4:55 AM

The irregular pattering on the leaves of the olive tree woke me. The breeze blew puffs of rain-sweetened air through the opening in the slider, filling the dark room.

I was lying on my side so I didn’t see any flash of lightning, but the thunder rolled across the sky from north to south and seemed like it might go on forever.

Finally, though, it faded. The rain picked up, and over its murmur, one of the owls who nests in the neighbor’s redwood tree hooted three times, soft and low.

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All About the Stakes

I recently finished the first draft of the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. The beginning was pretty good. I thought the end was pretty good too; the plot threads came together in something that looked like woven cloth rather than a snarled thicket. Unfortunately, that left the middle, which dragged and sagged. Worse, it was boring.

I had more exposition than I needed. This is largely what a first draft is for me — a way to write down everything everything I need, and then decide what the story needs. So yes, there was too much talking and summary writing, but the real problem with the middle was more fundamental. The characters in the middle section forget what the stakes were.

Well, that’s not fair. I forgot what their stakes were.

It seems silly to say “stakes matter,” because of course they do. But I guess I mean, they really do. They don’t have to be global or heroic. They have to grow organically from your character and be part of that character’s motivation.

In my case, the second part of the book follows Erin and Trevian (or, as I like to think of them, E&T), the MCs from Aluminum Leaves. They are on a quest to save Trevian’s world from an inter-dimensional invasion. Those seem like pretty big stakes. Erin, in particular, would probably have some strong opinions about the need to do this thing, shut down the portal, and stop the invasion force. You’d think, anyway. In the first draft, though, she spends more time leafing through old manuscripts from Trevian’s world and debating vocabulary with a local scholar.

Part of the problem is that the plot and the timeline require E&T to be stuck in one place for several days. What I’d missed about that was what kind of emotional toll it might take on Erin, and what she would say about the delays that slow down their immediate, necessary project.

I could say that I took it for granted that the reader would remember that the stakes were high, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I forgot that the stakes were high.

And by the way, if the reader cares more about the outcome than the character does, you’ve got a story problem on your hands.

On some level I knew the tension wasn’t right because I planned from the beginning to have a couple of outside attacks from folks trying to get the artifact. And those are needed for plot reasons, so they are still in there, but they did not substitute for the real tension the story needed. A second observation; if you have to drag in a lot of outside action to create the tension, once again you’ve probably got a story problem.

And here, I’m going to put something I saw on Writer Twitter the other day, and I can’t remember who said it, “Action isn’t tension. Action is the relief of tension.”

*

On the other end of the “stakes” continuum was Aideen, Trevian’s sister, who is back in Trevian’s home town. Aideen doesn’t know about inter-dimensional invasions, or inter-dimensional anythings. Her father had a near-fatal accident; suddenly she is on the verge of losing the family company. These are hardly global stakes, but somehow, I convinced people (my writers workshop, anyway) that they were real. Mainly, Aideen cared about these stakes, and the early chapters show her as a person who tries to do the right thing. It’s not like she’s J.R. Ewing, and the folks who want to take over the company are bad guys.

A lot of Aideen’s identity is wrapped up in the company, but so too is the well-being of her town. It’s not a big and flashy a goal as “saving the world from an invasion,” but it’s real.

*

What have I learned?

Don’t forget the stakes. Don’t let the character forget the stakes.

Make the stakes something that matter to the character, and make us see why they matter. Yes, making the cheer-squad in high school can be a goal that really raises the stakes for a character, if that desire reveals character.

If you’re feeling the need to throw in car bombs, random kidnap attempts, shootings, etc, your writer-mind might be telling you that you aren’t focused on the heart of the story; what drives your characters. (There might be an argument to be made that this doesn’t apply to thrillers– but I’m not convinced.)

Action is not a substitute for conflict, and it doesn’t increase the tension — it relieves it.

*

Now I’m going to go off and discover if I have correctly applied these insights to my own work! I spent a big chunk of time on the middle section earlier this week — now I’ll see if it paid off.

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Epix’s Pennyworth is Overpriced

Spouse and I watched some free shows from the premium cable channels during Watchathon. One series we watched was Epix’s fantasy Pennyworth.

I didn’t know the show was based on a DC comic book set in an alternate Britain. I thought, from the previews, that this would be Batman’s Butler; the Early Years. But no.

Alfred Pennyworth, former army-boy, SAS trained, is never going to be a butler. At first, he wants to start a security firm with his two army-buds, Dave-Boy and Baz. Soon, though, Alfred (or Alfie) is drawing on his SAS-honed skills to help CIA operative Thomas Wayne (who is, I guess, not Bruce Wayne’s father in this world) and the No Name Group, one of two minority parties struggling against Britain’s corrupt administration.

At or around Episode 5, Alfie’s fiance Emse is stalked and killed by someone with a grudge against Alfie. In other words, she is fridged. Fridging occurs when writers introduce a female character solely to have a villain murder her, usually in a horrible way, so that the male protagonist will suffer. Esme’s murder ticks every single box for “fridging,” and with it, Pennyworth pivots from being a mildly interesting action show to a white-male-power-fantasy delivery system.

Alfie can kill anyone he wants, he can hurt anyone he wants, be an asshole all he wants, because he’s grieving. The social consequences that affect everyone else don’t apply to Alfie. In the first or second episode we see lawbreakers hanged and eviscerated — when Alfie fatally shoots two people in full view of about six police, he gets seven years, and is immediately sprung to commit an assassination. Which he doesn’t do, because he doesn’t want to, but his sentence is commuted anyway because he saves the Queen who has been abducted.

The story has no moral code, nor even a code of conduct. Alfie can do whatever he wants, and if he wants to do it, it’s… well, not good (they don’t go that far) but acceptable.

The world through which Alfie strides, drinking, sulking and killing, is thicker than tissue, but not much. It’s about the consistency of cardboard, like stage sets drawn by children and propped up on chairs. The two minority political parties are socialist and fascist, both equally corrupt at the top. The government is corrupt… Yawn. This post-WWII (maybe?) world is not explained. The story tosses in notorious British celebrities with little or no explanation — there’s an undertaker named John Ripper (get it?) and Aleister Crowley is less Satanic and more Satanically annoying. I mean, he does roofie a woman and probably rape her (we don’t see it), but onscreen he’s just a smug entitled jerk.

A bright spot in this disappointment is Alfie’s mother, who is a great character beautifully played by Dorothy Atkinson.

Watchathon offered 10 of Season One’s 13 episodes. I watched the ninth and tenth on a Sunday, with an excellent vodka tonic; fresh lime juice, Spirit Works Vodka and Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic. I can enthusiastically recommend the cocktail.






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Grimm

I’m re-watching Grimm, the old NBC urban fantasy series set in Portland, Oregon. It ran for six seasons, from 2011 through 2017. I’ve re-watched a few seasons before, but I can’t remember when I watched it straight through from start to finish.

Wikipedia describes the show as a fantasy police procedural, and that’s as good a description as any. They aren’t any worse at being cops than lots of other “straight” cop shows — I’m looking at you, Blue Bloods. The fantasy twist, of course, is that young detective Nick Burkhardt can suddenly see people who don’t look like, well, people. Some look like mammals — leopards, wolves, cats. Some look like reptiles (including dragons!) And some look like nightmare monsters. Nick soon discovers that he is a Grimm, one of an ancient human bloodline who can recognize the Wessen, humans who can morph, when threatened, into animal-like beings, and are the source of much human folk lore and fairy tales.

Every time I re-watch the show I decide there are new things I like, and I still dislike many of the things I disliked the first time around. The order of my favorite things changes each time I watch, though. Here’s my current list from things I like most to least.

Portland. Unlike other shows, Grimm was filmed in Portland. In fact, I discovered a charity because the cast and crew of Grimm did a fund-raising event for them and posted it on social media. The show likes Portland, and name-drops the various districts — and things like Voodoo Donuts.

The Ensemble. I have always loved the ensemble. Let’s face it, Nick is brave and handsome and everything, but in many ways he’s just not the sharpest knife in the drawer, ya know? Thank goodness he has a brilliant girlfriend Juliet, (more about her later); two super-smart and knowledgeable Wessen friends, Monroe and Rosalee, a street smart partner and a witty wise-cracking sergeant, or he would have been dead by Episode 2.

Monroe and Rosalee. I “ship” this couple. Honestly, Big Bad Wolf (blutbad) Monroe, who is vegetarian, a clock-maker who goes crazy with Halloween and Christmas decoration and does Pilates every day, and Clever Fox (fuchsbau) Rosalee, apothecary, herbalist and woman with a checkered past. This was one of the best romantic couples — no, the best romantic couple, on TV. Of course, the way of true loves runs fairly smoothly for them to provide a contrast for the terrible things that happen to Juliet just because she loves Nick. And Rosalee and Monroe have their differences. One key difference is, they try to work them out.

Bud the Beaver. Bud is a regular guy except he’s a Wessen beaver. This is one great comic character with a heart as big as Oregon.

Hank. Nick’s smart partner, played by Russel Hornsby, is awesome.

Girl Power. Okay, what is done to Juliet throughout the show is inexcuseable, but throughout, she is a strong, smart, independent woman. While Rosalee’s primary traits are honesty and compassion, she is no pushover either. Very often, the storyline is “Women, they get the job done.”

Captain Sean Reynard. He’s Nick’s captain. He’s a bad-guy! No, he’s a good… well, a not-so-bad guy! He’s a bad guy again! He’s an okay guy! He’s also like eight feet tall with green eyes and gravitas for forever, and really knows how to wear a suit, all of which are minimum qualifications to be a Royal, which is what he is, even though he’s illegitimate.

Easter Eggs. Only this time around did I realize that the episode number often shows up in an episode as an apartment or hotel room number. For instance, in Season 3, Episode 15, the perpetrator might be staying in Room 315. In my favorite wink, the end of Season Two (a two-parter), the medical examiner, dictating a report, says, “Report number 221 dash 222.”

There are things I didn’t like the first time I watched it, and I’ll never like. One of these is Juliet’s storyline. Juliet, who is a veterinarian, is a smart, tough, caring woman. From fairly early on, her story begins to run parallel to Nick’s. That could be good in many ways, but the show also lets Juliet and Sergeant Wu carry the consequences for Nick’s bad choices. The show was never fair to Juliet’s character.

“But we can’t tell (X) about Wessen or they’ll freak out!” As the story unfolds, first Hank, then Juliet and ultimately Sergeant Wu catch a glimpse of the Wessen world. In every case, Nick delays and delays telling them the truth. In a couple of cases Monroe and Rosalee advise him not to share, for the absolute weakest of reasons. This is meant to create tension. Instead, it just creates amazing impatience on the part of the viewer, and makes Nick look petty, controlling and, once again, stupid.

Adalind. Hated Adalind when I first watched. Still hate her. This is no knock on Claire Coffee, the gifted actor who plays the perky blond hexenbiest/lawyer. Much like Sean Reynard, Adalind plays by her own rules which moves her on the character meter from Bad to Not So Bad to Really Bad to Kind of Okay. I never bought Not So Bad or Kind of Okay. Never have and never will.

Wessen stereotyping. Okay, so this is picky… but. In order to help the viewers, the showrunners have certain criminal wessen return. Klaustreiks, for instance (or Klaustrikes?) are bad alley-cat type Wessen. In six seasons we see two. They are both bullies who exploit women. Blutbaden get a little more diversity since Monroe is mellow and he has a couple of mellower wolf friends. Some kind of reptilian creatures are street-gang low-lifes in several episodes. All the beavers we meet are crafty (in the sense of being builders, engineers and tinkerers), helpful, loquacious and nervy. Really, less stereotyping of the Wessen community, please!

Years later, I am still enjoying the rewatch of the show. Grimm continues to entertain!




















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The Way We Live Now #4

The Sonoma County Emergency Services home page has daily information on the state of the coronavirus and Covid in Sonoma County. Clearly this page is a collaboration between Sonoma County Department of Health Services and the Office of Emergency Services.

Over the past few weeks, checking it has become part of my morning ritual, but only recently did I delve into the Dashboard, especially the graphs.

They are so visual and simple that even I can understand them, which is saying something because I’m someone whose eyes start to glaze over after the third chart in a presentation.

Check them out.

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Not All Pirates Are Cool

Self-published writer John van Stry recently prevailed in a lawsuit against a man named Travis McCrea, who was the founder and leader of the Canadian Pirate Party. He was, and maybe still is, part of the USA branch of the Kopimist Church. McCrea is a pirate and proud of it. He doesn’t have a parrot on his shoulder and go around saying, “Aharr, matey.” (Or maybe he does, I don’t know.) No. He posts and disseminates the works of others without permission or payment to them, and makes a profit from it.

Van Stry will not get much money from the suit, but McCrea is ordered to pay the legal expenses, and van Stry hired an actual legal team, so at least he doesn’t have that cost to contend with.

McCrea ran a site called eBook.bike (which appears to be gone or the name of a different site now). He uploaded ebooks. It seems like he offered some of them for free, but on the other hand he said repeatedly and loudly that he made $300,000/year off the site, so he was charging for something and those books were part of the draw. For many, if not all, of the books on the site, he did not ask the authors if he could post, he didn’t pay them, and he never notified them. Van Stry found out about it when a fan told him.

McCrea’s defense in the lawsuit was that he met the Digital Millenial Copyright Act (DMCA’s) “safe harbor” definition. The “safe harbor” allows archive sites, etc, to store intellectual properties and distribute them at the direction of the copyright owner. To qualify as a “safe harbor,” you have to designate an agent and register with the Office of Copyright. Oh, and you have to actually do the thing in the description. McCrea had done none of those things, a fact the judge commented on almost immediately.

McCrea disregarded several contacts from van Stry and his lawyers, in which they requested he take the pirated work down from the site. These included the specific DMCA complaint form.

He also claimed that doing this was “helping writers.” I think this is his version of the poisonous and ubiquitous, “I’m giving you exposure” argument. He wasn’t helping. He was exploiting. What he did was bad in general; this part offends me the most deeply.


It’s unlikely that McCrea would take the steps to become a “safe harbor” in the first place, because he’s against copyright. First as a member of the Pirate Party and then just as an individual, McCrea says he believes that information should be free. In practice, for him this means a writer somewhere should work really hard, maybe for years, on a work, and then post it, and McCrea should take it and make money off of it. Another common English word for that is “stealing.”

The Kopimist Church, which McCrea has mentioned, is a church formed in Sweden and recognized there as a religious organization, that says that “file-sharing” is a sacred act. It took them three tries to meet the qualifications for being a church, and one hurdle apparently was that churches have some kind of ritual or ceremony. They finally came up with one in which they pass around photocopied information. (I think I’d rather explore the Creative Commons group than hangout with the Kopimist folks, thanks.)


I’m all for ease in genuine file-sharing, and ease and access to the internet and the ability to look at data – data that should be available to me. (Somewhat ironically, McCrea also thinks that online privacy should be protected. I guess he means for him.) However, the active verb in “file-sharing” is “sharing,” with its connotation (or, you know, actual meaning) of consent.

Anyway, I’m glad van Stry had the resources to be able to do this. McCrea’s taunting of the people he was stealing from – “Well, just sue me then!”—was calculated and assumed, correctly, that most of the writers he ripped off couldn’t afford to do that. Van Stry could.

Most of the systems for paying artists and writers suck, and yes, many entities in the writing-to-publication pipeline are predatory. Royalties are ridiculous. An advance never comes close to reflecting the amount of work that’s gone into a project. This is why people are experimenting with other models. Self-publishing is one. Things like Patreon or Curious Fictions, where you “sponsor” a creator whose work you like, are another. And I’m for more open models, where work gets shared easily… as long as that is done with knowledge, consent and participation, and doesn’t rip some parties off so that others can profit. I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea how to do that.

McCrea is not gone, and probably his next scheme will be to steal work from behind the veil of the Kopimist Church. Stay tuned.

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Killing Eve, Season Three

BBC’s weird, wonderful cat-and-mouse thriller-romance-comedy Killing Eve is back for Season Three. Every season I wonder how they are going to keep this over-the-top series going and every season they manage.

When you talk about Killing Eve, you have to talk about Sandra Oh, who plays former MI6 analyst Eve, and Jamie Comer, who plays assassin-and-fashionista Villanelle. Villanelle works for a global crime organization called The Twelve. We knew pretty early on that Killing Eve wasn’t a “serious” thriller, basically after we see Villanelle’s first kill. (In the second episode of Season Three, she kills two people with a piano tuning fork.) Clearly, The Twelve’s murders represent a political statement; in Villanelle’s hands they are also a fashion statement or an artistic one. Eve Polasko is a driven analyst who identifies a female assassin and zeroes in on Villanelle, but then they meet and the mutual obsession becomes something more.

Sandra Oh and Jamie Comer inhabit these roles and play them each with a different flavor of to-the-hilt and over-the-top commitment. It’s impossible to look away from these two when they are on the screen together, and pretty hand to look away when either on them is on by herself. To focus only on them would be to ignore a large part of what makes this weird show work, and that’s the ensemble. If Eve’s former boss Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), her husband Niko (Owen MacDonald) or Villanelle’s father-figure handler Konstantin (Kim Bodia) were played by anyone else, or written an differently, it’s hard to believe this show would work at all.

This season Villanelle has a new handler, Dasha (Dame Harriet Walter). I’m tempted to write that as “handler” because I’m not 100% convinced, yet, that Dasha really works for The Twelve. Or maybe she does, but her personal animosity for Villanelle adds a fillip of tension to an already complex relationship.

Certain plot-beats are predictable — usually, like who among the folks we’ve come to know and love are going to die — but the writing scene by scene is unpredictable, especially when the scene features Villanelle. The writing is brilliant, and I noticed a lot of writers are women, which might be why characters like Eve, Villanelle, Carolyn and Dasha are so vividly rendered on the screen.

The show is violent, weird as hell and makes no sense, and I love every single second of it. I’m so glad Season Three is airing!






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Debbie Downer and the Dystopian Library Scenario

I’m coming at this article with an emotional reaction that is out of proportion to the actual text, and I’m reacting to context, because this column ran in Publishers Weekly. I’ve read the article twice now, and I’m still twitching about it, but I want it clear that this reaction may not be completely fair.

In this article, Sari Feldman, currently a Publishers Weekly columnist, imagines the worst case case – no, actually, only the second-worst-case — scenario for libraries on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, and puts forth a call to action, without suggesting many solutions or alternatives. My sense on the first read, given where the column was placed, and her tone, was that this was an uneasy example of “concern trolling;” (“Oh, it’s so bad about those poor libraries that aren’t going to survive!”) and the careful, deliberate setting up of a narrative, so it can be amplified and “normalized.” My first impression of that narrative was, “Libraries won’t survive the pandemic.”

Probably, neither assumption is fair.

Sari Feldman, former American Library Association President, is actually an advocate for libraries.Really an advocate. I guess her role as a columnist for Publishers Weekly gives her a bully pulpit. Or maybe she’s like a diplomat whose county assigned her to another country who is technically an ally, but doesn’t like them. And I’m probably engaging in some “shooting the messenger” here; while a group of publishers proposed an outright attack on libraries last year, with arguments over e-books, and PW covered that, PW never said they supported that attack.

Feldman takes a look at the immediate challenges libraries are facing. She doesn’t put them in particular context. Here are the immediate challenges:

  • Brick and mortar libraries are currently closed.
  • Some libraries can’t or aren’t keeping up websites.
  • Delays and dilution in publishers’ schedules, and cancellations of author events, limit librarians’ abilities to take the lead on recommending new books, even when they are hosting Zoom meetings and so on.
  • Online is going great guns, but not all people in the USA have access to reliable and fast internet.

Once Shelter in Place is relaxed, here are some things that worry Feldman about the future:

  • People won’t want to touch physical books if they don’t know they’ve been cleaned.
  • How will libraries guarantee clean workstations/keyboards?
  • Who will ever want to come to a community event at a library?

This last one tipped me over the edge into the “concern trolling” judgment, and it was actually this sentence; “Will parents and caregivers still want to bring their children to a ‘Baby and me” gathering?” That’s a quote, folks.

In fact, these are all good questions. By focusing the article narrowly on libraries, Feldman creates a doomsday scenario that she probably did not intend. A few of these things beg for obvious commenting:

Libraries are closed. You know who else is closed? Bookstores, printers, and probably a lot of publishers’ offices, while some people work from home. Live theater, musical performances, TV and streaming, and movies. Comedy shows. Dance studios. Not to mention haircutters, specialty shops, clothing shops, bakeries, food processing plants and all kinds of businesses. This is not a condition unique to libraries, although it may sound that way in the article.

Libraries can’t “get out ahead” of upcoming books and maintain a role of leadership in recommending new works.  Well, recommend existing books then. Because, and correct me if I’m wrong here, if a lot of new books aren’t coming out to be recommended, you aren’t falling behind by not recommending them, are you?

Recommend classics, guilty pleasures or old favorites. Go back to what every good librarian can do, “If you live [Book Title A], give [Book Title B] a try.” Or open up the discussion. What are the library patrons reading right now?

Leadership can have a lot of different looks, and sometimes it lets the community step up. It doesn’t always have to be top down.

As for the cancellation of events, local and regional libraries could certainly do what dozens of groups (and, oh, by the way, independent bookstores) are doing all over social media; track down authors whose book launches have been curtailed (no live events) and boost their signal on Twitter, Instagram, etc. Reach out to publicists and offer to host an online reading for a regional writer. Feldman acknowledges in the article that some libraries and librarians are using Zoom already. The pieces are in place. Why isn’t Feldman suggesting that instead of dooming-and-glooming?

Like every single business, church, government office, and… well, everything, libraries will have to make decisions once things begin to reopen. They’ll have to decide how to balance their role as a community center with the need to people safe from infection. Yes, libraries will have to look at whether/how books get cleaned when they are returned. Something will have to be done in order to provide online access for the public while maintaining sanitary keyboards and monitors. We all know that everywhere, public gatherings will be different for a time and maybe forever.

Librarians are smart people. They will figure this out. Feldman is clearly a smart person. I wish she had devoted some time to offering suggestions instead of just catastrophizing, from her seat in the section of society that no longer sees libraries as a partner with an equal but different role and views them instead as a competitor.

Feldman ends, though, on a note I completely agree with. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, internet and connectivity is not a luxury or a nice-to-have. It is a utility. I support her declaration that the ALA (and all of us) must push our elected representatives for a comprehensive nationwide plan and rollout of broad band.

But in the meantime, Ms. Feldman, can you celebrate the steps local and regional libraries are taking to help people through this crisis? Can you stop being Debbie Downer?









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The Way We Live Now, #3

How I order at Adela’s Westside Cafe.

I’ve already put on my mask. I squirt hand sanitizer on my hands. Using a tissue or part of a paper napkin, I push open the door. (Once or twice I took a wet-wipe that I’d sprayed hydrogen peroxide on and used that. It seemed like a lot of work.) I fold over the napkin so any of the virus are on the inside and put it in my pocket.

I stand behind the tape strip and order.

After a get my order, I take a squirt of Adela’s hand sanitizer from the bottle near the door. I use the napkin to push open the door (I haven’t rubbed in the sanitizer yet.) Sometimes I just use my elbow. Outside, I throw the napkin in the trash receptacle and rub the sanitizer into my hands, which are beginning to sting.

*

How I greet the neighborhood dogs.

“Hi, Maple! Hi, Trip! Such good dogs! Hi, Roxie! Hi, Louie! Hi, River, hi, Morgan! Hi, Ginger and Lily! Hi, Violet! Hi, Zuma! I wish I could pet you all!”

*

How I keep in touch.

Phone and email. Zoom, as we’ve discussed. The writers group uses GoToMeeting, which is quite successful.

I talk to my neighbors from the far side of the sidewalk or even the gutter while they are in their yards. I talk to my across the street neighbor from across the street, which, oddly, is no change from how we used to talk. I call my older across the street neighbor on the phone, or text her a couple of times a week, and she does the same.

I’ve been looking at Nextdoor more than I was, and even commenting sometimes if I have something useful to say. A lot of the content is useful; the site is already drifting toward Twitterville, though, with a definite concentration of the fearmongering, the negative, the paranoid and the vile. However, it’s an easy site to manage and an easy site to skip, and there can be good information as well as genuine neighborly spirit.

I use Facebook and Twitter.

*

How I support local businesses.

Once or twice a week I obscure my basic laziness with a veil of community do-gooderism. “I’m getting us take-out,” I say grandly. “I’m supporting our local restaurants.” That sounds so much better than, “I’m getting us take-out because I don’t want to cook.”

We’ve had take-out from:

The Thai Pot
Fandee’s
O&C China Bistro, formerly Eight Cuisine
Adela’s
King Falafel

All of these places will sell you a gift card.

So, that’s how I’m doing things.




Posted in Around Town, View from the Road | 1 Comment

A Sip from Chalice

Here is a scrap from a work in progress, Chalice, a fantasy novel set in Seattle in the 1930s. Magic flourishes and booze is still illegal. Gabe is a blind tattooist who has acquired a set of magical tattoo needles that give him information via mental images. This section is a flashback to how he met his shapeshifter lover, Philippe. Definitely a case of lust at first sight, or not exactly sight. I hope you enjoy it.

*

It could have been only a day ago that he had pushed open the door to Pedro and Violet’s botanica, its bell chiming, and stood, inhaling the pungency of the dried herbs around him, mingled with the sweetness of lavender, mint and something slightly like vanilla. Underneath them all, the scent of lemon oil and moist earth. He knew from his neighbors on the waterfront block that the couple grew starts of some specialty herbs in the backroom. Traditionally, that space would have been a stillroom, but stills, even for herbs and essential oils, raised eyebrows and suspicions in Seattle. And, unlike him, they didn’t live in the backroom either.

“Help you?” the woman asked. Her voice was low-pitched, young, with the lilt of some accent of the American south. Gabe remembered hearing that accent from the war, but he couldn’t place it.

“My name’s Gabe Malek,” he said. He swept his cane in a shallow arc in front of him and advanced, holding out his other hand. “I run the tattoo parlor next door.”

“I’ve seen you. I’m Violet Solomon.”

“Pleasure.” He’d reached the counter, the source of the lemon oil smell. The woman’s grip was firm and soft-skinned.

The other magickers on the street had filled him in, in bits and pieces; she worked with her husband, or common-law at least. She was colored and the neighbors thought the husband was Spanish. There was a brother who came by most days and helped behind the counter sometimes.

He said, “I’m always looking for an antiseptic that burns less than alcohol.”

“I have a nice spirit of lavender cream.”

“I think a few of my clients have purchased it,” he said.

“A few. They’re sure proud of your tattoos. You’re an artist.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, just repeating what I’ve heard.” From the faint clinking, she was fiddling with something underneath the counter. The needles showed him a chariot, a woman with a tall headdress driving it, plunging forward. That image didn’t quite match the voice, but he’d learned that those details didn’t matter. That was how the needles saw her.

Lavender scent danced around him. “I’ve never heard of a blind tattooist before,” she said.

“I don’t think there are that many of us.”

“May I?” She took his hand and guided his fingers across a cool, silken surface. The cream clung to his fingertips. “Maybe just the one? You?”

He smiled. “Maybe, at that.” He rubbed his thumb across his fingers. The cream was rich, but light. “You and your husband, you’re botanical magicians?”

“Pedro is, not me. I just do herbs.”

“You’re a curendera.” He lifted his fingers to his nose.
 

“Raised and trained by two of the best, if I do say so,” she said. “I have a couple other infection-fighting plant essences in there.”

“How much per jar?”

“Thirty cents.”

“I’ll take six jars,” he said. “I’m trying to place the accent. Georgia?”

“It is not!” She sounded almost outraged, but then she laughed. “Florida. St. Augustine.”

“I met some men from Georgia during the war. It’s the only accent I recognized.”

Jars clinked. “You were in the war? Is that how you lost your sight?”

“No. The eyesight was a trade for magic.”

“Magic.” Paper rustled. After a few seconds she said, “Worth it?”

“Ask me again later.”

“How long’s it been?”

“Twelve years.”

“Really, and you still say, ‘ask me later?’”

The bell on the door jingled. Gabe hadn’t paid attention to the steps on the wooden walkway. The scent, and the energy, was male and young. “Morning, sis,” the newcomer said, in a voice like the low notes of a cello. Gabe felt that voice vibrate in his chest, as if he were the instrument himself.

“Philippe, come meet our neighbor. Mr. Malek, the tattooist.”

“It’s Gabe,” he said, turning and holding out his hand. The brother moved lightly, nearly soundlessly across the floor, as if he were gliding. His grip, too, was firm, his hand warm where his sister’s had been cool.

“Pleased to meet you.” From the direction of his voice, he might be an inch shorter than Gabe, maybe two.

“He’s buying spirit of lavender.”

Gabe said, “It’s gentler on the skin than alcohol.”

“Most everything’s gentler than alcohol.” There was a hint of laughter in the voice.

“Little brother,” Violet said.

“Tattoos can sting, sometimes for days,” Gabe said. “Anything that soothes the skin is good.”

“Then why not try shimmer lotion?”

“Philippe!” Violet’s voice got a little high-pitched. “It’s perfectly legal, Mr. Malek—”

Gabe held up a hand. “I know the difference. Shimmer is great for easing pain. It’s just difficult to get.”

“Because people confuse it with that vile blood-magic shit they make with it,” she said.

 “Shimmer-shim.”

“Violet makes a lotion and a gel that’s good for sore muscles,” Philippe said. “The dock workers use it, and the factory girls.”

Gabe pulled out his wallet. “Can I buy a sample of the lotion? And I need to pay for the lavender.”

“You can pay for the lavender, but I’ll give you a sample of the shimmer.” Her heels tapped away.

Warmth caressed Gabe’s right side as Philippe leaned against the counter. “I see you most mornings, walking back from the diner,” he said.

“I have breakfast there every day.”

“I stop in to help out here after I do my rounds for the grocer.”

“Green-grocer?” Gabe said, using the slang for a botanical magician.

The young man laughed. Gabe felt a warm shaft of desire shoot through him.

“Naw. Fruits and vegetables, mostly.”

Violet returned. “Here you go.” Paper crackled and Gabe reached out for the package.

“Let me.” Philippe moved, and the package was guided into Gabe’s hands. For a second, their fingers touched.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Violet said.

Gabe wondered, or hoped, that the brother’s gaze followed him as he left the shop.

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