(Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why)

Posted: July 22, 2015 in Music

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So, I was asked to do this thing recently while promoting Ink Calls to Ink: pick something for a favorites list, then you know, build the list. Long time readers of my blog know how much I love music, so I chose ten favorite songs. Unfortunately timing didn’t work out and the list was never used.

Until now.

Without further ado, my (Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why):

Close Behind — Calexico — Not only does this instrumental capture the feel of the desert and the spirit of the greatest western never filmed, over the years I’ve come to think of it as my theme song. And if my Gato Loco stories are ever turned into a tv series or movie, I want this song over the opening credits.

Heaven On Their Minds — Andrew Lloyd Webber — There’s a reason that Judas is such a key figure in Ink Calls to Ink, and that reason is entirely Carl Anderson’s amazing performance in Jesus Christ Superstar. I’m not typically much of a Webber fan, but this song rocks and has always made Judas a sympathetic character for me. “Your followers are blind. Too much heaven on their minds” also comes back as a theme in my novel.

Night Lights — Gerry Mulligan Sextet — A delicate and simple piano tune leads you into the lush beauty of one of my favorite all time jazz songs. Listen, just listen, close your eyes and imagine looking out over a city at night. It’s absolute magic.

Tristan and Iseult — Tarkio — A great storyteller in rare form with the band he was in before the band that made him famous. For me it’s all about a good hook, and this has a great musical hook. And that line “He whispers soft, god, I love you but you trouble me, said Tristan to Iseult” just slays me every time. Because love shouldn’t be easy, otherwise what would we write about?

Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) — Joe Jackson — The horns slay, the bass pops, the guitar crackles, and the message turned my life around. You really can’t get what you want until you know what you want. No way around that. Once I realized what I really wanted was to tell stories, the rest of my life finally made sense. Plus, that astounding Graham Maby bass solo joined shortly by the Vinnie Zummo guitar solo and finished by horns is sheer perfection.

Jungleland — Bruce Springsteen — Sweeping strings and an epic story combine to show why Bruce Springsteen is such a master. The final song on his damn-near perfect Born to Run album, Jungleland felt like the thematic culmination of the rest of the album. Musically flawless with a sax solo courtesy of Clarence Clemons that will save your soul and lyrics that were sheer blue collar street poetry. It proved to be an influence on my novel Ink Calls to Ink in some strange ways. “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it be. And in the pit of the night they reach their moment and try to make it on a stand, but they wind up wounded and not even dead.”

Like Rock n Roll and Radio — Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs — One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, it’s the sound of loss set to music, the sound of drifting apart slowly but irrevocably. Sometimes this track will shuffle into my playlist and I’ll just listen to it on repeat five or six times in a row and let my heart get torn out again and again. To be able to do something like that with words is truly amazing, and something I aspire to.

Wild is the Wind — Nina Simone — Nina Simone is a force of nature that cannot be denied. Her voice was pure emotion. This has been my favorite song of hers for a while now. No list is complete without it. Her “Hmm” at 2:54 before the line “Don’t you know you’re life itself?” is worth the price of admission alone.

Rock and Roll Suicide — David Bowie — This song has been the basis for two short stories of mine, and I won a karaoke contest with it a few years ago. Again, this has a great horn section that sweeps in midway through. And when he bursts out with the “Oh no love, you’re not alone!” the song really flies into hyperdrive. Always a show-stopper, and still a staple in my karaoke repertoire.

All This and Heaven Too — Florence + the Machine — I’m somewhat of a latecomer to Florence + the Machine but this song blew me away almost immediately. That struggle to put words to something you can’t find words for set to a sweeping, symphonic arrangement is the very definition of epic.

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn by saying that everyone has fears, whether you’re able to articulate them or not. There’s nothing wrong with fear. In fact, there are some who consider a true lack of fear to be a neurological disorder.

The emotion, the reaction, is hardwired. It’s a survival tool from our earliest ancestors warning us when there might be danger.

And as a frequent horror writer, fear can be marketable. Just ask Stephen King.

Since I was nine, I’ve had a fear of ventriloquist dummies. The commercial for the movie Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret was the triggering factor there, though the seeds had been planted for a while. Now, no one I knew had a ventriloquist dummy. It was as rational as being afraid of zeppelins. But I still had stuffed animals at that age, and I began to distrust them as collaborators. I wasn’t afraid of the stuffed Smokey the Bear, mind you. But I couldn’t trust him. So they were all bundled up in black plastic garbage bags and moved into the basement.

My dad’s reaction was to tell me, “Well that’s just going to make them angry.”

That was very likely key in turning a silly, childish fear into a full-on phobia for a good portion of my life. But that was dad just being funny. I know how it goes. It’s kind of fun to scare your kids with things that you don’t think will stick. I know I did it to my own kids and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to their sleep schedules because of it.

But here’s the thing: I know the ventriloquist dummy thing is silly. I wouldn’t be comfortable around one in a dark room overnight, but I’m not really afraid of them anymore. My real, deeper fear is something else entirely. And by coincidence it also has it’s roots in something my dad said to me, though he wasn’t being funny at the time.

My paternal grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have it. He depended on his wife to help with his medications, but when her Alzheimer’s became serious the family needed other options. That option was to pack up and sell their house and move them across state to live with my parents.

It was the first time I’d seen my grandfather in a few years, and it was the longest I had seen him since I was a baby. But living there with my parents, I was sometimes called on to take him to appointments. I loved my grandfather. He was always incredibly kind and a hell of a gin rummy player. He had a bushy gray mustache and a fondness for plaid shirts and suspenders. They lived close to the train tracks in Denver, so I could hear the train at night and remember that grandpa used to work the line when he was younger.

But I had a hard time dealing with him when he came to live with us.

He could barely speak. The Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he just couldn’t form the words easily and eventually he kind of gave up trying.

My dad told me that grandpa was still sharp–still fully aware and smart as ever–but he was effectively locked inside his body.

My grandfather died a few years later. Shortly thereafter my dad started showing signs of Parkinson’s as well.

You might say it’s a family tradition.

So, let’s segue into the world of geek media, shall we? That seems like a nice, safe diversion! Surely nothing in, let’s say, MTV’s Teen Wolf could trigger a phobia, right? Not that sweet, goofy show about bare-chested young werewolf boys!

Enter the second half of Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. (If you care, there will be spoilers from this point on. But this season is over a year old so whatever.) Stiles, the goofy comic relief character, the normal human in the group whose primary contribution is that he drives a Jeep, has a baseball bat, and his dad’s the Sheriff, was part of a story arc that put him halfway between life and death. One of the consequences of this (for him) is an inability to know if he’s dreaming or not.

Now, usually this is an opportunity to do a lot of dream within a dream within a dream fake outs (and yes, they take that trope and run with it). But one of the elements of his dream-state is that he finds himself completely normal circumstances and be unable to read anything. The letters jumble up. Or move around. Or everyone uses sign language. Gotta give them props for originality. It’s the indicator to him that he’s dreaming.

Needless to say, Stiles is deeply emotionally fucked up by this situation.

And I’ve never seen anything on television that terrified me so deeply and so profoundly.

Fuck ventriloquist dummies. Fuck spiders or clowns or any external object that is typically a focus of fear. I mean, if you’re afraid of them, fine. To each their own. But your own brain betraying you? That’s scary.

I watched those episodes and remembered my grandfather, still sharp, still fully aware and smart as ever, but effectively locked inside his body. I remembered him spending the last several years of his life either trying desperately to communicate and being unable to do so effectively, or giving up on trying. It’s difficult for me to look back at that and not see him spending his last years in a prison of his own flesh, all the things he wanted to articulate but couldn’t locked up in there with him.

It’s the scariest thing I can imagine.

And all I can do is hope that I don’t follow in the family tradition.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

It was Gaiman who said: “Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

So I find it perfect in a way that my novel Ink Calls to Ink is being compared to Gaiman. He is a big influence on my writing. American Gods is a particular favorite. We seem to be on somewhat of the same page on how stories, and their characters grow.

That was what got me writing Ink Calls to Ink, at least.

These characters, removed from the relative “comfort zone” of their familiar texts find themselves in unfamiliar lands. All that they have left is their sense of self. Their stories. But at what point does the comfort of that known story become more crutch than comfort, more excuse to not change rather than grow?

We’ve all been there, believe it or not.

All our lives, we’ve had people try to fit us into boxes, held us up to their expectations. Whether it’s the gender-role expectation that girls want to be princesses who will grow up to be good wives and boys will enjoy sports and cars. Whether it’s the well-meaning societal expectation that we’ll go to college, get a job, and get married and raise the next generation. We’re fitted with labels that become scripts that become the paths society expects us to take.

Some are harmless. But I’d argue that most of them, even the benign ones, hinted at rather than articulated, are, at best, limiting. And it’s too tempting for us to use those same labels and expectations as excuses. Take for example something as simple as Astrological charts. I’m a Taurus, and if you know anything about Taurus, the Bull, it’s likely that they are stubborn. And yeah, I can be stubborn. You know who else can be stubborn? Pretty much everyone. Every time my stubborn streak is challenged and I react with “Well, I’m a Taurus,” then I lose–I lose that opportunity to do better.

It’s easy not to work on your own story. It’s easy to look at where you are and not challenge it.

Want another example?

I’ve been married. Three times, actually. The “Why” of the beginning and end for each of those is kind of immaterial. Suffice to say they all started with the best of intentions. They all seemed like good ideas at the time. And when they ended, that was also a good idea. But the “Why” of the overall narrative bears examining.

I always thought I was supposed to get married. I bought that social narrative. It was expected of me to get married, get a good job. I was sold a lie that that would make me complete. And when it didn’t I felt like I failed. The problem was that I was trying to follow a generic plan for a happy life that just didn’t fit. And as long as I tried to follow that script I wasn’t going to be happy.

It wasn’t until I had been alone for a while, throwing myself into my writing and making it my primary focus, that I realized what did make me happy. It wasn’t until I shed off any notion of what was expected of me, what other people’s idea of my happiness should be, that I was able to find my own. It’s at the very root of Existentialism, that the universe has no meaning for us and our lives that we do not find for ourselves. I found my better story by writing it myself. And it’s an ongoing process. I am constantly trying to evolve and grow my view of the world, to make myself a better person and the world a better place around me. We change the world by changing ourselves first.

But we have to be open to some brutal self-examination. We have to challenge ourselves and our preconceptions. And, ultimately, we have to change.

Which brings us back to the characters of Ink Calls to Ink.

The characters are shaped by their text. Even more so by people’s expectations based on what they know of the text. Judas, for example, is known primarily for his act of betrayal. His death is known, but there are different translations and editions of the bible and his manner of death is not consistent in all versions. Judas remembers all of them, because in that way he is myriad. But where is the deeper reading of his text? How does he fit into the larger story of which he was a part? Without his betrayal, could the rest of the tale happened? Does that make his act holy because it allowed the crucial martyrdom of Jesus? Does that, in turn, make Judas himself a martyr? Is he a villain or a victim? That is something that he’s left to struggle with throughout Ink Calls to Ink. Is he condemned to a limited reading of his text, or is he capable of more? Is he worthy of redemption, and if so, what form does that take?

Removed from their text, removed from that sense of predetermination, is it possible for the Fictional Personae to evolve and grow beyond their stories?

Do the Fictional Personae accept someone else’s story, or do they learn to write their own?

Do we?

Ink coverThe publisher of Ink Calls to Ink has folders of stock photos for their authors to use in creating promotional materials. They have a pretty amazing selection to work from and they’ve done a great job curating it. But in creating character intro posters to seed the launch event on Facebook, something dawned on me. I write some atypical characters.

This was particularly apparent with two characters: Juliet and Franklin, the Steadfast Soldier.

While I was able to eventually find an image that worked for Juliet, it was not without compromise. It’s not difficult to find stock images of teenaged girls. But Juliet is not your typical teenager. She’s been living on the streets of London by the time the novel starts, a frequent Heroin user continually trying, and failing, to poison herself. She keeps herself covered up as much as possible, and while still pretty, she’s not the kind of teen girl you typically see gracing the covers of urban fantasy novels.

But I found something that could work. Perfect? No. But no one gets perfection in this messed up world anyway, so we take what we can and move on.

The real challenge was the Steadfast Soldier.

Also homeless, he has a certain earnest, rugged charm. There’s no shortage of stock photos of attractive men in varying degrees of ruggedness and undress. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find any that were missing a leg. I’m not saying that there are no stock photos in the universe showing a one-legged veteran. I would almost guarantee that something like that has to exist somewhere. But it’s not sexy. It doesn’t sell books. So it’s not the image that would automatically be curated for book promotions.

The sad truth is that the disabled are severely under-represented in speculative fiction.

And honestly, I’m not entirely sure why that is.

Why, in genres where werewolf clans battle ancient vampire lords, where humankind can fly to the far reaches of the galaxy to encounter alien civilizations, where boy wizards and dragon-riding girls can challenge ancient evils, why is it so difficult to imagine a hero with a disability. Genre fiction already requires leaps of imagination to make pig boys into kings. Why is level heroism reserved for the classically able-bodied?

I guess I’ve never really understood that. In fact, in one of my first novels, Greetings from Buena Rosa, the main character spent the half of the book on forearm crutches. And he was strong, capable, and heroic the entire time. It didn’t define him but it was still an integral part of where his life was at that point, something he was still struggling with. It didn’t occur to me that a disabled Mexican detective was an anomaly in urban fantasy. Then again, he had a trigger-happy panda sidekick, so everyone had their own stuff to deal with.

The very first incarnation, the short story “Ink Calls to Ink” I knew that there were two conflicts: Goldilocks vs. the Bears and a third party vs. the situation of Goldilocks and the Bears. I honestly have no idea why I chose the Steadfast Tin Soldier to be that third party. I knew that the Fictional Personae were homeless and that there is an epidemic of homeless vets. (As of 2013 there were approximately 9,000 homeless ex-service personnel in Great Britain, making them about 1/10 of the overall homeless population.) And living in a city, I am no stranger to seeing injured vets on the street. I figured soldier Fictional Personae would be a good point of view character to explore the pointlessness of violence for the sake of violence and cycles of retribution.

Having grown up on the Hans Christian Anderson stories, the Steadfast Soldier just sort of sprung up as an immediate front runner.

And now, having lived with him in my head through that story, all the way through the novel and beyond, I’ve grown quite attached to Franklin. (Anderson didn’t give him a name, so he had to give one to himself.) Because he’s an amazing character, defined by his strength and resolution, his steadfastness, if you will. Not by his perceived limitations. And yes, I treat the fact that he only has one leg as a limitation because it has some very real consequences and challenges. But all good characters have limitations that challenge them. Overcoming challenges is what makes them heroes.

And if you think he’s going to let his limited mobility stop him from challenging a group of racist punks trying to assault another Fictional Personae, then you’re in for one hell of a surprise.

Ink coverIt all started with Mary Poppins.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Put a pin in that. We’ll be back around.

My dad was a librarian. More than that, he was librarian whose real passion (other than books) was Existentialism, notably Jean Paul Sartre. But it’s hard to pay the bills with philosophy so he got his library science degree and got a job at a college in a small Colorado town when I was three years old.

So it’s really not a surprise that I grew up loving books. I had this unpainted chipboard bookcase, five shelves, just packed with whatever books suited my fancy. Does anyone remember the Harvard Classics? I had the Harvard Classics “Shelf of Fiction,” all twenty volumes, black hardcover volumes packed with more stuff than I realized until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now. I think ours were originally published in the fifties if I remember right, but they were in great shape. And I’ll be honest. I loved books, but I didn’t have the most general of tastes. I consumed some volumes while others went untouched.

The only drawback of being a well read kid is encountering teachers who want you to read at the district’s level rather than your own. Our district’s 8th Grade reading list was boring as dirt and I refused to read it on principle. By that point I was already reading Catch-22 off my dad’s bookshelf. I really didn’t feel the need to revisit Huckleberry Finn yet again. My clashes with that teacher were the stuff of legend, and I expect to meet her on the field of battle in Valhalla some day. But that’s the story for another day.

Point is, man did I ever love me some old books.

Flash forward to the summer of 2002. I was gearing up to run a Role Playing Game (RPG for the cool kids) over the summer, something I visualized as a three-part epic summer blockbuster. To that end, I asked my players to envision a favorite movie hero to join in this crossover to end all crossovers.

My friend Susan picked Mary Poppins.

That’s when things truly went delightfully Meta. It forced me to confront the structure of the world we were playing in. If these fictional characters were, in fact fictional yet still able to function in a shared space, what did that mean? How would that work and what implications would that have? Beside the obvious being that Mary Poppins would make a kick ass spy, of course.

So I ran the game, but the world that had started taking shape because of those questions continued to bubble in the background. I figured these fictional characters, these shipwrecked Fictional Personae, would have a difficult time adjusting. That even with whatever skills they possessed, it was a tough transition. They didn’t exactly have references you could call. There were already a ton of people out of work. Real people. Resources to deal with the situation wouldn’t be available forever. And after a while, the novelty would wear off. Yeah, life for a Fictional Personae must be rough.

Oh, and naming them Fictional Personae? That was kind of an in-joke. I always do extensive outlining before I write any novel, and at the front of the outline I list all the essential characters with notes about them. I’ve been calling all my characters Fictional Personae for over a decade at that point.

A few years later I wrote a short story about the Steadfast Tin Soldier, Goldilocks, and the Three Bears. I quite liked it. It got published on the Wily Writers Podcast in 2009 (and republished in Night Mantled: The Best of Wily Writers in 2011). In reading the story for that initial recording, Editor Angel Leigh McCoy insisted that there was a novel in there. I didn’t see it. It was just a story. One little story about how there aren’t always happy endings for fictional characters.

Not a novel.

That was crazy.

I had a full outline written in less than a week.

Because she was right. There was a novel there. But maybe not the one she thought. The novel of Ink Calls to Ink gave me the chance to rectify a few raw deals. Removed from the context of their story but fully aware of the text, were these characters necessarily the heroes or villains that the texts made them out to be? If given a second chance, what would characters like the murderous scorned wife Medea do with it? How much blame does Judas deserve for the events of his story, and what would he do for a chance at redemption? What would Don Quixote do without a horse, windmills, or his Dulcinea? Would Juliet embrace life or, with Romeo nowhere to be found, become a suicidal junkie? With the memory of building and losing Camelot fresh in mind, what kind of leader would King Arthur really be?

More to the point, did they have the free will to find out for themselves, or were they slave to their texts and the ink in their blood?

I’ve always seen myself as a bit of an outcast, an underdog, a misfit. I identify with those kinds of characters. And I’ve always loved the characters who stand up for a belief bigger than themselves even if it destroys them. So to play with some of literature’s misfits and see if they could find the hero inside themselves was a dream come true. Of all the novels I’ve written, Ink Calls to Ink is my very favorite.

Ink Calls to Ink comes out in July from CHBB Publishing and will be available in print and ebook wherever you buy books, online or in your neighborhood–though you may have to have your bookseller order it. In fact, I’d sincerely love if you ordered it from your local bookstore, but you do whatever works for you.

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Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs

Posted: May 19, 2015 in Music
Time is never on our side.

Time is never on our side.

In my formative years growing up, my dad didn’t listen to popular music. A former musician himself (sax and clarinet), he had a fondness for classical and jazz. I was that kid who recognized the Dave Brubeck tune in the Tom & Jerry cartoon when I was ten just by benefit of osmosis. When I finally moved out and started buying music for my own collection, one of the first CD’s I bought was Jazz. And I still go back to it on a regular basis.

But I know Jazz confounds some people. They don’t know where to start, or what’s good, or what they might like. And that’s fair. There’s a lot of it out there across a wide range of styles. For instance, I’m a sucker for the West Coast Cool Jazz school, but I range outside of that as suits my whims. I find it stimulates the brain and doesn’t distract when I’m getting writing done.

So, because I feel like it, here’s Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs that I keep coming back to again and again.

Dave Brubeck QuartetStrange Meadow Lark 

From the album Time Out (which was the Frampton Comes Alive or Thriller of its generation), if you had one Jazz album in your house growing up, chances are it was this one. Strange Meadow Lark, which has a lovely, long piano intro before Desmond kicks in with the alto sax is just the epitome of Cool Jazz for me.

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis ArmstrongIsn’t This a Lovely Day

On their own, they are legends of Jazz. Together, they were magical–honey and vinegar. The formula is simple in concept but brilliant in execution: Ella sings an intro, Louis sings the song, then Ella repeats with Louis playing flourishes around her. Break for a trumpet solo, and then they reprise together, their voices blending into the sound of perfection.

Miles DavisSummertime

From his 1958 album Porgy & Bess which was arranged by pianist and Jazz legend Bill Evans, this is my personal favorite Davis track ever. It makes me think of sitting on a NYC fire escape to try and catch a breeze in a hot summer, neon flickering in the darkness. This song made me want to live in a city and have adventures more than any rock song I’d ever heard in my life.

Bill Evans TrioMy Foolish Heart

Speaking of Bill Evans, I’m so bewitched by this guy. His trio, this incarnation in particular, was absolute perfection with Larry Bunker on drums and Chuck Israel on bass. Give me rain, a cozy seat at the window, and turn on the Bill Evans and I’ll be there all day and night. The way he coaxes a tune out of a piano never ceases to astound me. And the other guys in the trio back him up like they have psychic powers. If you come away with an appriciation for any jazz musician you didn’t know before this, I’d hope it would be Bill.

Johnny Hartman & John ColtraneLush Life

Johnny Hartman is the best Jazz baritone you’ve never heard of. He’s like liquid velvet. Simply the best male Jazz vocalist I can imagine. This song comes from an album which paired him with legendary sax player John Coltrane for one of the best jazz albums of all time.

Gerry Mulligan SextetMorning of the Carnival from Black Orpheus

Ok, I’m putting it out on the line here. If you can find this album anywhere, buy it. You will not be disappointed. Unless you don’t like Jazz at which point I commend you sir or madam for making it this far. Opening with the song Night Lights which almost made this list, it also features this amazing Bossa Nova riff on a track from the soundtrack of Black Orpheus (which you should find and watch). Mulligan is from the West Coast Cool Jazz school, and one of the premiere barritone sax players around. This track sizzles and always makes me smile.

Will of HopeYou know what I love more than discovering new authors with diverse voices? Pretty much nothing.

That’s why it’s such a delight for me to be a stop on the blog tour for Will of Hope.

Elle Carlton hasn’t seen light in nearly eight years…until now. When faced with the chance to find Kaleb, her missing love, there’s nothing she won’t do. Her determination knows no bounds except one: he’s not on Earth. Elle will have to leave everything she knows, and embark on a perilous journey from our world to Acryen—a realm where nothing is as it seems and truths are lost in all the lies.
In a land where dragons once ruled, magic is the ultimate weapon and kingdoms are on the brink of war. Prophecies are coming to life, and creatures unlike any other are emerging from the shadows. Elle only desires one thing: to find Kaleb. But, what she doesn’t know is Acryen has its own plan, and you cannot fight what’s already been written.

The first of what I hope to be many more books in the Acryen Series, Will of Hope is a great option for readers looking for the next big YA fantasy. It has a smart, well crafted and diverse cast of characters, clever writing, believable romance, and some great fantasy world-building. You can find it on Amazon by clicking on the picture of that damn gorgeous cover above, or on the title. Or you can find it on Amazon UK here.

And I’m such a fan, if you leave a comment below and share the link, you’ll automatically be entered to win a copy of Will of Hope.

About Yasmin Fazli:
Yasmin Fazli is an undergraduate college student studying biology to one day fulfill her dream of being a doctor. Little did she know, the small stories she used to write in middle school and high school developed into another dream she couldn’t live without. In the beginning of her senior year of high school, the idea of Will of Hope, her first novel, was born. It took on a life of its own, and it turned into something she couldn’t put aside. When she finished, she was so in love with the story and how the characters grew that she felt the need to share the happiness it brought with everyone and anyone. Still living the life of a college student, Yasmin works in a research lab, is apart of the Delta Gamma sorority, and fills her life with snowboarding and bouldering.
I’d also suggest following Yasmin on her various social media presences because trust me, she’s a new author to follow.

Fringe Candy: Polvoron

Posted: May 10, 2015 in Fringe Candy
From the Philippines straight to your heart.

From the Philippines straight to your heart.

I have this friend who makes knives.

Hear me out. I’m going somewhere with this.

See, he used to work for “The Man” doing complicated computer stuff that I couldn’t even begin to understand. Then he and his wife had a conversation about what he’d really want to be doing with his life, and his answer was that he wanted to make knives. Since his wife is also a Maker by nature and their budget allowed them to do that, he makes knives now. Like, truly amazing knives.

Now, the other day he and his wife were checking out this new Asian grocery that opened up near us, and they chanced upon the candy aisle. Knowing my Fringe Candy geekery, they picked up a little something for me–a sampler pack of Polvoron from from House of Polvoron in the Philippines.

The interesting thing is that despite being on the candy aisle I’d normally hesitate to call it Fringe Candy for two reasons. For one, in many ways Polvoron is more of a cookie than a candy. And two, it’s only “Fringe” from my admittedly limited cultural perspective. In other parts of the world, Polvoron is part of a rich tradition that dates back a long damn way.

Let’s start there, shall we?

From polvo, the Spanish word for “dust,” Polvoron appears to have originated in the Levantine culinary tradition of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and parts of Turkey. It traveled across northern African and into Spain during the expansion of the Caliphate in the early 8th century where it took root in the Islamic culture of the Iberian Peninsula for roughly 700 years, give or take. Currently, there are over seventy factories in Spain alone that manufacture Polvoron, and there are variations on the recipe around the world. The Mexican wedding cookie is a more cookie-fied version of the same concept, while in the south of Texas they make Pan de Povo which is essentially Polvoron with anise.

So, what exactly is it?

Imagine the most crumbly shortbread you can. Can you do that? Now imagine it even more crumbly, by a factor of ten or so. Made of flour, sugar, powdered milk, and nuts with just enough oil to hold it together (olive oil in some instances, but beef or pork fat in others–check your ingredient lists if you’re vegetarian or Kosher), a Polvoron is a bite-sized piece of goodness with the texture of a fresh sand castle.

They’re delicate and not too sweet which is a huge plus for me.

The Filipino take on the recipe uses a larger proportion of powdered milk than the Spanish version, and that’s the one I tried. Made by House of Polvoron, it started in 1987 with an old family recipe that was fiddled with until it was perfect and then tirelessly hand-delivered. The whole family took part in the company’s growth, building it into the international brand it is today.

The sampler I tried featured the Classic, Crisp Rice, Cashew, and Cookies & Cream. Each was distinctive and delicious. But again, not really quite like candy. There was something like a raw cookie dough quality, something delightfully…unfinished about them. Of the ones I tried, the Cookies & Cream was the sweetest, but even that was restrained. The rich nuttiness of the Cashew was my absolute favorite, but I’d readily enjoy any of them again. I’m tempted to seek out the Purple Yam or Green Tea flavors for comparison. And for chocolate geeks, they even do a chocolate covered variety that I imagine not only be sweeter but also more candy-like.

If you can find them, they’re well worth checking out, both for flavor and for a chance to dip your toe in some rich history and culture. But treat them gently because they’re fragile as hell. If you’re not careful you’ll just be sucking sweet sand out of a foil packet.

And if anyone can find the Texan Pan de Povo, can you hook a brother up? Those sound excellent.

Guardian Sculpture

Guardian Sculpture

Chances are pretty good that if you’re writing a novel, things have to happen somewhere, right? Maybe your protagonists never leave the building. Maybe it’s some unnamed location, simply The Town, or The City. But inevitably, most writers will be faced with a decision: use a real town/city, or make one up.

I’ve used both techniques in my writing, so, let’s unpack some of the things you’ll want to take into consideration. And, a word of warning, I’m a bit of an urban planning geek. I love cities and small towns, how they work, and their unique character. I find it can be a character in its own right every bit as important as the other support characters in your story.

If you’re using a real location, it helps if you’re familiar with that location. While not entirely necessary (I mean, Stephanie Meyer set the Twilight novels in Forks, Washington without having set foot there and she did okay for herself), doing so presents some challenges. Either you fabricate locations within that town (restaurants, shops, schools, etc.), fake the sensory details of existing locations, or you go light on the sensory details. The first run the risk of pulling people out of the story if they’re familiar with that town, while the third runs the risk of making it difficult for the reader to really engage. Sensory details are huge. It’s important to ground your characters.

You can fix some of that with research, but honestly no amount of research is going capture the entire location you’re writing in. Take for example Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, Chandler’s Big Sleep, Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and Tim Powers Expiration Date. All of these are set in Los Angels, yet none are the same Los Angels. It helps that they’re set in one of the most chimerical of American cities. But ultimately by reading these books, we’re seeing the city through the eyes of the author and their protagonists. The city speaks to them, and through them to us, in very different ways. Ultimately, none is more “accurate” than the other.

So, why use real towns or cities at all? Well, the short answer is that you can tap into a city’s mythology, draw story ideas from it’s history and public perception, and use what people already know or think they know for a kind of literary shorthand. This literary shorthand lets you skimp a bit on certain aspects of the world building for expediency, and conversely, you can play against that for some interesting results. That makes using a real city very attractive.

As for towns, honestly, I’m not sure why you’d want to use a real town.

Here’s the thing. I have a difficult time understanding what benefit you have using a real small town that most people don’t know at all and some people know REALLY well (i.e. the locals), vs. a small town where you have total control over what does and doesn’t belong there. Take for example, what was really gained by setting Twilight in Forks that couldn’t have been done setting it in a fictional town? Stephen King has been writing stories set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, for decades and it doesn’t seem to have hurt him any.

Creating a town doesn’t have to be that difficult. It’s like a larger scale version of dropping a fictional school in a real city. First, you need somewhere that fits geographically/culturally with where you want to set your story. Pick a bigger landmark nearby, like “A short drive up the coast to Boston” if you want to ground it even further. All we really knew about the location of Sunnydale from seven seasons of Buffy was that it was somewhere near Los Angeles. You don’t have to sketch it in street by street. Think about the scenes in your book. Where do you want them to be? Fight in a bar? Create a bar broadcloth or transpose your favorite, name it whatever you want, and drop it in. Just keep it consistent and keep notes.

Take a good look at sample towns, because there tends to be a similar pattern. The downtown core tends to be along a few blocks a main street for a spine with businesses spread out a block in either direction of that spine with residential beyond that, easy walking distance to most things. Building towns and neighborhoods with cars in mind was something that stared really taking off post WWII which brought us suburbs with newer, tract home style developments and destination shopping centers with big parking lots. (If the hows, whys, etc. of urban planning interest you in the slightest or you just want an excellent look into why cities and towns look the way they do, I heartily suggest you find Urban Design Since 1945: A Global Perspective by David Grahme Shane at your library. It has become a crucial writing reference for me since discovering it.)

Consider why everyone is living there. Is there some kind of industry? A college or a tourism feature? Is it a ranching/farming town, or is it a coastal fishing town? Is it a former mining town that has gotten a second life as an artist community? Did it grow as a stop along a rail line making it something of a regional shipping hub, or did it grow as a waystation along a highway that started to dry up when the interstate went in a few miles away? Make it your own, but consider why people are there and not somewhere else.

I know. It sounds like a lot of work. Especially when you consider that much of this detail could just be for you, a behind the scene look so you know how things work and where things happen. Ideally you won’t be dropping in multi-page descriptions of the local coffeehouse. But if it’s a key location and you’ve done your work, you can drop in a sentence about it here and there and make it feel real. Honestly, I can’t emphasize enough the value of having a notebook handy with you at all times. When I’m in a new place that I think is cool, I’ve been known to jot down a few sensory details about what I like: the floral print on the vinyl tablecloths, the lighting over the bar, the neon sign in the parking lot. These little details can slot into your fictional locations and make them feel more real because the details themselves are real–even if the location is fake.

And the truth is you’re going to be doing a lot of work either way: researching and trying to capture a real place or making a place that perfectly suits your story. Ultimately, you’re the best judge of how you want to spend that time.

Things Change

Posted: March 22, 2015 in Uncategorized
Rainy Spring in Greenwood

Rainy Spring in Greenwood

When I moved into the greater Greenwood area around nine years ago, I fell in love. In fact, this was the subject of a post on this very page just over two years ago. I like neighborhoods. I fell they are what defines a city. But neighborhoods change. It’s the nature of the world that nothing is eternal.

The coffee shop I made my second home was forced to close due to fire, eventually moving to a different location. The game store is gone. The pirate-themed brew pub has been replaced by a sports bar. Two antique stores have closed, one of them still vacant, the other now an organic cafe. The Greenwood Market was bulldozed, the site incorporated into a giant rebuild of the neighboring Fred Meyer store. Change is healthy. It keeps things from stagnating.

And sometimes, change hurts.

The first time I went to the Yen Wor Garden, it was for dinner. All I wanted was greasy chicken chow mein. It was pretty horrible. But I found myself between buses craving Chinese food some months later and gave them another chance and got some beef dish…orange beef, possibly? It was even worse. The beef was spongy, like it had been frozen, thawed, then frozen again one too many times. I vowed never to eat there again. The sign that read they did delivery read as a threat rather than an endorsement.

Then a good friend suggested I go there for karaoke some night. Prior to that, I got my karaoke fix at the Baranof across the street, a place that was no less divey than the Yen Wor, but I loved the restaurant in the front, so it was just my place. But unlike the Baranof, the Yen Wor had karaoke seven nights a week. So I gave them a try. That night, the Yen Wor Garden became my karaoke place.

Over the last 3 years, it has become my second home. I know the bartenders, the hosts, and many of the regulars on a first name basis. I’ve shared beers with a broader slice of humanity than I’ve ever met elsewhere. Some of them have ended up, in whole or in part, in one of my novels. I’ve gone to no less than three memorial services in my life, all of them there, all for regulars. I expected my own service might even be there eventually. Morbid, maybe. True, absolutely. In the last three years, I’ve gone there to celebrate birthdays, finishing novels, and just about every holiday on the book. On my birthday two years ago, my best friend called them from Thailand to wish me a happy birthday. And I’ve had nights when we packed the tables facing the bar with people eager to sing. I had my phone stolen out of my pocket there and never considered changing karaoke bars. I cultivated a set list of more than 170 songs, most of which I worked out on the stage of the Yen Wor Garden.

I have coffee shops that are my weekday third places, but the nights belong to the Yen Wor. It is a joy I have come to share with dozens of so-called “Yen Woriors,” many of whom made a regular mid-week pilgrimage there for “Yensday.” We even have matching t-shirts, making this the first organization I’ve represented with matched apparel since my high school gang the Vorpal Bunnies.

So it was with great sadness that I found out this morning that they have been sold and will be closing down in the next 2-6 weeks. Honestly, I can’t say I’m too surprised. While I’ve found things on the menu that I actually enjoy, the restaurant side has always been a ghost-town with a handful of tables occupied at most. And the bar is usually dead during the day and not much busier on most week nights.

It remains to be seen what will take over that space. It’s some small comfort that the footprint of the building is too small for them to put in high-density housing, so it will almost have to be retail or restaurant space. Maybe it will even have a bar with karaoke. But even if it does, it will not be the same.

Things change. We evolve and move on. Life continues.

But if you’ve ever wanted to do karaoke with me at the Yen Wor, your time is running out.

Karaoke starts at 9 every night and I’m 3 block away. Hit me up. Let’s put in some song slips and get a drink that is famously “Yen Wor strong.” Let’s row our boats to shore and burn them. Let’s give the Yen Wor Garden the send out it deserves.