Author Interview: J.S. Morin

J.S. Morin, former engineer turned full-time science fiction/fantasy author, claims the title of “a creator of worlds and a destroyer of words.” He has loved exploring speculative fiction since childhood and now hopes his own stories will help influence a new generation of fantasy readers. After publishing his first book in 2013, he has gone on to complete three series on his own (sci-fi, epic fantasy, sci/fantasy) and one in collaboration with M.A. Larkin (sci-fi) for a total of 34 novels. Another collaboration with M.A. Larkin has produced four books in a new spinoff. Human Phase (April, 2018) is Jeff’s newest novel, which concludes the six-book science fiction Robot Geneticists series. You’ll find Jeff on and on Facebook. Visit his Amazon author page where most of his first in series are free on Kindle.

In the post-apocalyptic world of the Robot Geneticists books, robots have been reconstructing life on Earth for 1000 years after an alien virus decimated the planet. They’re even close to successfully recreating humans… This is a unique take on the apocalyptic premise. What came first for you in developing the series: a character, a setting, the story idea?
It’s funny, because it’s nothing to do with the story I ended up telling. The original idea was a fully robotic society with an underground human-worshiping cult. They were going to successfully clone a baby but be clueless how to raise it. I’d have played the idea for comedy. But the more I tugged and fluffed the idea, it became clear that I didn’t like incompetent robots, I wanted an older human child, someone with some agency to humanize the story. The experimental escapee Eve14 was born from there. I backfilled the world to get to that point.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The biggest challenge was to convey humanity through robots that no longer had the normal human sensations or biological reactions. Hearts no longer quickened, sweat didn’t bead on brows. These were computerized minds with human memories, and those reactions that the reader needed to relate to had to be both completely electro-mechanical and relatable to similar human reactions. Pain became error warnings, worry a loop of worst-case simulations, etc.

Tell us a little about your main characters.
Let me start with the counter-example. Charlie7, as the 1(a) main character, was meant to be enigmatic, awe-inspiring, and aspirational. As a reader, you’re meant to step back and look at Charlie7 as something humanity might once have feared. Turned loose in a fully populated Earth, he had the power to be a bigger threat than SkyNet. Eve14, as protagonist 1(b), wasn’t quite a blank slate, but she was close. Everything outside her lab was new and both fascinating and slightly frightening. You get to see her smell her first wildflowers, taste her first fresh fruit, scan computer entries of her species’ history that had been concealed from her—our history, the legacy of extinct humans.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the series?
I needed to build a society from scratch considering the raw materials my setting provided. Dictatorship seemed trite. Monarchy inappropriate. Charlie7 wasn’t the most democratic-minded of men when he was Charles Truman. That’s when I realized that a coven of scientists would most likely devolve into an academic bureaucracy of committees, authority via reputation, and back-door favor trading combined with crony favoritism.

You published all six of the Robot Geneticists books during a 12-month period from 2017-2018. How did you accomplish such a potentially overwhelming task?
I took a bit longer in the planning phase for this series. I spent a full month on preparation and outlining. From there, though, it was downhill. I was never not writing or editing, so as a full-time writer, the number of words over that period wasn’t so daunting. In fact, I was working in parallel on Black Ocean at the time, writing the last few missions of that series. Editing, cover design, and all the background work goes on in parallel. If I’m writing book 4 of a series, book 3 is probably in my editor’s hands.

In a recent blogpost, you mention you’re hoping for an on-screen adaptation of your 16-book Black Ocean space opera/fantasy series. What is it about the series that would make for a great adaptation? When you write, does the story play out in your mind like scenes in a movie?
The concept for Black Ocean was born out of a re-watching of Firefly. I got to the end (again) and was thinking “why hasn’t anyone else filled this gap?” Small ship. Small crew. Wrong side of the law. Since I asked that question, we’ve seen Dark Matter and The Expanse, but at the time, a light went on in my head. I could write the series I wanted. I came up with my own cobbled ship and scoundrel crew and turned them loose in a brand new universe where the softer side of sci-fi (FTL, universal translators, artificial gravity) was unapologetically just magic. But as I was writing Black Ocean, I was writing it to also keep the pacing and vibe of a serialized TV drama. It was written to feel like novelized television, so adapting it back to its spiritual origins seemed like a natural progression. As for how I envision scenes when I write, it’s slapdash. Sometimes I have a great sense for the visuals going in, other times it’s snippets of conversation that I build around. It would be a hell of a lot easier if I had it nailed down to one method, but that’s just not how it works for me.

M.A. Larkin collaborated with you on the five-book Sins of Angels series. Now books three and four of another collaboration with Matt (Astral Prime, a Black Ocean spinoff) are ready for pre-order. How do you split the “duties” of putting the books together? What strengths do you each bring to the projects?
It starts with planning sessions on video chat. Kick ideas back and forth. Come up with concepts, plot, characters. Refine. Outline. Then when it’s time for the writing, we divide up the POV characters. Matt injects a lot of gravitas and epic scope into his writing, while I lean more toward the lighter, snarkier side. With my background in engineering, I do the technical editing for both of us, though. If there’s convoluted technobabble, chances are I either wrote or tweaked it.

You write in several speculative fiction genres including hard science fiction, space opera, epic fantasy, and one of the newest—sci-fantasy. Is there one genre you’re drawn to most when you write or read? Is there one you’d like to try writing but haven’t yet?
I’m one of the ones waiting (im)patiently for George R.R. Martin’s Winds of Winter and Patrick Rothfuss’s Doors of Stone. Epic fantasy was always my reading love. Big, meaty tomes that you can get into and read for weeks. I also love the sci-fi classics like Asimov and Niven. So pretty much hard sci-fi and epic fantasy. My space opera work is almost entirely inspired by TV and movie viewing as opposed to book series I’ve read. One of these days I’d like to write something purely comedic; maybe a spoof of some popular genre. I’ll get around to it, I’m sure, but I tend to pander to my fans since they pay my bills. Until I see evidence that it would sell, the comedy would just be for personal amusement.

Of the 35+ books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most, and which was the most challenging?
Throughout the first four Black Ocean missions, you hear about how great a pilot Carl is, but he only has a couple of opportunities to show it. In the fifth mission, Alien Racer, the crew essentially calls him out on his bragging and goad him into entering a reality holovid racing contest—think American Idol meets NASCAR in space. Between the racing scenes and the heist planned around the finale, I had a blast with it. As for most challenging, it has to be Firehurler (book one of the epic fantasy Twinborn Chronicles). I think everyone’s first book is going to be their biggest challenge. I set Firehurler aside (partially written) for 12 years before my wife read the early chapters and suggested I finish it. It was like uncorking a dam after that.

What writing projects are you working on now?
My current project is a Black Ocean spinoff featuring two characters from the original series, Esper and Kubu, who weren’t quite ready to ride off into the sunset. They form a mercenary duo of do-gooders trying to make the galaxy a better place. They’re the good thing that happens to bad people.

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Freedom to Create

When there is no freedom, there is no creativity. ~ Soud Qbeilat

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Author Interview: Janice Hardy

As a blogger, a speaker, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, Janice Hardy is one of the busiest writing professionals in the industry. Her how-to Foundation of Fiction series focuses on novel writing with Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure as well as Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, while her Skill Builders series addresses specific problem areas for writers. She also founded Fiction University website where she encourages writers to craft their best stories (with over 1000 writing-related articles full of examples and practical applications). On the fiction front, her award-winning teen fantasy The Healing Wars trilogy was published by Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. Janice’s most recent release is Blood Ties (2018) written as J.T. Hardy with her husband Thomas on the team. This first in an urban fantasy series follows Grace Harper as she faces ancient secrets and legendary creatures to save her father and solve the puzzle of her mother’s unnatural death. In addition to the Fiction University site, you’ll find Janice on Facebook, Twitter, and her Amazon author page.

Tell us about Grace, your main character. Did she surprise you as you wrote her story? Who did you enjoy manipulating more, Grace and the good guys (like Daniel and Libby) or the antagonist and his evil minions?
Grace spent most of her life as an outsider wanting to fit in somewhere. I think most of us have felt that way at least once in our lives, so we can sympathize with wanting to belong and having a connection with someone. She also wants to help people, even though she feels she’s on the outside looking in. She’s funny, with a quirky outlook on life. Grace actually didn’t surprise me, since I spent more time than usual developing her, but Libby was a surprise. She turned out to be the breakout character, and I didn’t expect her tough exterior to be as fun as she turned out to be. All the best lines came from her, and I had such a blast writing her. Oh, I enjoyed manipulating the good guys, totally. I love doing bad things to my characters, and the more they suffer the better. My writing pals laugh at me when I cackle in glee over something horrible I just thought of to do to my characters. My personal motto: What doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for this book?
Since it’s a planned series, getting enough of the foundation right so it leads to future books correctly. We (I worked on this with my husband), wanted a world that felt rich and layered, but still the real world—just with this secret layer everyone “knew” about but attributed it to something entirely different. It’s hard to be more specific without giving things away, but each book will focus on a particular supernatural being or creature, but will take the mythology or origin in a new direction.

In a recent blog post you wrote “this novel took a weird, winding path to publication.” It involved a “what if” question from your husband, making the story wait on you for years, and participating in a 30-day writing marathon through NaNoWriMo. Was this a case of writer’s block? What did it finally take for you to grab that story idea and follow the path?
Not writer’s block, just an uncertainty of what I wanted for the idea. It started as a YA novel, but it just didn’t feel right and died after about a hundred pages. I tossed that draft and rewrote it for adults, but I couldn’t quite get into the urban fantasy groove. I always loved the idea, but it took a while to figure out the plot and how this idea could be a strong story. Once the last piece clicked, the book was pretty easy to write. In hindsight, I think I was trying too hard to write an urban fantasy and not tell a story with a supernatural aspect.

This urban fantasy is a departure from The Healing Wars trilogy (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) that brought you so much success. Why the change in target audience and genre?
It’s what the book wanted to be. I was also in need of trying something totally different at that time, so it worked out perfectly. I’m a fan of the genre, so it’s not outside my reading scope, but it was outside my writing scope. It took some time to retrain my writer’s brain to tell a story in the real world, and mix in the fantasy elements as well. It’s much easier to spin a pure fantasy tale than mix the two (at least for me).

What was the most rewarding aspect of writing Blood Ties?
I got to swear (grin). Actually, it was stretching myself as a writer. It was a new genre, market, and a much stronger mystery plot than I’d ever done before, so there was a lot to learn and work out. Every market and genre has its own set of rules and tropes, and while the writing skills are all the same, how we apply them changes. I had to adapt how I approached my characters’ problem solving, how they thought, what their world views were, etc. A woman in her 20s is a very different person from a 15-year-old girl, and how they deal with problems will be different as well. Grace sounded like an angsty teen in the first draft, which did not work at all. Another aspect was working with my husband on this. I do all the writing, but he’s a major part of the story development process and the world building. It was a lot of fun to share writing a book with him.

You use the Three Act Structure with major turning points to guide your stories, but you also point the protagonist where she needs to go and then turn her loose. How do you make this hybrid of plotting and pantsing work?
I put myself in the character’s head. I have a clear goal (the plot point), and then I decide what the character will do to get that goal. This allows me to be organic and spontaneous, but still have story direction, because there’s a point to the character’s actions—she’s not just doing what I told her to do. I’m saying, “Solve this problem,” not, “Do this thing.” It’s a subtle shift in how I think about a scene, but it makes a big difference while writing, because one creates action and the other just describes action. My background is in graphic design, so I always look at it as drawing a picture:

My outline is the bare bones that encompasses the general idea of what I’m about to develop—the coloring book page of the story, if you will. How that picture is colored will change depending on how I color it. If I use markers, it’ll be bright and bold and graphic. Colored pencils will be more realistic and shaded. Watercolor will create a softer image that suggests more without being overpowering. But it’s the same outline no matter what I put in it. So if my character is big and bold, her scenes will reflect that. If she’s soft and thoughtful, how she solves her problems changes and thus the scenes change as well. How the character solves the problem is how they “color” the outline. But if I decide a picture has to be colored with markers, and I have a character who’s more of a watercolor gal, the scene suffers because the character isn’t being herself, she’s doing what I say.

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) are the first two books in your Skill Builders Series. Out of all the problem areas writers grapple with, how did you choose the subjects for these how-to guides?
I tried to pick topics that a) allowed me to bring something new to readers, and b) many readers struggle with. For example, I’ve had so many writers tell me they finally understood “show, don’t tell” after reading my blog or taking my workshop, that I knew I had an approach that was both helpful and different. So when deciding what to do next, I look for emails and comments from writers that say “your take on X really helped me” and turn those into larger books. I can’t decide if I want to do point of view next or pacing. I adore POV, so that one will probably win.

What do many beginning writers misunderstand about what a story is supposed to do?
That it’s about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. I’ve read (and written, let’s be honest) plenty of novels that essentially describe how a character does X. There’s never a sense of them figuring things out or solving a problem. It’s “Here’s how the hero kills the evil wizard” not “Here’s how the hero learns to overcome her fears and triumphs over the evil wizard by becoming better in some way.”

How do you know when you’ve taken your story as far as it should go, that it’s done (even at a sentence or scene level)?
I trust my gut. It just feels right. I don’t see anything that needs to be added or taken away, and it makes me want to read it from start to finish. I enjoy it, even if I’ve read it a hundred times already. It’s a hard skill to master and trust, because I think as writers we tend to second-guess our work. It’s hard sometimes to trust that what we’ve done is good and finished. We keep wanting to tinker.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m finishing the final few chapters of a YA fantasy. It’s a book with a long history for me, and I’m really loving how it’s finally coming together. It has a strong romance subplot, which is new for me, and that’s been a lot of fun to write. I’m also in development for the next Grace Harper book, doing my research and getting the plot worked out. I’d really love for book two to come out by the end of the year, so fingers crossed!

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New Mexico’s Connection to Science Fact and Fiction

Here’s an update to one of my more popular posts from several years ago. Flying Saucers #4, November 1967. Dell Comics. Flying Saucers #4, November 1967. Dell Comics.

Depending on where you’re from, you might not know New Mexico is the birthplace of Demi Moore, Smokey Bear, and the first atomic bomb. It is also the burial place of Billy the Kid and tons of nuclear waste (at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). Even though the hit television series Breaking Bad put the state on the map for many people, there are still a good number of U.S. citizens who don’t realize New Mexico is one of the 50 states (#47). Residents sometimes joke that they live in the lost state—the only one with USA stamped on their license plates. Regardless of the reason for this confusion, those who live in New Mexico have always known why it’s nicknamed The Land of Enchantment.

Immense blue skies (where the sun shines 360 days a year), hypnotic sunsets, and a temperate climate that makes it possible to play outside nearly every day of the year have captured many a child’s heart. Lava flows and surreal caverns, forested mountains and rocky mesas, and ancient cultures and diverse nationalities are also found in New Mexico.

Less than 2,100,000 people live in 121,589 square miles, hemmed in by Arizona (west), Colorado (north), Texas (east), and Mexico to the south. Large areas of open and undeveloped land have drawn artists and celebrities for years, as well as research and development from government and private sectors. Such secluded places make excellent hidey-holes for secrets and keep the public safe from a variety of dangerous activities.

New Mexico has only been a state since 1912 but has already helped shape the world. Here are a few ways this state is connected to science fact and fiction.

♦ Space

016_700Ham the Astrochimp, the first primate launched into space (1961), was trained at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

Spaceport America: “The world’s first purpose built commercial spaceport” has welcomed permanent tenants Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, UP Aerospace, EXOS Aerospace, and EnergeticX Pipeline2Space. Its FAA-licensed horizontal and vertical launch areas are located on 18,000 acres near the town of Truth or Consequences adjacent to the restricted airspace of White Sands Missile Range.

UFOs—Roswell: Filled with alien-inspired shops and attractions, Roswell is home of the International UFO Museum and Research Center. UFO sightings, Hangar 84, alien abductions —it all happened here. Read the “living history” of the July 1947 UFO crash told 50 years later by witnesses to the event now known as the Roswell Incident.

Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

The Very Large Array (Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI)

The Very Large Array (VLA): Astronomers from around the world use these giant antenna dishes to listen to the universe and observe celestial bodies. VLA has been called a scifi icon because of its recognizable features in movies. Located 50 miles west of Socorro.

White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) was once a Space Shuttle runway, test site for rocket research, back up landing site for space shuttle missions, and primary training area for NASA’s Shuttle pilots practicing approaches and landings. Located west of Alamogordo within the White Sands Missile Range.

♦ Research

RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) at LANL

RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) at LANL

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)Los Alamos: As part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, they designed and built the first atomic bomb in 20 months. Their basic mission now is to maintain “the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent without the need to return to underground testing.” Bioscience, Lasers, Supercomputers, 3D Simulators.

New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech)Socorro: One of the top 10 engineering programs in the U.S., it’s a center of higher learning in advanced fields of science and technology. The Energetic Materials Research & Testing Center (EMRTC) has blown stuff up on “M” mountain for decades. Geology, Astronomy, Seismology.


“Arcs & Sparks” of PBFA Z

Sandia National Laboratory (SNL)Albuquerque: In the 1940s, Los Alamos National Laboratory moved its Z Division to Albuquerque’s Sandia Army Base where the laboratory was renamed. Most of their research focuses on enhancing national security in regards to renewable energy systems, climate and environment, robotics, defense systems, and weapons testing. Albuquerque residents still wonder about the possibilities of weapons stored in bunkers and nearby foothills. 

  • Z Pulsed Power Facility (also known as the Z Machine) at SNL is the largest X-ray generator in the world and is designed to test materials under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure.

Trinity SiteAlamogordo: On July 16, 1945 the world’s first nuclear explosion occurred in the New Mexico desert on what is now White Sands Missile Range. The test was code-named “Trinity” and the spot where the explosion occurred became known as the Trinity Site.

♦ Authors

Here are a few of the more famous scifi/fantasy authors who call New Mexico home:
Daniel Abraham and James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Steven Gould
Jane Lindskold
George R.R. Martin
Melinda Snodgrass
Robert Vardeman
Walter Jon Williams
Jack Williamson
Roger Zelazny (Read George R.R. Martin’s “In Memoriam: Roger Zelazny“)

♦ Movies and Television

TerminatorSalvationThe following science fiction movies and television series were filmed principally in New Mexico:
The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976
Earth 2, 1994-1995, television series
The Lost Room, television mini-series, 2006
Terminator Salvation, 2009
The Book of Eli, 2010
Transcendence, 2014
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, 2015
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016
Independence Day: Resurgence, 2016
The Space Between Us, 2017

Shots of the state are also found in many other films including Contact (1997), Transformers (2007), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), The Avengers (2012), and The Host (2013). Visit the New Mexico Film Office for other movies and TV shows filmed here.

♦ Other


BuboniconAlbuquerque: This annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention began in 1969 and is named for the bubonic plague that shows up in some parts of the state on occasion. To help offset the connotations of the name, they adopted a cute mascot named Perry Rhodent. Attendance for the last five years has ranged from 750-980 at each convention.

Jack Williamson Science Fiction LibraryPortales: Located at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), the library contains more than 30,000 science fiction related items (including books, magazines, manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs) donated primarily by award-winning author and ENMU faculty member Jack Williamson.

Microsoft—Albuquerque: Bill Gates and Paul Allen first registered Micro-Soft as a business with the State of New Mexico in the mid-1970s.

New Mexico Museum of Space HistoryAlamogordo: Dedicated to the origins of the U.S. space exploration program. The museum includes the International Space Hall of Fame (ISHF), an air and space park, the Daisy Track, a theater/planetarium, and other exhibits.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)Carlsbad: The only deep geologic repository in the United States for permanent disposal of a specific type of waste byproduct of the nation’s nuclear defense program.

You might want to check out:

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Trap Your Writing Muse

The act of writing, of telling the tale, is also the act of laying traps. And it is in these traps that we capture our muses. In other words, we capture them, they don’t capture us. ~ Chuck Wendig

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2018 Wednesday on the Web #2

I continue my hopeless obsession with filling a bottomless bag of online treasure. Here I’ve rediscovered the best of these articles/tidbits and share them in this second of my fifth-Wednesday posts for 2018.

■ For Writers

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected
“What [successful authors] all have in common is a persistence to never give up on their dream; a dream that has elevated them from writer to best-selling author.” If your writing has been rejected, take encouragement from this list of famous authors who received rejections but eventually found publishing success.

Simplify Your Writing—Avoid These 44 Overused Words & Phrases
“Avoid using words to fill up space. Modifiers, qualifiers, and intensifiers (very, almost, nearly, quite) add nothing to our writing. Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs clutter up the page…also avoid using big words and empty phrases because we think they make us sound clever.” This infographic is a useful tool to help improve and pare down your writing.

Medieval Research
Author Allison Reid provides a resource page on her website that covers the medieval age. Her Medieval Monday Index includes a general topics category that begins with Archery and ends with Wool, as well as sections for holidays, how things were made, and medieval society. The index also links to a BBC documentary series, Tales from The Green Valley, produced by “a small group of historians and archaeologists [who] restored and brought back to life an abandoned village in Wales, re-creating over an entire year what life was like in the early 1600’s. This would be considered the Renaissance period, but…[m]uch of this would be applicable to the medieval period as well.” This twelve-part series covers each month of the year as it depicts life from centuries ago.

■ Science

10 Apps That Are The Next Best Thing To Being In Space
“Most of us won’t ever visit space. But space has been brought to us, in the form of images and data collected for years by spacecraft, satellites and telescopes. Here are the 10 best online, interactive apps that allow you to explore space from your computer.” Check out the apps to discover: 1) Eyes On The Solar System; 2) The Lunar Northern Polar Mosaic; 3) The Billion-Pixel View From Curiosity at Rocknest (NASA’s Mars rover); 4) The First Men on the Moon (recreates the Eagle’s descent); 5) ISS Photo Map (a world map through the lens of the International Space Station); 6) The Scale of the Universe (a flash animation); 7) Eyes on the Earth (from observation satellites in real time); 8) Spacewalk; 9) Orbital Objects (a 3D visualization of 21,000 pieces of orbital debris); and 10) Eyes on Exoplanets.

MIT’s Super-Fast Camera Can Capture Light as it Travels
“A new camera developed at MIT can photograph a trillion frames per second. Compare that with a traditional movie camera which takes a mere 24. This new advancement in photographic technology has given scientists the ability to photograph the movement of the fastest thing in the Universe, light.” The video in the article shows light photons traveling 600-million-miles-per-hour through a bottle of water.

■ For Fun

“Turbo Incabulator” the Original
This YouTube video is hilarious, especially for scientist/engineer types or for those who grew up watching old classroom films. “The narrator and writer is Bud Haggert. He was the top voice-over talent on technical films. He wrote the script because he rarely understood the technical copy he was asked to read and felt he shouldn’t be alone.” The comments on the page are worth a look.

Star Wars Characters Re-imagined
Artist James Hance combines characters from Star Wars and Winnie the Pooh to create his “Wookie the Chew” collection. While you’re on the website, check out his other collections or watch time-lapse videos of his work.

■ Yep, Yummy

Edible Cookie Dough for Two
Here’s a recipe for one of the yummiest inventions ever. Without eggs (that potentially cause stomach problems when eaten raw), edible cookie dough can be considered a health food. If you don’t want an entire batch of sugary goodness hanging around in your frig screaming for attention, try this recipe that feeds just two culinary wanderers.

What’s the best tidbit you’ve found on the internet this year?

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Looking at Creativity the Write Way

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was upset by the snobbery she read about between creatives, specifically literary writers versus romance writers. (If it comes to fisticuffs, I’ll put my money on romance writers any day.) Setting aside personal preference regarding reading or writing a certain genre, this kind of comparison seems as rational as making fun of someone who prefers polo shirts over t-shirts or the color red over blue. I’m still trying to understand where this kind of thinking comes from.

Creativity vs. Creative Expression
Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition, 2001) defines “creative” as: (#2) having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness [creative writing]; and (#3) stimulating the imagination and inventive powers [creative toys]. In other words, creativity demonstrates imagination and inventiveness and stimulates the same.

Is what we think of creativity actually the expression of creativity? When we say someone is creative, does that come from our perception of what that person has expressed through music, words, or another medium?

Expression of Creativity, a function of time and testing
To get good at anything we need to spend time doing that thing. Musicians study and practice for hours and years. Artists who draw or paint don’t pick up a pencil or a brush and create a masterpiece the first time they try (and maybe not for decades). Dancers must stay in shape, continue to practice their steps, and learn new ways to move.

Regarding actors, it seems the ones whose expression of creativity is better than others are those who have spent time learning their craft, maybe digging deeper into their emotions than others are willing to do. The same is true for writers. None of us enjoys reliving old wounds any more than gnawing on bitter bones, but doing so can translate into more fully formed characters and a story that resonates.

Writers can’t stop learning, practicing, drawing with our words, strengthening our creative muscles. We start out barely able to construct a sentence with clarity (that is, if we can get the creative bits out of our brains to begin with). The best expression of our creativity happens after we put the time in.

Does it take a writer longer to be good at their craft than a musician or a painter? Does what we put in equal what we get out?

Creatives vs. “Ordinaries”
Does that mean people who aren’t usually considered artistic also aren’t creative? What about cooks, engineers, entrepreneurs? Should we judge creativity on a scale? Artists get the high score and lowly inventors a mid-mark. While we’re at it, let’s compare and judge artists against each other. Even better, let’s start by judging preschoolers’ finger paintings. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Stepping away from sarcasm, are fiction writers more creative than nonfiction writers? I think not. So this is where I suggest we look at the expression of creativity in a different way.

The Write Way to Look at Creativity
Let’s put who we think of as artists (writers, musicians, sculptors, etc.) in one group and call them fiction-type-creatives. Put other more academic types (architects, programmers, doctors, etc.) and “ordinary” folk, such as cooks and landscapers, in a nonfiction-type-creatives group. If we did this, would we think more kindly, be more accepting, of all people and their expressions of creativity?

Really, I’m in awe of people who throw ingredients into a pot and pull out a magically-delicious-whatever. What about those who apply their technical knowledge and years of experience to real-world problems to create something that changes lives, like a portable water purifying system? And consider mothers and teachers—I dare you to try keeping children occupied without applying some kind of creativity.

My Creativity Rant
So that is my little rant, and a long way of saying: I believe we’re all creative in some way, and the extent to which our expression of creativity affects others depends on how much time we put into learning and practicing a particular creative endeavor.

Polo vs. t-shirt. Oil painting vs. watercolor. Jazz vs. rock-n-roll.

I’m glad we’re not all one kind of reader or writer. Creative expression should be marked by individualism. Creativity grows thousands of branches from the same tree, each budding or blooming with kaleidoscopic flowers.

If we’re all creative in some way, doesn’t that give us common ground to interact on?

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Author Interview: Astrid Tuttle Winegar

Astrid Tuttle Winegar’s Cooking for Halflings & Monsters: 111 Comfy, Cozy Recipes for Fantasy-Loving Souls (2017) is now in its second edition. According to Astrid, Tolkien scholar and foodie, you don’t need to be a “gourmet monster chef” to enjoy these recipes, you just need to love comfort food. “Lovingly illustrated and written with dry humor throughout, this charming cookbook is sure to delight you and your family, friends, and any other lucky halflings (or monsters) who show up in your kitchen.” Go to Astrid’s website at to learn more about her and discover some great recipes (I’m going to try several under Recipes/Sweeties category). You’ll also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. For a signed copy of the cookbook with free U.S. domestic shipping, visit her Etsy Shop at ElegantSufficiencies.

Your love of fantasy (especially Tolkien) and a knack for cooking led to a college project that ultimately became Cooking for Halflings & Monsters. What was the most rewarding aspect of completing the book?
Just actually getting it done. Life interferes constantly with creative work. I approached this experience as a middle-aged person who had never contemplated such a long-term project. I had the gift of time, my children were grown, my college courses were done, and I figured what the heck? I might as well try a different career.

The original published version of the cookbook was titled Astrid’s Modern Hobbit Recipes and included names and places from the Tolkien universe that you later discovered were copyrighted. You then renamed, rewrote, and reworked the book before publishing the current version. What was that process like? Many writers would have been discouraged and let the project go—why didn’t you?
From the beginning I knew there might be copyright issues, but I thought my original publisher and I had grasped fair use laws. A polite letter from the Tolkien Estate disabused us of that notion. When I realized I would have to completely rewrite the book, my original thoughts ran something like, “!@$%^&*((!!!” The original publisher didn’t even respond to my agent after that. I resented that they obviously didn’t review the revised book. By then I had already put in so much time, it seemed such a waste to give it up. The process was aggravating, to put it mildly.

Nevertheless, I persisted! I thought about going with medieval history as a new theme, but that didn’t really appeal to me. Middle-earth is filled with various distinct races of beings, and when I started to think about hobbits, elves, dwarves, and wizards, I suddenly thought I could divide the recipes into similar groupings. This took only about six months to accomplish. In the meantime, my publisher moved on to other things. I finally called my agent and we parted on amicable terms. Then I self-published on Amazon. My entrance to the social media world, specifically Twitter, led to a referral to an independent publisher. They eventually published the book…and then went out of business! Now it’s all me. This is challenging and scary, but also liberating in a way.

As part of the rewrite, you changed the format from following the stories in Tolkien’s universe to a different kind of grouping for the recipes. Tell us about the unique structure of the book.
Yes, the original cookbook strictly followed the text in a linear fashion. My first four chapters dealt with The Hobbit. The first chapter was all about the dwarf invasion of Bag End. The final eight chapters dealt with The Lord of the Rings. The first of these chapters was about Bilbo Baggins’s 111th birthday party. When this structure was no longer available to me, I realized my Prancing Pony chapter was a menu all to its own. That led me to think of other restaurants.

Each chapter ended up being a type of restaurant (such as “Halfling Hideaway” and “Glitnír’s Hall”) that represented each group of typical inhabitants in most any fantasy-themed universe: halflings, men, wizards, dwarves, monsters, and elves. Two other restaurants represent common tropes in fantasy: the council (“Council Catering”) and the quest (“Quest Depot”). The Prancing Pony chapter is pretty much as it was in the original cookbook but is now called “The Inn of the Doughty Hero.” It represents men.

With this new concept, I ended up with a total of eight chapters. This was a fortuitous number, since I happened to have invented eight soups. Thus, the first item on each new menu was a soup. I followed this with a bread or two, then a salad and/or an appetizer, etc. Each menu ends with desserts. Most cookbooks have a soup chapter or a dessert chapter, but mine doesn’t conform to this. Perhaps it might confuse readers/cooks, but I think most people have gotten used to it, and I hope they have found a logical way to pick some new favorite dishes!

How long did it take to develop the complete set of eleventy-one primary recipes? When did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go—that it was finally ready for publication?
Tolkien’s culinary universe is actually rather limited. I started with a list of every single food or beverage he mentions in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, then I expanded from there. I’d say it took around two years to complete 90% of what is currently in the cookbook. My family ate a whole lot of bacon, potatoes, and mushrooms during that time! A few items changed; for example, the original cookbook did not have a recipe for Turkish Delight, but I made a recipe for that after I lost the connection to Middle-earth. Then another year for testing and adjusting, working with about a dozen recipe testers. By the time the cookbook was ready in 2011, I felt I had a complete narrative, as well as 111 delicious recipes. The quest for an agent/publisher took a few more months.

In an alternate Lord of the Rings universe, imagine a cook-off between one of these sets of characters: Samwise vs. Gollum, Frodo vs. Sauron, or Gandalf vs. Saruman. What would the characters cook, and what prize would the winner receive?
In the Middle-earth Mithril Chef challenge, we have Samwise vs. Gollum. Your ingredient is… fish. Samwise will choose white fish. He’ll prepare a beer batter and get a pan ready for some lovely deep-frying. He’ll cut up taters to finish off his famous “Fish and Chips.” Gollum will scamper off to the nearest river, grab a salmon with his poorly-manicured fingers, and rip it into small strips. He’ll pile it on a nearby leaf, just to be polite, but then he’ll devour it in less than a minute. Since both recipes are completely satisfying to each diner, the judges will declare a tie. Both contestants will win the chance to survive the Quest!

What recipes should those with beginning, intermediate, and advanced cooking skills try first?
I have all three levels scattered within the cookbook. Most of the salad and vegetables dishes would be suitable for cooks who are beginners—try “Bob’s Obsession” or “Mushrooms of Mist.” Many of the baked goods would be a satisfying experience for intermediate cooks—good choices would be “Head-in-the-Clouds Biscuits” or “Cheddar Sage Scones.” And if you are rather advanced, you might try your hand at “Treasured Tidbits” or “One Wizard’s Precious Delight.”

What is the best compliment you’ve received as an author?
A few people have told me they’ve read the book from cover to cover, as if it were a story. I love to hear that.

Looking back to the beginning of your publishing journey, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I bet a lot of people write books and assume (and hope) they will immediately land on bestseller lists. But nowadays, anyone writing a book is joining an exceptionally crowded pool of other writers who all assume (and hope) that they will become the next big thing. I knew my cookbook could be a tough sell, since it is definitely a niche product. This question sounds like I should offer some advice, so here it is: keep your expectations low and stop checking on your Amazon status. And really work on developing patience, especially if you’re using a publisher or agent. I know more now about patience and keeping low expectations. That might sound kind of sad, but it’s realistic.

What’s on your to-read pile?
Well, I’ve always got my bookcase filled with items from my college life that I intend to re-read. This would include works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Then I have all the Tolkien books that were edited by his son—that would be an enormous time commitment. For current to-read books I have The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and the latest installment in the Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was book one). I am currently reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s shocking to me how many books I have collected and never gotten around to reading but still intend to some day. I also like to re-read various series. Besides The Lord of the Rings, I love the Harry Potter series.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I plan to write four more cookbooks in the Cooking for Halflings & Monsters series. That’s a grand goal, but I might be able to achieve it. The next book will be Cooking for Halflings & Monsters: A Year of Comfy, Cozy Soups, Stews, and Chilis. This will include 52 recipes for soups, stews, and chilis (obviously…) as well as 13 recipes for various carbohydrate accompaniments. I’m hoping for a release date of October 31, 2019. I guess I work slowly, but a lot of testing is involved in recipe development. I also spend time enjoying life, my family, my grandchildren. Writing is not a full-time job for me, and I’m grateful it doesn’t have to be.

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My Mother, a Girl with a Star-Spangled Heart

PVT Audrey Salerno, Camp Lee, Virginia, 1949

At some point in the early 1960s, a boy on the playground yelled at me, “Your mother wears combat boots.” I don’t remember what prompted such a remark. If it was meant as an insult, I didn’t take it as one.* My mother served in the Army before I was born, so I reasoned she could have worn combat boots. I put it out of my mind at the time and returned to more important matters, like showing off my Outer Limits trading cards or admiring someone else’s Rat Fink ring. I ignored that child’s remark for the same reason I ignored those who called me an Army brat: my mother had taught me to pick my battles.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking more and more about my mom. Audrey Agnes Salerno was born in 1927 in Peoria, Illinois to an Italian-immigrant father and an Irish-American mother. She was taught to love babies and food and how to hunt four-leaf clovers—all of which she passed on to me. She was the wisest person I’ve ever known, and I thought I’d take advantage of internet immortality to share a little of what I learned from her.

Audrey Salerno, goat and wagon courtesy of a traveling photographer, 1932

Find a Reason to Laugh
My mom laughed a lot and taught my siblings and me to do the same. She often said, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,” and so we learned to laugh at ourselves as well. When a traveling photographer came to my grandma’s door one summer day, he snapped a photo of my 4-year-old mother wearing a somewhat sly expression. She was probably planning her next practical joke—a talent she carried into her adult years.

Audrey Salerno, 3rd grade, Peoria, Illinois, circa 1936

Read and Imagine
As a child, Mom often jumped off her porch roof to strengthen her arms for flying. This was the kind of active imagination she encouraged in her own children (but the pursuit of flight was, oddly, discouraged). With her guidance, I could read by the time I was four years old. She filled our home, our birthday presents, and our Christmas stockings with books. And a gift of a secondhand manual typewriter bridged the gap between my imagination and the stories waiting to flow from my fingertips.


Audrey Salerno, 12 years old

Be Grateful
The Great Depression was a great equalizer. Every country in the world was affected by it. The Salerno’s had it better than some in the 1930s, living in a mortgage-free house (built by my great-grandfather) and with a yard big enough to grow fist-sized tomatoes and multi-colored bell peppers. Still, times were tough; even though she was hungry, my mom couldn’t eat dinner the night her pet rabbit was served in a stew. When she had her own children, she made sure we had warm coats in the winter and shoes that fit (and always—always—had food on the table). Because of her I learned to be resourceful and to never waste a crumb of anything.

Audrey Salerno, circa 1943


Hold Your Tongue and Your Temper
Mom taught us the importance of our words and how they affect others. She didn’t gossip, wouldn’t allow a hint of it in the house, and she lived by the rule, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Regarding cussing, she believed we have so many better, and more ladylike, words to choose from in the English language. You would think with all that crazy Irish-Italian blood running through her veins she would have been hot-headed, but she held her temper like no one else could. She was also an expert at holding a secret. I was a teenager before she let slip she never received a high school diploma.

Audrey Salerno, Peoria Journal/Star, circa 1947

Believe in Yourself
She was 16 years old in 1944 when the world was at war. She grew tired of spending her days in classrooms and watching life pass her by. Quitting school seemed the right thing to do. Shy and introverted, she still believed she could do anything she put her mind to. Though she had no skills, she landed a job as a clerk with the Peoria Journal/Star.

Audrey Salerno by Mort Greene

It wasn’t long before the newspaper’s cartoonist Mort Greene became enamored of her, evidenced by gifts of hand-drawn cards, poetry, candy, and flowers. Other women her age might have jumped at the chance of romance, but my mom had set her mind on a wiser path.

Learn From Your Mistakes
She enrolled in school again, and by the end of 1948 she had received a General Education Development (GED) certificate from Manual Training High School. The war was over by then, but patriotism still ran high. In downtown Peoria, Women’s Army Corps (WAC) posters asked, “Are you a girl with a Star-Spangled heart?” She enlisted in 1949, at the age of 21, and went to stenographer’s school.

PVT Audrey Salerno, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1950

Follow Your Heart
My mom had many suitors in the Army, but it was my dad’s sense of humor that won her over. Within a year of enlisting she had fallen in love with that young Sergeant in the Signal Corps. At the time, women couldn’t stay in the military after getting married, so PFC Audrey A. Salerno received an honorable discharge three days after the ceremony. Some would bristle at that now, but my mom knew her heart and it was the right choice for her.

The Highest Calling
A few days before my mother’s death at the age of 58, I thanked her for being a wonderful mom and asked if she ever regretted giving up her future to raise us. She told me she considered it an honor to be a mother, and there was nothing else she would rather have spent her life doing. Of all the things she taught me by example, learning the importance of responsibility and sacrifice has served me the best (and the most often) over the years.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who give so much and make the world a shinier, more loving place.

What lessons did you learn from your mom? If any of you had a mother in the military, I’d love to hear her story.

*As it turns out, that child was trying to insult me, but I like to think he was just passing on what he heard someone else say and had no idea what it meant. says this about that playground taunt: During WWII, prostitutes who followed the troops around, sometimes wore army boots or combat boots.

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Posted in Musings

Hanging on to Story

Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story tells us what to hang on to. ~ Lisa Cron

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Posted in Quotes
All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

CampNaNoWriMo Winners Badges Apr_Jul 2015
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