Kindle Vella Update

black letter blocks on yellow background
Photo by Thirdman on

Introducing – The Winnowing

The first episodes of my new Kindle Vella seris have made it through my writer’s group and I’m revising them now. The story is good (IMHO), and I have plenty of twists and turns planned to keep readers turning pages. I’m still not convinced Vella is a perfect fit for me, but I won’t know for sure until I try, right?

Anyway, I’m wading into this one week at a time. The story is outlined, I put a beat sheet together to keep my characters on track, and there is still a lot of room for discovery writing before the series is finished. I’m plantsing my way to the finish line one week at a time.

The Hits Start Early

Vella readers don’t have time to dawdle, and characters in this series don’t either. The first scene of the story goes from status quo to inciting incident as fast as I could manage while giving readers a chance to get an idea of who Hank porter, the main character is before unleashing pandemonium on the world (and Times Square). Each episode (or chapters for those of us whoe write novels) is a balancing act between action, character development, and plot progression. Each week will have all three elements but the proportions may not be consistent.

What is the Winnowing?

I’m so glad you asked, heading thingy. It’s a terrorist plot to remake the world (or at least the people of that world) into a magical utopia. Maybe a magical dystopia is more accurate, as the maestro behind the plot intends to rule the new world as a tyrant. But he has to get there first. Hank and a motely crew of would be resistance fighters are the only people who stand a chance of stopping the plot.

So once the first episode goes live, I’ll post a link here on the site to make reading it easier. Vella is notoriously difficult to navigate, so I want to make the process as simple as possible. This is one of the main worries I have about trying the platform out. But you can’t make omlettes without cracking eggs – or something. Stay tuned for more updates and a release date.

Kindle Vella – My First Attempt

black tablet computer on brown wooden table

So, I’ve spent a lot of time working on short stories over the past couple of years. Some are arguably better than others, but this spring I found Kindle Vella. It is a tiny new platform on Amazon that is designed especially for short stories. I thought, “What a perfect fit.”

So I have concocted a short story series to try my hand at their episodic short story format. I have my reservations about the process, but what the Hell. Here goes nothing. You can follow along if you like, or just catch a few highlights of my experiment here. I have a solid outline and the first few episodes ready for beta reading. Wish me luck.

The Story…

Set in an ordinary world, much like ours, but beneath the surface magic has been simmering for hundreds of years. Before the story begins, a group of shadowy figures have opened the floodgates for magic to return. In the first Episode readers will meet one of these shadowy figures, the Thresher, who unleashes a sinister plot in New York City. Pandemonium ensues…

Readers will also meet Hank, a happy go lucky aspiring actor. He spends his days auditioning and looking for behind the scenes work on Broadway, and his nights waiting tables to pay the bills. Hank is front and center when the Thresher begins his diabolical plot, which will prove to be a blessing or a curse from Hank’s perspective.

Once I have the story live on Kindle Vella, I’ll put a link up so the story is easy to find. In the meantime, I’m still writing. I hope, you are, too (if that’s your thing).

Tom Petty was right…

photo of brown labrador retriever sitting in front of driveway

The waiting is the hardest part.

I haven’t posted here in a while, but I have been busy! I’ve written a new Jack story and started a new short story series. But I’ve done all that to keep my mind occupied while I wait for word back from a writing program and retreat I signed up for in January. Its only been two weeks, and I won’t get an answer back until April. Not knowing is driving me a bit crazier than usual. I’m a writer, so some crazy is normal for me, but this is ridiculous.

My newest story is set in an inconspicuous suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. It revolves around Hannah Davidson, a medical research grad student who has come to stay with her mother and grandfather for the summer. The troubled son of a wealthy family takes an unhealthy interest in her, and the result sets more in motion than Hannah can handle. I enjoy remodeling real world settings into fictional universes, and giving details and back story to Angel’s Landing has been no different.

I won’t spoil the read for anyone, but I will say not everyone or everything is as it seems in the small town and countryside of this new story. Somethings will even change right before Hannah’s unbelieving eyes. Stay tuned here and I’ll share more later. Thanks for sticking around while I wait for news about my application.

Yes, it’s still winter…

flower sprout from the ice covered ground

But spring fever has struck me earlier than normal this year!

I have so many projects in motion right now. I’ve finished a fourth jack story, and I’m so pumped with how the series is coming along. I have the manuscript for Fantastic America out again (fingers crossed). And I’m applying to the Veterans Writers project, which is for screenwriting (something I’ve been studying since last Summer). All of that and I keep coming up with new premises for the story I’ll tackle next.

I didn’t intend for this to be an update post, but it turns out that is where this is going. I have an idea bumping around for a writing craft post for next week, so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested. In the meantime – keep writing!

Writing prompts, contests, and submissions.

black and white browsing business coffee

Writing is more than a hobby for me, and I spend a lot of time putting words on the page. So far, none of that has translated into paid work, but I have placed in some writing competitions and broadened the scope of my writing. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is by tackling writing prompts.

The world of Torthal, the Crossroads series, and my current Jack story (on submission with magazines right now) are all products of writing prompts. Prompts take me out of my comfort zone, allow me to explore ideas I might not otherwise approach, and give me permission to imagine beyond the limits I normally impose on myself. All of these are great ways to expand my writing, but they also do the one other thing I encourage other writers to do. Write.

Boredom with a given idea or character can set in and stunt my desire to write, but a new prompt opens up a new world to explore. That kind of open ended potential really kicks my creative process into high gear. So that has been a powerful lesson for me over the summer, pushing my boundaries and staying in the chair.

July and a new Jack story…

Jack and Clarity.

jack daniels whiskey bottle with neon lights behind

Jack stories started in Britain and migrated to America with the colonists. They are short stories (or nursery rhymes) centered on the titular character, Jack. You may know Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, and Jack be Nimble, or more esoteric tales like Jack the Giantkiller. American versions of these tales and rhymes exist too, where Jack consistently beats obstacles his brothers Tom and Will are unable to overcome.

I’ve added my take to the character of Jack and given him some new obstacles to overcome. The premise is similar, Jack is a regular guy who encounters decidedly unusual situations and characters. His wit, his compassion, and in this case, his employer allow him to triumph over seemingly impossible odds. Anyway, that is where I’m starting off, I’ll keep you up to date with where Jack’s stories lead me.

Writing my truth…

Silence isn’t always golden…

For me, writing fiction wasn’t taught, it’s something I’m learning. It’s an ongoing process of revision, trial and error – in fact, too many errors. While I’m sure there are other paths out there, in my experience, the best thing any teacher ever did for my writing was get out of the way, and let me stumble along to the finish line.

The American educational system, such as it is, doesn’t excel at teaching new writers. They may be good at the mechanical aspects of grammar, they are even good at curating good books to read, but building worlds populated by original characters is beyond the scope of any class I ever sat through, including creative writing classes.

I’m sure there are many fine MFA programs out there that could have made a difference in my development. That was not my path, and I can’t speak to that. What I can say as one of the, botched and bungled” writers without that background is that I have learned to write without it. The torture I endured on my path was all self-inflicted, and it left marks I still carry in my prose.

 Writing what’s on my mind, even when it’s unpopular.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with writing what’s on my mind. Not my imagination, but my personal opinion. The characters I breathe life into are a reflection of me, but they seldom share my opinions to any great degree. Even the most noble or heroic thoughts in my stories are lofty ideals that I’d hope to embrace if the situation arose.

But that isn’t what I’m getting at. An outlook on life is one thing, choices in the heat of the moment are another, but cherished opinions unchallenged by time and circumstance are where most humans live. How I feel about race, sex, and creed are vital parts of who I am. I don’t write about any of them.

Or at least, I don’t go out of my way to share that. I should though, even if my opinions aren’t especially controversial. Not that every story needs every bit of who I am in it, but someone who reads one of my stories should have a good idea of where I stand. Up until now, I’ve used the iceberg method to imply my opinions. Avoiding expressing my opinions to avoid offense is itself offensive. I have to stand for what I believe in, and it should show on the page.

A lesson from Huckleberry Finn

When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, I’d recently moved from North Carolina to Iowa. Scenes and subjects in the story felt markedly different to me than the other kids in my class. That didn’t stop me from pointing out those differences, and I hope everyone around me benefitted in some way from hearing a different perspective.

Writing now, in light of memories like Huck Finn, has taken on a more urgent meaning. The subjects I want to tackle in my work are more complex, and those nuances weren’t something I felt confident I had the skill to articulate. But I can’t wait forever to write uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, writing them out helps me untangle my emotions and express my opinions more accurately. No matter what those opinions may be.

Words can make a difference!

On smaller US Navy ships, commissioned officers eat their meals in a wardroom, senior enlisted officers eat in the Chief’s mess, while everyone else eats in a common messdeck. The last ship I served on, the USS Connolly, was no different. But one day, a few sailors decided to carve out a section of seating in the messdecks that only paygrade E-6 could sit at. They called it the First Class mess, and wouldn’t let anyone else sit there.

This didn’t go over well with me. So, I wrote a satirical story about the grumpy old men who wanted to sit alone. One of my friends thought the story was better than I did, and passed out a few copies, one of which went under the Captain’s door. He also didn’t think much of the arrangements and summarily canceled the First Class mess citing my story while he made the announcement to the crew.

I should have kept that grumpy lesson in mind.

Since I got serious about writing I’ve concentrated on world building, memorable characters, and craft (too often leaving craft for last). Along the way, while developing my unique voice, I decided on more than one occasion to avoid topics that were controversial. Limiting any need to address ideas that might alienate my fledgling audience. That sounds foolish even as I write it out. That voice on the page isn’t authentic if I avoid controversy for fear of offending people.

Not writing what I believe drained some of the life from my writing. Learning to include my opinion, even if it’s unpopular, only aids my clarity and composition. I’m the only voice like mine in the wilderness, stifling it hurts me and my tribe as they search for a voice that resonates with them. It’s easy to forget others will read my work and be inspired (or revolted) by what they read. Both are legitimate responses and writing to limit the one is a detriment to the other.

I’m doing my best to write my truth, but it might be messy, just like life.

An update on “Chantrelle”

An angel gone too soon…

In December I entered a short story I called “Chantrelle” into the Vocal+ Fiction Awards competition. Today I learned that out of over 13,000 entries, my story was chosen as a finalist! Even if I’m not selected to win my category, I already feel like I’ve won. Impostor syndrome can eat away at a writer’s confidence, and too often the only cure is outside encouragement.

Friends and family can tell me how wonderful my words are on the page. But until you hear that from other writers and editors, that vacuum is fertile soil for doubt to grow. Chantrelle reaching the finalist round in this competition has been confirmation that my efforts at improving my craft have paid off. I took the time to thank my critique group for showing me areas I could improve, so that I don’t continue to repeat the same novice mistakes.

If you’ve read “Chantrelle” or Jerry Farmer’s story “Bridgewater Bingo” on Vocal, I sincerely thank you. If you’d like to check either one out I’ve included the links above. My plan is to share more short stories on Vocal, and to shop others to magazines. My dad always said, “People love a winner.” So expect me to share my wins here as often as I can.

Why reading is (still) fundamental.

couple reading a book together

Reading is a topic I should spend more time with on this blog, but too often, I put more emphasis on writing. As important as honing my craft may be, reading plays a huge role in my creative process. Reading not only informs me, it guides my inner editor, and provides the framework for every writing project I undertake. I’ll try to keep this brief but here are three points to consider.

Reading shows me what other writers do.

That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what I see (although it can creep into my thought process). It does mean that I’m informed about my genre, and how other writers approach topics that I will write about. Sometimes other authors show me a great way to share an idea, describe a scene, or portray a character. I’ll take all the help I can get.

Reading is like working out for my brain. I exercise neurons by consuming information. Whether that is a copy of Critias & Timaeus, poems by Bronte, or the rambling narrative of On Writing, my writing will improve by feeding my brain a variety of subjects. Too often, I’ve see (or have been guilty of) staying in the comfort zone of my preferred genre. I wouldn’t understand with nearly as much depth or context without other writer’s works to give me context.

Reading shows me what not to do.

Equally important, other authors can show me things that don’t work. This is as true when I read outside of my genre (often even more so) than when I read the kinds of stories I write. Because craft transcends the type of story an author tells (or shows), it can be easier to see flaws (and successes) when I read a romance story, a detective thriller, or passages from a memoir.

A stumble in bringing a novel to conclusion, missed opportunities in a narrative, or an unsatisfying character arc are easier for me to see in someone else’s writing. In general, I’m too close to my work to be objective about it. I suppose that’s why the Gods invented critique groups. A fresh set of eyes has saved me from myself more times than I can count.

Reading fills my creative well with possibility.

The most obvious thing reading does is expand my horizons. I can see beyond what I can imagine through the works of other authors. There may not be any new thing under the sun, but I have yet to see every old thing either. Reading is the only way to appreciate the vast conglomeration of history, literature, and works of art that came before me. My paltry addition to that mountain of the written word will likely be less than a footnote, but I can’t hope to achieve that without knowing something about my predecessors.

The other facet of that is the pure joy of finding voices that resonate with me. Thoreau, Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Strunk & White, and a thousand other voices that struck a chord with me live on in the words I string together. Without reading beyond my genre, no new chords can join the symphony in my mind. Just the thought of stilling those unheard voices fills me with sadness.

So read.

I may not write about it enough, but reading is just as crucial to writing as practicing foreshadowing, grounding your dialogue in the setting, or raising the stakes for your characters. Conflict is meaningless without context. One of the best ways I know to build those added layers is by being informed enough to weave them into my stories, whether by allusion or directly referencing works integral to modern literary culture.

Creativity is great, until it gets in the way of writing.

abstract colorful background of night star

One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was, “Write what you know.” Which is great advice, especially when you’re first learning how to write. Experience is a great teacher, and an authentic voice is impossible to craft without real knowledge of your subject matter. At the same time, I was a high school student. What I knew would hardly have made for entertaining stories.

Twenty years later, when I started to write science fiction and fantasy, I realized writing what you know is a double edged sword. I still try to write what I know, the relationships between people. How people act and react in different situations is equally important. But I use my imagination as much as I do my lived experience.

I write what I don’t know too.

I’ve never seen a dragon in real life, or watched an alien delegation sue for peace against a human adversary. But I have written about both. What I know has informed those scenes, but my creativity has to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. I couldn’t write speculative fiction without both imagination and experience.

The problem for me, is leaning too heavily into my creative impulse. I can (and have) spent hours (or days) developing a world for my story to occupy. Characters come to life based on the world I created. And the plot I outline is at least in part dictated by the world and characters who populate it. All of this is driven by creativity, but as I’ve said many times, creativity without substance is futile.

The circle is now complete…

The best stories, characters, and settings regardless of how original or creative they may be also feel real to the readers. The best way I know to do that is by crafting believable scenes with relatable characters. I use what I know to wrap the fantastic elements of my stories in terms my audience can identify immediately.

No matter how original or creative I feel my work may be, I also know there is no new thing under the sun. Twists and turns aside, stories follow patterns, and those patterns are timeless. I may invent a new character, scenario, or setting that is unique. But ultimately, some college student in a creative writing class could classify it with no help from me at all.

2021 in review:

times square new york

I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas, Hanukah and the like enjoyed yourselves. Here we are over two years into a pandemic. Who could’ve expected that? I could go on about how vaccines and boosters changed this year from last year, but I’ll try and stick to my writing instead. In 2021 I wrote a lot, even if my NaNoWriMo didn’t go the way I’d planned.

2021 started with a few short stories, and I’ve finished it with a few more. Speaking of short stories, if you haven’t read Chantrelle over on Vocal – please check it out! Chantrelle is in the running for the Vocal+ Fiction Awards, so a few reads (along with likes and subscribes if you’re so inclined) will go a long way in helping me out there.

Besides short stories, I also finished editing Fantastic America and did a lot of pitching and querying for it. Querying is a tough gig, but I hope I learned enough from the process to move my manuscripts to agents who will appreciate the stories I have to tell. Hope springs eternal, after all.

I also finished a personal challenge this year to write 365 consecutive posts here on my page. Even with a few bouts of illness, I was able to pull it off. The result has been infrequent posting ever since, but one of the challenges I’ll take on for 2022 is to post every week. Maybe twice a week if I have more to say.

Long story short (I seem to be writing more short stories than anything lately), I’m still writing. There are more writing contests coming up and I’m busy creating worlds, characters and plots for readers to enjoy in those. I’m definitely not where I’d hoped to be, but I’m not discouraged by that either. I have to keep learning and trying new things.

New Years is upon us, I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2022!

Quick update: I’m still writing!

classic close up draw expensive

NaNoWriMo is coming to an end, but my writing is far from over. I have so much to write, and with the holidays, so little time. Not having a schedule to keep to with this blog has been a big help. Although a year ago I was so hyper focused, that I couldn’t imagine the luxury being untethered would give me.

I have a bunch of short stories put together, and both Fantastic America and Midwestern Magicians to edit. With all that on my plate and a house full of grandkids, the work is going slowly, but it is still going. See you in the funny pages- Happy Holidays!

How to use history as a guide in writing fiction.

History can be a great tool for writing fiction. You can base settings, characters, and events on historical locations, figures, and circumstances. Alternatively, you can use those same ideas to invent places, people, and episodes. Some of the best stories I’ve ever read blend historical themes (even inaccurate ones) with the imagination of an author.

My debut novel, Fantastic America, uses history from all over the world to inform the characters of dangers they may face. Folklore, written historical accounts, and oral traditions can provide writers with a rich source of material. This material makes worlds that are at once familiar and strangely different from the world we know come to life.

Even without using a recognizable culture, or direct events from history, authors create living, breathing cultures and plots by applying history to other settings. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is essentially, the War of the Roses with fantastic elements. Martin chose the characters and events, but the epic fight to obtain the throne is history rewritten.

Art, architecture, and geography also bring depth to stories. Basing those on historical counterparts simplifies a writer’s task to describe settings and other details. Expand, minimize, or extrapolate from history whatever your story needs. Myths, legends, and cultural beliefs, real or imagined can add more layers to the world an author builds.

I’ve built dozens of worlds with a blend of real and imagined inspirations. My story dictates some of my choices, others are only aesthetic in nature. What works for me may not work for anyone else. Finding what fires your imagination, what fits into your work, and what entertains your audience is far more important than matching (or exceeding) what another author has done before.

How Google Earth helps me write…

planet earth

A while back I mentioned maps helping my writing process. When I was younger, I loved pouring over maps. I even covered my walls in maps of places I wanted to visit someday. I still have map books to refer to in a pinch, but that is no longer my go to source.

For years I used MapQuest for planning trips. One day, in the earliest iteration of what would become Fantastic America, I needed a map. For whatever reason, instead of MQ, I stumbled onto Google Earth, and I fell in love right away. I use it extensively in planning, research, and during my writing process.

This isn’t a commercial for the program, but I am going to highlight how I use it. For starters, I can pin locations like a real old fashioned wall map. I can pin point some place in the real world or overlay a location I’ve invented for the story. It even lets me add notes to the pin so I don’t have to remember every detail I had in mind (My memory needs all the help it can get).

Speaking of overlays, I can throw highlighted shapes over the terrain. This has been especially valuable when I had an area of effect to visualize or a large structure that doesn’t exist in the real world. When matched with the topographical features of the terrain overlays are even more helpful.

The Streetview function had been even more useful. With it, I can virtually visit just about any place I need to see at ground level. It drops me into cities, parks, archeological sites and more. Even if the detail isn’t great, I get enough information to search other sources or cobble together a decent impression of the location.

A significant amount of my novels take place in the recent past. Google Earth has me covered! I can look back at many locations at least into the 1980’s with supplemental Landsat or aerial photography. In some cases there is even street level data from earlier Google mapping efforts.

The last feature I’ll mention is the wide variety of pictures, panoramas, and location tags the program hosts for context. Tourists, academics, and professional photographers have plastered high traffic locations with great views of their visits. Businesses, museums, and points of interest have location tags that give me a feel for whole neighborhoods.

Best of all, from my perspective, all of this detail is free. For an author on a budget, or someone who finds travel difficult (me on both accounts), a virtual trip makes the most sense. I don’t know if this will help anyone, but the few times I’ve brought it up around other authors, they found the program extremely useful. I hope you do, too!

Spring is my second favorite season…

pink petaled flowers closeup photo

I love the sense of rebirth as plants come back to life, blushes of color pop up everywhere you look. Seeing people out enjoying warmer weather after a long cold winter makes me smile. Getting out of my house to enjoy the growth and beauty of the world brings me joy, too.

Spring is not my favorite season, although there is plenty to like. Putting away winter coats and clothes, spring cleaning to clear out the house, and enjoying the migration of birds and butterflies. My house sits on the pathway for Monarch butterflies every year.

Still there are things I don’t like, the weather in Spring is rainy. That makes my dogs paws muddy. Which in turn leads to a lot of washing clothes and bedding. Along with more sweeping and mopping than I’ve done since I was in the navy. Springing forward to daylight savings time is annoying, but I’ve dealt with it all my life.

Summer is my favorite season. Life thrives all around us. The weather is less rainy and even when it pours, the rain isn’t always cold. The days are long and the nights are warm. We have a lot of cook outs and bonfires. Swimming is a big past time in our backyard. As is our annual Fourth of July party, which we’ve held even during the pandemic.

So I’m happy to see Spring, but I long for Summer all year. The heat doesn’t bother me, but sometimes the humidity catches me off guard. I’d still rather be warm than cold. So happy Spring to you all, but know I’ll be a little happier still when Summer arrives.

Marvel dropped a truth bomb…

cutouts of letters

I’ve been a Marvel comics fan since I’ve been able to turn the pages without tearing them. Certainly before I could read. I’m also a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Seeing characters and stories brought to life on the silver screen has made me smile more than a few times. WandaVision blew my mind during it’s 9 episode run, and I am writing a blog post for that series too.

What I want to address, and I haven’t seen anyone else comment on this yet, is a scene from the Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This is a full on spoiler alert for episode two. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, skip the rest of this post. With that warning out of the way…

Sam and Bucky visit the first black Captain America, Isaiah Bradley. I won’t go into a lot of details about Isaiah, that could be a whole blog post by itself. I will say that his story is tragic from any perspective and a commentary on how the U.S. Government and military have treated African Americans. The visit does not go well. Sam and Bucky end up arguing in the street (it is intentionally not even much of an argument).

Here comes the truth bomb. While they are (heatedly) talking, Baltimore police show up. A black man and a white man are out in public (peacefully) disagreeing. The police immediately ask the white man if the black man is bothering him. Bucky is outraged (for us) that the cop doesn’t recognize Sam. Then the first cop’s partner whispers their identities in his ear. Credit to the actor, he does a spot on interpretation of a man who realizes his mistake too late.

Neither Sam nor Bucky are fazed by this. They don’t go on a rant about racial profiling or police assumptions about race in community policing. The commentary is all for the audience. We see a rare moment where super-heroics meets a real world scenario that all too often ends in injustice.

The scene is brief and ends with a warrant issued for Bucky. In a full reversal, the white man is arrested. A subtle means of turning the situation on its head. The rest of the episode, I couldn’t help but return to those few seconds. We got to see, through the lens of the main characters, an unexpected scenario of inequality.

Marvel has a history of exploring injustice and inequality in the comics. This may be one of the first times I’ve seen the MCU tackle this subject. Even on the small screen. Even without fight scenes, super powers or explosions, this truth bomb will keep me coming back for more. I only hope I can address injustice and inequality with such nuanced, realistic portrayals.

Familiars don’t work quite the way you might think…

photography of cat at full moon

Some traditions identify familiar spirits who aid witches and warlocks (among others) to practice their craft. Usually, these helpers take the form of an animal. In Europe this was often a black cat. Familiars in Fantastic America and Midwestern Magicians do not follow this pattern exactly.

Familiars in the Magic Unleashed series are people with an affinity to magic but who are unable to perform spellwork. Instead, familiars are inexorably drawn to wizards with whom their affinity aligns. Each school or kind of magic has a ritual to empower familiars. This also links them to the wizard they will serve. Familiars are not slaves, they retain free will, and can break the link to their wizard.

Life wizards create paladins, fierce protectors of life. Aqueous wizards create tritons, fast swimmers of the deep. Earth wizards create beastmasters, who link with and empower animals to aid their cause. Necromancers create minions, cold and dark enforcers. Chaos wizards create hellions, infernally strong disciples of destruction. Sorcerers create apprentices, their electrically charged defenders.

Arcanists use practical magic. They do not create familiars, but they do sometimes adopt a totem animal that embodies characteristics they admire.  The fox for its cunning, the owl for its wisdom, the raven for its intelligence, or the smart and lucky rabbit. These animals are all smaller and hardly menacing but can still outsmart and defeat their adversaries.

There is one other type of familiar that may account for some traditions associating animals with the role of helper. Animals from other realities are, in general, ill suited to life on Earth. Animals stranded here will seek out a wizard attuned to their home, if one is nearby. A wizard can help these animals survive if it is at all possible. In return, the animal can aid the wizard or simply keep them company as an exotic pet.

There aren’t many books I’ve read more than once…

There are plenty of movies I’ve watched dozens of times. Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably right up there with Star Wars, Empire and Jedi. Once I’ve read a book, I don’t feel the need to revisit it. I think it has to do with how connected I feel to the book.

They say, “The book is always better than the movie.” That feels true for me because I fill in all the pieces of the story with my imagination. No matter how true to the source material a movie is, a director can’t duplicate the stunning world I can create with my imagination. No actor’s performance, no matter how nuanced can capture the mental images I create when reading a story. It’s not even close.

So I guess, for me at least, I revisit movies to capture some of that magic a book gets right by omission. The author gives a reader enough broad strokes to build the world, and a few specific details for their characters, whatever the story needs to progress. The rest of the story should be in my mind anyway. The stories I love the most let me fill in the rest of the details as I read.

That may mean my Emerald City looks nothing like the movie sets, and my theft of the Enterprise from Spacedock looked nothing like Shatner’s heist. They are tiny vignettes of my imagination, inspired by words on a page. Each book I’ve read (usually only one time) has scenes like that, infinitely more real to me than the best film version. Seeing those scenes come to life on screen is exciting, but the internal scene is always better.

Family is more than shared blood.

sharing cherry tomatoes

Culturally humans tend to gather in ever larger groups. The core of this social arrangement starts with families. Families form clans, who form tribes, who form nations, who the historians tell us go on to found countries and so on. This has been the model for as long as I can remember in every social studies textbook I’ve read.

I don’t especially believe it though. My premise is pretty simple, although I may have some personal bias to believe otherwise. I think people today are pretty much the same as people five thousand years ago. Our science and technology may have changed, but people are still people. We act and react just like our ancestors did.

So here is my argument for families of choice rather than blood relatives as the basis for societies before recorded history. People find others they like and avoid people they don’t like. You can see this in kindergarten classes, college orientations, employees, churches, and even retirement homes. Family remains important of course, but close friends are often just as important.

This isn’t just a modern concept, or one especially true in America. I’ve traveled around the world enough to recognize families of choice when I see them. Life long friends come from all over, not just school chums either; neighbors, co-workers, and fellow hobby enthusiasts qualify here. Humans go out of our way to make connections beyond the family.

In my stories families of choice are implied, I don’t always make a big deal of the social structure, but it’s there. Friends are often the only support a character may have if family is unwilling or unable to provide a shoulder to cry on. This observation came to me from my experiences in life, but it is more real to me for having lived it.