Table of Contents Announcement

Donald S. Crankshaw and I are pleased to announce the Table of Contents for our forthcoming anthology Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith. Authors include Nebula nominees Beth Cato and Kenneth Schneyer, plus 18 others, newcomers and veterans alike.

“The Monastic” by Daniel Southwell
“When I Was Dead” by Stephen Case
“Forlorn” by Bret Carter
“Too Poor to Sin” by H. L. Fullerton
“Golgotha” by David Tallerman
“A Lack of Charity” by James Beamon
“Of Thine Impenetrable Spirit” by Robert B. Finegold, MD
“A Good Hoard” by Pauline J. Alama
“Yuri Gagarin Sees God” by J. S. Bangs
“Confinement” by Kenneth Schneyer
“The Angel Hunters” by Christian Leithart
“Cutio” by F. R. Michaels
“St. Roomba’s Gospel” by Rachael K. Jones
“Yuki and the Seven Oni” by S. Q. Eries
“A Recipe for Rain and Rainbows” by Beth Cato
“This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins
“Ascension” by Laurel Amberdine
“Cracked Reflections” by Joanna Michal Hoyt
“The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta
“Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rogers

We received over 450 submissions, out of which we accepted only 20, turning away many stories that we both would have loved to include.

The anthology should be out sometime this summer; in the meantime, you can pre-order through our Patreon site, and/or subscribe to the Mysterion newsletter for more frequent updates.

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New story out in SQ Mag

My story “Thou Hast by Moonlight at Her Window Sung” is in the latest edition of SQ Mag, from Australia.  They publish in a webzine format, with all the stories available to read for free online.  So check it out, and check out the other stories in the magazine!  I haven’t read them yet (it just came out today), but there’s a story by Mike Resnick, so it’s not all newbie authors (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

Editor Sophie Yorkston wrote the perfect blurb for the story, so I’m just going to quote it here instead of trying to come up with my own:

Trapped in another world, lured there with lies, the servants of the castle toil in the kitchen at dishes both tantalising and glorious. If not for the beauty of this world, perhaps they could leave…

I originally wrote this story at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2008, where it was critiqued by none other than Connie Willis (and my 16 wonderful classmates).  (If you don’t know who Connie Willis is, you should remedy that–start with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book.)  I’m thrilled that it’s finally found a home, although not before tying with my 2014 story “It Is Beautiful Here” for most-rejected-but-still-eventually-published, at 31 rejections.  (Writing isn’t a game for the thin-skinned!)

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Worlds without eggs

I haven’t liked eggs since I was 3 years old.  Eggs as ingredients don’t bother me–in cake, custard, ice-cream, meringue, chocolate mousse, chocolate soufflé, pancakes, waffles–I just don’t think of them as food.  I don’t eat flour straight out of the bag, either.

Which is why characters in my pre-Industrial fantasy stories don’t eat nearly as many eggs as they should.

In my last post on food in fantasy fiction, I argued that the much-maligned stew was a perfectly reasonable meal for your characters to eat, even though they wouldn’t be cooking it while trekking through the wilderness on some epic quest; but that you, as the author, shouldn’t be lazy and write simply that they ate “stew” without telling the reader what went into it.  I promised to write more about worldbuilding through food, and hinted that I might be talking about eggs next.

Humans have been eating eggs since prehistory, and chickens may have been domesticated as early as 6000 BC.  The ancient Roman Apicius cookery manual has recipes for eggs.  Here’s a sauce that includes egg yolk as an ingredient:

9.3.2 Sauce for stuffed squid: pepper, lovage, coriander, celery seed, egg yolk, honey, vinegar, liquamen [fish sauce], wine and oil.  Thicken it.

Most of the Apicius recipes are just a list of ingredients, without quantities and with few if any instructions.  But this sauce sounds suspiciously like a flavored mayonnaise.  (The Romans ate many food items that would be familiar to a modern Western diner.  Chicken wings were apparently a popular snack–wing bones have been excavated from underneath ancient public baths, along with lamb chop bones, olive pits, and nut shells.)

Eggs are usually the main ingredient in the ancient Roman dish known as a patina.  A sample recipe:

4.2.5 Another patina, of asparagus [served] cold: take prepared asparagus, pound in a mortar, pour on water and pound thoroughly; strain through a colander.  Put prepared figpecker [a small songbird] to one side.  Pound in a mortar 6 scruples [1/4 oz] of pepper, add liquamen, grind again.  Add a cyathus [1/12 pt] of wine, a cyathus of passum; pour into a pan [with] 3 oz of oil.  Let it come to heat there.  Grease a dish.  In it mix 6 eggs with oenogarum [i.e., the peppered liquamen-wine-passum-oil mixture described above]; put this with the asparagus liquor in hot embers.  Then arrange the figpeckers, cook, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Apicius has several patina recipes, named after the pan they were cooked in.  This was like a shallow covered casserole dish with a raised lip all around the lid that would hold hot embers on top and allow you to heat the contents of the pan from both top and bottom.  As far as I can tell, the patina is a lot like an Italian fritatta.  Persian cuisine has a similar dish called a kuku, and according to my Persian cookbook, it was traditionally cooked exactly the same way as the Roman patina, in the same sort of pan.

Eggs weren’t necessarily cheap in pre-Industrial societies, but they were less expensive than meat, and they stay fresh longer.  Most Americans and Canadians these days keep their eggs in the fridge, but it isn’t necessary if the eggs haven’t been washed before reaching the consumer.  Unrefrigerated, unwashed eggs will easily last about 3 weeks.  Meat … not so much.  Eggs are quick and easy to cook, requiring no specialized equipment.  They might be a bit fragile to carry on a long journey, but people would certainly eat them in their own homes and in taverns and inns.  In fact, “eggs and bacon” is one of the food options Sancho Panza asks the landlord about in that Don Quixote passage I mentioned in my post on stew, although as a supper rather than a breakfast item.

Eggs are popular in non-Western cuisines, too.  China has century eggs and salted duck eggs, and steamed eggs (similar to an omelet) are a traditional dish.  Omelet variations (including the aforementioned frittatas and kukus) are cooked and eaten around the world (from tortilla de patatas in Spain to tamagoyaki in Japan).  Cilbir, a Turkish preparation of poached eggs and yogurt, goes back to at least the 15th century.  Eggs aren’t typically eaten by Indian vegetarians, but egg dishes are popular among the Parsi community and other omnivores.

So why don’t more characters in historically-based fantasy fiction eat eggs?  I know that I neglect to think of eggs as a viable food option for my characters because I don’t think of them as a viable food option for myself.  But what’s everyone else’s excuse?

Perhaps it’s because the food described in fantasy fiction isn’t supposed to represent what members of a culture with a particular environment and technology level would actually eat.  Fantasy food is either aspirational or revolting–lavish descriptions of banquets with at least a dozen courses of roast meat, or bland stews with unrecognizable root vegetables boiled into submission.  And on one level, this makes sense.  You’re probably not writing that six-volume epic fantasy series because you wanted your readers to imagine what the various members of your made-up society might eat for breakfast–if they eat breakfast, which not every culture does–and how their breakfasts might be different from those in Middle Earth, or Narnia, or Westeros.  The problem, though, is that it’s all too easy to fall into overused food clichés, where your characters eat exactly what the reader imagined they would before ever opening your novel.  And at that point, why mention the food at all?

So, next time your characters stop for dinner, whether at an inn or someone’s home, why not offer them an omelet instead of stew?

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New story out in Daily Science Fiction

My new story “The Workshop at the End of the World” is now out at Daily Science Fiction (click to read).  It’s so short that I don’t want to give away too much by trying to explain it, but here’s how it starts:

The workshop’s bright interior felt like a sauna after the numbing midwinter cold outdoors.  The old man immediately took off his fur-lined hat and gloves and started unfastening the buttons of his greatcoat.  His workers glanced up from benches and forge upon his entrance, but they took too much pride in their work to set it aside and rush to greet him.

I think it will become quickly apparent (if it hasn’t already) why the story was published in late December.

If you like super-short science fiction and fantasy stories, you might want to subscribe to Daily Science Fiction.  It’s free, and they’ll email you a new story each day (Monday through Thursday, at any rate).  Just look for the Subscribe heading on the sidebar to the right of my story, in the link above.

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Six months of garden pictures

Last year, I posted some pictures of my vegetable garden at one-week intervals, from when I started planting at the beginning of April, to early May.  Originally, I was going to do a monthly garden post of weekly pictures.  But that didn’t happen.  Then I thought I’d do a post at the end of the gardening season, showing monthly pictures.  I actually wrote most of it in October (October of 2014), but never got around to finishing.

This is mostly a good thing, because it means I was spending more time writing instead of blogging.  When I wasn’t gardening, of course.  It can easily take an hour to water the garden in the morning, and since I use raised beds, I often have to water every day during the hottest parts of the summer.

Anyway, I don’t want all that work I did on the big garden post of 2014 to go to waste, so I’m finishing it up now a year later.  I had a garden in 2015 too, of course, but I’m not going to include pictures of it in this post, because I’m hoping to actually finish and publish this post before 2016.

Okay, so here’s the final picture from my last garden post, a snapshot of the garden on May 5th, 2014.


Garden, 05/05/14

May 5th


A month later, on June 2nd (scroll down), a lot has changed. The fava beans in the lower left corner have gotten much taller, and the wooden poles show where I’ve added tomatoes and pole beans. The pole beans (lower right corner) either haven’t come up or are too small to see from the balcony. The radishes and spinach in the lower half of the long box have come and gone, although few of them got to the size I’d hoped for before I had to pull them out to make room for other crops I wanted more.  Although this is the sunniest spot in my yard, it gets maybe 6 hours of full sunlight, at best, and a lot of experts will tell you that you need a minimum of 6-8.  I find this is not strictly true, especially with raised beds, but less sunlight does mean that crops take longer to mature.  Remember, their only energy source, which they use to convert carbon dioxide and water into plant material, is sunlight.  The less sunlight they get, the less rapidly they’ll be able to do it.

The komatsuna in the upper left corner, which was so small a month ago, got nice and big in the interim between these two photos.  I ate it all.  You can see that the red mustard greens a couple squares down are quite large now, as is the chervil below that.  Moving right, you’ll see three squares of beets with lush, abundant greens, and an empty square.  The empty square had baby bok choy that grew to maturity and was eaten over the course of the previous month.  Last month, the beets were just barely coming up.

A note on greens.  If you’re doing square foot gardening, one square isn’t enough.  Once you’ve cooked down a big handful of leaves picked from a single square, even if you use every leaf from every plant, you barely have enough for one serving.

Red mustard greens did really well.  They grew quickly, and they didn’t bolt (i.e., send up a flower stalk instead of producing more tasty leaves) when it started to get warm, so I could just cut off leaves as I wanted to eat them and leave the rest of the plant to grow new ones.  The komatsuna was already starting to bolt by late May.  The mizuna didn’t even produce many leaves before bolting.  Springtime in New England is tough on cool weather crops.  The ground doesn’t thaw out until late March or April, but it’s already getting too hot for a lot of vegetables in late May or early June, and that’s just not enough time for a lot of vegetables to mature.

Moving over from the beets, you’ll see a square of Swiss chard and one of carrots below that.  The marjoram under the carrots is too small to be visible, and you can just barely see the four cilantro plants in the square under the marjoram.  The four squares on the upper right edge of the box have just been planted with more Swiss chard, yellow bush beans, and nasturtiums.


Garden, 06/02/14

June 2nd


Scroll down again to see the garden on the 4th of July.  What a difference a month makes!  The fava beans are even taller, the tomatoes have shot up behind them like weeds, and you can see the small pole bean plants starting to climb up their wooden stakes.  Chervil is overflowing its square, the beets and Swiss chard are huge, and you can see the bush bean plants in the upper right corner spilling over the side of the box.  I pulled the mustard greens, because I was tired of only getting a few leaves at a time and because they were shading out the beets next to them, and replanted with leaf lettuce (you can’t see the lettuce yet).  I was eating the beets and Swiss chard by now.  I’d eaten some fava beans, too.  I didn’t get many fava beans, possibly because the tomatoes blocked too much of their light (more on this below).  They also had a serious aphid problem.  So did the chervil.  I tried a folk remedy of crushed garlic in diluted dish soap, but I don’t think it worked.  Next year I’m hauling out the neem oil spray the moment I see aphids.

Speaking of insect pests, this was also the summer I learned about leafminers.  I went away for a week and a half just after the June picture was taken.  I noticed some brown, dried-out blotchy patches on some of the beet leaves and some white eggs on the undersides of the leaves, but didn’t think too much about it.  I’m not all that squeamish about insects in my vegetables, and Donald tries not to look too closely.  While I was gone, Donald noticed that the problem was getting worse.  (Donald tries to pay as little attention as possible to my garden, but he was watering it for me, and all the dead brown leaves made him wonder if he was doing something wrong and killing my plants.)  I got back, and found that all the beets and the Swiss chard had been infested.

A bit of Internet research revealed that I had spinach leafminers.  Spinach, beets, and Swiss chard are all in the same family (beets and Swiss chard are actually the same species), and the leafminer larvae enjoy all of them.  Spraying apparently doesn’t do much good (especially if you’re trying to stick to organic pesticides), because the larvae are protected inside the leaf.  (I tried the organic neem oil spray, but it didn’t really help.)  The only way to deal with a leafminer infestation is to inspect the underside of each leaf every day or two and pick off and squish any eggs.  You’ll invariably miss some, so you also have to watch for signs of larvae inside the leaves.  Some sources say to pick off and discard any infested leaves.  Depending on how bad the leafminer problem has gotten before you noticed it, this may not leave the plant with enough leaves to thrive.  I just tore off the part of the leaf surrounding where I could see the larvae tunneling around, and made sure to squish the little maggots.  I also made sure to throw any infested leaf parts out in the regular trash instead of the compost, since I put the compost back into the garden as fertilizer.

Once I started picking off eggs, the beets and Swiss chard began to recover, and you can see that they look pretty healthy in the photograph below.  The leafminers do stop laying eggs in September, fortunately, so there is an end to the egg-picking.  Some people recommend row covers to keep the adult leafminer flies away from the target plants, but that doesn’t work in a mixed bed like the one I had, where you’ve also planted vegetables that require pollination by insects (like beans).

A note on tomatoes in square foot gardening.  There’s some debate online as to whether you can actually grow a full-sized indeterminate tomato plant in a single square foot of a raised bed.  Well, you can.  I had three tomato plants in the raised bed (Cherokee Purple (a full-sized heirloom tomato), and Supersweet 100 and Sungold (both cherry tomatoes)).  Each had a single square, and I didn’t prune them at all, I just tied the side shoots into the stake every few inches.  Remember, I don’t even get the 8 hours of sunlight that some experts will tell you that you can’t possibly grow tomatoes without.  I also had three tomato plants in 16″ pots, on the sunniest part of the yard edge (Pineapple, Brandywine, and something that was supposed to be Green Zebra but produced purplish-brown tomatoes instead).  The tomatoes in the bed grew taller, were at least as productive as the container plants, and had fewer problems with blossom end rot (usually caused by underwatering; it’s hard to give a potted tomato enough water during the heat of summer).  I do fertilize my tomatoes regularly with an organic tomato fertilizer, which I also mixed into the soil along with a lot of compost and some kelp meal, and I mulched the soil surface around the plants when I put them in with dried leaves and additional compost.

The caveat is that a tomato plant in a single one-foot square will block the sunlight from everything around it.  This started to become a huge problem for the fava beans, which are on the north side of the tomatoes, and shaded by them.  But, as the summer went on, it became an issue for everything else in that lower half of the bed.  It would have been even more of an issue if I’d tried to put in sun-loving plants like peppers.

Also, a 1″-diameter wooden stake is not strong enough for a large, healthy tomato plant with plenty of room to grow an extensive root system.  They worked well enough for the tomato plants in the containers, but the stakes supporting the two cherry tomato plants eventually snapped under the stress of trying to support all that weight.  (Fortunately, this didn’t happen until October, when the cherry tomato harvest was tapering off.)  In 2015, I made sure each tomato plant was tied to three different stakes surrounding it (although some stakes were shared between plants), and this seemed to distribute the weight better.

This was the second year I bought tomato plants from a garden center and got a mislabeled one.  I was sufficiently annoyed by this that I started my own from seeds in 2015.  I had to buy a grow light set-up for this, but that also allowed me to start okra inside instead of direct seeding it.  During the 2014 season, I tried planting okra directly in large containers in the yard and hardly got any, because you have to wait until mid-June here in Boston to plant okra outside.  It takes at least 2 months for it to start producing in my less-than-optimally-lit yard, and then by mid-September the nights are too cold for it again.  I also need more than 2 plants (I planted three, but some insect larvae or worms ate through the stem of the weakest one).  I was lucky if I got 2 or 3 okra pods per week from each plant, and that doesn’t go too far.  Fortunately, a couple of vendors at the Lexington Farmers Market sell it, so I was able to supplement my harvest when I wanted okra for dinner.  (In 2015, the okra that I started inside and transplanted did much better.)

You can also see that I put in a second raised bed, to the right of the first.


Garden, 07/04/14

July 4th


Scroll down to a month later, and the beans and tomatoes have really taken off.  The tomatoes have overtopped their stakes, and the pole beans aren’t far behind.  I pulled the fava beans, since they weren’t producing much anymore.  I never got a lot of fava beans.  Two one-foot squares aren’t enough, apparently.  Maybe if I’d waited longer, they would have picked up again.  This often happens with beans.  They produce a crop, then the harvest tapers off and you think you aren’t going to get much more; but a month later, the plants start producing again.  It happened with the green pole beans and with the yellow bush beans.  But I didn’t give the poor favas a chance to prove themselves.  The tomatoes were blocking most of their sunlight, though, and they also prefer cooler weather.

I’ve harvested a lot of the beets.  You can see the carrots that replaced the komatsuna in the top left corner, and lettuce a couple squares down from that.

You can’t see much else, because the crazy tomatoes and beans are blocking the view.


Garden, 08/02/14

August 2nd


If you scroll down again, you’ll see a view from the ground, also taken on August 2nd.  You can see even better here how the beans and tomatoes have tangled themselves together.  You can see the yellow bush beans hanging over the edge of the box, to the right.  And you can also see the second garden box, and some of the containers (with additional tomatoes, okra, and some edamame right at the edge).  The garden box in front has two squares of fennel in the upper left corner, and then the lush and abundant foliage of some green bush beans (the skinny French-style haricots verts).

It was a huge mistake to plant those green bush beans as early as I did, in the middle of the box.  Bush beans are very bushy, so they shaded too much of what I planted later on in the surrounding squares.

In the rear box, to the right of the bean-tomato thicket, a few small squash plants have come up.  These are an Asian squash.  I have an elderly Sikh neighbor who stops by every now and then to look at my garden.  He can’t speak much English, and I speak even less of his language (which I think he once tried to tell me was Punjabi, but all the words I actually recognize seem to be the same as Hindi words I’ve learned).  But one day (June 27th, to be precise), he brought over four squash seeds and planted them in my garden.  He told me they were “lauki”.  I looked this up in the glossary of one of my Indian cookbooks and found that it’s also called opo squash.  And I’ve seen it at the farmers markets and at H-Mart (a Korean grocery store) labeled “Chinese long squash”.  Anyway, it’s not one of those New World summer squashes or winter squashes.  The lauki have come up in the photograph below, but I think my neighbor planted them too late.  End of June is a bit late to be planting squash, in New England.  Of course, it isn’t warm enough to plant them a whole lot earlier.


Garden, 08/02/14, front-view

August 2nd, side-view


It makes more sense to show only the side-view from now on, since you can’t see anything past the tomatoes and pole beans anymore in balcony shots.

In the next shot, you can see that the pole beans and tomatoes have gotten into even more of a tangle, and the lauki squash plants are spilling out over the edge of the box.  I’ve pulled the bush beans, so now you can see the nasturtiums that were hiding behind them in the rear box.  In the front box, with those bush beans gone, the cauliflower and broccoli on the left have started to grow, and there are some small lettuce plants here and there.  The fennel in the upper left-hand corner of the front box is getting a lot taller, too.


Garden, 09/08/14

September 8th


The next shot, taken on October 7th, is a good illustration of how Massachusetts has a considerably longer fall growing season than many people (including Massachusetts residents) realize.  I still have the Great Pole Bean and Tomato Forest, nasturtiums continue to overflow the box, and the lettuce, arugula, and mustard greens in the front box–planted in late summer–are just reaching peak productivity.  The broccoli and cauliflower plants are pretty big too, but apparently not big enough for this time of year, due to the excessive shade they got early on from those bush beans.  Still just leaves on them, no heads.


October 7th

October 7th


It isn’t until November that things have started to wind down.  We’ve had a few light frosts at this point, so I’ve pulled all the beans, tomatoes, and okra.  I also pulled the broccoli and cauliflower.  Not because it was too cold for them, but because I’d given up on ever getting heads, and they were shading the kale and collards around them.  I just cooked and ate the broccoli and cauliflower leaves as if they were collards.  They’re all the same species, after all:  cabbage, kale, collards, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts.

Kale, radishes, and lettuce are all doing just fine in November, though.  And nasturtiums, which are still flowering.  I pulled one of the two squares of fennel because I wanted to eat it, but the other one is still there.  Apparently you shouldn’t plant fennel next to anything, which I didn’t know at the time.  It’s supposed to stunt the growth of other plants.  It didn’t seem to hurt the lettuce in the square next to it, though.  The collards, also in a square next to fennel, never got that big, but they were also shaded by a large cauliflower plant for the first couple of months, so I’m hesitant to blame the fennel.  I guess you to have to be careful with fennel if you live some place with mild winters, because it can become an invasive weed.  But we don’t have to worry too much about mild winters in New England.  We especially didn’t have to worry about that in 2014, known popularly by locals as “Snowmaggedon” or something along those lines.


November 4th

November 4th


Here’s another picture taken on the same day.  Another shot from the 2nd floor porch, looking down, since the pole beans and tomatoes are no longer blocking the view of everything else.  You can see the remaining fennel now (the bushy fern things in the lower left corner of the box on the right).  In the left-hand box, you can see daikon (left-hand edge, 3rd square down), and parsley (left-hand edge, 3rd square up).


November 4th again, now looking down from above

November 4th again, now looking down from above


And, finally, on December 5th, almost everything has been pulled up for the winter.  Most of the squares have been covered with the contents of my compost bin, a mixture of compost, leaves, and partially decomposed kitchen scraps.  Of course, it’s better to put fully decomposed compost on one’s garden, but I didn’t have enough, and I figured things would decompose just as well spread out on top of dirt, exposed to sunlight and the elements, as they would inside a covered bin.  And it seemed to work fairly well.  In the spring, when I was ready to plant again, I mixed it all into the top few inches of soil, pulling out any large pieces of obviously undecomposed material and throwing them back into the compost bin to continue breaking down.  In this photo, I haven’t gotten around to covering all the squares, so you can still see some where the white of the perlite in the raised bed soil is quite visible.


December 5th--all done for the year!

December 5th–all done for the year!


Some gardening resources claim that parsley, spinach, collards, and kale are all hardy enough to survive a New England winter.  My parsley, collards, Red Siberian kale, and Tuscan kale were all quite dead come spring, even though I mulched all the plants with compost.  But the spinach and curly kale did come back once the snow had melted, and I was able to enjoy a home-grown salad of fresh baby greens in early April before pulling those plants up for the new planting season.

I won’t say too much about the 2015 garden, since this post is already longer than some short stories.  But I will say that I planted most of the shorter raised bed, the one on the right, with asparagus crowns last spring.  Asparagus is a perennial crop that takes a few years to really get going.  I should be able to pick a few spears in 2016, more in 2017, and enjoy a full harvest in 2018.  Donald asked, “Will we still be living here in 2018?”  Well, who knows?  Asparagus is my favorite vegetable, though, so I was willing to take that chance.

Gardening is easier than writing, in many ways.  Success is less dependent on factors outside your control.  Sure, there are overcast and rainy summers, and there are excessively dry summers.  Squirrels dig up newly seeded beds looking for nuts they think they might have buried once.  Mice climb up the tomato vines and nibble the fruit (really, I’ve seen it!).  Insects can destroy an entire crop of some vegetable (I haven’t even mentioned cabbage butterflies, and in 2015 I learned about the dreaded squash vine borer).  But, for the most part, if you do some minimal amount of research to learn how to get started, if you use the Internet to troubleshoot problems and put in the time required to water your plants and harvest the vegetables as they mature–you will end up with vegetables that you can eat.  Success doesn’t depend on the whims and/or budget of some person other than yourself.  And that can be very satisfying.

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In Defense of Stew

From Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

Stew is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned.  You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out.  Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time.  Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in camp you are likely to be attacked without warning, and in an inn prone to be the centre of a tavern brawl, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.  But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food.  The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables.  Do not expect a salad on the side.

So many conventions of epic fantasy make so much less sense when viewed in the harsh light cast by The Tough Guide.  But is stew really one of them?  Many people seem to think so.  You can hardly have your characters sit down to a meal of stew these days without someone in your writers group pouncing on the supposed error.

And yet, I would argue that complaining too much about stew in historically-based fantasy novels shows a basic lack of understanding of food around the world in general, and of the history of food around the world in particular.

From Volume 2 of Don Quixote (1615):

[Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have stopped at an inn for the night, and Sancho Panza asks the innkeeper, or landlord, what they have for food.]

The landlord responded that he could have anything and could ask for whatever he wanted:  the inn was stocked with the birds of the air, the fowl of the earth, and the fish of the sea.

[This is followed by several paragraphs of Sancho saying, “Okay, we’ll have this,” and the landlord responding, “Oh, actually we’re out of that”, a la Monty Python’s cheese shop skit.  Finally…]

“Let’s settle this, for God’s sake,” said Sancho, “and tell me once and for all what you do have, and enough talking, Senor Landlord.”

“What I really and truly have are two cows’ heels that seem like calves’ feet, or two calves’ feet that seem like cows’ heels; they’re stewed with chickpeas, onions, and bacon, and right now they’re saying, ‘Eat me!  Eat me!'”

Sounds to me as if stew is actually a fairly authentic meal for your characters, if your imaginary world is at least somewhat based on pre-Industrial Europe.  On the other hand, of course, since Don Quixote is a parody of heroic quest tales, maybe the joke about characters not having anything to eat except stew is older than people realize.

Obviously, no one’s going to be cooking up a pot of stew over their campfire after marching 20 miles.  But in an inn or tavern, where the proprietor and staff have been there all day?  Perfectly reasonable.  Far more reasonable than steak, in fact.  For one thing, most of the meat on a cow (or any other quadruped) isn’t tender enough to be turned into steak.  It requires long, slow cooking in some kind of liquid (also known as “stewing”).  Even more so before the advent of modern factory farming and feedlot practices.  And, before the invention of refrigeration, most of the meat people ate would have been salted, dried, and/or smoked.  Salted meat especially needs to be soaked and boiled before it’s palatable again–an excellent candidate for stew.  It doesn’t make sense to kill a large animal for fresh meat unless there are enough people around to eat it before it spoils.  So you might do this for a wedding or other special occasion, but the suggestion that a typical inn serving ordinary travelers should specialize in steak instead of stew is a bit ridiculous.

Another set of issues around fresh meat, at least in temperate climates, are seasonal.  Late fall is the traditional time to butcher large animals, for several reasons.  One is that it’s cool enough to allow you to clean and cut up a cow or pig (or sheep or goat or deer) before the meat spoils (it might even be cool enough that you can safely hang the carcass in a shed for a few days).  But it’s not so cold that your fingers are likely to freeze before you’ve finished.  Also, it’s expensive to keep animals alive through a cold winter, and most of the calories they consume (provided at your expense and inconvenience, since there isn’t any grass for them to graze on) go to maintaining body temperature, not putting on muscle mass (i.e., meat).  Food-to-meat conversion is much more efficient during the summer and early fall, since warm-blooded animals aren’t burning calories to keep warm.  Which means that fresh meat is going to be less available and more expensive through the winter and early spring months, until the animals have had a chance to graze again and put on some of that weight they lost during the lean time.

What about chicken?  Chicken was also a food for special occasions before factory farming made chicken the cheapest meat.  Chickens were mostly for egg production.  Sure, if you wanted more laying chickens and let your hen sit on her eggs to hatch them, half of the offspring would be males, so you might as well raise those for food and eat them while young and tender.  But once your female chickens got too old to lay eggs, they were too tough for roasting.  That’s why a mature female chicken is referred to as a stewing hen.  If you remember later verses of the song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” (believed to have been written during the late 1800s), one line goes, “We will all have chicken and dumplings when she comes”.  Chicken stew, in other words.  (Although in the song, it isn’t a stewing hen, but “the old red rooster” who gets the axe.)

Stew is common in traditional cuisines around the world.  Pot-au-feu in France, cozido in Portugal, Moroccan tagine, Mexican pozole, Hungarian goulash, Persian khoresh (I made a very good one with beef and okra recently, from this excellent cookbook), South Indian and Sri Lankan sambars.  You could argue that most South Asian and Southeast Asian curries are basically stews:  meat and/or vegetables cooked in liquid until everything is tender.  Stew makes sense if you don’t have a lot of fancy kitchen equipment.  Put everything in a pot with some liquid; cook it for a long time.  And humans have been making clay pots for 20,000 years or more.

I don’t think critics are entirely wrong to complain about all the stew eaten in fantasy novels.  Look at the Don Quixote example.  At the end of the scene, the innkeeper doesn’t say, “What I have is a big pot of stew”, he describes what went into the stew.  If you write that your characters were served stew and leave it at that, you’re missing a perfect worldbuilding opportunity.  We learn a lot about the kind of food available in inns in 16th century Spain from the description of the stew Sancho Panza is offered–cheap cuts of meat (including bacon, which we know is both salted and smoked), along with chickpeas (a staple locally-grown legume that can be dried and stored through the winter) and onions (a local vegetable that also stores well).  If you’re writing a story set in a terrain and climate that isn’t like Spain, your characters might eat stews with different ingredients.  Maybe dried peas, in a colder climate (remember the song about “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old”?).  The meat might be salted beef instead of bacon, or salted fish if the inn is near a coast or river (or if the majority of the population abstain from meat for religious reasons multiple days each week but are allowed to eat fish, as was the case for most of Europe during the Middle Ages, when salt cod was traded pretty far inland to give people something to eat on fast days).  The stew might even include fresh fish or seafood if you’re next to a large body of water.  But fresh fish is even more perishable than fresh meat, so you won’t see it even a day’s journey away.  Remember that meat used to be a lot more expensive.  Most people’s diets (among agricultural societies) consisted mostly of grains and legumes, with a bit of meat for flavor when they could afford it.  So a legume stew with a bit of meat is probably more likely than meat and vegetables.  (And vegetables are seasonal, when you can’t ship everything from California year-round in refrigerated trucks.  Make sure that whatever vegetable your characters find in the stew would actually be available locally in that climate at that time of year.)  Think about what access to spices your imaginary country might have.  Caraway, cumin, coriander, and dill all grow well in northern temperate and Mediterranean climates.  Pepper, cinnamon, and cloves?  Not so much.  But spices keep well once dried, and are popular trade goods.  So wealthy people might enjoy a spice outside its growing region, but ordinary folk would have to be satisfied with local flavorings.

And of course, there are plenty of non-stew foods that don’t show up in fantasy novels nearly as often as they should, given their popularity in peasant cooking traditions around the world.  I’ll write about some of these in a future post (eggs, anyone?).  Until then, don’t be afraid to feed your characters a hearty bowl of stew!  But be sure to tell the reader what went into it.

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Mysterion Anthology

Donald and I decided that our marriage doesn’t have enough conflict and neither of us has enough distractions from writing fiction.  In a perhaps-foolhardy attempt to solve both issues at once, we’re going to edit and independently publish an anthology together.

For those of you who might be less familiar with publishing lingo, an anthology is a book of short stories by different authors, often on one particular theme or topic.  (A book of short stories by a single author is usually referred to as a collection.)  We’ll be inviting authors (including you, if you’re an author!) to submit speculative fiction stories (science fiction, fantasy, or horror) that engage meaningfully with Christianity:  Christian characters, themes, or cosmology.  Stories we select will be published in an anthology called Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith.  You can read more about it at, and you can even sign up for our newsletter (for authors, Submission Guidelines and Theme Guidelines provide more information about the kinds of stories we’re looking for)!  We pay 6 cents per word for stories of up to 10,000 words.

We’re open to submissions from October 15th to December 25th, and the anthology will be published sometime in 2016 in both paperback (print-on-demand) and e-book formats.  (If you’re not sure what print-on-demand means, the short answer is that you’ll be able to order it from Amazon and possibly other online booksellers, and we won’t have to find room for 1000 books in our small apartment.)

Why are we doing this?  Well, we’re both Christians.  And, while we enjoy reading fiction written from a wide variety of perspectives, we often wish that we encountered more stories dealing with Christian beliefs and life in a way that feels authentic to our own lived experience.  I don’t necessarily mean pro-Christian here.  There are things that bother me about my own religious tradition, things that I’m skeptical of or uncertain about.  That’s part of my authentic lived experience of Christianity, too.  What I mean is, portrayals of Christians and Christian beliefs are often too much on one side or the other.  Either Christians are the good guys, standing up against obviously wrong and stupid antagonists, or Christians are the bad guys from whose wrongness and stupidity everyone else needs rescuing.  Neither side resonates with me.  I like stories where no one’s really the villain, where it isn’t clear who’s right or wrong.  And when there are Christian characters, if I squint a little and look at them in the right kind of light, I should be able to see a resemblance to myself or my friends or family members.  Even when the likeness makes me cringe.  Perhaps especially then.

That’s my answer, at least.  Donald may have a different one, if you ask him.

Are we a Christian publisher?  We’ll probably never get onto the American Christian Fiction Writers Recognized Publisher List, even if we become successful enough (and publish novels).  Apparently, Christian fiction has to be written from a Christian worldview and must not contain “profanity, graphic sex, gratuitous violence or other objectionable material, and must otherwise conform to generally accepted standards of the CBA [Christian Booksellers Association]”.  We’re not necessarily looking for profanity, graphic sex, or gratuitous violence, but we’re also not publishing a book for readers who don’t want to encounter anything offensive or disturbing.  We believe authors should use whatever words and situations they consider necessary and appropriate to tell a particular story.  Besides, I’m not sure the Bible itself would meet these content guidelines.  And, while we do want authentic portrayals of the Christian experience, and cosmology that fits into a Christian framework, we’re eager to consider stories from any author of any faith (or none).

So, if you’re a science fiction & fantasy reader and enjoy stories where faith and/or religion figure prominently, check out our website and subscribe to our newsletter!  And if you’re a writer, send us a story (but only after October 15th).

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New story out in

My latest story just came out in Issue 30 of  “Twenty-Seven Images of Retribution” concerns a young man determined to avenge his father’s death, while struggling to come to terms with how his father failed him, his mother, and their people.

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New story out in Crowded

Sometimes it can seem as if I hardly ever get a story published.  So it’s exciting to announce, only a month after my last new story came out, that “It Is Beautiful Here” is now up at Crowded Magazine.

Crowded has an interesting concept, which you can read about if you click around their site a bit.  The stories they publish are selected by their readers and prospective authors; they’ve “crowd-sourced” story selection, so to speak (hence the name of their magazine).  If you’re interested in publishing a story with them, you post it to the submission pool, and anyone who’s either a subscriber or who has submitted a story of their own has the opportunity to read it, give it a rating of 1 to 4 stars, and provide “constructive criticism”.  Stories are submitted anonymously, so no one reading your story knows who wrote it while they’re deciding what rating to give (and only the aforementioned subscribers and authors are able to see the submission pool).

The story concerns a young man who wakes one morning from unsettling dreams to find that he has started turning into a tree (with apologies to Franz Kafka).

I hope you enjoy it!

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New story out in Fantasy Short Stories

My story “Brother’s Keeper” just came out in the latest issue of Fantasy Short Stories.  This is a sequel to my earlier story “The Year of the Bear”, published in Allegory way back in 2010.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the four-year gap is due to the vagaries of publishing, or to how slowly I write.

“Brother’s Keeper” has a “traditional” fantasy setting.  With elves.  And a strong-willed 14-year old female protagonist.  Depending on your own reading preferences, you can take this as either endorsement or warning.

Here’s the tagline:

Aleine can’t stand her annoying younger brother Imry, who never gets in trouble for anything and was born with the ability to do magic, an ability Aleine desperately wishes she had.  But now Imry is in danger, and Aleine the only one with any chance of rescuing him in time.

I hope it won’t be another four years before you see the third installment!

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