed pointless, even counterproductive, to post a blog about, say, writing tips, when people had lost loved ones, lost property, didn't know where their next five-year plan would go. 

Often I posted a blog, feeling cheery, only to have the news report of something awful later the same day. I began to be leery of posting any blog until I checked the news reports. This year, it has seemed that far too many weekends have contained awful events - to the point where I felt like giving up. If every time I try to post a blog about something stupid, going for humor, something truly terrible happens, then maybe I'm the jinx.

Well, it's been a few weekends with nothing worse happening than my football team extending their losing streak. So I'm blogging again. About blogging. The obvious topic. In fact, many bloggers recommend blogging about blogging when you can't think of anything to blog about.

Did I mention hurricanes? This year featured three big ones and finally - finally! - it involved me. My parents' home is/was near the beach in Texas when Harvey the Hurricane came to visit. Dealing with that clean-up (on-going) and taking care of my elderly parents (they have long accepted their ages) has ruined what should have been a continuation of my summer delight. My five-year plan is ruined. It lays in tatters now. And finally, seeing these two old people relying on me shows me - in a show-don't-tell mantra we writers like to repeat - that I am heading there, too.

I am a couple weeks away from instigating my first ever ten-year plan. If I should live that long. However, I don't know what will happen beyond the first month. I have no resolutions - never have, actually, but I like to say the word. I hope to launch the sequel to my 2014 vampire novel in the spring, so I suppose I will then start writing the third book so I can call it a trilogy. And I'm scheduled to teach a course in World Literature, which again should lift my intellectual spirits. I think I will return to China, as well, for perhaps the last time. I will drink more coffee and consume less ice cream. It is a plan.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 November 2017

I am Thankful for a Good Dressing Recipe

'Tis time to tickle the titillating turkey! 

[Updated for 2017]

Many of us this week will believe we have little to be thankful for. Things have not gone our way in more than a few ways. That's life, and I'm thankful for life. Others will possibly worry about the truth of the story of the first Thanksgiving. Go with the overall idea, I say, and do not focus on the details. Some of us will simply sit down and lustily dine until their belts burst. Whichever category you fall into, be sure to pick yourself up and find something, anything, for which you are thankful this week. Be thankful I've written this blog, for example. That's the real message of the holiday. (Tip: Invite a political opponent to dinner, then only discuss bunnies.)
For those who may be curious or forgetful, I recommend this source of information about Thanksgiving because practically all of it is wrong, or considered wrong to someone somewhere. Or the official source, Plymouth Plantation, if you care to surround yourself with facts and speculations. They may yet be debated, if you have time after dinner and between the games. (Tip: Discuss bunnies instead.)

I choose to boil it all down from whatever origins are true and run with the general idea of being thankful for what I have and being humble about what good things I may be thankful for in the year to come. You are welcome to do likewise - even though we may acknowledge bad things that have occurred  this year, and some awful events will linger in our memories. Good things surely happened, too. 

Nevertheless, holiday traditions die hard (though the turkeys are fairly easy). From time immemorial, my relations would gather at the grandparents' house bearing much food and together have a grand feast. I recall dinners with a giant turkey at one end of the long table and a giant ham at the other end, and a hundred side dishes and a thousand desserts stacked everywhere. I was a little boy with big eyes; later, I was a starving teenager with a bottomless stomach. I do not recall having many leftovers.

Now, however, I can barely finish a turkey sandwich with a side of dressing. Then my cousins grew up (and I suppose I did, too) and we all had our own families. By then, the grandparents had passed on and Thanksgiving dinners became separate and self-contained. At some point in my own household, it became pointless to go to the trouble of it, even at the risk of having no leftovers. Deli turkey was good enough for a few sandwiches. 

No matter what happens this year, indulge in excessive moderation for at least one day, and may your moderation be indulgent. See you on the other side!

Stephen's Stuffing (or "dressing" to some folks)

Ingredients: a loaf of really cheap bread, a stick of real butter, one medium-length summer sausage, a bag of dried apricots, a bunch of celery, a little jar of sage, a bottle of orange juice, salt & pepper to your taste. (You could substitute cooked/dried cranberries for the apricots, if you wish; in that case, skip the OJ and use cranberry juice.)

Spread the butter over most of the slices of bread. (Tip: kids love to help with this part!) After buttering, tear up the bread into little pieces and put the pieces into a large bowl.

Cut up the sausage; slice then dice. (For a variation, we also used oysters instead of the sausage; works better with cranberries than apricots.) Put the diced sausage in the large bowl that has all the bread pieces. Cut the apricots and celery into little pieces, too, and put those pieces into the large bowl, as well. Shake in a good amount of sage, salt, and pepper. Mix up everything in the large bowl until your arms are tired.

Take the mixture from the bowl and put it into a small pan, something like 8x8 inches will do--or 9x9, 10x10, 12x12, whatever fits the size of your appetite. (I do not recommend stuffing the turkey itself because it is rather gross when you think about it and you don't know for sure what is still inside the turkey.) Then sprinkle some sage on top. Pour some orange juice into the pan; not a lot, but get everything wet. The OJ will make it slightly tart; you can skip the OJ if you want to and it will still be good.

Put the pan with the stuffing/dressing in it into the oven and bake until it starts to smell good, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes at 350*F. I'm going on memory now, so be careful. Putting foil over the top may help it along. It seems to me that we always put it in along with the foil-wrapped potatoes or yams for the same time and temperature, so try that.

Or, you could layer each ingredient in the pan: bread pieces first, then the pieces of sausage, celery, apricot, sage, and repeat. Kids who insist on helping can be put to good use in this procedure. Then, pour the orange juice over the top, let it soak down into the mixture, then bake. 

NOTE: I am not, nor have I ever been, a cook, chef, or baker. However, this recipe is a hybrid of recipes I assisted with in my youth, standing alongside one or the other grandmother, so it checks out. You will not get sick from eating it as long as your cook it thoroughly. Enjoy!

And thanks to all of you for your indulgence, your patience, and your constant attention to whatever the heck I post here, lo these many months!

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

05 November 2017

Why I'm not joining the NaNoWriMo cult

November is the principal month of worship in the cult of NaNoWriMo (what the uninitiated may call the "National Novel Writing Month"). It is chiefly for those whose nervous fingers cannot avoid the succulent keys. Until 2014, I had never been able to participate because of its unfortunate scheduling. You see, November is the fattiest meat of the fall semester and tough to cut; it's when I have the most day-job work to do. Sure, I could write a draft of a novel in a month - if I had no day job to tend to, if I had no other disruptions, and if I had the idea in advance. But that is really the challenge of it.

I could not participate in the NaNoWriMo celebration of 2016 because I was in the thick of a write-in campaign for President of the United States, as the candidate of the Bunny Party. Needless to say, I lost. (You can read about my defeat here.) By then, there was no more time in the month to write 50,000 words and win it. And if I decide to start, I must win it. I started my epic fantasy tome during that NaNoWriMo, perhaps to distract me from the pain of losing, and got the 55,000 with not too much trouble. The finished novel is 230,000 words but vivid, lean prose.

The 2015 celebration month occurred just as I finished my then-latest novel, A GIRL CALLED WOLF, written mostly during the summer when I was stuck in Beijing, China, teaching a university course. I could not stop preparing it for publication just to start writing something new - something so new that I didn't even have an idea. And I had the busy day-job things to do. So I bowed out.

In 2014, with my vampire novel sent out into the world just in time for Halloween, I was free of projects. I decided to give it a go, hell or high water, day job be damned! I had no idea as of October 31, so I grabbed an unfinished sci-fi novella that had been sitting around for many years and plunked it into the microwave for 90 seconds. Then served it to my NaNoWriMo muse. THE MASTERS' RIDDLE (still a working title) was about a little alien captured by mean Earth people, who escapes and tries to make his way home. For a quartet of weeks it was happening. I thought I would finish it. I "won" by completing 50,000+ words during the 30 days of the month. Granted, I started with a couple thousand and an outline but I finished with more than 55,000 words, anyway, thus earning me a cool sticker. But the novel remains unfinished at about 70,000 words. I lost that loving feeling when I hit a plot conundrum; before I could figure it out, I was compelled back into day-job stuff.

November for me is typically the lull season. The past few years I have had ideas stew during November and take root in a Word file sometime in January or February. I pound the keyboard through the spring months and cruise into the final page somewhere in the middle of the summer. I revise and edit into the fall and voila! a new novel is born. 

Then it hits me: the lull. Writers know what this is and dread it. The Lull Month is full of doubts. Did I just write a bunch of crapola? Will I ever get another idea? What in the world will happen to me if I can't write anything else? 

Then spring comes and everything blossoms - although, for me, it's usually in December or January. And the process starts over again. November? Not the best time for me.

In 2014, I wrote my medical thriller vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN on the above schedule. In 2015, I wrote a novel about an orphaned Inuit girl who grows up and saves the world, A GIRL CALLED WOLF. Now I am once more in that schedule, having finished the sequel to A DRY PATCH OF SKIN and too busy with revisions to dive into a new project. I am a serial monogawriter, after all. One book at a time. Besides, it's the lull month again and I have no ideas. I still have not finished the sci-fi novel from last year's NaNoWriMo but it would be unfair to try to use that again to achieve some dubious fame. 

There is nobody in my circle who would be impressed at me writing 50,000 words in a month. When I was again stuck in Beijing to teach a course in 2016, I pounded out 72,000 words of my 230,000 word EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS novel (as well as a 33,000 word erotic novella that shall remain unpublished). Lots of free time, ok? Those who know me, know I can do it. 

This past summer (2017), I wrote 55,000 words of my 2014 vampire novel's sequel, SUNRISE, while sitting in a hotel room in Beijing and teaching a class on the university campus across the street twice a week. (I blogged about that experience here.) However, I've always been a quality over quantity type of person and go through many waves of revision, tweaking a word here or there until I cannot contain the urge more.

Nevertheless, I shall cheer on those who choose to dive once again into uncharted waters - for what could be more uncharted than the lexical spaces within the gray matter of a twisted mind? 

The goal for the blessed celebrants of NaNoWriMo is to create from sacred mind-fire a 50,000 word book. By definition, that is the minimum length for something called a novel. That seems to be easy enough. My previous novels have been in the range of 72,000 to 128,000 words. My epic fantasy, being an epic fantasy, rose to 230,000 words. However, let us not forget the time factor: one month - with the day job looming precariously over everything. That 50,000 word goal means 1,667 words per day for 30 days. You can write that much over lunch - or between classes, as I did. (My students often complain about writing 500 words per week.)

Good luck to all, and to all a long night!

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

28 October 2017

The Halloween Post

'Tis the end of October and the spooks are about, so it seems the thing to do is wax poetic on Halloween and Samhain themes.

For the quick studies among us, I offer these "cheat sheets": Some Halloween history  and Some Samhain history.

In my life I haven't cared much for the day. Love the season, but not the rituals. I've never been a ritual kind of guy. But I have history on my side.

The first Halloween I remember was in a distant realm where costumes were crafted by hand. 

I perfected the "robot" by combining several cardboard boxes, a larger one for the body, a smaller one for the head, still others for feet. Arms and legs remained sheathed in clothes. That was while I was in the second grade; I won a prize for having the best costume. What was special about the robot costume was that the non-steam-powered device was also an early form of the personal computer. If someone were to write out a question and introduce the slip of paper through the designated slot in the body of the robot, the robot would [eventually] produce a verbal answer to the question. The robot proved to be 90% accurate which was, pre-MSWindows 1.0, quite a remarkable feat.

Then came other costumes full of commercial interests: characters from TV shows, classical monsters, space aliens (the fierce and loathsome kind, not ET), and finally the minimalist kind of costume. Minimalist? You know the type: you put on a clean shirt and glasses and say you are dressed as a "nerd". Later, as an adult, I graced one maybe two adult Halloween parties where others went full out as sexy witches and vampire studs. I was still dressed as a nerd - long before nerds were cool.

I often went trick or treating with my cousin, but our chief goal was less about collecting candy than harassing his sisters. Gradually, we forgot the costumes and simply ran wild through the night, sending rolls of toilet paper up into the trees of houses where girls lived who had rejected him. By then we could buy our own candy. 

Then the reverse happened. We became candy givers! Definitely less fun. However, I have not given out candy for many years now. You see, congruent with my emerging adulthood came the cultural shift away from children ringing doorbells and begging for treats. It started with scares over pins and razor blades in candy. Parents took their children to the mall for trick or treating, or only within a trusted neighborhood. It continues today. What a shame!

Well, it was never really about the candy or the costumes, anyway, I soon learned while hanging out with people who actually called themselves witches.  

Real witches. They had many of the same beliefs I held at that time. None of us threatened people nor begged for snacks. A few preferred to dress in black year-round, and all of them seemed to wear a pentacle around their necks or emblazoned on their black t-shirts. All in all a friendly, charming bunch of social rebels whose chief activity was "raising awareness" of their existence - then complaining that everyone disrespected them.

Other cultures celebrate death and welcome back the dead at this time of the year. That's fine with me. I've had it both ways - err, well, perhaps not both ways in the way you might be thinking. Someday I will, of course. 

What I meant was the fun side and the serious side of the holiday. Now, however, it seems like just one more excuse for shopping. Halloween "memorabilia" is present in stores hours after Labor Day sales have ended. I can deal with fake cobwebs and spiders and bats, even a few talking skulls or laughing zombie heads, but let's be real. 

Death ain't so great. That's what I was told by a rather decayed ancestor of mine who happened to pop up in the middle of the night beside my bed - a day early, no less - just to warn me that on one of these Halloween nights I might not be around to celebrate much of anything. I said, in my sleepy voice, "Fair enough."

The laughter that followed my ancestor out through the cracks in the walls was unnerving enough to get me up from bed. I had to splash cold water on my face and awaken fully, just to be sure I was still alive. Shaking my head in front of the mirror with all the lights on, I knew it had not been a dream.

So I made my way back to bed yet lay awake for hours, unable to close my eyes, afraid of the next snap, squeak, creak, breath, sigh, or moan - most of them, thankfully, coming from my neighbors arriving home late after the bars closed.

I've never been interested in horror, scary stories, or gore. But when the Twilight series of books and movies captured the imagination of my daughter, I had to set her straight. The truth about vampires! I had some knowledge previously about the medical issues which produce symptoms which simulate the traits of vampirism.

So I sought to research and write a medically accurate vampire tale. It coincided with events in my real life, so I set it in Oklahoma City where I was living then and in 2013, the year I was writing it. The result is my 2014 novel A DRY PATCH of SKIN, what some readers have called "literary horror". Now I've been compelled to write a sequel - to be titled SUNRISE - about what happened to our hero after he transformed into a vampire. Look for it in Spring 2018.

Read a review in The Oklahoman newspaper here

(The only vampire romance story to be set in Oklahoma City... among other places.)

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

22 October 2017

What's for Breakfast? How to Feed a Character

A novel is a big thing full of hearty appetites. Even a short story needs a snack. Writers may go to great effort thinking of every other feature of a character's life and lifestyle but may not offer them any sustenance. Food is an afterthought - unless it is central to the scene. On the other hand, do readers really want to know everything that goes into a character's mouth?

One thing that stood out as I read through George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones books is his attention to what his characters ate. The descriptions were often detailed and made me want to sit down at the table to dine with them. At first it seemed annoying but then I began to think about the kinds of food they really did consume back then, although the fantasy world menu seemed an awful lot like medieval fare from Earth history.

I found the same food feature in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. It seemed every chapter this character or that one were eating and he included every item of food and drink, including brand names. I liked it at first because I could feel like I was in Sweden eating typical Swedish food. But then it became annoying whenever the scene stopped to share with readers the menu of Lisbeth's latest snack.

The full English breakfast will get you through a day
of plowing fields behind a pair of oxen.
When I labored in an MFA program, trying to write the perfect New Yorker-style story, I met with the professor when I was frustrated about what to write. It seemed I could never please him. Character-driven stories, he explained in effusive terms. "I want to know everything about him. I want to know what he had for breakfast!" So I took him at his word and made sure to include food in every story I wrote for the workshop. That "inside joke" has continued in my writing.

I try to walk the fine line between appetizer and dessert. I offer the main dishes but do not go into lavish descriptions of process and procedure, of recipe and presentation. Unless it is integral to the point of the scene. Let's face it: most of what we eat is only to ward off hunger pains. 

Fewer people today, I would guess, dine as entertainment. Sure, eating is fun; tasting food is a form of entertainment, whether it is in a luxurious restaurant or at a street vendor's cart. The scent of food cooking, the spice or sweet of it, the texture of sinking your teeth in the perfect pork belly with just the right dab of Southern barbecue sauce on it, or the crunch of a baguette as you bite into it, the smoothness of a particular local cheese which has both Hatch peppers and blueberries in it - all are delights. And our characters should enjoy what we offer them to eat as much as we do. 

So what if your protagonist likes the same foods as you do? Are those foods available there? If your protagonist is on a quest, roughing it, what kinds of food did he bring or will he find along the way? If you eat Vegan, should your heroine eat no meat also? Is that a political decision or a literary decision? A tough warrior is more likely to dine on roast boar than a fresh spring greens salad - or so I've heard. You can make up foods, too: 

I'nar'r stuffed the boiled guffee into his mouth and bit hard through its outer shell, causing the purple juice to run down his chin and his lips to pucker. 

A lovely spread of Korean dishes.
We don't know exactly what guffee is but we can imagine its size, shape, texture, and color, perhaps it's taste, too. It's part of the research, if you're writing about a real place. As much as fashion and speaking styles. It's probably more fun to try an ancient recipe on a page than in your own kitchen. And don't forget the manners at the dining table, the order of serving, the placement of items. They vary quite a bit; in fantasy they may vary considerably, e.g.: Due to the Klingon's propensity to always be fighting, only small snacks are served, mostly finger foods, and nothing that would take more than a couple minutes to down.

Famous meals my characters have eaten:

In A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, our two protagonists enjoy cooking a batch of chili, the perfect romantic food, right?

     They both worked to put the chili together. She skillfully wielded the carving knife on the vegetables, cutting them down to size, especially the carrots for the salad. She took one carrot and licked the cut end seductively as he pretended to ignore her. Watching the way she cut carrots made him uneasy. He turned away and mixed the chili base in a large pot, measuring out the chili powder and Worcestershire sauce like a scientist. He threw the big clump of ground sirloin into the skillet and they watched it sizzle. She stood next to him, and eventually his arm slid around her waist, later her arm around his, too. When the meat was cooked enough, Íris snatched a pinch and pushed it into his mouth. It was too hot and he spit it out into his hand as she laughed. He liked her laugh, and thought of snowmen and candy canes. They nibbled from the salad bowl as they continued cooking.
While the chili was simmering, they went to bed to satisfy their hunger for dessert. It was midnight before they had dinner.

Out on the road in EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, food is hard to come by. Our hero and his sidekick brought traveling food - which leaves much to be desired after having it day after day:

When the dinner ration was prepared, Tam sauntered over to the communal bowl like he was the Prince of Lakeland—as Corlan teased him, even throwing a covering over his shoulders to affect a cape. He took the first portion of the lumpy gray gruel. One day’s ration, prepared in one bowl. Usually, Corlan took the first portion. Then Gorral and Rupas, alternating each day who went first. Then the boy got to scrape up whatever remained in the bowl. Sometimes there was little left so Corlan, who always held back some of his own until the boy had eaten, would slip some to him.
“Ugh, this stuff is getting to be awful,” Gorral dared grumble.
“If we stayed longer in one place,” said Corlan, “we might go in search of local game.”
“We got a drake one time a long time ago,” Tam exclaimed.

When you live "on the ice", like A GIRL CALLED WOLF did, food is hard to come by:

The next seal he pushed between my feet. He handed me a club and told me to hit the seal’s head with the club. I did not hesitate. Whack! More hits. Blood ran from the mouth of the seal and it lay still.
“Good girl,” the man with the red beard said. “You’ve got deadly hands. The seals are afraid of you!”
I went out with him often to hunt. Sometimes the man with the red beard visited only a single night yet in good weather he might stay several days. When he took me out on a hunt, Mama stayed in the hut. She cooked whatever we brought back—fish, seals, birds, hares.
In summer we gathered berries and bird eggs. I went with Mama up the mountain slopes and along the shore. She said the man with the red beard was sailing on the sea during summer. On the big kayak he would catch many fish, she told me. He would visit later and bring some fish.

Don't forget the Pumpkin spice season!

And what do vampire's eat? Blood mostly. But that seldom makes a gustorially satisfying description. When the hero of A DRY PATCH OF SKIN visits New Orleans to seek treatment for his condition, he partakes of the local cuisine:

Standing on the corner between my hotel and the parking garage, I heard lively music playing. I smelled food. After three days without food, I finally felt hungry. Turning down the street, I chose a place. Inside, I had a dinner of turtle soup, blackened fish with cornbread and greens. I finished with bread pudding. For the second half of the meal I wasn’t sure I could finish everything, but my gut stretched wide and held it. I sat for a while, letting the musicians play on as I started the digestion process. Then I got into my car and drove.

And remember that MFA story with breakfast? Here it is, from my story "The Preacher Only Shoots Twice":

Your heroine could be having noodles.
     When he quietly closed the door of his Volvo and stepped lightly up the wooden exterior staircase, fake smile poised, ready to fire at will, he had a premonition that this was not going to be his day. His snitch had already told him they would all be at home watching the big football game this afternoon. He knew it would be the perfect time for a gunpowder sermon. They would break bread together. But feeling the greasy sausage and grits turning in his belly, the scent of maple syrup on buttermilk pancakes wafted through his memory. His daughter had loved her mother’s pancakes. He loved them, too. And Belgian waffles. Fancy omelets with everything. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and café au lait. Canadian bacon grilled in a honey-wine sauce, and hash-brown potatoes, on chilly days. On hot summer mornings they had eaten pecan-mixed multi-grain flakes with peaches or strawberries and full-fat milk. Powdered sugar-sprinkled blueberry muffins were his wife’s favorites, he recalled sadly, feeling hungry once again. But he maintained his strict diet, the stricter the better.

So next time you sit down (or stand) to dine, imagine what your characters would like to eat. How would they order in a rustic tavern? What would they be able to gather off the land as they traveled? How would they prefer their hruks'thoo fried and what sauce would they dip it in? Apparently most people choose the bittersweet jil'il sauce made from the berries of the woohoo tree, but not me. I always choose the umm'thm sauce, which adds a lovely sourness to the hruks'thoo

Or, if your vampires characters are in Budapest, try the gulyash. It's excellent!

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

08 October 2017

Understanding the Horror in Horrible

It has been a horrible week. Reality has been too loud, too immediate, yet somehow distant when projected through the filters of social media and mainstream news reporting. What we feel is muted, in some way, because of the increasing frequency of events and the routine reportage. It may be similar to an aficionado of the horror genre who reads too much and becomes jaded, unable to be frightened any longer. Are we there yet?

October has just begun. As Halloween approaches, we accept the once a year opening of the door to the underworld and the unseen and possibly the undead, as well, it may be the best time to also reflect on what makes horror horrible...er, uh, scary. (You knew what I meant, right?)

Ever have a scary dream? Maybe it awakens you in the middle of the night and you don't know where you are. Maybe you still feel those pin picks or knife cuts in your skin. Perhaps your throat feels tight and the skin is rough from where the rope scraped. You might have been sensing the increasing pressure of heavy stones laid upon a barn door which was itself laid over you, all the better to extract a fictitious confession. 

Or perhaps your brand of scary is biting into a chocolate birthday cake and instead of pleasure, finding crunched up bits of cricket or other "foreign" matter there. Perhaps the beverage served reminds you a bit too much of freshly squeezed blood, donated by the kid who did not bring any gift. Or the sandwich you packed for lunch today somehow tastes strangely like human flesh instead of what it is: braised cow tongue. You open the lunch box and there are cockroaches squirming about. Is that your kind of scary?

Still another kind of scary is logging on the Internet - or, just as easily, flipping on the television - and there they are: so many stories of horror happening all around us and across the world. Killings of all kinds done in many creative forms. Solo assassins, self-designated mayhem artists, gangs of revengers, harmful idiots out for their own entertainment at the folly of anyone who gets in the way. Or the larger forms of them: armies of nations or parts of them doing the same thing: creating chaos for its own sake or the sake of someone's power structure. Where is the candy?

Or take it down to street level in your local town. Same thing: street thugs, simpletons with weapons, angry for anger's sake, and loners with axes to grind, guns to shoot, people to kill--for the sake of Halloween? Nope. Just people afraid of people, shooting before shaking hands. People afraid of their own shadows--or the lingering shadows of the previous night's dream. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" It's all the same in an unsettling way: a spark of angst in the middle of the brain and we shriek. Meeting the tiger in the jungle or the human on the street, which worries you more?

Whether the horror is on the screen in a movie theater or on the page in a book, the mind provokes the body into a certain set of sensations and we act or react. Let the horror be real or let it be a fictitious fright. We feel it the same way biologically. And yet, the fictitious kind usually leaves us stronger, more confident, even less afraid, while the real horrors leave us in constant terror, constant stress, that we cannot simply put down or walk away from when we've had enough. That is the true horror of the horrors around us. 

Halloween is coming. Is it too little an event now? Is it too unscary compared to the real world today? Is it more trick than treat? Is it becoming a little better, or are we not yet at the peak? Be safe in your own little world and, at least for a night, pretend that all you have to worry about is a bad dream that will go away when you open your eyes. Or (it's happened to me too often), a lot of children ringing the doorbell after you've already given out your last bag of candy corn.
Looking forward to a day when this is the scariest thing we will see.
If you liked this rant, I accept donations of Kit-Kat and Jelly Belly jelly beans (any flavor). Thanks.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

24 September 2017

The Future of Sequels

It is a fate worse than death: to be undead yet stuck with your vampire parents. After 13 years Stefan Szekely can stand them no longer. He wants to get a castle of his own. But first he must make his way to his family's bank in Budapest.
With endless strife across Europe, Stefan hardly recognizes Budapest. Nevertheless, he embarks on the reign of terror he always denied himself, living the playboy lifestyle, being a bad vampire. Until he gets a stern warning from the local vampire clan: You are not welcome!
Should Stefan fight for his right to party like it's 2027? Or flee to the spa resort he bought and ignore the world? Or will an encounter with a dangerous stranger change everything? Or will State Security actions ruin this vampire homeland?

In 2014 my medically accurate vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN came out to a rave review. My main purpose was to counter the hysteria of the Twilight experience with some medical research crossed with established legends. I wanted to tell a realistic vampire tale. I even set the story in my own city and the action in the story followed the actual days and months I was writing the story. The story and my writing of the story ended the same week. Of course, I revised and edited after that.

Then I thought . . . what would happen next? So I chose a gap of, say, 13 years (the number seems significant in horror stories). Where did I leave my protagonist? How is he doing? What could have happened since then? What has changed in the world during these 13 years? How would what's different in the world affect his own corner of the world?

As I started out on another vampire story I quickly realized that I had to also write a science-fiction story. If I were setting the story 13 years after the end of the previous novel, then this sequel would be set in 2027. 

What did I know of 2027? Not much. Like many sci-fi writers writing about the future, I took the present circumstances, the way things are now, and extrapolated how they might logically progress. Remember that novel by George Orwell, 1984? It was published in 1948 just as fears of a Communist takeover gripped Europe. It was supposed to be a warning.

With the current strife in Europe, mass immigration, the increase in crime, the open warfare between left and right groups, I could see that extending, continuing and growing through the following decade. The moral question that arises is whether the author should follow his/her own beliefs, that is, how the world should be, a Utopian view - or choose a path of development which would be the best setting for the story (given the plot that would unfold), however the society might become - or try to take an honest look at current events and let things fall where they might, for good or ill.

I chose both. For the sake of the story and for the way I think society will continue to "progress" or develop or evolve over the next 10 years, I'm letting the European conflicts play out in the sequel: my now less-medically accurate vampire novel, titled SUNRISE.

Today, Hungary and Poland are resisting accepting refugees and other immigrants and the European Union chastises them for it. Both nations have refused to comply with orders from Brussels and are threatened with economic punishment. Jump ahead 10 years (from now; 13 from the end of the previous novel) and these countries have broken away from the European Union, formed their own economic block and run business as usual in ways which are more to their liking. 

As described in this sequel, the Hungarian Federation (Poland is a separate nation but an ally) is a strictly run Euro-centrist society. The State Security apparatus runs a tidy ship and getting in is very problematic. Staying in if you are a "diseased" resident such as a vampire is dangerous. However, our hero, Stefan Szekely, is already within the boundaries of the Hungarian Federation at his family's estate in the former Croatia; therefore, I, the author, must deal with the vagaries of that location.

Needless to say, our hero has difficulties - or there wouldn't be a story. Yet as I charge through the final chapters, the look and feel, the horrors, and the dystopian ambiance seem right. Will he escape from the repressive Hungarian Federation? Or will evil powers greater than himself and the vampire clans of Budapest have the final say?

Regardless, in SUNRISE the world gets darker before the light shines again.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 September 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 5

I need to slip this blog about my summer vacation in between hurricanes. With only two classes each week, I had time for sightseeing but because I had seen everything before, it was harder to find something else to see. Fortunately, I had a friend guide me to a new corner of the city: the 798 Art Zone.

During my first summer trip to Beijing I had cravings for tacos but quickly discovered that the only tacos in Beijing were at a handful of cafes run by ex-pat Westerners. One of them was located in this corner of Beijing but the subway route to get there required 4 lines. As it turned out, this was in the Art Zone.

I met my guide, codename: Maria, outside my hotel on a Sunday morning. She arrived on one of the millions of rental bikes (where you dial in a code number on an app on your smart phone and the bike is unlocked). 

We walked up the street to the bus stop to go to the Art Zone. I've always been wary of riding buses because I don't know where they will go. But with my guide, I felt safe. I used my subway pass for the bus. It was a 40 minute bus ride, no changes. 

Going to see more of the northeast corner of the city, off the edge of my map. I saw us pass a sign marking the division between Chaoyang district and Wangjing district, near Wangjing park. 

Finally we got off the bus and walked a bit, looking for a place to have lunch. We decided to find the Art Zone first, then look for lunch. We backtracked and crossed a wide avenue and entered the 798 Art Zone, where a big sign indicated the district. If you had been looking right at it you would've seen it. Lots of old brick and tile factories had been converted into artists’ studios and small galleries. Lots of cafes and bars, too. 
Translation: "The First Breakfast"
"The Four Moods of Stephen"
Searching for a good place for lunch, we paused to get drinks: latte for me, fruit smoothie for her. We went next to a café and ordered a Hawaiian pizza with a Caesar salad. Nothing more American than that. It was very good and exactly like what I would have had in the US. I almost forgot I was in China. 

Then we walked around looking at strange public art, taking photos, entering small galleries—hoping people would buy the art—and joking together about what we saw. It was nice to have a leisurely day out looking at art. 

Eventually, we got thirsty so we stopped in at a place for a drink. Instead, we got a large dish of mango sherbet with cubes of mango. Very delicious! As it turned out, none of the cafes or restaurants or even the galleries had much A/C going. Outside it was the usual hot, humid weather. The galleries seemed to have only enough cool air to be able to make the claim it was on. We talked about all sorts of trivial topics, including how to interpret modern art. I think we are supposed to imagine what the artist was thinking and/or drinking when he or she painted it. We must use metaphor and personification, even if it hurts. Many tags next to artwork suggested the inspiration came from a dream.

Once upon a time I learned about art from a real art student, but I had to throw all that out the window in this district. I saw a lot of red and a lot of Mao-suit-influenced designs. The melding of old and new was a common theme. Attempts to create the fantastic, to shock or provoke introspection, appeared on every corner and in half the galleries. I eventually reached the threshold of interpretation and gave up.

I did not buy any art: too big, too bold, too expensive for my meager means.

When we decided to go back to the campus, I suggested we have dinner there in one of the small restaurants around the campus. But as we walked in the direction to exit the Art Zone, we saw a restaurant promoting gourmet hamburgers. One was a Mexican hamburger. I was hooked. We decided to have our dinner there. But we were not yet hungry, so we continued to walk around, visit some shops, see other streets and alleys, and circled back to the hamburger restaurant. We got cold drinks first, talked, then ordered our hamburgers. It was a good dinner.

The dinner gave us some more energy, so we could start walking back to the bus stop. On the way, she saw a McDonald's in a shopping mall so we went in to get some ice cream as our dessert. Instead of the small vanilla cones I expected, they were promoting large fancy cones, with some decorations, so I got a mango dessert cone and she got a green tea cone. We finished our desserts sitting inside, then we continued on to the bus stop.

Waiting at the bus stop to return to the campus, we talked about everything important in life, such as my vampire book and the sequel I was writing in my hotel room. She is a fan of vampire stories, so I offered to let her be a character in the sequel. Talk of how I got the idea for the book led to discussions of current geopolitics. 

Still we waited for the bus. Several others stopped but they were not the one to return us to the campus. I was just happy to chat longer. I felt sad when our bus finally arrived and we got on it.

To see yourself in the Hanged Man is a good omen, right?
As we arrived at our stop by the campus and got out, we went to the crosswalk and said our goodbyes. A sad moment. It was a long but fun day, the best day of my summer vacation. I did something I never could have done by myself, plus I enjoyed being with Maria. 

After walking with her through the campus, I returned to my hotel. On the way back, I see the corner laundry is still open so I pop in to pick up my clothes for the coming week. A win-win!

That night, I reflected on all that I had seen during the day, and all that I had felt and said and heard and thought. It was a lot. Then I wrote poetry. It's what I do. It's what we all do when visiting the 798 Art Zone.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.