Archive for the ‘Random Geekery’ Category

In news that might not surprise many of you, I’m one of those bastards who loves musical theater. No joke. Couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. Found my mom’s album of My Fair Lady and never looked back. Now, my tastes have evolved considerably in that time. So much so, that there’s nothing from old-school musicals on this list. If you’re a fan of South Pacific, prepare to be disappointed. But at least I stuck to shows that originated on stage. And there are several on here that are at least a few decades old. I’ve also made a conscious effort to only list one song from any given composer. Otherwise this would skew heavily towards Jason Robert Brown. (Ok, I lied, I included two from JRB. It was a game-time decision. Don’t hate me. He’s so good!)

You’re welcome.

Also, for the Hamilheads out there, I didn’t include anything from Hamilton on this list, though I was tempted. It basically came down to the fact that Hamilton has so much exposure right now, I’d rather give that slot to a somewhat less-exposed show.

So, in alphabetical order and without further ado, it’s showtime!

Beautiful City from Godspell

I came across this musical as a kid on television in my grandparent’s basement. I had no idea what it was. It was strange. It had gutter-clowns, and some guy in a Superman-like t-shirt. And it was kind of Jesus-y. (Yes, I was very young and didn’t get a lot of churchin’.) It kind of fell off my radar until my late teens when my friend Eric re-introduced me to the soundtrack in his den. He later played Judas in the college production, thus confirming that Judas is okay in my book.

The book of the musical is not my favorite, but man, the music from Stephen Schwartz is so good. And “Beautiful City” has recently become my favorite from the show. I like the message of hope. And the revival cast from a few years ago was outstanding, which is part of why I chose this version to share.

Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar

Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this is the one that resonated with me. I know. It’s weird. And it’s merely by virtue of the alphabet that these two songs are back to back. I swear, the music gets to sinnin’ pretty quick after this.

My first wife got me hooked on JCS. So much so that I used to have an Easter tradition with a friend of mine. We’d cook up a feast and sing along at the top of our lungs. So maybe it’s timely this ends up in my list right before Easter. I’ve been doing the Norwescon convention the last several years which always falls on Easter weekend, and I’m missing those sing-alongs.

For my money, there’s no better Judas than Carl Anderson.

History of Wrong Guys from Kinky Boots

I love the movie Kinky Boots. I didn’t have any idea how they’d pull it off as a musical. Then they got Cindy Lauper to do the music.

Sold.

I don’t know what to say about this song other than the fact that it’s infectiously fun.

I love Annaleigh Ashford’s delivery. Strongest or best song in the musical? Probably not. But favorite? Yes, hands down.

Home (Reprise) from The Wiz

There are a lot of versions of this. Well, of course there are. Written by Charlie Smalls, this song is just an outstanding showcase for a great vocalist. And I went with the Diana Ross version for the very simple reason that she was my introduction to this song and musical.

I was a sheltered nine-year old living in rural Colorado when this came out. I either went to the theater to see it myself or dragged along my kid brothers. And I loved it. LOVED it. Sure, Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on Broadway might have been a better Dorthy. I didn’t know, and at the time I couldn’t really care. This movie was magic. And this song still hits me in the gut each and every time I hear it.

I’m Going Home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Damn that Richard O’Brian, but he writes a catchy torch song. And Tim Curry just sings the shit out of it. That said, my feelings about this musical are complicated. It’s not a good musical, the material is problematic as hell, but it has great music. It’s also impossible to watch with other people without them shouting along. Sometimes, I just want to listen to the music, much like I did the first several times I heard it–on a record at my friend Ivan’s house.

I’ve also done this one at karaoke a few times. Damn, just such a good song about coming to the end of a road and realizing the ride is over. For some of us, far too soon.

Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George

If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite Broadway composer was, I would have said Stephen Sondheim without hesitation. That’s largely on the merit of how much this musical changed my life. I came across the musical on Great Performances on PBS about halfway through the first song and knew I needed it in my life almost immediately. For years, the only way I could watch this show was on an unlabeled VHS tape with part of a song missing. I have long since upgraded to better versions. And my friends Aarron and Michaela took me to see the revival for my birthday when it toured here almost a decade ago.

For years, the song “Finishing the Hat” was something of a theme song for me. It’s only been edged out in recent years by this one. The first is almost an argument Georges Seurat has with himself, that yes, he’s missing out on life, but that his art is worth it. But Lesson #8 reflects a bit more of where I am now. This feeling of being lost, questioning your artistic direction or if the journey is even worth it some days. I suspect all artists experience this from time to time. And Mandy Patinkin really sells it, too.

George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George too may fade leaving no mark, just passing through. Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”

Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

With music by Stephen Trask and book by it’s initial star, John Cameron Mitchel, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was like nothing else I’d ever seen. This song, in particular evokes David Bowie, which always works for me. And I went with this recording from the movie because it’s just so goddamned triumphant.

Sweet baby jesus, it gives me chills. I could, and have, listened to it on a loop a dozen times in a row. I can’t think of a better example of how we use music to discover our own sense of identity.

Never Get Married from Honeymoon in Vegas

Did I tell you I love Jason Robert Brown? I love Jason Robert Brown. He’s got a great ear for a hook and his lyrics are clever as hell. The idea of a musical based on an old Nic Cage movie is a weird idea. But damn if he doesn’t pull it off. The fact that this show was so overlooked breaks my heart. It’s fun and clever (and not without some problematic material, particularly in how it portrays Hawaii), and holy hell, it had Tony Danza tap dancing!

It’s pure Broadway.

This song, in particular, is just fun. It’s like something you’d expect to see on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Nancy Opel kills it as the mom to bewildered Rob McClure.

See I’m Smiling from The Last Five Years

Consider this your daily double dose of Jason Robert Brown. Hey, I could have thrown in stuff from Parade as well if I wanted, but I wanted to keep it reasonable. But damn, this show is so good. A strange concept, yes–five years of a relationship portrayed by two people, one moving from front to back, one from back to front.

The way it changes moods on a dime is incredible. Some songs are light and fun. Some are a slow knife to the ribs but in the best way possible. Then some transition in the middle with little warning. Like this one, that goes from hopeful to angry to resigned in a way I’ve seen real relationships do far too often in my life.

Really, the bridge just kills me. And while I have much love for Anna Kendrick who recently did this in the movie, there’s no substitute for Sherie Rene Scott from the original recording.

Telephone Wire from Fun Home

Got your tissues ready?

Good.

You’ll need them.

This musical came out of nowhere and kicked some ass at the Tony Awards a couple of years back. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics & book by Lisa Kron, it was based on the great graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. It deserved every Tony it won. Such a great show. It’s playing here in Seattle this summer and I can hardly wait.

That said, I’m likely to cry myself to death. This song, where a woman looks back at trying to have a real conversation with her dad–her, a recently out college student, and him a closeted married man. A complicated relationship at best, it provides no easy answers for either character. And it’s one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater I’ve ever heard.

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

This will be my fourth consecutive Norwescon, and my third year coordinating the Horror track–one of the highlights of my year. I don’t have that busy of a convention this year, which is nice. I’m looking forward to being a fly on the wall for several panels (particularly Horror’s Role in Perpetuating Fear of the Other on Friday afternoon 1-2pm in Cascade 9 and the Fear of God(s) which will discuss religious themes in horror Saturday afternoon, 2-3 in Cascade 2&3). And much to my surprise there will be karaoke on Thursday night in the Evergreen room from 8-11, and I can’t miss that.

Ah, but for panels I’ll actual scheduled appearances, they are as follows:

Thursday

Adult Comics vs. Mature Comics: 8-9pm in Cascade 10 with a great lineup of panelists and friends, so this should be a hoot.

Paranoia (Will Destroy Ya): 9-10pm in Cascade 5&6 will discuss the use of paranoia in horror fiction and how to write it.

Friday

The Kids Aren’t All Right: 6-7pm in Cascade 5&6 in which we discuss the trope of evil children in horror media.

The GameMaster’s Manifesto Podcast – GMing From the Hip: 7-8pm in Cascade 3&4 where I’ll be part of an expert panel/podcast about running a game with little preparation, something I know all too much about.

Saturday

Autograph Session 1: 2-3pm in Grand Ballroom 2 where I’ll be holding down a table in a room full of peers. I’ll have a few books available, as well as inexpensive (and limited edition) chapbooks of “Hell is a Parade” available. Or bring your own copy of something for me to sign. Several tables in the dealer hall will have anthologies featuring my stories as well. I believe Selfies from the End of the World, That Ain’t Right, and By Faierie Light at the very least will be for sale around the convention, and all three are great anthologies.

Location, Location, Location: Horror’s Unsung Character: 9-10pm in Cascade 5&6 where we will tackle the real star of good horror fiction and how to write it well.

Sunday

Get ‘Em While They’re Young – YA Horror: 1-2pm in Cascade 10, because every obsession starts somewhere.

In addition, I’ll try and post up in the bar for the un-official bar-con from time to time, but I’m really watching my budget this year. Looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and meeting some brand new ones this year!

Scenes from a Misspent Youth

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Random Geekery
Tags:
Halloween, way too long ago

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted, and I probably owe an apology or maybe an explanation. Short answer: health, politics, and depression cornered me in an alley, beat me up, and took my lunch money. Crawling my way out now. Thanks for sticking around.

Now, on to the Feature Presentation.

Occasionally one of those bullshit nostalgia meme-factories craps out a “Share if you remember X” things on Facebook that doesn’t automatically make me want to kick the entire world in the soft bits. That happened earlier today, and it triggered something.

Not so much for the thing they were hoping, but tangentially. It triggered a wave of nostalgia, a bit of reflection, a bit of discussion, and, ultimately this unexpected blog post.

When I was a wee lad, in my “dressing up as a monster period,” let’s say, I developed something of a ritual. See, for most kids, Saturday morning television ended at 11, when the cartoons ground to an end. But for me, growing up in a rustic little tourist town in the southwest corner of Colorado, I learned to turn that dial to the magic of Denver’s Channel 2. An independent station, it provided alternative programming, meaning a lot of syndicated content, some original shows like the kid’s show Blinky’s Fun Club featuring Denver’s favorite clown (before John Elway, that is), and movies. Lots of movies. Let’s face it: they had a lot of hours to fill, even with being able to shut down broadcasts for the night around midnight or so. (Remember those days? If so, remember to take your meds before heading out for the Early Bird dinner at Denny’s!)

So at 11 on Saturday morning, they would broadcast the Wild Wild West, the weird western spy show that was, at that time, maybe a decade old. Then, assuming I wasn’t exiled to the “Outside” by a mother concerned about my Vitamin D, I would settle in for their Matinee Double Feature. And that, my friends, was my bread and butter.

They liked to mix it up a bit, but to my recollection, there was always one comedy followed by one more action-oriented film. These were often sci-fi or westerns, and while I could always roll with the sci-fi, the westerns were hit or miss. But it was a good mix. A little light, a little more dark.

Now, since this was an independent network with not inexhaustible funds, they weren’t exactly springing for top run movies. But in the days before AMC, shit, before cable, really, there was a vast catalog of old films shown on the limited number of television stations at any given time. And it was that or go play with sticks in the dirt or something. I mean, why do that when you can immerse yourself in classic Hollywood?

By the time I hit age 12, I’d seen Abbot and Costello Go to Mars three times. Made in 1953, sixteen years before I was born, it’s still my favorite film of theirs. I like to think I was the only kid in 6th grade who had seen (of his own free will) and enjoyed such classics as Bell Book and Candle (1958), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Mouse that Roared (1959), Inspector General (1949), Bells are Ringing (1960), The Caddy (1953), Cinderfella (1960), Operation Petticoat (1959), The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966), Balls of Fire (1941) and it’s musical remake with Danny Kaye, A Song is Born (1948). There are so many more I can’t even name.

And that’s just the comedies.

I know, as a geek, it’s not uncommon for my people to dig through the old genre classics and watch them. So while I had a healthy appreciation for all things Ray Harryhausen (Valley of Gwangi from 1969 being my favorite), and Day of the Triffids, and Twenty Million Miles to Earth, and others, I guess I don’t find it too unusual that I’ve seen them. Sci-fi geeks seek that shit out. It’s what we do. Same with horror and western geeks. The fact that I saw so many of them at an early age might be a bit strange, but it feels almost secondary.

But the comedies? I didn’t think that was too strange until late in my life when I realized good friends of mine had never seen a Danny Kaye movie. The thought was bizarre to me. I mean, I had his obituary tacked up to my cork board when he died. In fact, I venture that I still have it, tucked away in a box somewhere. That’s the kind of impact he made on me. That’s the kind of impact those movies had on me.

See, when I say I love film, I say it having consumed a crazy amount of film, pretty much indiscriminately from an early age. I love the medium. I love the spectacle. The magic. Because that’s what it is. Magic, conducted one frozen frame at a time, replayed so fast your brain thinks you’re seeing motion.

It’s shaped who I am in ways I’m still figuring out now.

Honestly, I sometimes to wonder why my parents let me spend that 5 hour block in front of the TV on Saturdays as frequently as I did. For my mom’s part, I think she might have just been asleep at the switch, glad I was out of her hair. But for my dad, who, when I was 5 or so, introduced me Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and the Little Rascals, I think he saw it as me embracing something that he once loved. I honestly don’t know.

I can’t help but think about how much we’ve lost. Not just in terms of those films being lost to time in some cases. Sweet Jesus, don’t get me started on lost films… But those movies were ubiquitous. Sure, you couldn’t really control what was being shown or when. You were at the mercy of the Channel 9. But you could kind of trust them to curate your experience. You could sit down at a specified time, in a specified place and receive the gospel of celluloid. And if I didn’t like the movie being shown, I could turn off the TV, go outside and play.

Which I did sometimes. Even I have limits.

But beyond those films being hard to find, the culture of a la carte movies has killed the ritual somewhat, too. The idea of looking back, of just wallowing in movies from a previous generation, it’s not something I see available to the kids growing up today.

I know, I know, I know. I’m dangerously close to “Get off my damn lawn!” and “Back in MY day!” I turn 50 in a few years, so I’m entitled to a bit of grumpy nostalgia. And it’s not even that I’m angry. At least some of the better of those movies have been preserved and are available for those with the inclination. And Gods bless AMC, especially when they’re showing the old stuff.

I like to think there’s an 8 year old right now on their Kindle Fire, watching Abbot and Costello Go to Mars right now, laughing at a couple of idiots in New Orleans at Mardi Gras thinking they’re on another planet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling the urge to try and track down some old Martin & Lewis movies for tonight.

See you at the movies!

img_1636It’s not that I have anything against peanut butter and chocolate. In fact, I remember one night with a friend back when I was sixteen or seventeen when we split a hand-packed quart of Baskin Robins peanut butter chocolate ice cream for DINNER. So I understand the appeal. But in a world of Reese’s everywhere (and in every seasonally appropriate shape–eggs for Easter, trees for Christmas, pumpkins for Halloween, butt plugs for Father’s Day…no…wait…that’s next year they roll those out) it’s nice to see someone mixing it up.

The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups swap out chocolate for butterscotch. Not white chocolate. Not dark chocolate. Butterscotch. And despite the fact that it’s disturbingly flesh colored…like, mannequin skin…it lives up to it’s name. And that name is Smoothie.

The history of the the butterscotch peanut butter cup reads almost like a footnote.

Take a trip back with me to Depression-era Pennsylvania. And no, I’m not talking football post season. In 1936 in the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania, brother Bill and Bob Boyer started up the original side hustle–making candy in their home kitchen to bring in extra income. These Boyer Brothers (hence the name of their company), started small, doing chocolate clusters, like peanut raisin chocolate clusters which was apparently a thing at the time. And as their candy became more popular in the area, they started branching out into new flavors.

They hit gold with the Mallow Cup in the mid-late 1940’s. If you’ve EVER had a Boyer chocolate outside of the greater Pennsylvania area, it’s probably this confection. Imagine a deep peanut butter cup, except instead of peanut butter, it’s filled with whipped marshmallow. It’s…distinctive. *Side note, I don’t get the appeal.*

Another thing that sets the Boyer Brothers candy  is the Play Money program. Each of their candies comes with a cardboard piece printed with fake Mallow Cup coins in random amounts. Collect them and cash them in for valuable prices in their prize catalog. Apparently you can also redeem them for cash, but at 500 points for $2, it’s not exactly a retirement scheme, especially now that you can only redeem $50 per person in a calendar year. That sounds like a lot, but one candy junkie redeemed for around $350 in 2006. Hopefully he spent it on insulin.

So, at some point, as often happens, Boyer Brothers got bought out by American Maize Products, a company specializing in corn products. Apparently, they had a sweet tooth, too. American Maize sold the Boyer Brothers concerns to the founder of Consolidated Brands in 1984. And it was here, in this twice-removed (yet still manufacturing in Altoona) incarnation that someone had the ingenious idea to swap out chocolate for butterscotch.

And holy shit, it really works.

I mean, it’s sweet. Don’t get me wrong. Butterscotch always seems a little bit sweeter than most chocolate, but it’s not overwhelming here. It has a a nice balance of richness, sweet, and salty. And true to it’s name, it’s pretty smooth. The peanut butter has a slight hint of nutty chunky texture, which I like. It sets it apart from those OTHER peanut butter cups just a bit. That said, I can’t imagine going on a binge of these, which is probably for the best. I needed to add a touch of bitterness and chase my two cups with a black Americano because I’m not a savage.

Jesus, I hope the guy who redeemed $350 of play money is okay. Could someone go check on him please? Last seen in Ohio? Maybe just ask around. I’m worried about him.

As for you, if you manage to track these little gems down, I encourage you to take a chance on them. The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups from Boyer are a pleasant variation on a theme that will satisfy lovers of both peanut butter and butterscotch.

Cody the Timid Pirate Sample Page

Cody the Timid Pirate goes adventuring. Art by Jeremy Madmardigan Matthews

You feel that on the air? That’s the anticipation of this year’s Norwescon, though the convention itself isn’t until the final weekend of March. This will be the 39th Norwescon, it would seem. After this year it be early bedtimes and complaining about how everything hurts. Or is that just what happened to me when I turned 40?

This year’s theme is “Remembering the Future” and features guests of honor Tanya Huff, Janny Wurts, and William Hartmann. Norwescon is a great convention, and draws a good crowd of pros and fans alike. There seems to be something for everyone who is eager to let their geek flag fly.

Except karaoke, sadly. Why they haven’t thought to bring in a karaoke company for one night up in Maxi’s, the lovely lounge in the sky, is beyond me. I can’t be the only one wanting to bust out some Ziggy Stardust. Especially not this month!

This marks my second year putting together the Horror track, which feels weirdly apropos as I just wrapped an edit pass on my haunted house novel The Lictonwood. We had some great panels last year, and this year looks like it could be even better. In fact, most of the tracks have some inspired panels. If you’re a geek about town, Norwescon is going to be the best convention bang for your buck in the Northwest if not further.

But primary reason for this post is to let my rabid fan base…no…um, morbidly curious stalkers? That seems off too. Um, how about “those who might give a crap?” Yes. Better. This is to let those who might give a crap a heads up on my panel schedule along with a bit of a sneak preview.

  • Thursday – 5 pm – Cascade 10: Horror’s Fantasy Roots. Join moderator Logan L. Masterson, K. M. Alexander, Jason Vanhee, and myself as we take a look back at some of the fantasy influences that help make horror what it is today.
  • Thursday – 10 pm – Cascade 10: Let’s Do some Comics Fancasting. I won’t lie. This is the panel I was born to do. Judging from the other names on the panel, you should show up for the romp. There might be some out-of-the-box actors bandied about! The amazing Mickey Shultz will lead myself and Logan L. Masterson in a journey down the casting rabbit hole!
  • Thursday – 11 pm – Cascade 10: Son of Terror in Space. This will be the follow up to last year’s Terror in Space which I missed out on. Expect a rousing hour geeking out about sci-fi horror with me, Jason Bourget, and Burton Gamble.
  • Friday – 4 pm – Cascade 9: You Are What You Eat: Cannibal Horror. Things might get freaky here, just in time for dinner! We have a great group of panelists with a wide range of experience–not in eating people, I hope, but in the sub-genre. I’ll be joined by Lisa Bolekaja, Jason Bourget, and the fabulous Arrin Dembo moderating.
  • Saturday – 10 am – Cascade 1: Story time! I’ve got half an hour to read and say howdy. Due to the early time of day, I will not be reading anything as dark as last year’s “Hell is a Parade,” but I will most likely be reading “The Last Real Man” from the Selfies from the End of the World anthology. Other possibilities are a novel chapter from Ink Calls to Ink or Ties that Bind. We’ll see.
  • Saturday – 2 pm – Cascade 9: The Ghostbusters Effect. With the new movie coming out, what better time to look back on the effect this classic had on not only horror but on the study of paranormal science? Ghostbusters expert Christopher Stewart will moderate a panel consisting of me, Amber Clark, and Nina Post.
  • Sunday – 11 am – Cascade 13: Worldbuilding: Standards of Beauty in Secondary Worlds. Alex C. Renwick will ride rein on a panel consisting of myself, Rhiannon Held, David J. Peterson, and Sar Surmick. I’m thrilled to be on this panel. It should be fun and informative for writer and readers alike!

Unlike previous years, my schedule is really front-loaded on Thursday, with all the other days spread out and earlier in the day. This will free up the rest of my weekend to haunt other panels, readings, parties, and should they bring in karaoke, the microphone.

If you don’t have your ticket now, get it.

It’s going to be one hell of a time!

 

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…

This is, in part, a review of the new Amazon Prime series Red Oaks. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in the necessity of narrative consistency. There will be some mild spoilers, but i argue that I’m only spoiling something rotten–the bruise on the banana that is best cut out and avoided so you can enjoy the rest.

Read at your own risk.

So, a bit of background: Amazon is producing it’s own programming now, shown as part of their Amazon Prime digital video. It’s kind of ambitious, and they have thrown several things at the wall to see what sticks. Some of what I’ve watched has been great. In fact, of the programs that did interest me, they were as good if not better than network programming. And like Netflix original programming, they make the entire season available at once.

Red Oaks is described as a “coming-of-age comedy set in the ‘go-go’ 80s about a college student enjoying a last hurrah before summer comes to an end–and the future begins.” It has a great cast (shout outs to long time favorites Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey as the parents, Paul Reiser as the club president and supplemental father figure, and Teen Wolf alum Gage Golightly as the aerobics instructor girlfriend with epic 80’s hair). It has a fine stable of directors such as David Gordon Green, Hal Hartley, and Amy Heckerling. And the soundtrack is an astounding playlist of music from my misspent youth–some painfully familiar, and some I haven’t heard in 30 years.

Overall, the series strikes a tone of the typical sentimental coming-of-age story. 20-something kid takes summer job, putting him in contact with both peers he grew up with and a new world that is promised by the range of experiences and new contacts made at the job. Red Oaks is not trying to break new ground here.

Nor is it trying to go for a laugh-a-minute sit-com. In fact, it isn’t interested in telling jokes. Yes. It’s funny. But it’s a soft, character driven humor. If it weren’t for fact that episodes were only 30 minutes long, I’d almost characterize this as light drama than comedy. Several of the characters are painted a bit larger than life–the accountant dad who wants the son to follow in his footsteps despite the son being bad at math and uninterested in being an accountant, the chubby best-friend pot dealer/valet in love with the hot lifeguard, the sleazy photographer with his eyes on the sweet and perhaps too-naive girlfriend, the mysterious, worldly daddy’s girl. But despite the reliance on these archetypes, the series remains pretty grounded, telling believable stories you can relate to if you were ever a white kid from the lower-middle class in the eighties.

And here’s where the series fails.

In episode seven, the family goes to a Benihana style restaurant, where father and son are having a failure to connect. Now, it’s only natural things are somewhat strained between the two. The series opens with dad having a mild heart attack while they’re playing tennis and, fearing the end is here, spills everything about his doubts and fears, including details about his unhappy marriage and how he thinks his wife, the mother, might be a lesbian. Further, the son is realizing more and more that there is a big world out there, and being an accountant like his dad is not at all what he wants to do–he just doesn’t know what the answer is, yet, and is feeling trapped.

And then the mysterious old Asian man steps in with a special birthday drink, some kind of liquor with a humpback whale on the label, forcing father and son to share three shots of the “special birthday drink.” We fade to black, and when the characters wake up, they find that they have magically switched bodies.

Imagine the sound of a record scratching to a stop. This is, essentially, what happened to my brain. The fact that this episode was directed by the gifted Amy Heckerling could in no way save it. It doesn’t matter how well acted it is (and both Richard Kind and Craig Roberts do outstanding jobs here), or how well scripted it is (which it isn’t, to be honest). The trust has been broken. For one, the strange, magical Asian guy trope is dated at the very least, if not flat out racist. But also, the rules of the world, set up in the previous six episodes, have been broken, only to be returned to status quo at the end of the episode with no consequences.

It’s such a bizarre choice it makes me wonder if someone lost a bet. Yes, the body-swap story is a classic of the 80’s. But the movies that tell that story are self-contained. They make sense within the fucked-up rules of that particular world. Even the TV show Community knew that when they did a body-swap story during the “Gas Leak” year that was season 4, making the body-swap not a magical occurrence, but a way for Troy to run away from responsibilities while Abed played along for the sake of his friend (and because he always wanted to do a body-swap episode.)

But you can’t introduce blatant magic into the middle of a story that hasn’t even hinted at it, and then pretend it never happened in the next episode. Imagine if they had an episode of Law & Order involving Satanic sacrifice where Satan actually shows up, and then the next episode it’s back to the status quo.

Fuck you, Red Oaks.

Specifically, fuck you episode 7.

Other than that, I highly recommend the series. I love the pacing and the character development. I’m even willing to overlook the manic pixie dream girl/rich daddy’s girl trope as most of the characters are painted with pretty broad strokes. They do some smart things I’m not used to seeing. The friend’s pursuit of the life-guard is a sweet and well done arc. The trajectory of Nash, the tennis pro who is looking to better his situation, was surprisingly charming. The parents coming to terms with what’s going wrong in their marriage was sad and strangely perfect. And Craig Roberts who plays the lead, David, is outstanding. I’ll watch him in anything now.

All in all, it was a great way to spend 4 1/2 hours.

But seriously, skip episode 7. You’re not going to miss anything.

Taksara abides

Taksara abides

A continuation of the Drawlloween experiment. A short piece from what was originally an art prompt, each individual piece no more than 500 words. Fun-size, if you will.

This was where things began to take a strange turn for me, where the daily exercises became something different.

Parts 6-10 follow.

Enjoy.


6 – Pumpkin

The key, his dad taught him before he could walk, was to be fast. Create the image of what you want to carve and hold onto it. Burn it into your mind. The triangle eyes. Goofy, toothless smile. Visualize and when you can draw it with your eyes closed, it’s time for the knife.

Not before.

Once it came time to cut, it was all fast strokes. No hesitation.

That’s why he was the best.

It was his favorite time of year. The sound of leaves under foot. The smell of the changing season. He missed the farm where he grew up, the harvest festivals. And everywhere, pumpkins.

He sat in the dark, fingers rubbing a groove in the black wood of the knife’s grip as he concentrated until his head hurt. The vision was perfect. The knife felt sure in his small hand. All he needed was a pumpkin.

He heard the jingle of keys in the hallway outside. The neighbor lady was finally home. His grandmother who had taken him in after the accident with his parents called her a “filthy hoor” but he didn’t really know what it meant. He figured it had something to do with her late hours. It was already past 2. His grandma had been asleep for hours already, breath heavy with her medicine.

The keys rattled in the lock.

Silent as a statue behind the arm of the sofa, he waited. The front door swung open, casting a silhouette of his neighbor across the floor in the hallway light. She stepped in and closed the door, not even bothering with the lights.

That was fine. He didn’t need light to carve the pumpkin. He was almost on top of her when she turned on the lamp and saw him, just shy of four feet in Sesame Street Underoos, blank face, wicked knife in his little hand. They both froze for a second before she started screaming. And then he moved, slashing a smile through her blue dress with deep, sure strokes.

7 – Haunted House

As haunted houses went, Mark Obiyashi had seen a lot worse. Wind howled through the windowless frames in the wall, a yawning abyss of darkness beyond. The lights flickered and swayed. Somewhere, deeper within the house, someone was sobbing, but he’d already checked those rooms and confirmed that he was alone.

“You sure this is the place?” Grandfather Yoshi said.

Well, alone except for the ghost of his grandfather, his near-constant companion for most of his life. But despite being a ghost himself, the former soldier was crap at picking up on others of his kind. He didn’t have the gift. Not like Mark. Otherwise he would have seen the matched set of tormented dead that had just appeared, cowering against the near wall.

They were both in pajamas, he in wide-lapel flannel, she in an ankle-length cotton nightshirt, sleeveless. Both of them bore the wounds that killed them, the by-now familiar knife wounds in their abdomens. The husband also had deep knife wounds across his bleeding palms, indicating he might have woken up and tried to block the blade. Husband and wife also had carved pumpkins worn over their dead faces.

“That’s a new one,” Mark muttered under his breath.

“You found the first ones?” Yoshi said. He sounded skeptical.

He ignored his grandfather and edged closer to the new ghosts. “I’m here to help,” he said calmly, palms out. He could feel the ectoplasm in the room, curling around his fingers like warm taffy. It was that same tenuous trail of ectoplasm which had led him here from his apartment, from the Screaming Woman. “You knew them. Whoever did this to you, you know them.”

The wife lowered her pumpkin head, shook it in denial. Mark figured she had likely been dead before she woke so she hadn’t seen the attack anyway. The husband whispered something. A single word slipping between pumpkin teeth.

“Trevor.”

“Who is Trevor?” Mark said, hoping the name might jar something loose in the wife as well.

“He’s just a boy,” the woman said.

Was just a boy, Mark figured. If Trevor was still alive at this point he’d be well into adulthood. The Screaming Woman had been sometime in the mid-80’s. These two, sometime before that. It had been a good thirty years. That was one hell of a head start, but at least he had a name now. With that and an approximate year, he could fill in the details. Not impossible, but difficult.

But if Mark was going to put Screaming Woman to rest, he had to try.

8 – Zombie

Jerry shuffled into the kitchen in the same jeans and t-shirt he had passed out on the den sofa wearing. He blinked against the morning sun streaming in the sliding glass door, searching for bacon, the scent of which had roused him in the first place.

“Bacon?” He mumbled to Wendy who was setting out plates on the kitchen table.

“In the oven,” she said. “And I’ll make eggs just as soon as you get back from the Millers.”

“The Millers?”

“You still owe them an apology for last night. I’d tell you to shower because you look like a damn zombie, but they love Halloween so, maybe that works to your benefit.”

He dimly remembered disrupting their backyard party. He smacked at the stank-mouth he woke up with and wondered how much of that had come from trying to kiss or maybe bite their big Golden Retriever, Michael. “I’ll be back,” he mumbled.

Slippers retrieved, he crossed the dewy front lawn to the Miller’s split-level tract home. They’d already gone all-out decorating for Halloween, despite it being two weeks away. Decorative pumpkins, some real, some plastic, littered the lawn. The man of the house was already up, sitting on the front porch with a cup of coffee next to him. A pumpkin sat on his lap. As Jerry approached, he saw Trevor Miller raise a wicked looking carving knife to the orange flesh of the pumpkin. He felt like he was interrupting something sacred, and his heart caught in his throat.

“Jerry,” Trevor said calmly.

“Hey, Trev. So, I screwed up last night. I went off my meds and…”

“This about the barbeque?”

“Yeah. I made an ass of myself and I’m so sorry.”

Trevor shrugged. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Jerry. His face was a void of emotion. “It’s not a problem, Jerry. No harm done.”

It was a huge relief. Or it should have felt like one. The way Trevor watched him still made Jerry nervous. The Millers had only been neighbors for about a year. And it wasn’t like they were close. “Great, Trevor. That’s great.”

The knife slipped effortlessly into the orange flesh of the pumpkin and Trevor smiled, eyes closing slightly. “I’ll be seeing you, Jerry. Happy Halloween.”

Jerry headed back home with more urgency in his step than before.

9 – Eyeball

The lights flickered on in the underground garage, though the big man didn’t need them to see. He was used to being a lot further underground than this. But his companion was still a creature of the light, though he had high hopes for her. He led her to a high shelf at the back of the space, their heels clicking and echoing off the perpetually damp concrete. He’d tried to do something about the moisture, but even Hell’s contractors had limitations. The miracle workers largely went to the other place.

“This is surprisingly serial killer of you,” the woman at his side said, voice tinged with respect. She stepped closer to the shelf overburdened with small boxes and jars. Some of the jars held dry items. A finger here, an insect husk there. Some contained objects in liquid, only a few of which were identifiable. She pointed to one wide, jar full of pale green liquid with thick shapes floating within. “What’s this?”

“Pickles,” the big man said. “This place in Brooklyn makes them. They’re out of this world. I always keep a jar handy.” He made a sound of discovery and retrieved a jar from high on the shelf. “Here. This is what I was looking for.”

She took the offered jar. It was small, like something you’d use to store gourmet jelly. A single eye floated within, the iris cornflower blue. “Who did this belong to?”

“A guy in Kansas who saw too much,” the big man said. “He made me a deal, and I got the eye when he died. If you’re going to work for me, you’ll need it.”

She held the eye up to her own eye, amused how it seemed to track the big man. Doubly amused with how even a disembodied eye could look scared. “I’m still not entirely sure what you want me for.”

“There’s this kid named Mark Obiyashi. He sees ghosts. It looks like he’s going to stick his stupid nose in something I’ve been setting up for thirty years. If I deal with it myself, I tip my hand.”

“So, Hell subcontracts?”

He smiled big and bright. “You my girl, May? You have the drive, the juju to stop a deadspeaker?”

“I’m your girl, sir.”

10 – Alien

Mark put the five lollipops on the gas station counter and fished cash out of his Velcro black and white checkerboard wallet. The candy stared up at him, the multi-colored alien faces seemingly indifferent to their eventual fate. He unwrapped one of the cinnamon flavored ones while the clerk counted back change.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting by the front door, and easily kept up as Mark dropped his longboard to skate back towards home. “How many do you think he killed?”

Mark was reluctant to give concrete numbers without counting the ghosts himself. An hour in the library with the assistance of a recently deceased reference librarian had given him a chilling estimate, however. “At least nine,” he said.

But he knew the real total was likely more. The most recent body had been found six years ago in Ohio and had been dead for a few more years before that. It was only fate that it got discovered at all. Over time, Trevor had gotten good at hiding his activities. After killing his parents and then a year later Jackie, the woman currently haunting his apartment, he’d gone to a psychiatric facility. He’d been released late November, 1995, theoretically cured. The second of November, 1996, another body turned up, torso carved like a jack o’lantern, but he was already long gone.

“It’s possible the Ohio murder was the last one,” Mark said around the cinnamon flavored alien head sucker. “It was nine years ago, and no more bodies have been found. So maybe he died. Or maybe he hides them better. But the fact that these ghosts are still out there looking for closure, I’m thinking he’s still alive.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” Mark kicked down the street. “Now we find as many of his ghosts as we can. We bring them home. And fast. Because Halloween is right around the corner.”

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

A challenge appeared on Tumblr a few weeks ago. Drawlloween. Intended as an artist prompt, to draw a little something from each of the 31 daily prompts through the month of October. I love Halloween. I consider October Halloween month. And while I do art on occasion, that’s way too ambitious for my limited skills. So I decided to undertake the challenge as a writing exercise–a short piece, each under 500 words, for each prompt.

As things often do, it became something… else.

I’ll be re-publishing them in blocks of 5 throughout the month here.


1 – Ghost

The blood curdling sounds of someone being stabbed to death in the next room woke Mark from pleasant dreams about the ocean. He blinked in the direction of his bedside clock. 2:25. Right on schedule. The Screaming Girl was back.

With a groan, he rolled out of the narrow bed and shuffled through his discarded clothes to the door. He fumbled with the light switch on the brick wall next to him, illuminating the single space that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen in his small Bronx walk-up.

Screaming Girl stood in a pool of phantasmal blood wearing a party dress circa 1985 with the shoulder pads to prove it. The dress was pale blue except for the front where a knife had carved up her abdomen like a Halloween pumpkin leaving the ragged remains slick and red-black. There was no assailant present as they’d had something like a three decade head start. Screaming Girl’s head was tilted back, mouth hung wide like a Cottonmouth snake in anguish, a scream that would shake the windows if the windows were psychically sensitive cascading out of it.

“Hey!” Mark said a bit too loudly, causing the scream to strangle off as she looked at him, momentarily confused. “I have classes tomorrow morning. Could you maybe not?”

“You can see me?” Screaming Girl said.

She always said that, every night since he moved in a week ago. Ghosts, man. Memory span like a chronic pot smoker. Absent-minded sacks full or rage and pain. “Yes. I can see you. I can hear you too. “

“Oh.” She looked confused. She looked at Mark then down at the killing wounds she’d been carrying ever since someone gutted her in her living room. “I’m dead.”

“Yeah. Are we done for the night?”

“I suppose,” she said. “Sorry.”

Screaming Girl faded out, taking the phantasmal gore of her murder with her.

Could be worse. At least she wasn’t like the poltergeist in that place in Denver that broke all his shit before he could move out. With a sigh, he turned out the light and returned to his bedroom.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting for him, staring out the window at the still unfamiliar neighborhood, the yellow street lights showing through his wispy form. He was still wearing the military uniform he had been buried in one fine April morning, 1944. “Can you believe some people?”

2 – Devil

The bullets stopped—hovered in the air in a suddenly crystalline moment. He counted four: one that would surely miss, while three flew true. The one mere inches from his face was the most troubling as, like the bullets, Grant was also frozen in place.

He felt a chill that prickled the skin on the back of his neck mere seconds before he heard the voice. “Freaks you out a bit, doesn’t it.” A dapperly dressed, thick-set man stepped nimble as a baby dear into his vision, avoiding the rivers of blood on the off-white linoleum floor. Not fat. No, he’d never call this strange man with the sharpened smile fat. Thick.

“What’s going on?”

The stranger looked around as if for the first time, eyes mockingly wide. “Well, Grant, what’s going on is that you walked into this clinic, guns blazing, wounded eight women and killed five more. That’s what’s going on.”

“I was doing God’s work.”

The smile did not falter, but the eyes turned hard, like the big man wished he was biting the head off a chicken with those perfect white choppers. His voice was cold as he tapped out a cigarette and lit it with the tip of one finger. “So you said at the time. But I’m afraid you were mistaken. I’m the one here who’s doing God’s work.”

Grant found that being frozen such as he was, he couldn’t even void his bladder, though his instincts to do so were strong indeed. “Are you an angel?”

“Not so much. Needed room to stretch my wings, so I moved out of dad’s place. Moved downtown, if you know what I mean.”

Grant sized the big man up. It wasn’t exactly how he had pictured the Devil. “You’re here to take me to Hell? After everything I’ve done in God’s name?”

The mirth returned to the Devil’s face. “Buddy, it’s because of what you’ve done in His name that Heaven doesn’t want you. To be honest, I don’t want you either. You’re kind of a sad and petty asshole, and I’d rather not have to see you around. It would depress me.”

Grant was confused. “So, I get to live?”

The Devil’s laugh boomed. “No. You get to wander forever, burdened by all the pain you’ve caused. Invisible. Intangible. Forgotten. Now fuck off.”

With a puff of brimstone, time resumed.

3 – Goblin

The bars were long empty, the beleaguered cocktail waitresses and bartenders settling into cracked leatherette booths of all-night diners for a post-work dinner while their former customers staggered home or slept it off in their cars before attempting the drive on foggy Karlsburg streets.

And then there was Henry and Amy, leaning against each other for support as they snuck noisily into the dark playground of Nathan Hale Elementary. “You sure this is a good idea?” Henry asked, “Won’t the police have a problem with us being here after dark?”

“No one comes in here after dark,” Amy said. “Not after the dun dun DUN incident.” She punctuated her dramatics by turning and walking clumsily backward, making a spooky hands at her companion. She overestimated her ability to navigate backwards in her current condition and was sent sprawling on her ass in the shredded rubber chips around the slide with a yelp.

Henry looked a shade more sober than before as he looked around, eyes wide. “Wait, this is the school they say is haunted? The one where they found that body a few years ago?”

“Five years ago. And it’s not haunted,” Amy said, waiving off the help to stand that Henry, in his fear, wasn’t bothering to offer. She used the slide’s corrugated metal later as a brace and struggled to her feet. “Haunting are ghosts. No ghosts here. At least I don’t think there are any ghosts here. Never heard of any when I went here.”

Henry decided there was safety in numbers and edged closer to Amy next to the bulk of the old metal slide. “You went here? I thought you said you moved here from Boston.”

“I went to Boston for college, but I grew up here.” Amy waved her arms wide. Her voice took on a note of melancholy. “I grew up right here. You know, they say this city’s name is derived from the word kobold.”

His attention was split between Amy and the deep darkness of the unfamiliar space. He could swear he heard skittering footsteps on the surrounding asphalt. “Kobold? What’s a kobold?”

“Goblins. Like toddlers gone horribly wrong. Big, black eyes. Big scabby ears. Smile that looks like a rusted hacksaw.” Amy grabbed ahold of his hand as if for safety and he squeezed it reassuringly. “They don’t like the light. And they’re always hungry.”

Through the alcohol haze, he felt the cold touch of a handcuff around his wrist. He tried to pull away in shock to find the other end attached to the sturdy frame of the slide. Amy stepped out of arm’s reach. She seemed more sober than before. “Stop fucking around. This isn’t funny.”

But she wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, her eyes searching the dark playground, arms wide, inviting. “I brought you another offering,” she shouted. “Five more years! That was our deal!”

Henry was sure there was movement in the shadows now. And they were hungry.

4 – Vampire

The jangling bells of the princess phone next to the bed woke her well before her alarm, before even the sun had cracked the horizon. In that transition from drowsy to full wakefulness, she dropped the receiver on her face trying to answer it, a whine of “Ow” before her mumbled “Hello?”

“Jackie, it’s Hamilton. Sorry I woke you but I needed to talk to someone before the end.”

Jackie sat up in bed, heart racing. She hadn’t spoken to Hamilton since he’d broken her heart two weeks ago, but she hadn’t stopped loving him. “Before what’s over? Ham? Are you about to do something stupid?”

“Things are moving too fast,” he said. “The world, I mean. The world is moving too fast. There was a time I thought I could keep up, but ’85 has been a weird year for me.”

“Baby, what are you talking about?”

“There are things I haven’t been completely honest about. When I said I was born in New York in ’59, I meant York. In England. And I meant 1659.”

Jackie opened her mouth to try and talk sense into him, but suddenly a lot of the things that had caused stress in their relationship started to make sense. The objections that formed in her brain came out as a simple, “Huh. Vampire?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I wanted to be honest with you, and I guess better late than never.”

Now that she knew the truth, she wondered if there was a way to start over, a way to make things work. Sure, he was a creature of darkness, but he was a lot better than all the other guys she had dated. “It’s okay, Ham. We can make this work. You want to come over? I can keep the blinds down.”

Hamilton was quiet on the other end of the phone. She thought she could hear the hiss of truck brakes in the background. “Love you, Jackie. Had to call and tell you that. I’ve been feeling lost and afraid for a long time and you’ve been a bright spot in the dark. And I want to see the sun again.”

Fear chased the last of the sleep from her blood. “Where are you?”

“The park where we met, near the bench with a great view of the sunrise.”

She hung up and threw on clothes. The park was only six blocks away and panic gave her feet wings. But it wasn’t enough. The sun was fully up by the time she reached the park, the bench with the view, and the glass phone booth. A block of wood braced the door closed from the inside.

And on the floor, a fine, gray dusting of ash.

5 – Werewolf

The back door was ajar, though he would have burst through if it hadn’t been. It would take more than a sliding glass door to stop a mighty werewolf! He knocked over the trashcan just inside the door. A discarded milk carton and soggy filter full of coffee grounds toppled out onto the linoleum. He howled, staggered into the center of the kitchen and howled again.

A woman’s voice from the next room. “Jerry?”

He stopped in his tracks, teeth barred.

His wife entered the kitchen with a rolled up copy of Marie Claire. “Jerry! The Millers called. What the hell has gotten into you?”

“Get away, Wendy! I’m a werewolf!” He growled at her, menacingly.

She sighed. “No, Jerry. No you’re not.”

Jerry lunged for her only to be smacked on the nose with the magazine. He backed down with a whimper. “I’m the Alpha.”

“You’re an idiot who doesn’t realize he’s not a kid anymore, who took three hits of acid you got from hell knows where, and then decided to crash our neighbor’s barbeque, crap on their lawn, and bite their Golden Retriever.”

“He was a Beta…” Jerry started only to be whacked into silence with a few more blows from the magazine.

“You’re going to sleep this off on the sofa in the den,” she said, pointing a manicured index finger at him. “Then you’re going to take a shower and go apologize to the Millers. I’m not moving because of you again.”

He cowered, eyes down, tracing lines in the damp coffee grounds on the floor next to him. “Yes dear.”

“Now clean up your mess,” she said, returning to her book club in the other room. “And get your shit together, Jerry. Or I’m buying a gun with some goddamned silver bullets.”

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.